The reason for our hope? Love.

Last week we talked about the idea that evangelization for most of us is the simple exercise of acting like a Christian with everyone we meet. Be kind, be loving, be helpful. For the former Boy Scouts out there, carry Lord Baden Powell’s admonition with you and, “Do a good turn daily.” It’s Jesus’ second greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

But remember that loving your neighbor is the second commandment. As important as loving your neighbor is, Jesus did not list that one first. God comes first. We are absolutely commanded to “Love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength.” (see Mark 12:30). When we’ve done that, we can move on to loving one another. But God comes first.

Recall last week’s conversation from the First Book of Peter. In Chapter 3, Peter asks us to “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” The reason for our hope is pretty straightforward: Jesus came into the world and gave himself up in exchange for our sins. We will live forever if we believe and live with Jesus.  And that takes us right back to Commandment’s #1 and #2. Love God. Love our neighbor.

We exist in this earthly place for one simple reason: to spread love. God’s plan is to save as many of his beloved children as possible, and to do that, he has enlisted us to spread this simple message. Love God and love one another. It doesn’t get more complicated than that. We can think about it, study on it, debate it for millennia. And we have. It still comes back to five words, and two of them are “love.”

The first commandment doesn’t ask us to “understand” God. It doesn’t say, “Study about God,” or “Give all your money to God,” or “Shout God’s name from the rooftops.” It says “Love God.” Love God the way you love your worldly partner: with everything. Your heart, your mind, your soul and your strength.

I love my wife. We’ve been married nearly 38 years and her smile still makes me weak in the knees. She knows I love her. But I still have to tell her. I still have to make coffee for her in the morning and write her little love notes now and then. And I still have to give her hugs. Love needs to be shown.

Love for God is no different. God knows you love Him. But we have to say it. We have to pray it. We have to spend time with Him. We have to do what He’s asked us to do. Love is not a noun or an adjective; it’s a verb. Love is action. Or it’s not love. And love is everything.

A cure for dead souls

Saint Maximillian Kolbe said, “A single act of love makes the soul return to life. Let us often make use of this means.” Father Max just gave you the secret to raising yourself from the dead.

One of the weird things about being one of God’s children is how frequently we can die. Unlike our earthly bodies, which have a one shot warranty; our eternal souls can, and do, die often. We die whenever we fall into a mortal sin. Our soul loses its eternal life when we feed it the poison of greed, lust, pride, jealousy, anger, sloth, or gluttony. If our soul is dead on the same day our body dies, we have lost the key to heaven.

But God does not want us to end this way. He equipped us with a spiritual reset button. No matter how many times we fall (and for most of us, there will be many), we can pick ourselves back up. We can spiritually pull our souls out of the grave. By loving our neighbor.

This the greatest deal in all of creation! The price of eternal life is nothing but love. Not riches, not brilliance, not thousands of hours of painful toil. Just love. Free, renewable, heartwarming love. You don’t even have to feel it; you just have to do it. Hold the door for a shopper with his arms’ full. Help a little girl find her mom in a crowd. Call your mother to say hello. The action is what matters. Do it. And live.

Forgive to live

God’s pretty sneaky sometimes. Take forgiveness for example. Jesus told Peter to turn the other cheek not seven times, not seventy times, but seventy-times-seven times. In other words, always. But what Jesus didn’t tell Peter, at least not directly, is that the forgiveness was for Peter’s benefit, not the benefit of the other person. We have to forgive to live.

Anger, resentment and jealousy kill us from the inside. According to an article posted on WebMD.com, one study said people who are frequently angry are 19% more likely to have a heart attack, and within the group of people with heart disease, angry people are more likely to have worse health outcomes than people who are calm. Anger kills.

Negative emotions are also contagious. In my own case, I have often seen that my mood impacts how I interact with other people. If I’m feeling grouchy, I’m more likely to snap at my wife, grandchildren, the dog, squirrels, other drivers, et al. And guess what happens to them? Yep, they are more snarly and snappy. Anger begets anger.

Today’s Gospel has Jesus telling his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. So, along with your Fitbit and your goal of fewer sugar snacks today, if you really want to be healthy, follow Jesus advice. In the words of St. John, “Little children, love one another.”

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?

Who does God want you to help today?

Today’s Gospel reading (Mt 25:31-46) is one of those “tough love,” statements that soft and squishy Christians (like me) would prefer to avoid. Jesus talks about separating “all the nations” into sheep and goats. The sheep get eternal reward in Heaven. The goats get eternal punishment. What separates the two? Caring for their neighbor during their life on Earth. The sheep are those who fed, sheltered, and cared for the poor, the lonely and the hurting. The goats took care of nobody but themselves.

While the message is pretty clear (and sobering), did you notice that the sheep weren’t aware of who they were serving? Jesus predicts that, even when they’re standing in front of Jesus, the sheep won’t realize that when they were caring for the less fortunate, they were actually caring for Jesus himself.

I think about that and I reflect on my day. There weren’t too many blind, lame or lepers in my path today. But there was a funeral for a member of my parish that I was just too busy to attend, and I skirted around the tall homeless guy at the bus stop who asked me for a couple dollars. I was nice to my spouse, but I seem to recall reading that “even the pagans” love their own family members. Hmmm. I hope I have another shot at this tomorrow.

Let’s all be handmaidens of The Lord today

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Today we celebrate the historical moment where a teenage girl told God, ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’ The world was saved because an innocent young lady was willing to put her life into God’s hands rather than her own. Because of Mary’s brave yet innocent acceptance, salvation was born.

As you can tell, I have a bit of a hero-worship thing going for Our Blessed Mother. Her example of acceptance instead of question, doubt, or argument is a model than I look up to, even though it’s seldom one that I can live up to.

In God’s creation the simplest way is usually the right way. I love the great philosophers and I am grateful for their wisdom. But I get most of my inspiration from the saints who love God and do His will because it’s the right thing to do, not because of their deep theological knowledge. I’m a fan of those, “little ones,” as Christ names them. Saint Augustine and John Paul II have given our church an unchallengeable depth, and their brilliance has come as close as any human can to understand our part of His plan. But Mother Mary, Saint Francis, Saint Therese of Lisieux and Mother Theresa show us the way by example, by living The Way.

May I have the strength today to say, “Let it be done to me according to your word.”

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.

Another lesson from a two year old

I learn a lot about Christianity from toddlers. I suspect God, who created our sense of humor, intended it that way.

This most recent lesson was about service to others. My schoolmaster was my two-year-old grandson. Last week he had been having an all-around bad day and woke up way too early from his nap, mad at the world and unconsolable. He was willing to sit in my lap, so we snuggled in the rocking chair. Before I knew it, the little guy had fallen back to sleep in my arms.

Now what? I knew that he would wake up if I moved, but I had things to do! There were clients to call, reports to write, paperwork to get done, and a list of other bits of adulthood that needed “adulting.” The one thing I did not have was the time to sit for 30 minutes accomplishing nothing.

But if I moved, a two-year-old boy would wake up from sleep that he really needed.

As it turns out, it wasn’t 30 minutes, it was an hour. And it was probably one of the most relaxing hours of my week. The only thing I could do for that hour was tend to his needs, and his need from me was not to move, talk or in any other way make him uncomfortable. I was furniture.

I think I can say that I was good furniture for that hour. The adult stuff got done, a little later than my plan called for, but still in plenty of time. And a little boy’s day was just a little bit better than it would have been.

Not my will, but Yours be done today.

Gratitude

Good morning, Abba. Thank you for everything in my life, from the thin, crisp frosting of snow on our lawn to the awesomeness of my wife and her love for me. My most recent self-help regimen tells me to start every day with gratitude. Well, I can’t see a single thing around me that I’m not grateful for! Even the bad stuff has a place in my life, because I know that if I weren’t challenged, I would become even more of a slug.

Linda and I attended a two part lecture in church a couple of weeks ago. The topic was social justice and the speaker was an incredible teacher from St. Ambrose Academy. One of the many diamonds of information that I took away from her talk was a quote from one of the Saints (Aquinas?) who said that one individual person is worth more to God than His entire work of creation. Amazing.

How can we ever despair when we know the Creator values each of us, as we are, more than diamonds, gold, the Earth, the Sun and all of the cosmos? How can we ever be lonely or unwanted? How can we think we are nothing, useless, dumb, stupid, fat, skinny, ugly, poor, greedy, lazy, or any of the other negative tags that we attach to ourselves? We did not put ourselves here, we did not design our upbringing, environment or education. We were planned, considered, created, and above all, loved by God. Loved by Him as we are, where we are, what we are, and who we are.

Just let the thought soak into you for a while. You have a unique, individual relationship with Him. He wants YOU to exist. He knows your strengths and your flaws. And he loves them.

Now then, what are you grateful for today?