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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.