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.

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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.

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.

 

The greatest commandment

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Yesterday was a combo feast. It was Mother’s Day, but it was also the feast of the Ascension of the Lord; the day we remember and celebrate Jesus being taken up into heaven. The combination evoked bittersweet memories for me. Years ago, my mother passed away suddenly from a heart attack. I never had an opportunity for a proper goodbye and the sadness of that has lingered. Even though her passing was more than 20 years ago, there’s still an incompleteness to it; an empty space.

Did Jesus take the time to say goodbye to his mother? The Bible doesn’t talk about it, but I can’t imagine him leaving without spending time with her. God is love, and Jesus was all about spreading that love. There’s no way he would have ascended to heaven without taking one last walk through the garden with the woman who bore him, literally, in birth and in death.

Before Jesus left, he assured his Apostles, and by extension all of us, that he would not be far away. He said that he would return one day and we eagerly await that day. But he also promised to remain within us, as long as we kept his commandment…and his commandment was that we love one another. 

On Mother’s Day, my wife likes to wear her mother’s charm necklace. The necklace has a child-shaped charm for each of the 22 babies that she cared for when we were foster parents. It’s quite a conversation-starter. Most people do a bit of a double-take when they realize what the charms represent. Twenty-two babies (twenty-seven, if you count our five birth children) is a lot of…a lot of life. And it’s a lot of love.

My wife and my mom have a lot in common. They share a unique passion for children. Between my wife’s 27 and my mom’s 13 (plus a horde of grandchildren), they have given years of their lives to nurture future generations. They have lived Christ’s commandment.

Happy Ascension Day, Jesus. Your commandment is alive and well.

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.

A mother’s pain

This weekend my sister-in-law shared a very painful experience she’s going through. As part of a campaign to make high school students aware of the dangers of alcohol and driving, their high school is conducting a dramatization. Her son is one of the students chosen to “die” in a simulated drunk driving incident. My sister-in-law was assigned the task of writing her son’s obituary. She and her husband are in agony, even though they know it’s not real. As she related the story to us, even at this distance, I found myself reflexively slamming the door of my imagination, unwilling to even consider the possibility of losing one of my five children. It’s just too painful.

And then this weekend’s Gospel shows us Mary at the foot of the cross. She stands there helplessly as her one and only son, a young man of incredible goodness, intelligence and promise hangs in front of her. Beaten bloody. Gasping with each breath for six agonizing hours as he hangs from harsh iron nails. When it’s finally over, the dead body of her son is taken down and laid in her lap.

We Christians too often sanitize this pivotal moment in our history. We celebrate the fact that Jesus conquered death, but we jump right over recalling that first he had to endure it. It is understandable that our instinct leads us to gloss over Good Friday and get right to the joy of the empty tomb, and the Easter Eggs, bunnies and baked hams of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. Contemplating death is never enjoyable, and contemplating a parent’s agony is just as painful. The parent in me weeps for Mary.

The disciples didn’t understand until the very end what Jesus meant when he talked about his death and resurrection. We don’t know whether it was denial, obtuseness or something else clouding their vision. We do know that his arrest came as a horrible shock to them. But was Mary shocked? Most of the moms I know have an extra group of senses that are uniquely-tuned to their children. They can tell from another room the difference between the silence of a child sleeping and the silence of a child in distress. Within seconds, a mom can differentiate between a cry of pain and a cry of sibling irritation. Mothers know their children. Would Christ’s fate have been a surprise to her? I doubt it. Did that make it easier? I can’t imagine that it did.

Jesus is God’s gift to us. Our Creator knew that we would need a living, breathing, human guide to help us find the Way to The Kingdom. He gave us His son; Mary’s son; as a gift we did not and could not deserve, but that He in His love wanted us to have. Jesus lived the life He calls all of us to live; a life of generosity, self-giving, humility and love. In reparation for our sins, He suffered a death that he wants none of us to suffer; a death of humiliation, agony and horror.

But Mary is also a gift to us. She is the exemplar of parenthood, the patient, loving woman who watched and endured each step of her child’s growth, and each blow that led to his death. The Mother of God never looked away; never ran away. She was always there for Jesus.

In your prayers of thanksgiving this Holy Week, might I suggest that you also thank the Virgin Mary? From one parent to another, thank her for her own pain and sacrifice. Thank her for the part of her that she gave so that we might have her son’s guidance.

Hail, Mary.

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.

Christ the King

The Catholic Church year ended this weekend. Happy New Year, Catholics! Yesterday was the Feast of Christ the King. The church year starts with Advent; that time of anticipating Christ’s birth, so it only makes sense to end the year with a celebration of Christ’s coming as the King of the Universe.

And what Gospel reading does the Church use to remind us that Jesus will sit on an awesome throne, with dominion over the entire visible and invisible universe? What parable or sermon is used to bring the power of Jesus’ almighty kingship to life?

“Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.”

The Kingdom of Heaven is eternal, immortal, vast beyond knowing and powerful beyond anything we can conceive. And yet it is first and foremost a personal kingdom; a kingdom that demands that I love my brother as much as my own self. A kingdom that reminds me that every person is my brother. Jesus’ standard for loyalty to his crown is love. We are called, in both large acts and small, to love one another. The depth of our love for our fellows determines our place among “the sheep or the goats,” in the Kingdom.

Christ is the King of the Universe, one heart at a time.