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.

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.

Want world peace? Try this.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus told us that, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is the second-greatest commandment, second only to “Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Everything Jesus taught and (according to Jesus himself) everything in the scriptures are based on these commandments. Everything.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “a society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow individuals to obtain what is their due.” Furthermore, the Church recognizes that the rights of the individual come before those of society and must be respected by society in order for that society to maintain any moral legitimacy. A government that is not built upon the foundation of this golden rule is a government doomed to failure.

And what is our individual role beneath the umbrella of social justice? We are each called to look upon our neighbor (with NO exception) as “another self,” entitled to the means of living life with dignity. It is our obligation to live our lives in community with our neighbors; we are obligated to see to one another’s needs. The Church refers to this as “Solidarity,” and points out that social, economic, political and even international problems cannot be resolved in any way except by practicing the principles of solidarity.

I had known all of this, in one form or another, for my whole life. Being told that God wants us to love our neighbor is hardly a revelation. But what strikes me for its simplicity and depth is the Church’s contention that all of the world’s problems could be resolved by these words alone. And furthermore, none of the world’s problems will be resolved without them.

There’s a tendency in the world today to separate faith from society. To live out our religion within the four walls of our churches and our homes. To leave our Catholicism at home when we head off to work. But when we do that we are leaving our most important tools behind. The principles of Christian charity are just as essential in our work lives as they are in our home lives. And right now, couldn’t our world use a lot more “love your neighbor”?

Sufficient for a day is its own evil

Last week we talked about not worrying; about accepting the portion that God gives us for today, both the good and the bad. The post was based on the “Worry Sermon” (I made that title up); which is the last portion of the Sermon on the Mount (see Chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel).

There’s a sentence in that reading that has always felt wrong to me. The last sentence of Chapter Six reads “Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” Other translations put it this way: “Sufficient for a day is its own evil.” Those words always felt awkward, like there was a word missing or out of order. Surely Jesus meant to say “The day’s own good things are sufficient for the day,” or, “I’ll give you enough to help you through today.” Why “sufficient for a day is its own evil?” It’s as though Jesus is promising us bad things, and plenty of them. Seems very un-Jesus-ey. It feels particularly out of context in a reading about not worrying. I’m all set to live free as a bird, peaceful as the wildflowers, and comfy as Mary at Jesus’ knee (while Martha serves lunch). And then Jesus tells me that today’s gonna be a handful.

St. John Chrysostom must have talked to someone who knows me. He wrote about this sentence. His answer was this: “Doesn’t every day have enough burdens of its own? Why do you add to them by laying on those that belong to another day?”

This sentence is one of those examples of parts of the Bible that need to be read in context. You can’t just quote this as a one-liner at parties (unless you like being alone at parties). It just doesn’t make sense outside of the context of the idea that came before it. The sentence before it that goes, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself,” helps a lot. Backing up another sentence, Jesus reassures us that, “Your Heavenly Father knows that you need them all (clothes, food, shelter). But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows that we can only deal with things, both good things and bad things; in daily doses. This is one more reminder to live in a relaxed manner; by living for today and meeting today’s challenges as they come. And not by dragging tomorrow into the day’s fight.

One day at a time.

It all starts with faith.

Everything starts with Faith.

Because faith is confidence. Confidence that God has your back.

If God has your back, you will never look over your shoulder in fear.

Confidence gives you courage. Courage to move ahead boldly.

Courage allows you to serve. To serve your fellows without fear, without shame, without embarrassment.

Service gives you joy. Joy in God. Joy in yourself. Joy in the company of others.

It all starts with faith. Pray for faith.

 

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.

It’s faith versus fear

Lately I’ve been realizing how much of a role fear has played my life. It has impacted everything from my job to my spiritual life to my choice of recreational activities. I’ve passed over opportunities to apply for jobs because I feared that I would be embarrassed if I wasn’t interviewed. I spent decades treading spiritual water because there were some nagging doubts that I was afraid to face for fear of God smiting me. In my 20s, I gave up downhill skiing because I was afraid of falling down and hurting myself.

Some of these fears are rational. Given that I am a clod, downhill skiing was probably a poor choice of outdoor activity for me. Hiking was much more my speed, both literally and figuratively. But just about all of my other fears accomplished nothing. And held me back from everything.

Way back in one of my earliest posts in this blog, I related how God coaxed me into facing my doubts about Catholicism. With my Divine Buddy lighting the way, I was able to peek into that dark closet and discover that there really were no theological monsters hiding there. In fact, I discovered an incredible community of joyful people, and a religion that is full, complete, and a perfect fit for me. It wasn’t a flaw of the Church that was keeping me from the fullness of God’s kingdom. It was my own chicken-heartedness.

And then there’s faith. Quiet, humble, steady, faith. Faith that Jesus was talking to me when he said, “Do not worry,” “I go to prepare a place for you,” and “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” The more you pray and study, the more you realize God has your back…and your front…and both sides, and up and down too. What exactly is left that’s worth being afraid of?

Fear will always be a part of us. We were born and raised with human instincts, which (assuming the scientists are right) evolved from the apes and before them lizardy things and before them little bitty bacterium who were food for larger bacterium. Fear is a mechanism the little things evolved to avoid being eaten by the big things.

But faith will also always be a part of us. Faith is knowing that God is within us no matter what we think or how many big things want to gobble us up. God is there and wants nothing more than to forgive us no matter how low we’ve fallen. If fear is the dark, faith is the light switch. All you have to do is reach out for it. And then enjoy the view in the daylight.

What’s your plan?

I spend a lot of my time plotting. Often the plots are harmless, sometimes they’re useful or even positive, like plotting out my day or scheming with my children to do something special for the best mom on Earth on Mother’s Day. Human beings are born to plot. We are always trying to map out one part or another of the future.

I will have to admit, though, that I don’t spend much time plotting how to get to Heaven. While my next promotion or my financial retirement get hours of think time and pages of spreadsheet “what-ifs,” Heaven is treated as more of an ad hoc thing. I take being a faithful Christian on a day-by-day, moment-by-moment basis.

Is that right or wrong? I can’t decide. I know that God asks me to be faithful, and that Jesus opened the door to Heaven for me 2,000 years before I was born. Eternal life is a gift that God wants us to simply accept; we don’t earn it. The books of the Bible are filled with the clear message that God has our tomorrows covered for us, and that we should not fear or worry. In fact, fear is a warning sign that your faith has sprung a leak. And isn’t planning just a natural reaction to the fear of an uncertain future?

But do we need a Heaven Plan? Should we be plotting our good works, and our prayer time, and our study? Or should we be focused solely on living in the moment? Is living our best Christian life right now, in this chair, covered with this blanket (because I live in Wisconsin, where it apparently is going to be winter forever!!!) all that really matters?

Maybe being part of the body of Christ is not a journey at all. Maybe Christianity needs to describe HOW we do things, not WHAT we do. There’s no need to plan because everything we do should be pleasing to God, or we shouldn’t do it. We can’t plan for the end of our Earthly life because we really don’t know when it will come. And, more importantly, if our “how” is right, then the “when” doesn’t make any difference at all.

What do you think?