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.

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We are wonderfully made

Reading the psalm selection for yesterday’s Mass was a challenge for me. The responsorial psalm was verse 14 of Psalm 139. “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Saying that over and over again seems wrong.

I’m not alone. Many of my good friends struggle to say those words. It seems the more humble you are, the harder it is to acknowledge something that we all know: we are children of God, created in His image. That means we are a pretty awesome creation. But there’s an immature form of humility that tempts us to we deny who we are. The old “Aw shucks, Ma’am, it weren’t nothin” sort of humility that prohibits us from acknowledging that God’s works are fabulous and that we are the best of his work. 

For most of us, this self-deprecating humility is born from a fear that we will let our egos run wild, and we will start to praise ourselves above God; that we will start to take credit for his creation. Where’s the balance?

Like most things from the Bible, the answer often comes to me when I read the whole context. In this case, Psalm 139 is a prayer that acknowledges God is everywhere and in everything, including us. “You have searched me and you know me. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely. Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.There’s more, but you get the idea.

If we were cars, human beings would be two-seaters; we were built to operate with God alongside us. We are not solo operators. The human soul works best when it works in complete cooperation with its creator. Things work out better when we allow God to be a part of every action we take, every word that we speak and every decision that we make. Even when life doesn’t treat us so well, accepting the challenges of life and immediately turning them over to God allows him to use them to build us up; to make good come out of evil.

We are wired to operate this way. Cooperation with God is a part of our nature. When we’re not cooperating with him, we feel out of synch; something’s “just not right,” and we can’t put our finger on what it is…until we get back to where we belong. It’s a naturally-regulating sort of existence. When we are cooperating with the Divine Will, life has a natural, easy “flow” to it. That’s not an accident.

That’s a pretty awesome creation. Give thanks for it and go with it. It’s how you were designed.

Saints and lost keys

Today is the feast day of Saint Anthony of Padua. Saint Anthony was a Franciscan priest of the 13th century. He was an incredible speaker, attracting hundreds of listeners. He died exhausted in his mid-30’s. His piety was so obvious to everyone that he was proclaimed a saint in less than a year.

Today, most Catholics who know Saint Anthony know him best for his ability to guide them to lost objects. Yup. Saint Anthony helps us find our lost stuff. Christianity is weird sometimes.

I was thinking about that; wondering why God designed his universe this way. Why is it one of the Heavenly roles of a man who was a famous and inspiring speaker to spend his eternity whispering in our ears “You left your car keys on that bookshelf over there.” Wouldn’t his time be better spent putting inspiring thoughts in our head?

Among many other realizations, I have come to know that God does a way better job planning this universe than I do. Therefore I will assume that He has good reasons for the roles he assigns, no matter how odd they may strike the rest of us. And I can live with that.

But I also had a thought that perhaps one of the reasons is that God wants us to live every day in connection with one another, both the living among us and the dead. We are, according to the Creed, “a communion of saints.” We are a single body of believers; short and tall, fat and thin, smart and simple, living and dead. We are many, many parts. But a body whose parts don’t communicate with one another wouldn’t work very well, would it?

Is it possible that God assigned the eloquent Saint Anthony to help folks recover their lost objects as a way to encourage people to communicate with Anthony (and for Anthony to communicate with us)? Is God using this as one more tool to keep us in communion with one another, regardless of which side of the curtain of life we’re on?

I often talk to Saint Gerard, the patron saint of expectant mothers. I was named after him (I was my mom’s eleventh child). My wife and I have had a couple dozen babies through our household, both our own and foster kiddoes; Gerard and I have a lot to talk about. I also like to seek advice from Saint Philip Neri, a saint known for his quick wit and humble sense of humor. And every now and then I meet a new Saint who either lived an interesting life or has a unique calling. And we talk.

God invented networking long before business schools thought of it. Have a terrific day. Stay connected.

The Ultimate Sacrifice

It’s amazing how we neglect to think about the Eucharist. Speaking just for myself, although I am a lifelong Catholic, it was decades before I actually sat down and asked myself whether I truly, TRULY believed I was eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus. On its face, it is a horrifying thought, but when we accept it as the supernatural gift that it is, we realize that it’s an incredible thought. Jesus suffered through a painful and ignoble tortured death in atonement for all of the sins that people before and after him had committed and were going to commit, including mine. He stepped in and took the place of the doves, lambs, goats and bulls that our faith ancestors had been killing and offering up as sacrifices. Just Jesus, just the Son of God, offered up once and for all. With the power only God can confer, he declared that bread and wine would become his body and blood and we were to eat that sacrificial meal as an essential part of our spiritual life forevermore. And for over 2,000 years, we’ve done exactly that.

It’s incredible. It’s mysterious. It is an example of generosity that no human can match. We should think about it more often.

 

I don’t like snakes

Okay, let’s get this out on the table right now. This post is about snakes, but I don’t like snakes. They’re creepy, they move funny and the big kids used them to scare me when I was a boy. I just don’t like them, okay?

So, why did God have to use the serpent as a sign of healing? I would have preferred a bunny rabbit.

In the old Testament, the Israelites were constantly getting in trouble as they wandered in the desert. They’d be okay for a while, but soon God would find them off in a corner, worshiping some pagan god or other and generally not paying attention to the laws and commandments He had given them. Frequently, God resorted to Old Testament-style discipline to get their attention refocused on living the life He had designed for them as His chosen people.

In one instance, God sent snakes. (I’m glad I wasn’t there.) The Israelite camp became infested with serpents. Many of the people were bitten and became ill or died. They repented for their wrongs, asked Moses to pray for them, and God told Moses to put a brass likeness of the “fiery serpent” on a pole. Anyone who looked at the serpent on the pole was cured. (See the Book of Numbers, Chapter 21, verses 4 thru 9.) King Hezekiah destroyed the serpent-on-a-stick a few decades later because the Israelites started worshipping it as if it were a pagan god, but that’s another story for another day.

Jesus revived the story of the serpent and the pole in a reference to his mission. In Chapter 3 of John’s Gospel, Jesus was trying to explain the concept of being born again in faith to a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Right before making his world-changing statement in John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”), Jesus told Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is the ultimate cure for eternal snakebite.

I’m still not crazy about snakes. God does not have to worry about me burning incense and worshiping one any time soon. Nor am I all that comfortable contemplating the horrible wounds and suffering that Jesus endured on the cross for my sake. But I recognize the powerful draw that the sins and temptations of this world have on me (just as they did on the Israelites), and I know that the world’s venom is even more deadly than the worst snake poison. And I am grateful that He is there to make me well.

Happy Easter

Prior to yesterday’s ham-and-potatoes-and-family festival, I spent a couple of hours tidying up the yard. For someone to whom “work” involves a desk, a pen and a computer, time spent pulling out dead flower stems, trimming shrubs and raking the lawn feels like a vacation. (My wife thinks I should take more vacations like that; she has a list.)

Part of my spring yard cleaning involved rooting out last year’s dead plant material clogging the flowerbeds. An early snow last winter, coupled with a healthy dose of procrastination, prevented me from getting to it in the fall. As a result, our house looked like someone had decorated the exterior with leftover tumbleweeds from a 1950s western movie. It was time to clean things up, stretch some muscles that hadn’t been used in a while, and enjoy the cool April sunshine.

One of the unexpected blessings of my work was seeing that nature is already in rebirth mode. I pulled away inches of dead growth and discovered bright shoots of purple and green. The tulips had already worked their way through last year’s dead plants, but the hostas and day lilies weren’t far behind.

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God’s creation has a very simple consistency to it. Every spring we are reminded of Christ’s death and his resurrection. We read it in our Bibles, we hear about it in our Masses. But if we look around, we can see that creation itself tells the same story. No matter how cold and dead our world may appear, there will be new growth and new life. Forever.

Enjoy this Octave of Easter.

Stumbling into that love thing

I stumbled across 1 Cor 13:4-8 again today. You know the one I mean; it’s that “more excellent way” of living that Saint Paul gave us, saying, “Love is patient, love is kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

I think we should all be required to stare at that paragraph for a few minutes every day. I know it would do me some good. Like Jesus himself, that Bible verse sets the perfect standard for love. Selfless, outward-focused, always giving. Saint Paul gives us a measuring stick that we can use to evaluate our day. Were we self-centered, or other-centered? To what degree?

As you know, I’m a work in progress (and that’s being charitable). The only perfect part of me is my perfect record of imperfection. If there’s one stone in the middle of the path to Heaven, I’ll find it, trip on it, fall over it, and probably cuss when I stub my toe against it. After I get back up I’ll kick the stone down the road in anger…and then trip over it again.

I’m still stumbling, but gradually also learning that Jesus doesn’t hate me for the stumbles. He doesn’t curse me or laugh at me or get fed up with my slow progress. He winces each time I fall, sharing in my pain. His hand is there every time to help me up. He politely pretends to ignore my intemperate rock-focused-language and He waits patiently until I come to Him to talk about the rock before offering advice (like, “Pick your feet up a bit next time; there are rocks in the road”). He doesn’t get mad when I ignore his advice.

As a husband, father, brother, and boss, I really do want to live up to Saint Paul’s rubric of love. And I really can see how my particular corner of the universe would be a much better place if I did. Fifty-seven years of experience tells me that I probably won’t hit perfect marks on the Saint Paul Scale anytime soon. But those same years also tell me that’s okay. As long as I don’t stop trying, and as long as I don’t stop asking Him for help.

Because Jesus will be there. Because He is Love.

The light within you

What some people would call “charisma” is actually the Holy Spirit. It’s the attractiveness of God living visibly within us. Our job is to let people see the Holy Spirit.

People have an innate longing to see God’s face, even if they don’t realize it. Their hearts are constantly searching for God, like a lost child looking for his mother in a crowd. That’s why our hearts are drawn to people with kind faces. It’s irresistible.

Let His light shine forth from you fully and freely. Let love and concern for every person who looks your way be your first thought. Be a safe place, a harbor in a stormy world, for everyone. Be kind, be present, be patient to everyone within your circle of contact today. Make your words and your actions consistent with the light; pure, illuminating, bringing warmth.

Dark words and dark works hide the light. Don’t let that be your way. Be a lampstand for God’s pure light. Dispel the dark with a strong caring hand or a quiet good example.

“Let no one come to you without leaving better and happier,” were Saint Mother Teresa’s words. Holy and Blessed Good Mother, help me to be a tall and sturdy lampstand today.

Going to church

My wife and I are going on a trip this week. As I was reviewing our itinerary, I was reminded that we chose a later return flight next Sunday so that we would have time to attend Mass. It took a little jockeying to make hotel checkout, Mass times and flight schedules all coordinate, but at the time it seemed like: a) no big deal; and b) something that simply had to be done. (Going to Mass Saturday night is not an option in this case.)

So, what’s the big deal? It occurred to me that it wasn’t all that long ago that I would have made the flight reservations without a thought about church. Had there been time, I might have gone, but then, I might not have gone either. Church attendance was based more on convenience than necessity.

There’s not much doubt about what God wants. He calls us to remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it Holy. Observing the Sabbath is one of the most ancient parts of our faith, going back thousands of years. But our desire for worldly things calls us constantly to treat it like any other day; or like some sort of bonus day, good for getting in a little bit more work or a little bit more shopping. The most important things all too often get the least consideration when we are making our plans.

Our God is a quiet god. He doesn’t demand our attention. He doesn’t strike us down with bolts of lightning. He waits patiently for us to come to Him; sending us encouragements and guidance. But He doesn’t shout. God whispers.

It’s taken me a long time to realize that small, quiet voice is the most important one in my life. That voice always guides me in the right direction and helps steer my habits toward life and away from death. And it’s really not that hard a life to live. The reality is that it’s a much better, much more joy-filled life than my old “Give it to me, give it all to me, and give it all to me right now!” lifestyle.

But I still need to listen carefully for that gentle voice. In order to hear it, I have to quiet the world, or at least find a quiet place in the world. I have to slow down. And I have to go to church on Sunday.

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.