It’s okay to fail

Christianity was built for imperfect people because it was built on imperfect people. Take as the first and greatest example Peter. “The Rock” that Jesus chose to be the foundation of the Church had a habit of saying things that annoyed Jesus. At one point, Jesus called him “Satan,” and said, “Get behind me, you are an obstacle to me.” Peter lost his nerve when Jesus invited him to walk on water and adamantly denied knowing Jesus after The Messiah was arrested. He ran away in fear. Pope #1 was not a model of perfection.

And yet Jesus put him in charge of the movement that became The Way that became Christianity. The Apostles never questioned Peter’s leadership. His voice was the last word in a debate. The Church has accepted from its earliest days that Peter was the first among equals; the first servant.

The Bible is filled with the fallibility of people. From Genesis to Revelation human beings prove over and over again that, “to err is human, to forgive divine.” God wanted to make it clear that, while He doesn’t want us to make mistakes, He understands that we will. And more than anything else He wants us to always turn back to Him.

Sometimes we make mistakes that embarrass, even humiliate, us. We do something so bad, so wrong that we cannot forgive ourselves, let alone seek forgiveness from others. We hide, hoping someday that everyone else will forget what we did.

But we don’t forget. Those mistakes fester within us, eating away at our self-confidence, chewing up our energy, and pushing us away from God. One mistake seems to breed another, and another, and we treat them all the same way; hide them, push them down, hope they will go away. None of them do.

Jesus came into the world because God knows that our nature leads us to make these sorts of mistakes. But also because God knows that we need, and will always need, a divine helping hand. He knows that when left to our own devices, we will try to swallow guilt and make it go away from within. That never works, but we humans always try it anyway. He knows that guilt needs to be removed for us to be free.

Jesus paid the price for all of our guilt. God, eternal, almighty and ever-living God, submitted to human beings. He let them accuse Him, convict Him, humiliate Him and kill Him. He watched as His friends, including His closest friend, Peter, ran away during His hour of need. People put Jesus to death, and with Jesus dying breath He asked God to forgive them, because they didn’t realize the magnitude of their error. To send the message that God Always Forgives.

The next time you make a mistake, commit a sin, or live less charitably than you should, offer it up to God. Own it, don’t make excuses for it, but acknowledge it and ask Him to forgive you…knowing that he will because he already has. And then let it go.

St. Peter was the first Pope not because he was perfect. He was the first Pope because he allowed God to work through him. He may not have understood everything that Jesus taught, but he understood the most important thing. Jesus is the Son of God and to succeed all Peter had to do was keep coming back to Him.

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God’s there for you today

Sometimes devoted Catholics get discouraged. A proliferation of apathy toward religion seems to have taken hold in the world. We feel that Christianity is waning and will soon simply fade away. We’ll have “outgrown” religion. I don’t think so.

Elijah probably had similar thoughts. If it’s been a long time since you’ve read the First Book of Kings, Elijah is a story that might be useful to bring back to your memory. Particularly Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal. (Chapter 18 in 1 Kings.)

God was trying to get across to the Israelites that He was the only One. The Israelites were being stubborn, and even their kings refused to limit their worship. Statues of Baal and other “gods” were everywhere. So God, working through Elijah, came up with a demonstration; a contest between his one prophet and Baal’s 450.

King Ahab and the Israelites were already on God’s bad side and were suffering from a drought that Elijah said was the result of their lack of adherence to God’s law. Elijah challenged the King to line up 450 of his best “prophets” and to have them make sacrifices, praying to the false gods for rain.  He even resorted to a little Biblical trash talk, telling the prophets they needed to pray louder, because maybe their god was resting or off on vacation somewhere. Of course, there was no response from Baal.

Elijah then set up God’s altar. He sacrificed a young bull but then ordered the Israelites to soak it with water. Over and over again he told them to pour water on it until it was sopping wet, with water running onto the ground. With a word to God, the whole thing was consumed by fire.

Baal and 450 Prophets: 0; Elijah and the One True God: 1. Game over.

In some ways it’s your typical fire-and-brimstone Old Testament story. It’s one of a long line of stories of our spiritual ancestors forgetting about God and trying to do things their way, leaving it to God, working through a faithful prophet to call them home. The Old Testament seems to be devoted solely to the question of “God? God who?”

God always wins. It may take time, sometimes generations, but eventually, the Israelites say, “Oh, you mean God?!  Well, of course. Why didn’t you say so?” (I suspect our spiritual ancestors drove God a little nutso at times.)

But the whole point of all of the books of the Old Testament seems to be that God is infinitely patient with His children. And that hasn’t changed a bit. No matter how many times we turn away from God and get obsessed with something from this world, He always guides us back and then welcomes us with a loving embrace. As my Priest said yesterday, every time you make a good confession, they have a party in heaven.

God is always with us; even when we’re not with him.

God forgets. So should you

One of the greatest and probably least-appreciated lines in the Catholic Church is this: “I absolve you of your sins; go in peace.” That’s the moment in the confessional when, no matter what you’ve done, the Priest tells you that God says it’s okay; you are forgiven. God sent Jesus to give us this incredible gift. Jesus passed the authority to Peter who passed it on to every Bishop since, who delegated it to your parish priest, who just gave it to you. You have just been given the most incredible Get out of Jail Free card ever. From God to you.

And now that your sin has been taken away, don’t take it back. How many times does God forgive us, but we don’t forgive ourselves? Stop it! By that I mean stop carrying the guilt around. You did it, but you admitted it, you atoned for it, and God forgave you for it. It’s done; let it go.

Too much of our life’s “burden” is a sack full of guilt. We are still holding onto the guilt from that time in the second grade when we pulled that little girl’s hair and made her cry. Or when we flipped off the Honda driver who was annoyed by our sudden lane change. Or any one of the hundreds of other times we were less than fully-Christian. Do yourself a favor; make a list of those, take it with you to confession and LEAVE IT AT THE ALTAR. When Father says, “Go in peace,” do it. Leave! Go home! Get out of there! And leave the guilt behind.

Because you can’t be the loving Christian Jesus wants you to be if you are using up all your energy hauling around old guilt. You can’t carry God’s message if you’re too ashamed to talk to women with long hair or people who drive Hondas, or your mom or your coworker, or… Forgiveness is part of God’s plan, and it’s an important part. You need forgiveness to become the person God created. But, like the body and blood, eternal life and all the other facets of Christianity, we have to make the choice to believe it, and to accept it.

Micah said God has “cast your sins to the bottom of the sea.” Don’t swim down there and pick them up again.

 

How many epiphanies have you had?

Yesterday was the Feast of the Epiphany. It was the day the Magi from the East showed up and started asking folks about the new King of the Jews. That got King Herod’s attention, but it also undoubtedly stunned many of the Jews. “Wait a minute, explain that to me again. You say we have a new king? Well, what do you think about that?!”

An epiphany is an awakening. It’s a sudden realization of something profound. It’s a slap-on-the-forehead moment. It’s that moment in high school when geometry finally made sense to you.

We Christians celebrate this particular epiphany on this particular weekend each year, but it’s not the only epiphany we will experience. In my case, I’ve gotten bonked on the noggin by the Holy Spirit numerous times, and I’m excited by the knowledge that it’s likely to happen again. My epiphanies have run the gamut from the cosmic to the itty bitty. There was the time I realized my carefully-studied conclusion that the Church was wrong about confession was full of beans. (Followed immediately by several rather painful epiphanies about some unconfessed sins that needed to be dealt with.) There was the life-changing epiphany about God’s desire for me to explore my doubts about the faith…which led to lots more epiphanies. There was the awesome epiphany about the joy that exists within a parish when we finally decide to become part of it rather than just a Sunday visitor.

Not everyone will call these experiences “epiphanies.” For some, it’s the coming of the Holy Spirit. For others, it’s simply the warmth of experiencing God’s real presence in our lives. People in a 12-step recovery program might call it a “spiritual awakening.” Pick your noun; it really doesn’t matter what you call it. For that matter, it doesn’t matter if you call it anything at all. But it’s real, and it’s God giving you one more glimpse of the awesomeness that is our true life; our eternal life.

Jesus is a troublemaker

Today’s gospel reading is one of those that gives heartburn to us “soft and squishy” Christians. Our Lord reminds us that being one of His followers isn’t always going to win us good neighbor awards. And we have some choices to make; sometimes difficult choices. Toward the tail end of Chapter 12 of Luke’s gospel, He tells us, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided three against two and two against three.” So much for love your neighbor as yourself.

We could argue that Jesus was talking to the early Christians, and that they were going to face some serious tribulations along the way of establishing the Church. We could say his message was intended as a warning to them of the difficult days ahead. That’s probably true. However, like all of His inspired word, Jesus was speaking to every generation of Christians, including us.

Let’s face it; we know it’s true. Being a faithful and attentive Christian is still a challenge. Perhaps you and I won’t face lions, beheadings or gladiators, but in some ways what we face is every bit as dangerous to our eternal life. We are threatened, not in body, but in soul, every time we are tempted to sleep in on Sunday, talk ourselves out of going to confession, or rationalize away our point of view about “that” particular commandment.

And then there’s good old peer pressure. Sometimes we find ourselves hiding the fact that we’re Christians, trying to be “sensitive,” to the people around us. While I’m all for tact, keep in mind who you are “hiding.” The next time you are at a restaurant and find yourself too embarrassed to say grace, ponder this line from Luke, “Everyone who acknowledges Me before others the Son of Man will acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God.” Think about it.

What is the dumbest apology you’ve ever had to make?

The apology is one of God’s greatest tools. Apologies re-open doors, they heal two people at one time, they rebuild relationships, but best of all, they are great humility-builders. Believe me on that last one. Over the years, I have had to offer atonement for some of the dumbest reasons imaginable.

Unfortunately, I don’t seem to be growing any wiser. Take this morning for example. I had to take my wife into my arms, look into her beautiful brown eyes and say these words: “I am sorry for getting mad at you because you were thoughtful and caring.”

Oh, sure, laugh. That’s exactly what she did. Almost hysterically, in fact. Can you blame her? How in the world does someone get angry over being cared about? That’s a blog post of its own, and I will write it just as soon as I figure out that goofy little character flaw in myself. But today’s post is about the humility of apologies.

What’s your best apology story? Let’s have a whole string of stories about the best…or maybe the silliest…acts of human atonement. Maybe it will grow into an apologizers-anonymous group. We could call it “A,OK?”

“Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (MT 5:23-24).

Back to the drawing board

Last Friday was a very bad day for me as a Christian. I made the mistake of praying for the objectivity to see how I was treating the people around me. Good prayer. Bad results.

God gave me the ability to step back and be a spectator of my own behavior. I was living and watching at the same time. I should have prayed for the ability to slap myself in the back of the head! Good grief. Time after time, it seemed in almost every conversation, I was gossiping, I was putting people down, or I was having a private joke at the expense of someone who was not part of the conversation.

Up until then, I thought I was doing pretty well as a child of the Almighty. I attended Mass, I went to confession, I read the Good Book. I have been studying my Faith, learning more about what it takes.

Unfortunately, I was so deep in the theological forest that I looked right past the Christian trees: we are called to love our neighbor. Loving my neighbor is the rule, even when I’m not actually in the presence of that particular neighbor. You’re not loving him if you’re laughing about him to another person.

Give this prayer a try when you’re feeling pretty smug about your piety. I’ll see you in the line outside the confessional.