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.

The laborers are few

Today’s Gospel reading puts the modern-day priest shortage into a useful perspective. Jesus had no priests to work with when he founded his ministry. Today, in the 9th Chapter of Matthew, He calls the 12 Apostles to him, recognizing that “the harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few.” Tomorrow’s reading is from Chapter 10 and it has Jesus sending the Apostles out to the Jews, curing their diseases, casting out demons, and most important, telling them that the Kingdom of God is at hand. The first Christian Missionaries are put to work.

Jesus saw the hunger for God in the people around him. Matthew tells us that the Lord’s heart was troubled when he saw how they were “harassed and helpless.” Jesus was the embodiment of His father who is love itself, and love grieves when it sees pain and loneliness. But Jesus knew that he could not reach everyone by himself. Although he traveled all over his part of the world, he was still one man and walking was the fastest form of transport available to him. So he sent the Apostles. And then later, the 70 disciples. And then the Holy Spirit who supercharged the work of Jesus’ followers, allowing them to bring thousands of people to the Way of Christ by their zeal and love. And now, he sends you and I.

The work that began in the 9th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel continues today. There are still many, many lost sheep. There are people among us who have never heard the good news, or who have heard it but have forgotten it or who never understood the incredible promise of eternal life that lies within it. Each of us has friends, neighbors and family members who are “harassed and helpless” because Jesus is not a part of their life. They need gentle reminders that the Kingdom of God is truly at hand.

The harvest is still abundant, but the laborers are still few. Jesus continues to call us to go forth and spread the good news. Most of us don’t have the power to cure illnesses or cast out demons, but we do have the power to love. That was enough for the 12 in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s enough for us today.

Quiet Evangelization

The topic of evangelization has always made me squirm. Jesus told us quite clearly to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” (MT 28:19) Jesus’ words and the work of the Catholic Church for centuries is clearly-focused on taking the Good News to all corners of the world. Our work isn’t done until everyone has been given an opportunity to join the Body of Christ, and it’s my job to present those opportunities.

But for a quiet little bookworm like me, that’s scary. The idea of trying to win over an atheist or any non-believer is intimidating; in large part because I don’t feel equipped with “the answers.” What if they ask me something hard, like the definition of Consubstantial, or the Biblical origin of Mary’s virginity? I can’t even recite the Ten Commandments in the correct order.

And there’s the whole 21st Century Political Correctness thing. We have imposed a gag order on ourselves in the name of civility. We don’t talk about religion or politics in polite company. It is a modern rule that we have to avoid saying something that someone might be uncomfortable hearing. (This topic is a whole conversation in itself that we’ll get to another time.)

Once again, my favorite Apostle has come to my rescue. In last Sunday’s second reading, St. Peter tells us that evangelization should be a modest, humble experience. One of my most beloved lines in the Bible comes from the First Book of Peter. In Chapter 3, he tells us that we should “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,” but that we should also “Do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.” The whole book is a good, short read on the topic of humble evangelization.

I don’t have to stand on a soapbox at the corner of Main Street, singing the praises of God. But I do have to live a good life; I do have to love everyone around me (friend and foe). I have to be kind to such an extreme degree that people may think I’m some sort of weirdo, but I don’t have to shout about it. I just need to do it. And if anyone asks, I have to give credit where credit is due: Jesus made me do it.

Perhaps as important as all of that, I also need to spend time in prayer so that I have the explanation if someone asks for it. Could I answer the question right now if someone asked me? Why am I absolutely, rock-solid, no doubt, Hallelujah!-convinced that Jesus is God’s only “begotten” son and that we all have a share in the eternal kingdom? Perhaps that’s an even more difficult task.

Let’s talk some more about this next week.

More on this simplicity-complexity thing

In my last post, I questioned whether my belief that Catholicism is “simple” could be squared with the immensity and depth of the Catholic Church. I compared Christianity to breathing: it’s so simple you don’t have to even think about it and at the same time so intricate very few of us can fully understand it.

This week, Bishop Robert Barron threw another challenge at us “Simple” Catholics. I started listening to Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire podcasts. (I highly-recommend them; he’s a genius and he’s fun to listen to.) In Episode 7 he talks about the Second Vatican Council and the (in his opinion) mistake the church leaders made by “dumbing down” the message of Christ. Bishop Barron was called upon to respond to proponents of new atheism, proponents that the Bishop said were intelligent, well-spoken and believable. He argues that defenders of Catholicism need to remember the depth of our faith, and to study the works of the many, many brilliant men and women who helped describe that faith for us. By oversimplifying the message of Christ, we run the risk of seeing people peeled away by the seemingly-thoughtful and logical atheists.

So, which is it: simple or sophisticated? Deep or easy? Do you need a Phd or the faith of a child?

I think the answer is “yes.” You bring everything you have to the Catholicism game. God created you and guided you in the path to become what you are. He wants to relate to that version of you. If you’re a bishop who can speak several languages and is conversant with philosophers, God wants to talk to you about how Balthasar and Plato agree or disagree. If you’re a simple carpenter who works hard to craft new homes, God wants to understand why you think maple is a better species for cabinets than birch. God wants to talk to YOU. God wants a relationship with YOU.

The reality is our universe is complex; more complex than anyone but God can ever hope to understand. The other reality is that God created each one of us as a unique part of that universe, with a unique role to play. We each have a unique set of tools, tailor made to help us play our role. Bishop Barron was given gifts of great wisdom, intelligence and communication to answer questions about atheism and philosophy. My simple carpenter father was given the gifts of deep faith and clear speech to convey the strength of God’s personal love for each of us.  

Each of us have a mission that is our own; no one can fulfill that mission for us. It’s that simple.

Following Jesus home

In Chapter 5 of Mark’s gospel, Jesus drives a legion of demons out of a man. Overjoyed, the man begs to go along with Jesus, to drop everything and follow him like the Apostles did. Instead, Jesus tells him no, “Go home to your own people, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” Sometimes our missionary journey is to our own dinner table or family room.

My personal Catholic journey didn’t start in a church. Well, I guess technically and formally it did. I was baptized in a church and received the sacraments there. But my true understanding of Jesus and the seeds that sprouted into a loving relationship with him began at our family dinner table. My parents were devout, old-fashioned Catholics. During the 1950s they were part of a Catholic youth movement and in their retirement years they were frequent attendees of Catholic retreats. But most of all, my parents loved to talk. Our dinner table was almost always a lively place of conversation. And often that conversation was about religion. Because of their upbringing, both Mom and Dad had a pretty fair grasp of the details of Catholicism and they were also willing to express their opinions and to listen to mine. (They also didn’t hesitate to disagree with me when my opinion was on the flakey side).

Whenever you talk to a person who is passionate about their topic, it is often the passion, rather than any specific fact or statement of opinion that sways you to their point of view. And my parents were passionate about Christianity in general and Catholicism specifically. Looking back it is clear that their passion laid the foundation for my own faith.

My parents were not famous. They were not grand orators, or studied authors or theologians. It’s doubtful that they are on the Vatican’s short list for Canonization. They were simply two people who loved Jesus and who loved their children. They passed on their love.

Charity before clarity

I use up a lot of prayer time looking for answers. I want to know. Why did God create me? Why am I here? Why am I in the midst of this particular group of people? What’s my mission? What’s my narrow road? Why, God, why? I’m tired of seeing through the glass darkly, or whatever Saint Paul says we do in this lifetime. I want a clear picture; of myself, of God, and of God’s purpose for the world. God grant me clarity!

Sitting here meditating this morning, I ran across one of those little word plays. Clarity, I realized, is virtually the same word as Charity. There’s only one little letter difference between the two, and it’s a short walk up the alphabet from “h” to “l”. (This could be a sign that I’m spending too much time thinking when I should be meditating!) But this little spiritual side trip helped me realize something: charity comes before clarity.

One of the spiritual axioms that I live by is that Christianity is not a spectator sport. Being Christian is a verb; it demands that you do something, not that you just sit there and think about it. Pope Francis says it means “taking on the smell of the sheep;” getting out there among the flock and helping them along. (I’m glad Pope Francis didn’t grow up in hog-farming country.)  The path to heaven for us is marked by actions, not signs.

A Christian looking for clarity need look no further than the person sitting next to him. Or the woman walking next to her. Or the old man in the hospital, the young child looking lost, the couple crying, or the poor man begging. Do you want to understand why you’re here? Love your neighbor. Do you want to grasp God’s plan for the universe? Love your neighbor.

Christianity is written about in thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of books. Christian philosophy and Catholic Theology are explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, on EWTN, on the web site of the Conference of Catholic Bishops and more. You could study Catholicism and Christianity for decades, and still you would only see through the glass darkly. But try just one act of charity, and then you will find clarity.

Prodigal blogger

Good morning. Yes, it’s me again. Yes, it has been a while. My spiritual muse ran dry on me several months ago, and I just haven’t been able to get it back. Even now, I feel like my thesaurus of faith is blank. But God continues to call me to write, so here I am.

They say all of the great saints went through periods of spiritual dryness. Did they also go through periods of spiritual laziness? I don’t want to call what I’ve been going through “dryness.” The spirit has been with me. Jesus has remained in me; my faith does not feel empty at all. It has been a good time in my life. Not the best, but far from the worst. I just haven’t been able/willing/inspired/self-disciplined/what? to put pen to paper…or finger to keyboard.

But here I am. I apologize for the lack of inspirational zip in my writing this morning. No scriptures to quote; no theology to paraphrase. Just me.

Perhaps we can chalk this one up to two sinners comparing notes over coffee. How’s your spiritual life been lately? Mine could be worse, and it could be better. I’m working on better. What about you?

You are no accident

Sorry once again for the long pause between posts. I won’t make excuses; procrastination seems to occupy a large portion of my DNA. I’m working on it.

I had one of those moments yesterday. I was doing some last minute nature-loving at our cabin in the woods and Jesus decided to sit with me and have a talk. The quiet fall day was a perfect setting for a conversation with the Lord, because he always talks to me in a very soft voice. It’s easy to hear Him when you’re sitting on a porch step staring at the orange and brown leaves. The conversation was about purpose.

Prior to my visit with the Almighty, I had been reading a detective novel. Toward the end of the novel, the Chief of Police was telling the main character that “You were put on this earth for a purpose.” In the case of this novel, the detective’s purpose was to solve crime. But it struck me that we were all put here on this earth for a purpose. Each of us has a unique thing to do and a unique path to follow.

It’s tempting sometimes to feel that God has forgotten to tell us our purpose. He hasn’t forgotten. Discovering our purpose is in some mysterious way an integral part of our mission. Life in the flesh is primary school; we can’t graduate to eternal life until we’ve done what we’re assigned down here. But how do we do that? By following your God-given talents. I’ve met a lot of people in my half-century or so of life, and every one of them has a unique batch of talents, interests and opportunities. God set up your kitchen with a specific set of tools and ingredients. Just follow the recipe. Follow your talents; follow your heart. That’s where your mission lies. God’s purpose for you becomes clearer when you use the path God laid out for you.

You see, none of us is here by mistake. The saddest story being told by some of God’s lost children is that we are nothing but an accidental result of a multi-generational DNA mix-and-match. We are the product of random evolution and natural selection. Nonsense. We are the product of evolution, it is true, but there’s nothing random about it. Every hair on your head has been counted (or, in my mid-life case…subtracted). You have been placed where you are for a purpose by a God who knows the name of every sparrow that falls in the woods. You’re a whole lot more important to him than that sparrow.

Our lives may look random to us, but that’s to be expected. We are the creatures, not the creator. We don’t see all the moving parts. But Jesus has. He knows where we are heading.

So, I’m back to writing. I may not be great at it, but it’s the one thing that has always come easily to me; a God-given talent if you will. I didn’t create it; He did. Where will this lead me? I don’t know…I’m just following the path He set for me.