Happy Easter

Prior to yesterday’s ham-and-potatoes-and-family festival, I spent a couple of hours tidying up the yard. For someone to whom “work” involves a desk, a pen and a computer, time spent pulling out dead flower stems, trimming shrubs and raking the lawn feels like a vacation. (My wife thinks I should take more vacations like that; she has a list.)

Part of my spring yard cleaning involved rooting out last year’s dead plant material clogging the flowerbeds. An early snow last winter, coupled with a healthy dose of procrastination, prevented me from getting to it in the fall. As a result, our house looked like someone had decorated the exterior with leftover tumbleweeds from a 1950s western movie. It was time to clean things up, stretch some muscles that hadn’t been used in a while, and enjoy the cool April sunshine.

One of the unexpected blessings of my work was seeing that nature is already in rebirth mode. I pulled away inches of dead growth and discovered bright shoots of purple and green. The tulips had already worked their way through last year’s dead plants, but the hostas and day lilies weren’t far behind.

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God’s creation has a very simple consistency to it. Every spring we are reminded of Christ’s death and his resurrection. We read it in our Bibles, we hear about it in our Masses. But if we look around, we can see that creation itself tells the same story. No matter how cold and dead our world may appear, there will be new growth and new life. Forever.

Enjoy this Octave of Easter.

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A mother’s pain

This weekend my sister-in-law shared a very painful experience she’s going through. As part of a campaign to make high school students aware of the dangers of alcohol and driving, their high school is conducting a dramatization. Her son is one of the students chosen to “die” in a simulated drunk driving incident. My sister-in-law was assigned the task of writing her son’s obituary. She and her husband are in agony, even though they know it’s not real. As she related the story to us, even at this distance, I found myself reflexively slamming the door of my imagination, unwilling to even consider the possibility of losing one of my five children. It’s just too painful.

And then this weekend’s Gospel shows us Mary at the foot of the cross. She stands there helplessly as her one and only son, a young man of incredible goodness, intelligence and promise hangs in front of her. Beaten bloody. Gasping with each breath for six agonizing hours as he hangs from harsh iron nails. When it’s finally over, the dead body of her son is taken down and laid in her lap.

We Christians too often sanitize this pivotal moment in our history. We celebrate the fact that Jesus conquered death, but we jump right over recalling that first he had to endure it. It is understandable that our instinct leads us to gloss over Good Friday and get right to the joy of the empty tomb, and the Easter Eggs, bunnies and baked hams of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. Contemplating death is never enjoyable, and contemplating a parent’s agony is just as painful. The parent in me weeps for Mary.

The disciples didn’t understand until the very end what Jesus meant when he talked about his death and resurrection. We don’t know whether it was denial, obtuseness or something else clouding their vision. We do know that his arrest came as a horrible shock to them. But was Mary shocked? Most of the moms I know have an extra group of senses that are uniquely-tuned to their children. They can tell from another room the difference between the silence of a child sleeping and the silence of a child in distress. Within seconds, a mom can differentiate between a cry of pain and a cry of sibling irritation. Mothers know their children. Would Christ’s fate have been a surprise to her? I doubt it. Did that make it easier? I can’t imagine that it did.

Jesus is God’s gift to us. Our Creator knew that we would need a living, breathing, human guide to help us find the Way to The Kingdom. He gave us His son; Mary’s son; as a gift we did not and could not deserve, but that He in His love wanted us to have. Jesus lived the life He calls all of us to live; a life of generosity, self-giving, humility and love. In reparation for our sins, He suffered a death that he wants none of us to suffer; a death of humiliation, agony and horror.

But Mary is also a gift to us. She is the exemplar of parenthood, the patient, loving woman who watched and endured each step of her child’s growth, and each blow that led to his death. The Mother of God never looked away; never ran away. She was always there for Jesus.

In your prayers of thanksgiving this Holy Week, might I suggest that you also thank the Virgin Mary? From one parent to another, thank her for her own pain and sacrifice. Thank her for the part of her that she gave so that we might have her son’s guidance.

Hail, Mary.

Okay, He’s Risen. Now what?

I look around our home and see that the Easter decorations have been stored away. Gone are the pink bunnies, the baskets with green plastic grass and the Lenten reminders to do this, abstain from that, and pray thus. God is risen and we’re moving on. Moving on to do what?

This in some ways is my favorite time of year, because the daily scripture readings come from the early chapters of The Acts of the Apostles. If you want to be inspired by early Christians, read that book! Immediately following Pentecost, Peter, James, John and the rest of the 12 started preaching and healing. Unlike during Christ’s passion, the Apostles were fearless. They knew that Jesus had risen, and that knowledge, coupled with a double dose of the Holy Spirit, put them beyond fear of anything the authorities could do to them. The apostles were repeatedly threatened, arrested, beaten and jailed. Through it all they laughed, prayed, and told everyone the Good News. More than their words, their courage and spirit built the Church that has thrived for two thousand, one hundred seventeen years and counting.

I got to thinking about that yesterday when I came across something Pope Francis had said. In a homily from a couple years ago, the Pope was talking about St. James comment that “Faith without works is dead.” The Pope said a person can have a great knowledge of scripture and theology, but if that knowledge wasn’t put into practice, it was worthless. “A faith that doesn’t get you involved isn’t faith,” he said. “It’s words and nothing more than words.” Faith, according to Francis, always leads to action. It can’t help itself.

That’s how I see the actions of the Apostles in the early days of Christianity. Peter stood up to the Jewish authorities not because he had somehow found the courage to do so. Rather, Peter couldn’t have done anything else. He could not have stopped talking about the tremendous news of Christ. Have you ever known something that was so awesome that you couldn’t wait to tell your spouse or your  friends? It’s like that, times ten. Peter was so filled with the Holy Spirit that his teeth would have burst if he tried not to speak.

For many, many years I tried to get my Christianity out of books. I love to read and study, and there have been lots of authors who inspired me. But what really lit my fuse was a men’s retreat. Spending time with a small group of men in prayer, study and sharing lifted me up in ways that can’t be described. The Holy Spirit blew through that church basement, lighting fires in hearts right and left, including mine. This, I thought, is what the earliest Christians must have experienced. Living in small clusters, sharing ideas, experiences and insights. Holding one another up and building one another up.

The Catholic Church is many, many things. It is God’s visible place on Earth. It has thousands of years of wisdom of saints and saintly people. It has a rich and long history.  But the true “catholic” Church is you and I. It’s the network of human beings, all connected to each other and to Jesus through the Holy Spirit. The life of the church lies in our interactions with one another, not with the books and the history. Those are important guides, but they are only guides. Guides to our real work, which is to love God and one another.

Easter is over. Christ is risen. The Holy Spirit has come. Let’s get to work.

Jesus the man, Jesus the God

Happy Easter! Once again, God reminds us of his over-the-top, perfect, all-consuming love for you and I. He gave us everything to show us the path to both earthly and eternal joy.

Jesus the man gave us the ultimate human gift: his life. But he gave more than that. He lived among us, teaching us new ways of looking at life and at each other. He gave us a model for living that has endured for thousands of years and that is so effective it underlies the social structure of half the world. He endured humiliation, punishment, and a painful, gruesome, and worst of all an unjust, death. And at the climax of his undeserved agony, he asked God to forgive his tormenters, because, he said, they didn’t realize what they were doing. Jesus the man gave humanity a new Way to live.

Jesus the Christ gave us even more. He endured our abuse of him, our humiliation and, worst of all, our turning away from him. The One who created the world and the people of the world allowed those same people to kill their creator. He demonstrated for us what the truest love looks like. We rejected him, but he never lost faith in us and never turned away from us. And then he gave us even more.

He rolled aside the stone that lay between life and death to show us that there need not be “death.” Our God allowed himself to die in the flesh to show us that the flesh will rise again, and that the spirit never dies. Jesus went to Heaven, where there is no pain, no suffering, no tears. But he didn’t stay there. He returned to us. After all we had put him through, he came back to us to show us in the most convincing way possible that there truly is a heaven, that there is a place for us there, and the Way to get there is to simply walk hand in hand with Him.

…and I haven’t even started talking about the gift of God as the Holy Spirit. More on that later..

God bless you, and may you and your family have a most blessed Easter.

Another Holy Week begins

Last Friday, I attended two funerals. Two men I have worked with passed away. They were not young, but they left this earth short of a full life’s ride, and their passings were sad occasions. The two men did not know one another. They lived several hours apart. One of them was a former boss I liked while the other had served on a nonprofit board with me. They were two good men who did good things in their lives and now will be missed by the rest of us.

Being a couple of hours apart meant I had plenty of alone time in my car to think before and between the two funerals. As a result, by the end of the day Friday, I was pretty sad. And then came Saturday evening’s Palm Sunday gospel, which tells the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus rode into town to the cheers of the crowd, only to find himself arrested right after the Passover Holiday dinner. Needless to say, this was not my singing and dancing weekend.

In an uncomfortable way, though, I have to say I appreciate God’s timing. I can sit and mope about how mean our ancestors were to Jesus and how sad we should be that he was killed. But I can only do that if I ignore that which I know comes next. In less than seven days, we will be singing the “Gloria” at mass again, because Jesus showed us that death is the beginning, not the end.

In the same way, I can miss my friends Mike and Jerry. I can be sad that they were ill and didn’t live as many years with us as we would have liked. I will not be able to hear their wit and their wisdom any more. But just as I am confident that Jesus overcame death, I am confident that both Jerry and Mike did too. And that they are now enjoying the real life, the eternal life, and the life without tears, illness and pain.

Holy Week is a sober, somber week for me. I can easily get pulled into a sad place, thinking about the suffering of Christ. But Holy Week always ends the same way. We are not meant to remain sad, and we do not have to fear death. We know how this story ends, and it is a terrific ending.

I miss you, Jerry and Mike. But I will see you again soon. Because Jesus went there before you and has shown us the Way.

Remember, you are dust. And that’s okay

Welcome to Lent! Today begins our annual 40 day visit to the strange land called “Self Restraint.” Say goodbye to chocolates, sweets, coffee, alcohol, sex, TV, cursing or whatever earthly indulgence you’ve decided to set aside until Easter. I’m praying that you (and I) will have the self-control to spend the energy on Jesus that we normally spend making our human bodies happy.

I woke up this morning with the phrase, “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (GN 3:19) stuck in my head. For those of you who aren’t Catholic, that is what the Priest will say today when he rubs the sign of the cross on my forehead with ashes. It’s a logical thing to wake up thinking about on Ash Wednesday.

 And it’s also a great place to start my spiritual journey. With those words God was reminding Adam (and me) that we were formed from the things of the earth; the dust. And our human bodies are going to return to that earth. Our lives on Earth are temporary.  We are preparing ourselves to live with God in our true home. A big part of that preparation is recognizing our tiny place in this big universe (Yep, that old “H word” humility). There is only one God and I’m not him. But I can live with him if I choose to.

The World doesn’t like it when we think about our mortality. Everything seems to encourage us to strive to live forever on Earth; to be immortals on this planet.  Everything except that little phrase, “Remember, you are dust.”

In small ways this Lent, you and I will turn away from our temporary life and turn toward the much better life that God has prepared for us. I’ll miss my (FILL IN THE BLANK WITH THIS YEAR’S SACRIFICE), but I am looking forward to having a closer look at heaven. It’s okay to be dust.

An Easter resolution?

Lately, I’ve been thinking that Easter is when we should make our new years resolutions. It is the beginning of the church year, after all. And it marks the beginning of new life for Christians. What better time for resolving to live one or more parts of your life in closer harmony with Jesus?

I think this year I will resolve not to fear. Why fear? Because fear keeps us away from being close to God, and fear is also a sign of that distance. If we’re afraid, we’re not connected to God.

Think about it. Think about the time you were worried about your job, or your health, or your spouse’s job, or health, or your son’s relationship, or the price of a barrel of oil or unrest in the Middle East. Think about the worst possible outcome in each case. You or someone you love ends up on the other side of eternity. That’s it, The End; the big D.

And now let’s think about the next question: do you believe in God, in Jesus, in Heaven? Do you believe all that stuff you claim to believe every Sunday? Yes? Good; me too.

So let’s stir those two ideas together and ponder them for a bit. The worst thing that can happen to you or to your loved ones on this earth is you leave it. But you know that when you leave it, you’ll be with Jesus. And every tear is wiped away, every pain, every suffering, every worry ceases to exist. You will be in the presence of God, the One we describe as “Love.” Sit back and think about that.

When Jesus was arrested, the Apostles scattered like sheep. Peter was so terrified of what was going on that he denied, with curse words, that he had ever known Jesus. But then after the Lord’s resurrection the Apostles told everyone they came upon the good news. And they wouldn’t quit, even under penalty of death. The authorities arrested them, threatened them, beat them, jailed them, and the Apostles sang, and laughed and went right back to preaching. What changed?

Jesus changed. Jesus changed the rules by showing that we are not creatures of the Earth; we are creatures of a love-filled eternity. He showed us that death is the wonderful beginning, not the horrible end. Jesus conquered death. He also conquered fear. It is Easter; Jesus lives and fear no longer exists.

Happy Easter.

Happy Easter! Game on!

Easter is the most awesome holiday. Aside from a bunch of food and candy, its true meaning hasn’t yet disappeared under an avalanche of modern materialistic misdirection. Easter is still the day of Christ’s resurrection, and the only countdown we endure are our own self-inflicted personal disciplines of Lent. We haven’t junked it up with so many “to-do’s” that its arrival is greeted with exhaustion rather than exhilaration. The hardest part is keeping our granddaughter from showing off the frills on the backside of her tights during Mass. We can welcome Him back into our lives. And that’s what it’s all about.

I hope you will find five minutes of quiet time today to take those deep breaths, and just sit there quietly enjoying the fact that the God of the Universe is on your side for another year. He doesn’t ask for much, just your love. And what he gives in return is just…whoa.

“And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Mt 28:20

Happy Easter.