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.

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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.

Why did the young man go away sad?

 The 19th Chapter of Matthew’s gospel includes the story of the wealthy young man who wanted Jesus to help him achieve eternal life. According to the story, this unnamed young man knew the commandments and followed them every day. But he sensed that wasn’t enough; so he asked Jesus, “What do I still lack?” Jesus told him that, if he wanted to be perfect, he should sell everything he owned and follow Christ. This wasn’t what he wanted to hear, but, Jesus knew it was exactly what the young man needed to hear. The man went away sad, “for he had many possessions.”

We all have many possessions; things that don’t lead us to Heaven, but that we are determined to hang onto. It’s often money, things, stuff; but it is just as often habits, relationships or addictions. Like the young man, we have this nagging sense that these possessions are standing between us and the Kingdom. But just like the young man, we aren’t willing to let them go even when Jesus suggests that we should. We should be sad, because those possessions are keeping us from the greatest joys of our life.

The greatest leap of faith is the jump from selfishness to generosity, from putting ourselves first to putting God and our neighbors first. Being willing to give away everything you have without a thought or worry about what you will get in return is hard. It’s counter to the messages we hear all around us every day. We are taught from a young age to protect ourselves, to take care of ourselves, to plan for our future. Take care of #1 because no one will do it for you.

It’s not often that we hear the more important lesson: that it is better to live generously than selfishly. That God will not be outdone in generosity. That the more we give away, the more we will get in return. That there is more real pleasure, real joy, in giving yourself and your possessions away than there ever will be in waiting for people to give things to you.

Jesus’ message is simple, but it is hard to accept because we hear the opposite message every day. And because we’re afraid. We’re afraid to take that simple leap of faith. It seems impossible. Jesus knew that. That’s why, at Matthew 19:26, Jesus told the disciples, “For human beings, this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” If you can’t give away all your possessions, pray for generosity. If you can’t be generous, pray for faith. And if you’re afraid that your faith is too weak, pray for trust. Trust will lead you to faith; faith will lead you to generosity; generosity will lead you to Heaven.

 

 

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.

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 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.