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.

Jesus talks to me

Do you hear God speaking to you? I do. Quite often in fact. And if I listened more carefully, I am confident that He would speak to me even more often.

Jesus speaks to me every morning, both in the scriptures that I start my day with, and then also as I (try to) spend a few minutes in quiet reflection. Even more often, I hear the voice of Jesus in my friends, family, coworkers and acquaintances. As I go through my day, if I am listening for it, Jesus will speak to me through the mouths of others.

How do I know it’s the voice of Jesus? That’s a good question. Sometimes it’s not clear. But more often, the comment, the written word, or the feeling expressed is so obvious and exactly on point to what’s troubling my heart that it could only have come from the one who knows my heart best. There is a side of faith that just knows.

The egotistical side of me wants to play Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments and hear a deep, thundering voice from within a burning bush. I would love to witness a miracle, or to hear Jesus tell me a parable to illustrate the hypocrisy of earthly living. The earthly part of me secretly hopes for the fame and familiarity of God speaking to me in a clear human voice.

But the God that I need to hear, the voice of Jesus Christ, is present in the world all around me. He speaks gently, softly, and directly to the hurt in my heart, asking only that I listen.

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.