The nearness of God

I’m in Cleveland for a business trip this morning. From my hotel, I can see Lake Erie, a grand ocean of fresh water. There are a couple of fishing boats just outside the city’s harbor. Down on the docks, Great Lakes ships are loading and unloading. Cars are zipping along on the city streets and every now and then a freight train moves through or a cute little transit train hums past on its electric tracks. Downtown Cleveland is a hard working place in the morning.

Where is God in all of this? Of the hundreds of cars whizzing past my window, how many drivers are murmuring a decade of the rosary, or offering up worries about a challenge that awaits them at work? From my angle, I can’t see the front windshields; how many mirrors have rosaries or crucifixes swinging from them; a simple modern reminder to watch the road, but keep God close by? How many dock workers started their morning by reading the scriptures, or simply asking God to keep them safe today?

Last night, my wife and I were strolling downtown Cleveland. An affable older gentleman on a bicycle struck up a conversation, telling us his name, complimenting me on how I looked, working his way sincerely through his lines. And, of course, closing with the claim that he’d been sober for five years, but he was homeless, and for just five dollars, he could get a really good sandwich at that restaurant over there. I sighed and gave him the two singles in my wallet. Was I conned? Almost certainly yes. But he was a beggar, he was undoubtedly poor. Jesus didn’t offer much leeway when he told us, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.” He didn’t ask me to evaluate the guy. It may not have been the right decision, but it’s what my heart felt called to do.

Matthew 1:23 says, “the Virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). We don’t worship a distant God. Our creator and guide lives with us, not above and beyond us. He interacts with us constantly throughout the day, helping, guiding, testing, correcting and oftentimes just loving. Like a parent with a toddler, He’s there watching our every move, letting us learn to walk, to explore and to have adventures…but not step into the middle of a busy street.

Our challenge is to learn, to get to know Him better, to grow into beings who care for the people around us, in all their shapes, sizes and economic predicaments. To watch out for one another; to love one another like ourselves.

Because He gave us a son whose name is Immanuel.

Thy will be done

Your will be done

Sometimes, I hate those words. I finish all of my prayer times by saying; “your will be done.” I lay out all of the needs that I have for myself and the people around me, and I offer up my requests for the day. And then I close with, “thy will be done.” But oftentimes that’s not what I really want.

The willful, self-centered me wants it my way. I am the man in the midst of the action, and whether it’s healing, guidance, a miracle or a parking space, I can clearly see the right solution for the world’s needs; or at least for my needs. Dear God, I’m humble, but please trust my judgement in this case.

I was sitting in church yesterday, marveling at the people around me. To my left was a family whose daughter was in the hospital suffering, and yet here they were at mass, asking God for strength. Behind me was a wife sitting by herself because her husband was at home recovering from having donated a kidney. In front of me sat a shy man who was no doubt thinking about a speech he was to give that night about his struggles to find God. Over there, an empty spot where an elderly couple had sat. Empty because the wife was in her final hours on earth, and her husband was at her side. Your will be done.

God, you have given us each our own path to walk. Each one of those paths is different. We will enjoy great moments and we will despair during great trials. You have given us self-will, to decide how to react to the obstacles, challenges and gifts that we will encounter in our path. We can tell you that the path is just too hard, and turn away. We can soldier on miserably. We can jump off the path and decide to make our own way if it looks like our way makes more sense. Or we can simply walk forward, one more step at a time; trusting that this is the right path for us.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was terrified. He knew what was coming and he was in agony, so much so, that he literally “sweated blood,” (see Luke 22:44).  He could see the next obstacle; the cross. He had a choice to make. He could have chosen to walk away. He begged God for another way out. But he closed his prayers with, “They will be done.” And because he did, he saved my life.

I doubt that I’ll be faced with the agonizing choice Jesus had to make. My obstacles are more of the, “do I say bad things about that guy or don’t I?” variety. “Do I give or do I withhold?” “Do I go, or do I stay?” I cannot save the entire world, as Jesus did. But I can relieve a little bit of suffering here and there. I can share a burden or two. I can make this small spot on earth just a little better for the people around me today.

What would Jesus do?

Thy will be done.

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.

Bums bother me

Bums bother me. Oh, am I being politically-incorrect by calling them bums and not homeless people, or at least street people? But we don’t know whether they’re homeless, do we? In fact, we don’t know anything about them. Do they have a home? Do they have a family? Do they have a mental illness or an addiction? We don’t know. And that’s what bothers me.

In the city where I work, the police department discourages giving to people who beg on the street. It only encourages them, makes them bolder, and usually your money feeds a drug or alcohol habit. But we don’t really know that either, do we? It may be true about a few, perhaps it is true about most of them. But on any given street corner we don’t know the individual story of the individual who’s asking for change.

I have a friend who spent part of his life as a beggar. He was unemployed and an alcoholic and drug addict. As the police warned about all beggars, his purpose in begging was to raise enough money to buy the day’s beer. Occasionally, someone would take him to the nearby fast-food restaurant for a meal, which was fine and a break from his duties. But after the meal, he’d go back to his street corner to continue begging for beer money.

Another friend of mine told me about a recent experience she had with someone who begged for some money for food. My friend was on the way from church where she had been talking to God about a worrisome employment situation. On the street, she heard the beggar but walked by, only to change her mind and take him to a nearby restaurant for a meal. Upon returning from breakfast she had a call from a friend with a job offer, instantly clearing up her job quandary.

I know that in Jesus’ day, there were no government subsidy programs, homeless shelters, housing vouchers and other “safety nets.” Beggars were seeking resources to simply stay alive. Is it the same today? It wasn’t for my first friend. He had a home; his begging was for the “luxury” of alcohol. Is it true for others? I honestly don’t know.

“Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, that you did for me.”

And that’s what bothers me.

What’s in your bucket?

I ran across one of my favorite meditations this morning. In a book published by the Hazelden Foundation, today’s meditation says, in part, “Keep pouring out yourself to help others so that God can keep filling you up with His spirit.” I love that visual. And the thought behind it so completely captures Christianity, doesn’t it? We are giving creatures, designed to be at our best when we are giving everything we have to other people. It’s how Jesus lived, it’s how the saints lived; it’s how the best Christians live. The more we give, the more Christ gives to us. The more we hold for ourselves, the less room we have for Christ’s gifts.

Selfishness is one of my (many) human weaknesses. I like to help others, sure, but only after my own bucket is full. Full of whatever human comfort I happen to be seeking, whether it’s food, time, money, et al. “I’d like to do more at the food pantry, but it’s been a long day at work and now I just want to put my feet up for a while.” “I would make a bigger donation to the church, but my wife and I are shopping for a new car and we can’t pay for leather seats AND give more to the church…” and on and on and on. I like a good full bucket.

Emptying our bucket for others is counterintuitive. Nowhere on Earth does it say that you will get lots of money, time or food if you give away your money, time and food. Savvy people would call that foolishness. We are coached to save what is ours, to get as much as we can, and to take care of #1.

But Jesus is counterintuitive. Jesus doesn’t live according to those rules; in fact he specifically rejects them. In word and in deed, Jesus pours himself out for others, working when he is tired, speaking and teaching constantly, feeding others, but when asked to eat, telling his Apostles, “I have food of which you know nothing.” Jesus lives in the flow from God’s bucket to his to ours.

This is not an eternal penance. Living in that flow of giving is what God wants for us because it is where we are happiest. God’s children were built to be givers; we’re not satisfied being bucket-fillers. We often get misled and chase after stuff for our own bucket, but no matter how successful we are, toting around that bucket full of stuff just gets wearying.

Give it a try. Pour out some of your bucket into someone else’s. Whether it be a bit of time, money, or caring. Feels good, doesn’t it? Tomorrow, take a look into your bucket. I’m willing to bet someone sneaked into your bucket closet and filled you right back up again. And again. And again.