This whole born again thing

Today’s Gospel reading (John 3:1-8) is about the nighttime visit to Jesus by Nicodemus. Nicodemus was one of the religious leaders of the Jews, and a Pharisee, which meant he was a faithful, ‘by the book’ sort of person. Unlike a lot of the other encounters Jesus had with Pharisees, this one seemed to be a friendly back and forth. Still, Nicodemus was confused by what appeared to him to be a new twist on the faith. Jesus demands that we be baptized and “born again.”

But how, Nicodemus wants to know, can someone be born again? You can’t undo what nature has done, starting over in the womb. Earthly life is lived in one direction and there are no do-overs. You are born, you grow up, you die. That’s the natural order of things. To Nicodemus, being told to be “born again,” makes no sense at all.

God’s Holy Spirit doesn’t work that way. As Jesus explained, the Holy Spirit is like the wind. You can hear it, you can feel it, but you can’t see it and you don’t know where it comes from. The Holy Spirit gives us a form of birth that never dies and that isn’t limited by the restraints of the Earth.

There’s a catch. To receive that life, we have to be born twice. Thanks to our God and our parents, the first birth brings our bodies into the world. We grow and learn to interact with this space and time. But then, we can choose to enter into our second life, our eternal life. With water from the baptismal font, we begin a new life. With the touch from a priest we receive the life of the Holy Spirit. It’s that life that “blows where it wills,” and we are a part of that life. Now and forever. We can turn our backs on it, if we choose; we can condemn ourselves to just the shorter, more painful life. Or we can live in the Holy Spirit on this earth for a while and in heaven forever.

Jesus made it very clear to Nicodemus that, while it may not make sense in earthly terms, baptism and rebirth is necessary. Twice Jesus begins his statement with, “Amen, amen…” which was the way speakers in his time added emphasis to their words (sort of the Biblical version of WRITING IN ALL CAPS AND USING LOTS OF EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!!). If you look, you’ll see that he introduced the concept of the Body and Blood using similar language. No second-guessing allowed, this is the rule, period.

Why did God design things this way? I don’t know. But from the beginning we were designed to live dual lives. Adam and Eve were physical beings created by God to transcend the Earth and be part of Heaven. They broke that bond so God had to create a new path for us; a path that re-connects the physical and the spiritual. That path runs through the body of Jesus Christ. We can be what God designed and desired; creatures that are both physical and spiritual. But we have to follow the path that God laid out; we have to follow the way. Jesus is The Way.


Are you listening?

Have you ever had your spouse say to you, “Are you even listening to me?” and find that you have to admit that, no, you’re not? Apparently, that happens to Jesus too.

In last Sunday’s Gospel Jesus was trying to explain to his disciples that he would be arrested, killed and would later rise from the dead. The Gospel writer Mark says, “His disciples did not understand him.” Why didn’t they understand this concept, or at least the first parts of it? After all, how complicated is “I’m going to be arrested and put to death”? I can understand them not grasping the thought of resurrection, but surely they’d understand that Jesus was predicting his own death, wouldn’t they? What were they thinking?

Perhaps the next paragraph offers a clue. When they got to their destination, Jesus asked them what they’d been arguing about on the journey. There was much shuffling of sandals and sheepishness until one of them admitted they’d been arguing about which of them was the greatest. Think about that. The Son of God was trying to explain to them that he would be arrested, humiliated, beaten and killed; and his closest followers were more interested in which of them would have the biggest statue erected in his honor!

Our human nature is to put ourselves first. Our own wants, needs and dreams fill up our world to the point where they crowd out the view of everything else. Even when God is talking to us, it takes an effort to overcome our self-obsession and pay attention to what He wants us to know.

The world is a noisy place. God won’t compete with the noise. He continues to speak to us quietly. He calls us; persistently, yet gently and softly. It takes an effort to quiet down and listen for His voice.

We need to practice listening for that voice. We need to look for Jesus. I know from experience that one of the places I’m most likely to find him is in the faces and voices of people around me. If I slow down. If I get off my own pedestal and start looking after the needs of those people. If I work to be the servant of all.

Do I want to be perfect?

Today’s gospel reading is one of those narratives that always bothers me. It’s the story from chapter 19 of Matthew’s Gospel, telling about Jesus’ encounter with the wealthy young man who wants to gain eternal life. He’s very sincere, pressing Jesus for more, even though he follows the commandments.

Jesus told him to gain life he should follow the commandments, but “to be perfect,” he needs to sell everything he has, give his money to the poor and then come and follow the Lord. And the young man goes away sad, because he has many possessions. Don’t we all?

This story has been discussed frequently at a men’s faith-sharing group that I attend at my parish. Our priest contends that, just because the young man walked away sad, that does not mean we should assume he was condemned. In fact, when you read the rest of Chapter 19 and Chapter 20 as a continuation of the same lesson, it is clear that God is generous with those who try to follow him, but are only able to do so imperfectly (the parable of the workers in the field is tied to this narrative). God loves all his children, regardless of our ability to love Him in return. Gaining heaven is not something we can do on our own; it take’s God’s generosity.

But God put us here to do his work. How much of that work should we be doing? Where’s the line? How much is enough? Is Mass every Sunday and bedtime prayers enough? Shouldn’t we be doing more with what we have?

I don’t know if there is an answer to this question, but I suspect that it’s a very personal, very individual answer. Your path undoubtedly looks very different than mine. I know that Jesus is calling me every day to follow him more closely. I can hear His call, I can feel it, and I know when I’m not doing what he wants done. There’s a restlessness in me.

Perhaps that’s His daily encouragement to do just a bit more. To love our neighbors a little more; to give just a bit more generously; to abide just a bit more patiently. Like the loving parent He is, God accepts us in our imperfection, but He’s always gently pushing us to be more of the perfect creation that He designed.

Jesus told us that to gain eternal life we need to believe in him. That’s an incredible gift. Like the rich young man, we may feel the urge to do more than simply believe. We strive to be perfect. Perhaps I’m not willing to sell all that I have and leave my wife and family to do that. But on the other hand, perhaps I can live my life more generously, more joyously, and more faithfully today; and I can offer that to God in gratitude for His gift. And then perhaps tomorrow I can do a bit more.

What’s my job?

I’ve spent a lot of time asking God what He wants me to do. What’s my calling? What’s my vocation? What is the unique role You have in mind for me? Today’s Gospel gives the answer; an answer that hides in plain sight all of our lives. Our job is to believe and to spend time with Jesus. He’ll take care of the rest.

This Sunday’s Mass readings were the familiar grouping of Exodus and the story of God’s gift to the Israelites of manna and quail, coupled with John’s Gospel where Jesus refers to himself as “the bread of life.” (Chapter 16 in Exodus and the tail end of Chapter 6 of John.) The Israelites were hungry and grousing about being freed from slavery. (It’s amazing how we lose perspective when we’re “hangry,” isn’t it?) God sent them flocks of quail to eat at dinner time and every morning He covered the ground with manna, which the Israelites gathered and baked into a delicious bread. Jesus built on that story by using a handful of loaves and fish to feed a crowd of thousands, and then he tied it all together by telling them that he is the bread that lasts forever. All that he asks of us is to believe it, and to follow him. “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”

We could go on and talk about the rest of the Gospel story, how Jesus told us we have to eat his body and drink his blood. At that point thousands of people left him, thinking this was just too weird. But let’s save that part of the story for another day.

Today, I’m thinking about the straightforward task that Jesus gives us. His disciples had been amazed at both his words and his signs. He had their attention, so he put a challenge before them, “Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” Naturally enough, the people around him wanted that food. “What’s the job?” they were asking him, “we’ll do it, just point us to the work.”

At that point, Jesus pointed at himself and told them to simply listen and believe, and act on what they heard. He didn’t send them off to conquer another country, or to overthrow Rome. He didn’t ask them to build a temple. Just listen, believe, and come to Jesus. A simple task; a divine calling.

We still go looking for the complicated task, or perhaps for the “glorious” calling. Two thousand years hasn’t changed much about human nature; we reject what is simple and obvious, particularly when it involves humility and getting outside our own heads and egos. Jesus didn’t come to build a world of heroic conquerors; he came to build a world of quiet, humble and steady lovers. Because the world has proven time and again that what man builds doesn’t last. Walls fall, cities fall, kingdoms disappear into dusty history books. But the kingdom built on love and faith in Jesus is eternal. It always was, it still is, an it always will be.

That’s our job; that’s our calling.

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.

It’s time for a cold shower

There’s no natural gas service to my house this morning. While we were out of town, the gas company had to replace our gas meter, and needed to wait for us to return before they can turn the gas back on. As I sit here sipping my microwaved morning coffee and contemplating the prospect of an “invigorating” morning shower, I read Jesus’ warning about becoming too comfortable with the things of the world. Jesus has a terrific sense of timing.

In Chapter 12 of Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells a story of a rich man whose land produced such a bountiful harvest that he decided he should tear down his barns and build bigger ones. Then he could, “eat, drink and be merry,” because all of his worldly cares would be covered. But God whispered to him that he would die that night, and asked to whom all of those worldly goods would belong.

No matter how much time we spend acquiring things of the world, there will never be enough. I earn enough to be “comfortable,” but it only takes the twist of a natural gas valve to eliminate a substantial amount of my comfort. A broken water pipe, downed power line or any one of a thousand other natural or man-made incidents could erase my “comfort zone,” in a heartbeat. And that’s without God lifting a finger.

Too often, we define our world by the size of our barn or by how early we can retire (or by the temperature of our hot water). We judge the measure of our success by the number of dollars in our bank account. Any one of those can be taken from us in a moment. Even if they’re not, they can only assure that we will be comfortable for a few more years. Once our heart stops beating, and one day it surely will, the only account that matters is our eternal bank account.

The man from the gas company showed up just now. As I expected, it only took a few minutes for him to restore my home’s service. My water heater is quietly burbling away in the basement again, brewing up warm water for today’s shower. I think I’ll take a cold one anyway, to remind myself what matters.

Who is my mother?

This is another one of those sayings of Jesus that really bugs me. When told that his mother and brothers were trying to get in to see him, Jesus sweeps his arm around the crowded room and replies, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.” (Lk 18:21). We’re talking about the Blessed Virgin Mother! It goes against my grain to see Mary treated with anything less than total veneration, even by Jesus. He should have told the crowd to “Make a hole!”

Jesus is a master of timing. This particular Gospel reading showed up yesterday and, as always, it unsettled me. When Jesus says something that irks me, I’ve learned to recognize it as a signal that something inside is not as in tune with the Lord’s will as it should be. I asked for a little spiritual guidance.

As I prayed about it, it came to me that one of my spiritual weaknesses is a family-centric selfishness. I prefer to give my time to causes and events that involve me, my wife or my children. Everything else gets second priority. I do participate in non-family causes, but they get more scrutiny than giving of my time and talent to something that involves family, even if the particular family event is watching a rerun on TV. We’re “empty nesters” now and 3 of our children live many states away from us. Simply put, we have time available to give.

Jesus’ comments were not a dig at his mother; far from it. They were His reminder that our family is the Body of Christ; it’s much larger than our biological lineage. And my whole family deserves all the love of my nearby family.

That’s the revelation for today. Stay tuned to see whether I actually turn the lesson into practice. (And pray for me!)

More later.

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.

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.