I got nothing

What do you do when your spiritual gas tank is on “Empty”? When your prayers sound like you’re talking in an empty auditorium, with nothing but a hollow echo in response. When it looks to you like the bad guys are going to win and the good guys will be humiliated. What do you do with that sadness inside that won’t go away? What do you do?

This phenomenon is not new. Even Jesus, God’s one and only flesh and blood “begotten” son experienced the pain of feeling cut off from God. Mother Theresa lived in that blackness for decades. It’s a mystery, but it’s also a real part of the Christian experience. What do you do?

I start by praying. Even though my prayers don’t seem to have the response they used to, I stick to my prayer routine. Time and the experiences of Jesus and the saints has proven that God hasn’t gone anywhere; we’ve just lost our own personal feedback loop. Your prayers are still getting through; have faith and stick to it.

I look for someone who needs my help. It’s a basic truth even though it doesn’t seem to be logical. The best way to overcome your own sadness is by making someone else happy. It’s dark inside; look outward.

I have faith. God’s creation is immense, complex and mysterious. No human can take it all in or truly understand how one thing affects another. But God does, and his plan is for our benefit. Because he loves us.

So, when I have nothing else, I know that I have God’s love. And that’s more than enough.

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It really is that simple

You’ve heard this said before in different ways, but it always bears repeating. This version is from Paul’s letter to the Romans (Chapter 13 to be specific). Paul told the new Christians in Rome, “The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

That last sentence in particular hit home for me this time. Love does no evil to the neighbor, and hence love is the fulfillment of the law. In other words, if you love your neighbor, you won’t do any harm to your neighbor, and that’s what Christianity is all about.

There are millions of words in the Bible; tens of millions of words in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and even more millions of words in all of the sermons, meditations, books, lectures, pamphlets, etc. And they all guide us back to this same very simple and very profound truth. If we love one another, we will care for one another, and if we care for one another all will be well.

It’s just that simple.

Was Mary Magdalene in love with Jesus? Wouldn’t you be?

We recently celebrated the feast day of Saint Mary Magdalene. You know MM (If she were my friend, I can imagine that I’d be calling her M&M; she’d probably hate that.), she is the redhead you see at the foot of the cross in old church stained glass windows. She, The Blessed Mother and John the Apostle were the only ones brave enough to stay and watch Jesus’ execution through to its bitter end. Mary Magdalene was also the one who first saw Jesus risen from the dead, and who earned the title, “Apostle to the Apostles” because she ran to Peter, John and the rest and told them, “He is risen!”

Over the centuries, there has been speculation about whether Mary was more than just a follower of Jesus. Some, mostly modern fiction writers, suggest that they were secretly-married, with one author taking it so far as to suggest that Jesus had a child by Mary.

Nothing in the Bible supports that. Furthermore, Jesus’ brief 3-year ministry on Earth oftentimes didn’t include time for him to eat, let alone court a woman and marry her. And then there’s the whole self-discipline thing. Jesus was here to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven and to create a Way for us to attain it. He spent 40 days fasting in the desert; he was the King of Self Restraint. An unintended union with a woman is more than highly-unlikely.

Having said all that, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Mary Magdalene was wildly in love with Jesus. He was a good, upstanding man who attracted thousands of followers. She was close to him, so she would have seen what incredible love he had for his fellows. How would she not fall in love?

I once met a young woman from our parish who was discerning the religious life. Although she hadn’t at that time made the commitment, she was clearly in love with Jesus. Her love was both personal and passionate, and many a young man discovered that it was also exclusive. She simply wasn’t interested in anyone else. That particular woman had a long path ahead of her before she would even know whether taking vows are a possibility. And that seemed to be okay. Jesus is worth it.

So, was Mary Magdalene in love with Jesus. Probably. After all, wouldn’t you be?

When Christianity is not warm and fuzzy

Jesus is challenging me today. He says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.” (MT 10:37-39) Jesus tells the crowd that he did not come to bring peace on earth, but to cause division within families, communities, even nations. Our God knew he needed to shake things up a bit.

I always cringe and shrink back a little bit when Jesus talks about the need to take up our individual cross and follow him. I don’t really know what cross it is He wants me to take up. I would much rather pray that I can “be a nice person today” without thinking that my real calling might be something that requires just a bit more spiritual heavy lifting than that. I like soft and cuddly Christianity.

It can’t always be that way. We know that the early Christians suffered greatly for their faith. In exchange for the joy of knowing the Holy Spirit, they had to hide from authorities and meet in secret. Many of them were locked up, beaten, and killed. In some parts of the world, that treatment continues today. Division is still common throughout the world, including, if we are honest, in our own nation, communities, and sometimes even our homes.

Perhaps the cross that Jesus wants me to bear today is the visible cross of Christianity. Throughout history, what made Christians distinctive was our love for one another and our love for our enemies. Love that may be firm, not craven, but still clearly love for everyone who is, after all, just as much a child of God as we are.

Yes, indeed, Jesus is challenging me today.

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.