What’s my job?

I’ve spent a lot of time asking God what He wants me to do. What’s my calling? What’s my vocation? What is the unique role You have in mind for me? Today’s Gospel gives the answer; an answer that hides in plain sight all of our lives. Our job is to believe and to spend time with Jesus. He’ll take care of the rest.

This Sunday’s Mass readings were the familiar grouping of Exodus and the story of God’s gift to the Israelites of manna and quail, coupled with John’s Gospel where Jesus refers to himself as “the bread of life.” (Chapter 16 in Exodus and the tail end of Chapter 6 of John.) The Israelites were hungry and grousing about being freed from slavery. (It’s amazing how we lose perspective when we’re “hangry,” isn’t it?) God sent them flocks of quail to eat at dinner time and every morning He covered the ground with manna, which the Israelites gathered and baked into a delicious bread. Jesus built on that story by using a handful of loaves and fish to feed a crowd of thousands, and then he tied it all together by telling them that he is the bread that lasts forever. All that he asks of us is to believe it, and to follow him. “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”

We could go on and talk about the rest of the Gospel story, how Jesus told us we have to eat his body and drink his blood. At that point thousands of people left him, thinking this was just too weird. But let’s save that part of the story for another day.

Today, I’m thinking about the straightforward task that Jesus gives us. His disciples had been amazed at both his words and his signs. He had their attention, so he put a challenge before them, “Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” Naturally enough, the people around him wanted that food. “What’s the job?” they were asking him, “we’ll do it, just point us to the work.”

At that point, Jesus pointed at himself and told them to simply listen and believe, and act on what they heard. He didn’t send them off to conquer another country, or to overthrow Rome. He didn’t ask them to build a temple. Just listen, believe, and come to Jesus. A simple task; a divine calling.

We still go looking for the complicated task, or perhaps for the “glorious” calling. Two thousand years hasn’t changed much about human nature; we reject what is simple and obvious, particularly when it involves humility and getting outside our own heads and egos. Jesus didn’t come to build a world of heroic conquerors; he came to build a world of quiet, humble and steady lovers. Because the world has proven time and again that what man builds doesn’t last. Walls fall, cities fall, kingdoms disappear into dusty history books. But the kingdom built on love and faith in Jesus is eternal. It always was, it still is, an it always will be.

That’s our job; that’s our calling.

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Jesus would’ve been a great coach

Have you noticed throughout the Gospels how Jesus is always nudging his apostles and followers to be better than they are; to do just a bit more than they were doing; to go beyond whatever it was that the apostles thought they should be doing? Jesus was the world’s best motivational speaker/coach/mentor. He knows what we’re capable of and he wants to open our eyes to the possibility that we can do it.

Take the story of the wealthy young man in Chapter 17 of Matthew’s Gospel. The story goes that he ran up to Jesus, knelt and asked what he can do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to sell everything and join the others who were following the new path. The young man went away sad. The young man thought he was doing it right. He’d been following the commandments his entire life; what more could God want from him?! Give up everything? That was just one thing too many.

Or what about the story of Peter walking on water? In Chapter 14 of Matthew, Jesus walks on the water toward the disciples. Peter, scared out of his wits and perhaps not 100% sure he wasn’t seeing a ghost, asked Jesus, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus complied and Peter was good for the first couple of steps. Then his faith faltered and he sank. Jesus fished him out and asked him why he doubted.

No matter where we are in our faith journey, we can do more. And no matter how weak or faulty we are, we can succeed. We cling to our possessions, we cling to our accomplishments and we even cling to our fears. We hold onto what we know because we’re afraid of what we don’t know. Jesus understands that about us. After all, He stood at his Father’s elbow as we were created; he has seen the recipe of our DNA. He knows that both striving and fearing are a natural part of the human condition.

But he also knows we are Sons and Daughters of God. We are children born of the soil of this earth and at the same time we are everlasting spirits born of the breath of God. It’s an incredible creation; we are an incredible creation. While we are on Earth we won’t fully appreciate what we can do; and therefore we will always be striving. God built into each of us a longing for the Eternal Life, so we spend the mortal life reaching for it. Learning, failing, and growing are mysterious and necessary parts of our development as God’s children. And God gave us the Universe’s best personal trainer to guide us along in that development.

I got nothing

What do you do when your spiritual gas tank is on “Empty”? When your prayers sound like you’re talking in an empty auditorium, with nothing but a hollow echo in response. When it looks to you like the bad guys are going to win and the good guys will be humiliated. What do you do with that sadness inside that won’t go away? What do you do?

This phenomenon is not new. Even Jesus, God’s one and only flesh and blood “begotten” son experienced the pain of feeling cut off from God. Mother Theresa lived in that blackness for decades. It’s a mystery, but it’s also a real part of the Christian experience. What do you do?

I start by praying. Even though my prayers don’t seem to have the response they used to, I stick to my prayer routine. Time and the experiences of Jesus and the saints has proven that God hasn’t gone anywhere; we’ve just lost our own personal feedback loop. Your prayers are still getting through; have faith and stick to it.

I look for someone who needs my help. It’s a basic truth even though it doesn’t seem to be logical. The best way to overcome your own sadness is by making someone else happy. It’s dark inside; look outward.

I have faith. God’s creation is immense, complex and mysterious. No human can take it all in or truly understand how one thing affects another. But God does, and his plan is for our benefit. Because he loves us.

So, when I have nothing else, I know that I have God’s love. And that’s more than enough.

Get up. Again.

How many times have you heard the parable of the seed that fell on fertile ground? You know the one I mean; from Chapter 8 of Luke, verses 4-15. “ While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable:  “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”

When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

His disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, “‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.’

“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.  But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.”

I must have heard that particular parable and Jesus’ explanation of it hundreds of times. It’s a good, sturdy, reliable story. But the part that never struck me until now was the last phrase; “by persevering, produce a good crop.” Once again, God is calling me to keep at it.

Earlier this week, our men’s faith sharing group was reading Dan Burke’s book on prayer called, “Into The Deep.” While describing the challenges of meditation as a brain filled with noisy monkeys (it’s a great analogy), Dan acknowledged that, “The world, the flesh and the devil are all arrayed against you. Even so, God is greater than all these forces, and if you cooperate with him and get up every time you fall, you will find greater success than you ever imagined possible.”

I have a rule in my faith. If I see a message twice within a few days, my rule is that God is trying to get my attention. He got it on this one. I don’t have to win. I don’t have to succeed every time I try. God doesn’t hold me accountable for the results. God just asks me to keep the faith and to keep on trying. In prayer, in love, in pursuit of sainthood, victory isn’t achieved through greatness or strength or brilliance. Victory in faith comes when we simply keep returning to Jesus. No matter how we’ve failed, or even how we’ve failed to try; all God asks is that this time we get up once more and accept his love and try again.

Keep the faith.

God does not live by words alone

In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Saint Paul greets them by explaining how he knows they had been chosen by God. Paul said, “Our Gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction” (1Th 1:5). God communicates to us in many, many ways. Words are just one of them.

God is a god of life, of beauty, of feelings and signs. He acts in us and through us constantly, sometimes we recognize it, often we don’t. He is always a part of our lives.

When I think back on some of the most powerful instances of God guiding my life, I realize that it was usually not some word in a book, even words from the Bible. More often it was the action of a friend, or the guidance of a priest. God’s Bible is a vital spiritual guide that should be read and pondered every day. But never forget that God is so much more than even those inspired words. And He is with us, even when we can’t think of the proper Biblical quotation for the moment.

God is a living God.

Why did the young man go away sad?

 The 19th Chapter of Matthew’s gospel includes the story of the wealthy young man who wanted Jesus to help him achieve eternal life. According to the story, this unnamed young man knew the commandments and followed them every day. But he sensed that wasn’t enough; so he asked Jesus, “What do I still lack?” Jesus told him that, if he wanted to be perfect, he should sell everything he owned and follow Christ. This wasn’t what he wanted to hear, but, Jesus knew it was exactly what the young man needed to hear. The man went away sad, “for he had many possessions.”

We all have many possessions; things that don’t lead us to Heaven, but that we are determined to hang onto. It’s often money, things, stuff; but it is just as often habits, relationships or addictions. Like the young man, we have this nagging sense that these possessions are standing between us and the Kingdom. But just like the young man, we aren’t willing to let them go even when Jesus suggests that we should. We should be sad, because those possessions are keeping us from the greatest joys of our life.

The greatest leap of faith is the jump from selfishness to generosity, from putting ourselves first to putting God and our neighbors first. Being willing to give away everything you have without a thought or worry about what you will get in return is hard. It’s counter to the messages we hear all around us every day. We are taught from a young age to protect ourselves, to take care of ourselves, to plan for our future. Take care of #1 because no one will do it for you.

It’s not often that we hear the more important lesson: that it is better to live generously than selfishly. That God will not be outdone in generosity. That the more we give away, the more we will get in return. That there is more real pleasure, real joy, in giving yourself and your possessions away than there ever will be in waiting for people to give things to you.

Jesus’ message is simple, but it is hard to accept because we hear the opposite message every day. And because we’re afraid. We’re afraid to take that simple leap of faith. It seems impossible. Jesus knew that. That’s why, at Matthew 19:26, Jesus told the disciples, “For human beings, this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” If you can’t give away all your possessions, pray for generosity. If you can’t be generous, pray for faith. And if you’re afraid that your faith is too weak, pray for trust. Trust will lead you to faith; faith will lead you to generosity; generosity will lead you to Heaven.

 

 

Doubting Thomas

Today is the feast day of Thomas the Apostle, famously known as “Doubting Thomas.” In the modern world, Thomas is remembered as the Apostle who said he would not believe in Jesus’ resurrection unless he touched His crucified hands and put his fingers into the stab wound in the Lord’s side. Jesus granted his request, and the rest is, literally, history. Thomas became a lesson to us all and a reminder that living a Christian life requires us to take some things on faith. Trust, without the “verify.”

Thomas is mentioned at least two other times in the Gospels. First, when Jesus announced that they were going to see Lazarus (who had fallen ill and died). Thomas said to the other disciples, “Let us go and die with him,” knowing that they were returning to an area where official hostility to Jesus was high. And the third mention was during the last supper, when Thomas, probably speaking the doubt that everyone else in the room felt, admitted to Jesus that he did not know “the way” to heaven that Jesus described. This gave Jesus the opportunity to reveal that He Himself is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

There is some dispute about what happened to Thomas after Jesus’ ascension. While it is generally believed that he brought the Gospel to parts of India, it is unclear where and how he died.

Saint Thomas was used by Jesus to show us that our doubts are an inevitable part of our faith. We accept some pretty outrageous things, things that people who insist on hard proofs will never accept. As St. Paul says, “We walk by faith, and not by sight,” (2 Cor 5:7).

Learning to accept those doubts and to move beyond them is one of the first battles that a developing Christian must face, although “battle” is probably the wrong way to say it. Because our challenge is to stop fighting it and accept it. To let Jesus be a part of our life despite the lack of tangible physical evidence. Once we do that, the spiritual evidence will come pouring into our souls. When we give our doubts to Jesus in faith, he gives back to us proof in the form of spiritual grace. And like a torrent on a grass fire, spiritual grace extinguishes doubt.

So, accept those nagging questions. Admit that you wonder why certain things are the way they are. Don’t hide them, set them down at the table the next time you and Jesus are having a quiet cup of coffee. And then be prepared to be amazed.

Jesus talks to me

Do you hear God speaking to you? I do. Quite often in fact. And if I listened more carefully, I am confident that He would speak to me even more often.

Jesus speaks to me every morning, both in the scriptures that I start my day with, and then also as I (try to) spend a few minutes in quiet reflection. Even more often, I hear the voice of Jesus in my friends, family, coworkers and acquaintances. As I go through my day, if I am listening for it, Jesus will speak to me through the mouths of others.

How do I know it’s the voice of Jesus? That’s a good question. Sometimes it’s not clear. But more often, the comment, the written word, or the feeling expressed is so obvious and exactly on point to what’s troubling my heart that it could only have come from the one who knows my heart best. There is a side of faith that just knows.

The egotistical side of me wants to play Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments and hear a deep, thundering voice from within a burning bush. I would love to witness a miracle, or to hear Jesus tell me a parable to illustrate the hypocrisy of earthly living. The earthly part of me secretly hopes for the fame and familiarity of God speaking to me in a clear human voice.

But the God that I need to hear, the voice of Jesus Christ, is present in the world all around me. He speaks gently, softly, and directly to the hurt in my heart, asking only that I listen.

Sometimes God confuses me

I will confess that there are some passages, chapters, and even the occasional book of the Bible that are just simply over my head. The message is just too profound for my little mind. Take this morning’s first reading for example. What sort of message am I supposed to take from “Brothers and Sisters, as God is faithful our word to you is not ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was proclaimed to you by us, Silvanus and Timothy and me was not ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ but ‘yes’ has been in him.”? (2 COR 1:18-19) Am I the only one doing a reverent, “Huh?” at that statement?

I feel like the Ethiopian who needed Phillip’s help in Chapter 8 of Acts. An Ethiopian had come to Jerusalem to worship and was sitting in his Chariot reading the Book of Isaiah. Philip asked him if he understood the book, and the man admitted, “How can I understand without someone to teach me?” Phillip walked him through the meaning of the particular passage the Ethiopian had been stuck on and then baptized him before God whisked him off to his next assignment. And thus the Church was introduced to Ethiopia. But Phillip isn’t here this morning. Just me and the dynamic, brilliant and sometimes-confusing words of St. Paul.

If I’m at Mass, Father will usually explain what I need to know. If that fails, a good internet connection and a few minutes of judicious searching will give me enough insights to set me straight. I often turn to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops web site (usccb.org), and Catholic Answers (Catholic.com) is the largest lay-run apologetics web site in the country.  It’s also useful sometimes to simply type, “Explain 2 Corinthians 1:18-19” into your search browser and see what comes up. Be cautious about that last method, however. There are all sorts of bizarre web sites that can lead you down strange paths. With a little careful reading a consensus of meaning emerges quickly if you look at several, always including Catholic.com or the bishops.

But then there are days like today, where I think it might be useful for me to just accept the word as it is and not try to wring every nuance of meaning out of it. After all, there’s plenty in God’s creation that makes no sense at all (Middle Eastern politics comes to mind). Perhaps there are days when the Holy Spirit is saying, “Just trust me.”

God’s full plan is hidden from us. As humble creatures of our creator, even though we’re made in His image, we’re not Him. How a blade of grass in my front lawn fits into the cosmic plan makes perfect sense to God, but I’m not going to fully understand it. Nor do I need to. A little bit of humility guides me to realize that I can do my part in the plan, loving God and loving my neighbor, without the need to fully-grasp the big picture.

Quiet Evangelization

The topic of evangelization has always made me squirm. Jesus told us quite clearly to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” (MT 28:19) Jesus’ words and the work of the Catholic Church for centuries is clearly-focused on taking the Good News to all corners of the world. Our work isn’t done until everyone has been given an opportunity to join the Body of Christ, and it’s my job to present those opportunities.

But for a quiet little bookworm like me, that’s scary. The idea of trying to win over an atheist or any non-believer is intimidating; in large part because I don’t feel equipped with “the answers.” What if they ask me something hard, like the definition of Consubstantial, or the Biblical origin of Mary’s virginity? I can’t even recite the Ten Commandments in the correct order.

And there’s the whole 21st Century Political Correctness thing. We have imposed a gag order on ourselves in the name of civility. We don’t talk about religion or politics in polite company. It is a modern rule that we have to avoid saying something that someone might be uncomfortable hearing. (This topic is a whole conversation in itself that we’ll get to another time.)

Once again, my favorite Apostle has come to my rescue. In last Sunday’s second reading, St. Peter tells us that evangelization should be a modest, humble experience. One of my most beloved lines in the Bible comes from the First Book of Peter. In Chapter 3, he tells us that we should “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,” but that we should also “Do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.” The whole book is a good, short read on the topic of humble evangelization.

I don’t have to stand on a soapbox at the corner of Main Street, singing the praises of God. But I do have to live a good life; I do have to love everyone around me (friend and foe). I have to be kind to such an extreme degree that people may think I’m some sort of weirdo, but I don’t have to shout about it. I just need to do it. And if anyone asks, I have to give credit where credit is due: Jesus made me do it.

Perhaps as important as all of that, I also need to spend time in prayer so that I have the explanation if someone asks for it. Could I answer the question right now if someone asked me? Why am I absolutely, rock-solid, no doubt, Hallelujah!-convinced that Jesus is God’s only “begotten” son and that we all have a share in the eternal kingdom? Perhaps that’s an even more difficult task.

Let’s talk some more about this next week.