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.

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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.

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.