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.




Okay, He’s Risen. Now what?

I look around our home and see that the Easter decorations have been stored away. Gone are the pink bunnies, the baskets with green plastic grass and the Lenten reminders to do this, abstain from that, and pray thus. God is risen and we’re moving on. Moving on to do what?

This in some ways is my favorite time of year, because the daily scripture readings come from the early chapters of The Acts of the Apostles. If you want to be inspired by early Christians, read that book! Immediately following Pentecost, Peter, James, John and the rest of the 12 started preaching and healing. Unlike during Christ’s passion, the Apostles were fearless. They knew that Jesus had risen, and that knowledge, coupled with a double dose of the Holy Spirit, put them beyond fear of anything the authorities could do to them. The apostles were repeatedly threatened, arrested, beaten and jailed. Through it all they laughed, prayed, and told everyone the Good News. More than their words, their courage and spirit built the Church that has thrived for two thousand, one hundred seventeen years and counting.

I got to thinking about that yesterday when I came across something Pope Francis had said. In a homily from a couple years ago, the Pope was talking about St. James comment that “Faith without works is dead.” The Pope said a person can have a great knowledge of scripture and theology, but if that knowledge wasn’t put into practice, it was worthless. “A faith that doesn’t get you involved isn’t faith,” he said. “It’s words and nothing more than words.” Faith, according to Francis, always leads to action. It can’t help itself.

That’s how I see the actions of the Apostles in the early days of Christianity. Peter stood up to the Jewish authorities not because he had somehow found the courage to do so. Rather, Peter couldn’t have done anything else. He could not have stopped talking about the tremendous news of Christ. Have you ever known something that was so awesome that you couldn’t wait to tell your spouse or your  friends? It’s like that, times ten. Peter was so filled with the Holy Spirit that his teeth would have burst if he tried not to speak.

For many, many years I tried to get my Christianity out of books. I love to read and study, and there have been lots of authors who inspired me. But what really lit my fuse was a men’s retreat. Spending time with a small group of men in prayer, study and sharing lifted me up in ways that can’t be described. The Holy Spirit blew through that church basement, lighting fires in hearts right and left, including mine. This, I thought, is what the earliest Christians must have experienced. Living in small clusters, sharing ideas, experiences and insights. Holding one another up and building one another up.

The Catholic Church is many, many things. It is God’s visible place on Earth. It has thousands of years of wisdom of saints and saintly people. It has a rich and long history.  But the true “catholic” Church is you and I. It’s the network of human beings, all connected to each other and to Jesus through the Holy Spirit. The life of the church lies in our interactions with one another, not with the books and the history. Those are important guides, but they are only guides. Guides to our real work, which is to love God and one another.

Easter is over. Christ is risen. The Holy Spirit has come. Let’s get to work.

Inspiration vs. Perseverance

Is it better to look for glorious inspiration or to keep your head down and just slog through your day? Do we seek to be inspired by God in his creation; by looking for our own special message in today’s scripture readings? Or do we put on the cloak of humility, saying our prayers, doing good deeds, and trusting that it will all turn out okay?

Today’s a good day for this topic. I woke up this morning in a slogging kind of mood. I didn’t sleep well and a full calendar faces me; lots of little bits and pieces of life to contend with. My mind is filled with the mundane. It’s certainly not the sort of morning that inspires me to sing with joy at God’s creation.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not facing a parole board, bankruptcy court, or a grim-faced oncologist today. In fact, it will probably be a just fine day as days go. The challenge is not from without, it’s from within (as always). I’m possessed by the demon named Mr. Grumpy Pants. (I know, demonic possession is no laughing matter. Get over it; it’s Monday.) I am just not feeling the Glory of God surrounding me, lifting me up, etc., etc.

So what’s a soul to do? The rain cloud over my personal space isn’t even dark enough to be called spiritual dryness. More like spiritual clamminess; not dry, not wet, just blah. How does one cope when life is too good to be a martyr and too dull to be an evangelical?

By putting one spiritual step in front of the other. By following our spiritual habits, even though there doesn’t seem to be much “spirit” in them. If Mother Teresa could keep smiling for decades while inside she was feeling totally empty, I think I can face the Monday morning blues. The Short Saint from Calcutta radiated goodness and never forgot her slogan to “Let no one come to you without leaving better and happier.”

Maybe I can do at least a fraction of that much.

So here goes. Happy Monday. (gmrfble, mumble, snarl, mmmfggt.) 🙂

What’s in your bucket?

I ran across one of my favorite meditations this morning. In a book published by the Hazelden Foundation, today’s meditation says, in part, “Keep pouring out yourself to help others so that God can keep filling you up with His spirit.” I love that visual. And the thought behind it so completely captures Christianity, doesn’t it? We are giving creatures, designed to be at our best when we are giving everything we have to other people. It’s how Jesus lived, it’s how the saints lived; it’s how the best Christians live. The more we give, the more Christ gives to us. The more we hold for ourselves, the less room we have for Christ’s gifts.

Selfishness is one of my (many) human weaknesses. I like to help others, sure, but only after my own bucket is full. Full of whatever human comfort I happen to be seeking, whether it’s food, time, money, et al. “I’d like to do more at the food pantry, but it’s been a long day at work and now I just want to put my feet up for a while.” “I would make a bigger donation to the church, but my wife and I are shopping for a new car and we can’t pay for leather seats AND give more to the church…” and on and on and on. I like a good full bucket.

Emptying our bucket for others is counterintuitive. Nowhere on Earth does it say that you will get lots of money, time or food if you give away your money, time and food. Savvy people would call that foolishness. We are coached to save what is ours, to get as much as we can, and to take care of #1.

But Jesus is counterintuitive. Jesus doesn’t live according to those rules; in fact he specifically rejects them. In word and in deed, Jesus pours himself out for others, working when he is tired, speaking and teaching constantly, feeding others, but when asked to eat, telling his Apostles, “I have food of which you know nothing.” Jesus lives in the flow from God’s bucket to his to ours.

This is not an eternal penance. Living in that flow of giving is what God wants for us because it is where we are happiest. God’s children were built to be givers; we’re not satisfied being bucket-fillers. We often get misled and chase after stuff for our own bucket, but no matter how successful we are, toting around that bucket full of stuff just gets wearying.

Give it a try. Pour out some of your bucket into someone else’s. Whether it be a bit of time, money, or caring. Feels good, doesn’t it? Tomorrow, take a look into your bucket. I’m willing to bet someone sneaked into your bucket closet and filled you right back up again. And again. And again.

How many epiphanies have you had?

Yesterday was the Feast of the Epiphany. It was the day the Magi from the East showed up and started asking folks about the new King of the Jews. That got King Herod’s attention, but it also undoubtedly stunned many of the Jews. “Wait a minute, explain that to me again. You say we have a new king? Well, what do you think about that?!”

An epiphany is an awakening. It’s a sudden realization of something profound. It’s a slap-on-the-forehead moment. It’s that moment in high school when geometry finally made sense to you.

We Christians celebrate this particular epiphany on this particular weekend each year, but it’s not the only epiphany we will experience. In my case, I’ve gotten bonked on the noggin by the Holy Spirit numerous times, and I’m excited by the knowledge that it’s likely to happen again. My epiphanies have run the gamut from the cosmic to the itty bitty. There was the time I realized my carefully-studied conclusion that the Church was wrong about confession was full of beans. (Followed immediately by several rather painful epiphanies about some unconfessed sins that needed to be dealt with.) There was the life-changing epiphany about God’s desire for me to explore my doubts about the faith…which led to lots more epiphanies. There was the awesome epiphany about the joy that exists within a parish when we finally decide to become part of it rather than just a Sunday visitor.

Not everyone will call these experiences “epiphanies.” For some, it’s the coming of the Holy Spirit. For others, it’s simply the warmth of experiencing God’s real presence in our lives. People in a 12-step recovery program might call it a “spiritual awakening.” Pick your noun; it really doesn’t matter what you call it. For that matter, it doesn’t matter if you call it anything at all. But it’s real, and it’s God giving you one more glimpse of the awesomeness that is our true life; our eternal life.

Does God cry?

I have often wondered whether God cries. God is all powerful and one would think He is too strong to cry. He is the great I Am, the Alpha, the Omega and everything in between. As modern scholar/philosopher/filmmaker Father Robert Barron puts its, God is so immense and unfathomable that, “if you understand, that’s not God.”

But does God cry? We know He gets angry. The Bible is filled with anecdotes of God’s anger boiling up over our faith-ancestors’ adolescent actions. People are getting smited right and left in the old testament. In modern terms, Jesus “lost it” in the temple when he chased all the money changers out with a home made whip. The word “Anger” might not be as common a phrase in the Bible as hope, charity or faith, but it’s definitely in the top fifty Google searches.

And we know He gets happy. Especially when one of us lost sheep finds our way home. “I tell you there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Lk 15:17). God feels anger, God feels joy, and God IS love. So does God weep?

I think He does. After all, for every one of those lost sheep who come home, how many are led astray to their death? How many people around us are dead in faith, captives of worldly pleasure? If God rejoices over the one who was lost and is found, surely he is heartbroken by the one thousand who become lost and are never found. To know love is to know pain. How much more for the one who IS love?

One of my most painful childhood memories is my mother sobbing over a favorite antique dish that two of her rambunctious children had broken (my brother pushed me). It wasn’t the scolding that hurt, it was Mom’s tears. It was the sadness that remained after the anger. Knowing my foolishness had caused pain to this beautiful woman who I loved was worse than any punishment she may have dished out.

Does God cry?

It’s faith versus fear

Lately I’ve been realizing how much of a role fear has played my life. It has impacted everything from my job to my spiritual life to my choice of recreational activities. I’ve passed over opportunities to apply for jobs because I feared that I would be embarrassed if I wasn’t interviewed. I spent decades treading spiritual water because there were some nagging doubts that I was afraid to face for fear of God smiting me. In my 20s, I gave up downhill skiing because I was afraid of falling down and hurting myself.

Some of these fears are rational. Given that I am a clod, downhill skiing was probably a poor choice of outdoor activity for me. Hiking was much more my speed, both literally and figuratively. But just about all of my other fears accomplished nothing. And held me back from everything.

Way back in one of my earliest posts in this blog, I related how God coaxed me into facing my doubts about Catholicism. With my Divine Buddy lighting the way, I was able to peek into that dark closet and discover that there really were no theological monsters hiding there. In fact, I discovered an incredible community of joyful people, and a religion that is full, complete, and a perfect fit for me. It wasn’t a flaw of the Church that was keeping me from the fullness of God’s kingdom. It was my own chicken-heartedness.

And then there’s faith. Quiet, humble, steady, faith. Faith that Jesus was talking to me when he said, “Do not worry,” “I go to prepare a place for you,” and “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” The more you pray and study, the more you realize God has your back…and your front…and both sides, and up and down too. What exactly is left that’s worth being afraid of?

Fear will always be a part of us. We were born and raised with human instincts, which (assuming the scientists are right) evolved from the apes and before them lizardy things and before them little bitty bacterium who were food for larger bacterium. Fear is a mechanism the little things evolved to avoid being eaten by the big things.

But faith will also always be a part of us. Faith is knowing that God is within us no matter what we think or how many big things want to gobble us up. God is there and wants nothing more than to forgive us no matter how low we’ve fallen. If fear is the dark, faith is the light switch. All you have to do is reach out for it. And then enjoy the view in the daylight.

Here’s to you, St. Peter

Today is a feast day for the Chair of St. Peter (I think that’s a churchy way of inviting him to take a break; “Here, Peter, sit down and rest for a few minutes. Luke will keep an eye on the Pearly Gates for a while.”) It used to be the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, but that got moved to the Summer. Don’t ask me why. If you are curious and find out why, reply to this post and tell the rest of us.

I’ve said before that St. Peter is my favorite Apostle. He’s just so…human. Sometimes he was a hot-head, sometimes he was a bonehead, and other times he was just plain scared. When they saw Jesus walking on water, Peter was the one who jumped out of the boat and tried to imitate him. It worked for a few minutes, until his human side took over and he sunk. (Put yourself in his mind. “Wow! I’m doing it! I’m doing it, I’m walking on water! Hey, guys, check this out, I’m walki…wait. What the heck and I doing? This water is deep. What if I trip over a fish? I can’t do thi….glub, glub, glub.”)

Peter was imperfect by most human measures. He wasn’t wealthy; he was a simple fisherman. He wasn’t scholarly. He wasn’t saintly. On more than one occasion, Jesus had to correct him, and when the chips were down, Peter claimed that he had never even met Jesus. But he is the the rock. He is the foundation of the universal church that Jesus came here to form. He was given the power to make rules for both Earth and Heaven. (His first rule was probably, “Okay, from now on, NO walking on water.”) And he is as human as you and I.

So, what does that say about God’s plan for you and I? Can we still argue that we’re too (choose one or more) weak, ignorant, old, young, hotheaded, fearful, doubtful, willful? God made Peter. He chose Peter. God also made you and chose you. So, if he calls you to do his will, how can you say no? Go ahead, step out of the boat. Remember, even if you sink, he will catch you, just like he caught Peter.

King David and the first parish festival

After much study and research, I have discovered the historic roots of the first parish festival. It was King David’s idea!

This morning’s first reading is from Chapter 6 of the Second Book of Samuel. King David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant into the city, and that was a cause for a huge party. First, David was so overcome with joy that he “danced with abandon.” There was lots of music and noise, which I am sure seems very familiar to the people who live near our church. Sorry, but apparently we children of God have a long history of partying. We’ll try to keep the noise respectable.

After the Ark had been put in its new home, David, wearing an apron, served up roast meat, a loaf of bread and a raisin cake (sounds like a scone…mmmmm) to “the entire multitude of Israel.” No word about the parish raffle or the dunk tank. I’m sure the scripture writers just forgot those parts of the story, or maybe they only had one sheet of parchment left.

All in all, it was a party for the history books. And the reason for it? Oh, yes, they were celebrating the presence of God in their community.

Amen, people of Israel.

It’s Advent: Let the waiting begin!

Don’t you hate waiting? We are always waiting for something. Waiting for school to end, waiting for Mom to make dinner, waiting for our date to arrive, (or waiting for him to go home), waiting for that letter to come, waiting, waiting, waiting. We even have different words to describe different waits. We may be waiting patiently, waiting fearfully, dreading, anticipating, biding our time, biting our nails, counting the hours or even wishin’ and hopin’ and plannin’ and dreamin’.

The Bible is filled with advice for the wait-lorn. We waiters have been compared to everyone from bridesmaids to farmers. In all of His parables, Jesus makes it clear that not only will we have to wait for Him, we won’t know how long that wait will last. And we’d better not be napping when He shows up. Clearly, waiting is part of the plan for you and me.

Why did God invent waiting? He didn’t have to, did He? The creator of all things could have just as easily formed a creation where everything we needed was available immediately. Where needs and desires were fulfilled faster than you could order lunch at the drive through. He made the rules, why did He invent time out?

The time between here and there is ours to fill. God makes many suggestions, both directly and indirectly, telling us how He would like us to use that time, but the actual moment-to-moment decisions are ours. We can sit and fret, we can indulge ourselves in amusements, we can work at our jobs 24/7, or we can use that time to fulfill God’s two great commandments: love him and love our neighbor. We can use the golden talents that He gave us or we can bury them in the back yard.

Perhaps this isn’t a time of waiting at all. Perhaps this is a time of preparation, of training, of tending to what’s growing in the garden (pick your metaphor…I couldn’t decide). We are here to make ourselves ready for eternity, and we do that by spending our lives reaching out to God and to each other.

So, here’s my Advent wish for you: I hope that your next four weeks are filled up with joy, with good works, and with fellowship. I hope that you wake up on Christmas morning, not worn out by shopping , but by service. And that you are filled with happiness not because you got that power tool you’d been dreaming about, but because you are surrounded by family and friends. May you use this time and your own golden talents joyfully and fruitfully.

Happy Advent.