God’s not in the noise

The Catholic Church is big. It’s complicated. It’s old. But it’s also very, very simple. The Catholic church is you and Jesus. Too often we lose sight of that. We get caught up in the complexity and forget the simplicity. We stare at the bark on each of the trees and we miss the incredible forest.  But the forest is still there.

I love the history and the mystery of the Church. I love to pick up the Catechism and wade through its thousands of paragraphs of Church doctrine. Every time I do that, I learn something I did not know before. Or I take the time to listen to a new author talking about one aspect or the other of Christianity. Scott Hahn, Edward Sri, Bishop Robert Barron, Matthew Kelly, Steven Ray, and dozens of other scholars and teachers who come up with new ways of looking at things that I had (theoretically) known since childhood. And I learn something.

But now and then I get lost in that learning. I find that I have instituted five different morning prayer regimens from three separate inspirational books. I find a pile of books on my reading table, almost all of them half-finished. There are scraps of paper, journals, and computer files filled with notes and ideas that were started and not completed. My Bible becomes a forest of bookmarks.

This weekend my wife and I went to Mass Saturday night. My mind was buzzing with different spiritual ideas, people I needed to pray for, intentions that needed attending and glories that needed me to glorify them. I knelt down before Mass and started through my litany of prayers. “God, Thy will be done, and can you take care of Mrs. So and So, and help my son with that problem, guide my coworker through the other thing, and, oh, yes, thank you for this gift of creation and please guide me to hear what I need to hear in Mass today, and give my in-laws good-health.”

I stopped to take a spiritual breath before diving into a scrutiny of my sins and successes and whatever else I’d forgotten to list, when that still, small voice said, “Hush.” The voice didn’t say much else; it didn’t need to. God’s very good at getting his message across with a minimum of extra words. I sat back and listened. And I’m still listening this morning. The books and notes and bookmarks are all still there. But for now, I’m listening. Waiting for that “tiny whispering sound” that Elijah heard and knew was the voice of God.

Our human nature calls us to fill our days with thoughts, activities, deeds and distractions. Our modern culture fills any gaps that remain with even more noise. But God still whispers, and waits for us to hear.

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Three words for a simple day

Coffee cup in hand, I sat down at my keyboard this morning, my mind a complete blank. “Lord, what would you like me to say today?” was all that I could summon to my mind.

There’s no deep wisdom in my thoughts this morning. I haven’t had any really deep insights into the meaning of the Mass, work, charity or mowing the lawn. I’m just sitting here, ready to do your will. I am not on fire with the Holy Spirit; nor am I in the grip of the evil one. I’m just here. What’s a Christian to do on days like today, when everything around us just feels so…ordinary?

Last week, my wife put a sticky-note on one of the kitchen cupboard doors. On the note she wrote the word, “Praise.” It’s a reminder to her that she should praise God in everything and all the time. It’s a simple reminder that there is a God, that He is both within us, coaching us and guiding us, and that He is the Almighty, the cosmic creator of everything. He helps me to love at the same time that He gives the sky its unique pale blue color this morning. Praise, indeed.

A good friend and advisor is always encouraging me to be grateful. Particularly when I am in a funk, he tells me to make a “gratitude list,” a list of the gifts that I have been given. The list is ever-changing, but it’s always fairly long. God’s been pretty good to me.

Before sitting down at the keyboard this morning, I offered up my day to God. No specific petitions; no healings or miracles; no insights. In fact, all I asked for today was that He use me to do His will, whatever that may be. It was a short, “Here I am, Lord,” Samuel-type prayer.

Praise, thanksgiving, and surrender. That’s all I have for today. It’s probably enough.

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.

As simple as breathing

I am in search of proof for my belief that being a Christian is simple. But it’s not working. I keep finding that Christianity is more like life itself; simple on the surface but more complex than I can possibly understand underneath.

This morning I wanted to write a post claiming that being a Christian is as simple as breathing. We breathe in, we breathe out; that’s it. We do it without even thinking about it; 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is more reliable than the U.S. Post Office. What could be less complicated?

But the whole simile falls apart when you examine the act of breathing and realize how incredibly-complex it is. Think about it. What machine in your life is operating continuously 24/7 for decades, adjusting automatically to changes in demands for its services without any operator input at all? How many muscles have to bend and flex in perfect harmony to produce the acts of inhalation and exhalation? Breathing is more like a symphony than a one-man band.

Perhaps Christianity is more like breathing than I thought. It is universal; with us everywhere and at all times. It is always the same but at the same time always adapting to the people it touches. It is simple in the sense that it demands nothing from us other than to allow it to be part of us. But it is as rich and complex as life itself. We can study it for years and never learn everything about its mystery.

Or we can simply accept it as essential to our lives and it will sustain us.

Facing Up to My Hypocrisy

I am a hypocrite. I claim to follow Jesus and to live my life according to his word, but that’s not true. In at least one way, I am defying the will of the Lord. “Sell everything you own and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Luke 18:22)  I can’t do that.

I truly struggle with this. I know that possessions occupy too much of my time. I am not wealthy, but I am comfortable. I own two houses, two cars, nice clothes, books, electronics, et al. They distract me from living a life of service to others; in other words, from living according to God’s word. But I also know that I will not give them up. I have a family to support; I have bills to pay. These things seem necessary parts of my life.

I have put this on God’s altar. I don’t have the courage to literally offer him all that I possess, but this much I can do: I offered up my fear of poverty, my love for material things, and I offered  him my unwillingness. I have prayed to God to make me willing to give these things up.

And I prayed for trust. Trust, because that same bible chapter says that we will receive 100 times more of these things in this lifetime, plus eternal life in the next. Trust because later in that same chapter, when people say, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus responds, “For man this is impossible, but for God nothing is impossible.” God is not calling us to live a life of poverty; he is calling us to live a life of complete trust in his will. Trust in His will, not our own. That is the key.

Because it’s not the possessions, it’s the attachment to those possessions. It’s not the money, it’s the love of the money. It’s not the clinging to financial security, it’s the lack of trust in God.

Pray for me, Brothers and Sisters.

What’s your plan?

I spend a lot of my time plotting. Often the plots are harmless, sometimes they’re useful or even positive, like plotting out my day or scheming with my children to do something special for the best mom on Earth on Mother’s Day. Human beings are born to plot. We are always trying to map out one part or another of the future.

I will have to admit, though, that I don’t spend much time plotting how to get to Heaven. While my next promotion or my financial retirement get hours of think time and pages of spreadsheet “what-ifs,” Heaven is treated as more of an ad hoc thing. I take being a faithful Christian on a day-by-day, moment-by-moment basis.

Is that right or wrong? I can’t decide. I know that God asks me to be faithful, and that Jesus opened the door to Heaven for me 2,000 years before I was born. Eternal life is a gift that God wants us to simply accept; we don’t earn it. The books of the Bible are filled with the clear message that God has our tomorrows covered for us, and that we should not fear or worry. In fact, fear is a warning sign that your faith has sprung a leak. And isn’t planning just a natural reaction to the fear of an uncertain future?

But do we need a Heaven Plan? Should we be plotting our good works, and our prayer time, and our study? Or should we be focused solely on living in the moment? Is living our best Christian life right now, in this chair, covered with this blanket (because I live in Wisconsin, where it apparently is going to be winter forever!!!) all that really matters?

Maybe being part of the body of Christ is not a journey at all. Maybe Christianity needs to describe HOW we do things, not WHAT we do. There’s no need to plan because everything we do should be pleasing to God, or we shouldn’t do it. We can’t plan for the end of our Earthly life because we really don’t know when it will come. And, more importantly, if our “how” is right, then the “when” doesn’t make any difference at all.

What do you think?

The smart person’s dilemma

Why is faith so hard for smart people? I struggle with that question sometimes. There seems to be a vague prejudice out there that says you have to be rather dense to believe in all that stuff in the Bible. Do “they” know something “we” don’t know? Are they aware of some cosmic fact or formula that “proves” God doesn’t exist? Are they smarter than God?

There are plenty of smart people who are also faith-filled. Many of the popes were multi-lingual scholars, experts in their fields. Lots of scientists understand that they can explore creation and still be children playing at the feet of the Creator. The basis of the Big Bang Theory, the Expanding Universe Theory, was proposed by a Catholic Priest, Georges Lemaitre, in 1925. Theologian Peter Kreeft has commented that there are no conflicts between true Catholic doctrine and true scientific observations, none.

So the “conflict” between faith and reason is only a conflict if we want it to be. God doesn’t have a problem with us poking, prodding and postulating about His creation. He put it here for us to manage. It stands to reason that He also expects us to learn about His creation.

Perhaps the conflict isn’t between what’s real and what’s not. It is not a “faith-versus-reason,” argument. Maybe the real conflict is about who’s in charge. Maybe that’s what Jesus is talking about when He told us that we need to “become like children,” to enter the Kingdom. It’s a question of humility rather than a question of IQ. He isn’t telling us to close our eyes and be ignorant. He’s telling us to open our eyes and be amazed.

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.”

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.

Simple: pass it on

I was not a very well-behaved parent in church. When our five children were young enough that we all lived together and went to mass together, I used to amuse them (and myself) by poking the child next to me and whispering,”Pass it on.” It always worked; I could tell by the glare I got from my wife at the other end of the line. The message got through.

Today’s Scripture readings are like that childish game. God gives us a loving poke in the side, reminding us that our sins were forgiven by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. His expectation is that we will give ourselves in love to the person next to us, who is expected to love the next neighbor in line, and so on around the world. In the Gospel, Jesus suggests to his dinner host that next time, rather than inviting friends and family, he should invite poor people who have no way of repaying him. No way, that is, except to offer themselves in love to the next person they see. It’s the perfect form of evangelization, and it can transform the whole world. Pass it on.