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.

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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.

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.

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.

 

 

God’s not in the noise

The Catholic Church is big. It’s complicated. It’s old. But it’s also very, very simple. The Catholic church is you and Jesus. Too often we lose sight of that. We get caught up in the complexity and forget the simplicity. We stare at the bark on each of the trees and we miss the incredible forest.  But the forest is still there.

I love the history and the mystery of the Church. I love to pick up the Catechism and wade through its thousands of paragraphs of Church doctrine. Every time I do that, I learn something I did not know before. Or I take the time to listen to a new author talking about one aspect or the other of Christianity. Scott Hahn, Edward Sri, Bishop Robert Barron, Matthew Kelly, Steven Ray, and dozens of other scholars and teachers who come up with new ways of looking at things that I had (theoretically) known since childhood. And I learn something.

But now and then I get lost in that learning. I find that I have instituted five different morning prayer regimens from three separate inspirational books. I find a pile of books on my reading table, almost all of them half-finished. There are scraps of paper, journals, and computer files filled with notes and ideas that were started and not completed. My Bible becomes a forest of bookmarks.

This weekend my wife and I went to Mass Saturday night. My mind was buzzing with different spiritual ideas, people I needed to pray for, intentions that needed attending and glories that needed me to glorify them. I knelt down before Mass and started through my litany of prayers. “God, Thy will be done, and can you take care of Mrs. So and So, and help my son with that problem, guide my coworker through the other thing, and, oh, yes, thank you for this gift of creation and please guide me to hear what I need to hear in Mass today, and give my in-laws good-health.”

I stopped to take a spiritual breath before diving into a scrutiny of my sins and successes and whatever else I’d forgotten to list, when that still, small voice said, “Hush.” The voice didn’t say much else; it didn’t need to. God’s very good at getting his message across with a minimum of extra words. I sat back and listened. And I’m still listening this morning. The books and notes and bookmarks are all still there. But for now, I’m listening. Waiting for that “tiny whispering sound” that Elijah heard and knew was the voice of God.

Our human nature calls us to fill our days with thoughts, activities, deeds and distractions. Our modern culture fills any gaps that remain with even more noise. But God still whispers, and waits for us to hear.

Dear God, send help!

One of the worst jobs in the Bible had to be Moses’. Think about it. He went from being one of the leaders of Egypt to a fugitive, and then the leader of a mob of refugees who had no place to live, but a lot to complain about. And complain they did. In the Book of Numbers, Chapter Eleven, the Israelites were getting sick of eating bread every day. Never mind that the bread, manna, was a miraculous flour that simply appeared in their camp overnight and that tasted terrific. They got tired of it and complained that back in Egypt they had cucumbers, leeks, and above all, meat. They complained to Moses, and Moses took their complaints to God, who promptly sent quail so they could vary their diet.

But God also sent help for Moses. In response to Moses’ request, He told Moses to assemble a group of 70 leaders of the people, and anointed them with the Holy Spirit. The 70 took on some of Moses’ burdens in leading the hundreds of thousands of people who were wandering in the desert.

God doesn’t expect us to go it alone. He will send help. All we have to do is ask for it. But it’s the asking that seems difficult, isn’t it? Too often, when I start to get overwhelmed at work or at home, my response is to withdraw into myself, to build emotional stone walls around me and to “tough it out.” That’s not God’s way; that’s not the Christian Way. We are all parts of one body, and as such one of our primary purposes is to help one another.

As free creatures, we can choose whether to go our own way or God’s way. We can muscle through difficult situations on our own, taking human satisfaction that we did it, “My way.” Or we can open ourselves up, humble ourselves, and ask for help. The help is there, and in my experience, God will always answer when you call. The answer may be from your spouse, a coworker or someone unexpected, but all of them are God, working for you through His people. All we have to do is ask.

God whispers

God whispers

As I was settling into my prayer and meditation chair, I took a quick peek at emails. I received one from an employee who was going on for four paragraphs about a particular problem that she wanted me to fix. Poof! Instead of quiet meditation, my mind was now occupied with chastising her. Not the real her; my mind was doing a one-man, one-act play of me chastising her. A total waste of energy, but I couldn’t get it out of my head.

But then I remembered what an older gentleman once told me: if someone is annoying you and you can’t stop thinking ill thoughts of them, say a prayer for them. I said a short prayer asking God to give the employee an enjoyable weekend. And the irritation and obsession went away. The employee’s concern still needs to be addressed, but my irritation is gone. And that portion of my head is now clear for more useful things.

Our God is often the God of small things. While God certainly works on the big stuff, in my everyday life I see His handiwork most often in the everyday things. In prayers like that about adjusting my obsession. In granting the grace to get through a personal situation calmly or lovingly. God is the God of All, but often mostly the small.

Is that because the small stuff is easier, or is that because the small stuff is what 90% of life consists of? I suspect it’s the latter. Most of our life is comprised of day to day, moment to moment interactions, connections, irritations, decisions and actions. Think about it; which do you say more often: “I do,” “It’s a Girl!,” “I will go to the Prom with you,” and “Get me the nuclear launch codes,” or “Yup,” “Nope,” “I’ll have it for you in an hour,” “yes, please” and “I’m working on it.” Perhaps we see God in our daily actions because that’s the stuff of life and God lives right here with us.

Our God is an awesome God. He created the stars and the earth and humanity and heaven. He told the atom which way to spin and He bound all of existence together according to a set of natural and moral laws that we have only begun to understand.

But God is found in a whisper. God does not roar. God hugs, God soothes, God corrects and He guides. I can’t hear my God when I am loud or when the world around me is loud. I need to draw back into calm and quiet to hear the Almighty’s counsel.  And when I do, He is there. Without fail.

When Christianity is not warm and fuzzy

Jesus is challenging me today. He says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.” (MT 10:37-39) Jesus tells the crowd that he did not come to bring peace on earth, but to cause division within families, communities, even nations. Our God knew he needed to shake things up a bit.

I always cringe and shrink back a little bit when Jesus talks about the need to take up our individual cross and follow him. I don’t really know what cross it is He wants me to take up. I would much rather pray that I can “be a nice person today” without thinking that my real calling might be something that requires just a bit more spiritual heavy lifting than that. I like soft and cuddly Christianity.

It can’t always be that way. We know that the early Christians suffered greatly for their faith. In exchange for the joy of knowing the Holy Spirit, they had to hide from authorities and meet in secret. Many of them were locked up, beaten, and killed. In some parts of the world, that treatment continues today. Division is still common throughout the world, including, if we are honest, in our own nation, communities, and sometimes even our homes.

Perhaps the cross that Jesus wants me to bear today is the visible cross of Christianity. Throughout history, what made Christians distinctive was our love for one another and our love for our enemies. Love that may be firm, not craven, but still clearly love for everyone who is, after all, just as much a child of God as we are.

Yes, indeed, Jesus is challenging me today.

The laborers are few

Today’s Gospel reading puts the modern-day priest shortage into a useful perspective. Jesus had no priests to work with when he founded his ministry. Today, in the 9th Chapter of Matthew, He calls the 12 Apostles to him, recognizing that “the harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few.” Tomorrow’s reading is from Chapter 10 and it has Jesus sending the Apostles out to the Jews, curing their diseases, casting out demons, and most important, telling them that the Kingdom of God is at hand. The first Christian Missionaries are put to work.

Jesus saw the hunger for God in the people around him. Matthew tells us that the Lord’s heart was troubled when he saw how they were “harassed and helpless.” Jesus was the embodiment of His father who is love itself, and love grieves when it sees pain and loneliness. But Jesus knew that he could not reach everyone by himself. Although he traveled all over his part of the world, he was still one man and walking was the fastest form of transport available to him. So he sent the Apostles. And then later, the 70 disciples. And then the Holy Spirit who supercharged the work of Jesus’ followers, allowing them to bring thousands of people to the Way of Christ by their zeal and love. And now, he sends you and I.

The work that began in the 9th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel continues today. There are still many, many lost sheep. There are people among us who have never heard the good news, or who have heard it but have forgotten it or who never understood the incredible promise of eternal life that lies within it. Each of us has friends, neighbors and family members who are “harassed and helpless” because Jesus is not a part of their life. They need gentle reminders that the Kingdom of God is truly at hand.

The harvest is still abundant, but the laborers are still few. Jesus continues to call us to go forth and spread the good news. Most of us don’t have the power to cure illnesses or cast out demons, but we do have the power to love. That was enough for the 12 in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s enough for us today.