The greatest commandment

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Yesterday was a combo feast. It was Mother’s Day, but it was also the feast of the Ascension of the Lord; the day we remember and celebrate Jesus being taken up into heaven. The combination evoked bittersweet memories for me. Years ago, my mother passed away suddenly from a heart attack. I never had an opportunity for a proper goodbye and the sadness of that has lingered. Even though her passing was more than 20 years ago, there’s still an incompleteness to it; an empty space.

Did Jesus take the time to say goodbye to his mother? The Bible doesn’t talk about it, but I can’t imagine him leaving without spending time with her. God is love, and Jesus was all about spreading that love. There’s no way he would have ascended to heaven without taking one last walk through the garden with the woman who bore him, literally, in birth and in death.

Before Jesus left, he assured his Apostles, and by extension all of us, that he would not be far away. He said that he would return one day and we eagerly await that day. But he also promised to remain within us, as long as we kept his commandment…and his commandment was that we love one another. 

On Mother’s Day, my wife likes to wear her mother’s charm necklace. The necklace has a child-shaped charm for each of the 22 babies that she cared for when we were foster parents. It’s quite a conversation-starter. Most people do a bit of a double-take when they realize what the charms represent. Twenty-two babies (twenty-seven, if you count our five birth children) is a lot of…a lot of life. And it’s a lot of love.

My wife and my mom have a lot in common. They share a unique passion for children. Between my wife’s 27 and my mom’s 13 (plus a horde of grandchildren), they have given years of their lives to nurture future generations. They have lived Christ’s commandment.

Happy Ascension Day, Jesus. Your commandment is alive and well.

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Don’t be “goin’ it alone”

One of the ways the world pulls us down the wrong path is by telling us that we have to “stand on our own two feet,” “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” and do things “my way.” My way is not God’s way. Living the eternal life is a team sport; there are no solos.

I keep a copy of Saint Faustina’s Diary on my night stand. Saint Faustina was a Polish nun who lived in the 1920’s-30’s. Jesus spoke to her on a regular basis and she was the one who brought The Divine Mercy to the Church. She kept a diary for most of her religious life, and I find it to be a great source of wisdom.

A few nights ago I was paging through it and came across this insightful paragraph.

“When one day I resolved to practice a certain virtue, I lapsed into the vice opposed to that virtue ten times more frequently than on other days. In the evening, I was reflecting on why, today, I had lapsed so extraordinarily, and I heard the words: You were counting too much on yourself and too little on me. And I understood the cause of my lapses.” Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, Paragraph 1087.

This is a common trap for me. I will often realize that I’m overeating, underpraying, cursing or falling prey to one of dozens of worldly shortcomings and I’ll resolve to stop doing that. I take the very manly route of determining that I will be stronger, I will be a better person, I will force myself to build the habits that I need; I will, I will, I will. And then I fail.

There’s nothing wrong with self-discipline and gradually building ourselves into the person that God created us to be. Living the “if it feels good, do it,” lifestyle is destructive to both our bodies and souls, and we need to resist those constant temptations. But we are designed to do that in cooperation with our Creator. He wants us to call on him constantly throughout the day, not just at bedtime.

So the next time I’m faced with temptation in its many forms, I pray that I will have the common sense to resist…and to pray.

A mother’s pain

This weekend my sister-in-law shared a very painful experience she’s going through. As part of a campaign to make high school students aware of the dangers of alcohol and driving, their high school is conducting a dramatization. Her son is one of the students chosen to “die” in a simulated drunk driving incident. My sister-in-law was assigned the task of writing her son’s obituary. She and her husband are in agony, even though they know it’s not real. As she related the story to us, even at this distance, I found myself reflexively slamming the door of my imagination, unwilling to even consider the possibility of losing one of my five children. It’s just too painful.

And then this weekend’s Gospel shows us Mary at the foot of the cross. She stands there helplessly as her one and only son, a young man of incredible goodness, intelligence and promise hangs in front of her. Beaten bloody. Gasping with each breath for six agonizing hours as he hangs from harsh iron nails. When it’s finally over, the dead body of her son is taken down and laid in her lap.

We Christians too often sanitize this pivotal moment in our history. We celebrate the fact that Jesus conquered death, but we jump right over recalling that first he had to endure it. It is understandable that our instinct leads us to gloss over Good Friday and get right to the joy of the empty tomb, and the Easter Eggs, bunnies and baked hams of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. Contemplating death is never enjoyable, and contemplating a parent’s agony is just as painful. The parent in me weeps for Mary.

The disciples didn’t understand until the very end what Jesus meant when he talked about his death and resurrection. We don’t know whether it was denial, obtuseness or something else clouding their vision. We do know that his arrest came as a horrible shock to them. But was Mary shocked? Most of the moms I know have an extra group of senses that are uniquely-tuned to their children. They can tell from another room the difference between the silence of a child sleeping and the silence of a child in distress. Within seconds, a mom can differentiate between a cry of pain and a cry of sibling irritation. Mothers know their children. Would Christ’s fate have been a surprise to her? I doubt it. Did that make it easier? I can’t imagine that it did.

Jesus is God’s gift to us. Our Creator knew that we would need a living, breathing, human guide to help us find the Way to The Kingdom. He gave us His son; Mary’s son; as a gift we did not and could not deserve, but that He in His love wanted us to have. Jesus lived the life He calls all of us to live; a life of generosity, self-giving, humility and love. In reparation for our sins, He suffered a death that he wants none of us to suffer; a death of humiliation, agony and horror.

But Mary is also a gift to us. She is the exemplar of parenthood, the patient, loving woman who watched and endured each step of her child’s growth, and each blow that led to his death. The Mother of God never looked away; never ran away. She was always there for Jesus.

In your prayers of thanksgiving this Holy Week, might I suggest that you also thank the Virgin Mary? From one parent to another, thank her for her own pain and sacrifice. Thank her for the part of her that she gave so that we might have her son’s guidance.

Hail, Mary.

First comes love, then comes humility

If loving our neighbor is difficult, how much more difficult is it to be humble? Humility is the virtue that I love to ignore. I mean, we all say we’d like to be humble, and we include the words in our prayers, but is that what we really want? Do we really want to open the doors of the shiny, fast sports car that we call our lives only to turn around and hand the keys over to Jesus? Wouldn’t we rather take the wheel, and take ownership of the speed, twists, turns and destination of our lives? “I did it my way!” is our anthem, isn’t it?

Jesus rocked the world when he told us of the “more excellent way” that involved turning the other cheek, loving God with all our souls, hearts, minds and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. But then he knocked us out of our comfy worldly chairs by adding a call for complete humility. Our true purpose in life can only be achieved when we acknowledge that our lives are not our own at all. They belong to the one who created us. Our work on Earth is to do the work of Him who sent us. Not our work. Not Mom’s and Dad’s dream for us; not our own “career path.” Not fame and fortune. His work.

Do you want proof? Look no further than the cross. Jesus was begotten of the same stuff as God. He could part seas, he could raise the dead, he could summon armies of angels; but he did not live the life of a god. He saw his mission as one of complete service. He gave away the best seats at dinner tables. He gave away his private time when the crowds came looking for him, and he gave away his very life because that’s what God asked him to do.

There’s no question about it; we were put here to do the same thing. We probably won’t be called upon to sacrifice ourselves on a cross. In all likelihood, God will be perfectly happy with you living a perfectly “normal” life. But ask Him. In your morning prayers, ask what he needs to have done today. Then listen, really listen, because he will give you the answer.

And then prepare to serve…and to be amazed. Because the servant’s life is not a life of misery. It’s a life of joy. No matter how happy we are to be making our own way in the world, that happiness will be multiplied a hundredfold when we start living for the one who put us here.

Live humble. Live joyous.

Stumbling into that love thing

I stumbled across 1 Cor 13:4-8 again today. You know the one I mean; it’s that “more excellent way” of living that Saint Paul gave us, saying, “Love is patient, love is kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

I think we should all be required to stare at that paragraph for a few minutes every day. I know it would do me some good. Like Jesus himself, that Bible verse sets the perfect standard for love. Selfless, outward-focused, always giving. Saint Paul gives us a measuring stick that we can use to evaluate our day. Were we self-centered, or other-centered? To what degree?

As you know, I’m a work in progress (and that’s being charitable). The only perfect part of me is my perfect record of imperfection. If there’s one stone in the middle of the path to Heaven, I’ll find it, trip on it, fall over it, and probably cuss when I stub my toe against it. After I get back up I’ll kick the stone down the road in anger…and then trip over it again.

I’m still stumbling, but gradually also learning that Jesus doesn’t hate me for the stumbles. He doesn’t curse me or laugh at me or get fed up with my slow progress. He winces each time I fall, sharing in my pain. His hand is there every time to help me up. He politely pretends to ignore my intemperate rock-focused-language and He waits patiently until I come to Him to talk about the rock before offering advice (like, “Pick your feet up a bit next time; there are rocks in the road”). He doesn’t get mad when I ignore his advice.

As a husband, father, brother, and boss, I really do want to live up to Saint Paul’s rubric of love. And I really can see how my particular corner of the universe would be a much better place if I did. Fifty-seven years of experience tells me that I probably won’t hit perfect marks on the Saint Paul Scale anytime soon. But those same years also tell me that’s okay. As long as I don’t stop trying, and as long as I don’t stop asking Him for help.

Because Jesus will be there. Because He is Love.

Building up virtues or tearing down sins?

It occurred to me recently that we spend too much time focusing on our sins and not nearly enough time focusing on our virtues. Perhaps focusing on how to be more virtuous would be more profitable than dwelling on how to be less of a sinner. What do you think?

Let’s use this morning as an example. I’m not a morning person by nature. I like to sleep until the very last minute, getting up with just enough time to do the morning minimums and get out the door. But I know from long experience that I should get up an hour before that time to do some spiritual readings, meditate, read the morning news and clean the kitchen before heading off on my day. Experience has shown me without fail that the extra hour more than pays off throughout that day. I’m calmer, more serene and my heart is in the right place. In contrast, when I sleep in, I’m more tense and edgy, and the added energy left at the end of the day is wasted on late-night television.

But focusing on the negative impacts has never been an adequate motivator for me to change my behavior. Meditating on my slothly (I hope that’s a word) habits makes me cranky and pushes me away from the loving spirit that I know God wants me to be. In contrast, focusing on the positive outcomes of the right start time gives me a spiritual boost every day.

So this has me wondering; would God prefer me to concentrate my energy on all of the weeds in my spiritual garden, or to nurture the flowers and vegetables? Which seed bears more fruit?

I’d love to hear what you think.

There’s no time for that

This weekend, God reminded me once again that time is one of those things that we humans fuss about far more than He does. I was grumpy going into the weekend because I had volunteered to do a few things at church and it looked like I wasn’t going to have any free time (or, to put it more accurately, no “me” time). But as I sit here on Monday morning looking back on the weekend, I realize that the volunteer duties were all tremendously rewarding, I got done about three times the amount of things that I thought I possibly could get done in a weekend, and lastly, there was plenty of “me” time.

We hold ourselves back so often, thinking we don’t have the time or the talents to do all that God wants us to do. Or we approach giving of ourselves as if it were a prison sentence. Sometimes, time seems so limited. But the Kingdom of Heaven has no limits. In God’s kingdom, time is not measured in seconds, minutes, hours or even days. Love is all that’s measured.

God will let us live according to our own schedule. We can be miserly with time. If we insist that we just don’t have time for this or that, we won’t. Funny thing, though. I have found that when I hold onto my time as if it were my own little sack of gold, giving away small pieces grudgingly, it runs through my hands like water. But when I forget about time and instead give love, I discover that I’m swimming in an ocean of time. What needs to be done gets done. And there’s time for even more.

Because God measures love, not time, He lives in eternity. And we are free to live there with Him. Anytime.

Is it a coincidence?

Love makes the world a better place. There’s really no argument about that, is there? Can anyone argue that love improves any situation to which it is added?

I’ve been reading a basket of statistics and reports lately that all say variations of the same thing: people who love and who are loved are happier and healthier. The most recent was a speaker from Gilda’s Club, a national nonprofit support organization for cancer patients and their families founded by former Saturday Night Live comedian Gilda Radner. According to the speaker, the quality and speed of cancer recovery is significantly enhanced if the patient has someone nearby who cares about them.

That’s just one example of love being an essential part of our humanity. There are many others.

Love is essential for our well-being. Love keeps us healthier.

God is love.

Is it a coincidence?

It’s time for a cold shower

There’s no natural gas service to my house this morning. While we were out of town, the gas company had to replace our gas meter, and needed to wait for us to return before they can turn the gas back on. As I sit here sipping my microwaved morning coffee and contemplating the prospect of an “invigorating” morning shower, I read Jesus’ warning about becoming too comfortable with the things of the world. Jesus has a terrific sense of timing.

In Chapter 12 of Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells a story of a rich man whose land produced such a bountiful harvest that he decided he should tear down his barns and build bigger ones. Then he could, “eat, drink and be merry,” because all of his worldly cares would be covered. But God whispered to him that he would die that night, and asked to whom all of those worldly goods would belong.

No matter how much time we spend acquiring things of the world, there will never be enough. I earn enough to be “comfortable,” but it only takes the twist of a natural gas valve to eliminate a substantial amount of my comfort. A broken water pipe, downed power line or any one of a thousand other natural or man-made incidents could erase my “comfort zone,” in a heartbeat. And that’s without God lifting a finger.

Too often, we define our world by the size of our barn or by how early we can retire (or by the temperature of our hot water). We judge the measure of our success by the number of dollars in our bank account. Any one of those can be taken from us in a moment. Even if they’re not, they can only assure that we will be comfortable for a few more years. Once our heart stops beating, and one day it surely will, the only account that matters is our eternal bank account.

The man from the gas company showed up just now. As I expected, it only took a few minutes for him to restore my home’s service. My water heater is quietly burbling away in the basement again, brewing up warm water for today’s shower. I think I’ll take a cold one anyway, to remind myself what matters.

Who is my mother?

This is another one of those sayings of Jesus that really bugs me. When told that his mother and brothers were trying to get in to see him, Jesus sweeps his arm around the crowded room and replies, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.” (Lk 18:21). We’re talking about the Blessed Virgin Mother! It goes against my grain to see Mary treated with anything less than total veneration, even by Jesus. He should have told the crowd to “Make a hole!”

Jesus is a master of timing. This particular Gospel reading showed up yesterday and, as always, it unsettled me. When Jesus says something that irks me, I’ve learned to recognize it as a signal that something inside is not as in tune with the Lord’s will as it should be. I asked for a little spiritual guidance.

As I prayed about it, it came to me that one of my spiritual weaknesses is a family-centric selfishness. I prefer to give my time to causes and events that involve me, my wife or my children. Everything else gets second priority. I do participate in non-family causes, but they get more scrutiny than giving of my time and talent to something that involves family, even if the particular family event is watching a rerun on TV. We’re “empty nesters” now and 3 of our children live many states away from us. Simply put, we have time available to give.

Jesus’ comments were not a dig at his mother; far from it. They were His reminder that our family is the Body of Christ; it’s much larger than our biological lineage. And my whole family deserves all the love of my nearby family.

That’s the revelation for today. Stay tuned to see whether I actually turn the lesson into practice. (And pray for me!)

More later.