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.

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.

Three words for a simple day

Coffee cup in hand, I sat down at my keyboard this morning, my mind a complete blank. “Lord, what would you like me to say today?” was all that I could summon to my mind.

There’s no deep wisdom in my thoughts this morning. I haven’t had any really deep insights into the meaning of the Mass, work, charity or mowing the lawn. I’m just sitting here, ready to do your will. I am not on fire with the Holy Spirit; nor am I in the grip of the evil one. I’m just here. What’s a Christian to do on days like today, when everything around us just feels so…ordinary?

Last week, my wife put a sticky-note on one of the kitchen cupboard doors. On the note she wrote the word, “Praise.” It’s a reminder to her that she should praise God in everything and all the time. It’s a simple reminder that there is a God, that He is both within us, coaching us and guiding us, and that He is the Almighty, the cosmic creator of everything. He helps me to love at the same time that He gives the sky its unique pale blue color this morning. Praise, indeed.

A good friend and advisor is always encouraging me to be grateful. Particularly when I am in a funk, he tells me to make a “gratitude list,” a list of the gifts that I have been given. The list is ever-changing, but it’s always fairly long. God’s been pretty good to me.

Before sitting down at the keyboard this morning, I offered up my day to God. No specific petitions; no healings or miracles; no insights. In fact, all I asked for today was that He use me to do His will, whatever that may be. It was a short, “Here I am, Lord,” Samuel-type prayer.

Praise, thanksgiving, and surrender. That’s all I have for today. It’s probably enough.

The Holy Spirit lives

The Holy Spirit is a wind that blows through the world. Like the wind, we can’t point to where it began or where it will end.

Did Saints Peter, Paul, James, John, Mary Magdalen and the other first followers of Christ have any idea where their work was going to end? Did they even have an inkling that their words were going to be repeated for many centuries? Could they have imagined that we’d be reading and re-reading their letters in remotest Canada, Africa and Australia? God knows.

Jesus told the Apostles that they would perform works that were even greater than the things He did. That’s quite a challenge, considering what He accomplished. In just three years, Jesus built a church that would last for millennia. He laid down principles that would guide the lives of billions of people and undergird the constitutional frameworks of countries around the globe. Most importantly, he would conquer death for us. He would open a doorway that had been closed to humanity; a doorway to Heaven. A doorway to our true home. And the Apostles were supposed to top that?

Yes. Jesus laid the foundation, but the Apostles built the house. They were His witnesses and carried the good news many miles farther than Jesus had gone. The Church quickly outgrew the 12’s ability to properly minister to everyone, so they appointed new leaders, deacons, presbyters and others to carry on the work. Many of the Epistles that we read each week were letters from the Apostles to those distant churches; encouraging them, reminding them, exhorting them.

The Apostles didn’t have an easier road than Jesus. For the most part, they suffered the same fate on Earth that He endured. All but one of the first 12 Apostles were murdered because of their work. Capture, abuse and murder of Christians was common, even a sport during the first centuries. They said the words, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty,” and “I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,” during a time when saying such things was considered treason by the government.  

Through all of these challenges and trials they built the church. The universal, worldwide, eternal church. The Body of Christ. A Church that has survived time and time again periods of persecution, corruption and apathy. A church that has a place for every human being. Doing great things, doing simple things, making mistakes, enduring. The Church itself is a miracle, a miracle of global proportions.

And perhaps the greatest miracle of all is that it was created by an unlikely bunch of fishermen, tax collectors and other common folk. Sustained by even more common folk.

I can’t wait to see where this goes tomorrow.

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.

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”?

Have you hugged a Samaritan today?

Sunday’s Gospel is the story of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. The story, like all good Bible stories, makes a number of really good points about the sort of world God wants from us. The point that struck me this time is how bold Jesus was, talking to a woman who belonged to a tribe the Jews hated. The Jews wouldn’t take anything from Samaritans, and here Jesus was, asking for a cup of water. Jesus even accepts their invitation to..ewww…stay with the Samaritans for a couple of days.

Samaritans were among the early Israelites, but split from the Jews hundreds of years before Jesus arrived on the scene. Along the way there were religious disputes; political and territorial disputes, battles, etc. Once we decide to dislike a group of our brothers and sisters, it doesn’t take long for us humans to come up with all sorts of ways to make the rift permanent. Sound familiar?

The lesson is clear. Jesus has no use for the worldly things that separate God’s children. He wants us to reach across human-created barriers, whether religious, ethnic, political (yes, political) or economic. And that’s the point. Who is your Samaritan? Is it the people who voted for Trump? Or Hillary? Is it the well-meaning 7th Day Adventist who dropped off a seven page anti-Catholic screed in an attempt to save your soul? Immigrants? The rich? The poor? We all have Samaritans in our life; a family or group of people who look different or espouse something that we disagree with and so we avoid them. That’s not Jesus’ way.

Our Father created each and every person on the planet, including you and your Uncle Ralphie who talks too loudly about politics. God loves you and Uncle Ralphie equally, and His desire is that we love one another so we can help one another reach the Kingdom of Heaven. Let’s think about that in our hyper-politically-divided America. Maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be so hard to share a cup of water with a Democrat. Or a Republican. Or a Lutheran. Jesus did.

One more about the Sermon on the Mount

This makes three weeks in a row that we’ll be talking about the Sermon on the Mount (Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of the Book of Matthew). I can’t help it; there’s so much good stuff in those three chapters of the Bible I could spend a lifetime studying them. The sermon is a complete guide to living a Christian life, packed into roughly 2,000 words.

It begins with the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, the meek, who hunger and thirst, et al. We’re introduced to the idea that we are the “salt of the earth,” and then told that Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Ten Commandments and the other laws but to perfect them. “You have heard, “You shall not kill” but I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.” Jealousy, adultery, making promises, almsgiving, prayer, fasting; check, check, check. Temptation, worry, and judging others; all dealt with. Bear good fruits; don’t just talk a good game—you have to play the game of Christianity. When Jesus was done, people were astonished. You think?! I’d be breathless.

Saint Augustine called the Sermon “a perfect standard of the Christian life.” Indeed, Jesus closes the sermon by telling us that “every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall because it had been founded on the rock.”

Like all things Christian, it can be difficult; scratch that; it’s IMPOSSIBLE for us humans to live up to this standard every day and in every action. We will fail at all of them some of the time and at many of them most of the time. God doesn’t expect perfection; he looks for willingness. After all, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

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.