Want world peace? Try this.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus told us that, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is the second-greatest commandment, second only to “Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Everything Jesus taught and (according to Jesus himself) everything in the scriptures are based on these commandments. Everything.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “a society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow individuals to obtain what is their due.” Furthermore, the Church recognizes that the rights of the individual come before those of society and must be respected by society in order for that society to maintain any moral legitimacy. A government that is not built upon the foundation of this golden rule is a government doomed to failure.

And what is our individual role beneath the umbrella of social justice? We are each called to look upon our neighbor (with NO exception) as “another self,” entitled to the means of living life with dignity. It is our obligation to live our lives in community with our neighbors; we are obligated to see to one another’s needs. The Church refers to this as “Solidarity,” and points out that social, economic, political and even international problems cannot be resolved in any way except by practicing the principles of solidarity.

I had known all of this, in one form or another, for my whole life. Being told that God wants us to love our neighbor is hardly a revelation. But what strikes me for its simplicity and depth is the Church’s contention that all of the world’s problems could be resolved by these words alone. And furthermore, none of the world’s problems will be resolved without them.

There’s a tendency in the world today to separate faith from society. To live out our religion within the four walls of our churches and our homes. To leave our Catholicism at home when we head off to work. But when we do that we are leaving our most important tools behind. The principles of Christian charity are just as essential in our work lives as they are in our home lives. And right now, couldn’t our world use a lot more “love your neighbor”?

Bums bother me

Bums bother me. Oh, am I being politically-incorrect by calling them bums and not homeless people, or at least street people? But we don’t know whether they’re homeless, do we? In fact, we don’t know anything about them. Do they have a home? Do they have a family? Do they have a mental illness or an addiction? We don’t know. And that’s what bothers me.

In the city where I work, the police department discourages giving to people who beg on the street. It only encourages them, makes them bolder, and usually your money feeds a drug or alcohol habit. But we don’t really know that either, do we? It may be true about a few, perhaps it is true about most of them. But on any given street corner we don’t know the individual story of the individual who’s asking for change.

I have a friend who spent part of his life as a beggar. He was unemployed and an alcoholic and drug addict. As the police warned about all beggars, his purpose in begging was to raise enough money to buy the day’s beer. Occasionally, someone would take him to the nearby fast-food restaurant for a meal, which was fine and a break from his duties. But after the meal, he’d go back to his street corner to continue begging for beer money.

Another friend of mine told me about a recent experience she had with someone who begged for some money for food. My friend was on the way from church where she had been talking to God about a worrisome employment situation. On the street, she heard the beggar but walked by, only to change her mind and take him to a nearby restaurant for a meal. Upon returning from breakfast she had a call from a friend with a job offer, instantly clearing up her job quandary.

I know that in Jesus’ day, there were no government subsidy programs, homeless shelters, housing vouchers and other “safety nets.” Beggars were seeking resources to simply stay alive. Is it the same today? It wasn’t for my first friend. He had a home; his begging was for the “luxury” of alcohol. Is it true for others? I honestly don’t know.

“Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, that you did for me.”

And that’s what bothers me.

Have you hugged a Samaritan today?

Sunday’s Gospel is the story of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. The story, like all good Bible stories, makes a number of really good points about the sort of world God wants from us. The point that struck me this time is how bold Jesus was, talking to a woman who belonged to a tribe the Jews hated. The Jews wouldn’t take anything from Samaritans, and here Jesus was, asking for a cup of water. Jesus even accepts their invitation to..ewww…stay with the Samaritans for a couple of days.

Samaritans were among the early Israelites, but split from the Jews hundreds of years before Jesus arrived on the scene. Along the way there were religious disputes; political and territorial disputes, battles, etc. Once we decide to dislike a group of our brothers and sisters, it doesn’t take long for us humans to come up with all sorts of ways to make the rift permanent. Sound familiar?

The lesson is clear. Jesus has no use for the worldly things that separate God’s children. He wants us to reach across human-created barriers, whether religious, ethnic, political (yes, political) or economic. And that’s the point. Who is your Samaritan? Is it the people who voted for Trump? Or Hillary? Is it the well-meaning 7th Day Adventist who dropped off a seven page anti-Catholic screed in an attempt to save your soul? Immigrants? The rich? The poor? We all have Samaritans in our life; a family or group of people who look different or espouse something that we disagree with and so we avoid them. That’s not Jesus’ way.

Our Father created each and every person on the planet, including you and your Uncle Ralphie who talks too loudly about politics. God loves you and Uncle Ralphie equally, and His desire is that we love one another so we can help one another reach the Kingdom of Heaven. Let’s think about that in our hyper-politically-divided America. Maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be so hard to share a cup of water with a Democrat. Or a Republican. Or a Lutheran. Jesus did.

One more about the Sermon on the Mount

This makes three weeks in a row that we’ll be talking about the Sermon on the Mount (Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of the Book of Matthew). I can’t help it; there’s so much good stuff in those three chapters of the Bible I could spend a lifetime studying them. The sermon is a complete guide to living a Christian life, packed into roughly 2,000 words.

It begins with the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, the meek, who hunger and thirst, et al. We’re introduced to the idea that we are the “salt of the earth,” and then told that Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Ten Commandments and the other laws but to perfect them. “You have heard, “You shall not kill” but I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.” Jealousy, adultery, making promises, almsgiving, prayer, fasting; check, check, check. Temptation, worry, and judging others; all dealt with. Bear good fruits; don’t just talk a good game—you have to play the game of Christianity. When Jesus was done, people were astonished. You think?! I’d be breathless.

Saint Augustine called the Sermon “a perfect standard of the Christian life.” Indeed, Jesus closes the sermon by telling us that “every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall because it had been founded on the rock.”

Like all things Christian, it can be difficult; scratch that; it’s IMPOSSIBLE for us humans to live up to this standard every day and in every action. We will fail at all of them some of the time and at many of them most of the time. God doesn’t expect perfection; he looks for willingness. After all, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Sufficient for a day is its own evil

Last week we talked about not worrying; about accepting the portion that God gives us for today, both the good and the bad. The post was based on the “Worry Sermon” (I made that title up); which is the last portion of the Sermon on the Mount (see Chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel).

There’s a sentence in that reading that has always felt wrong to me. The last sentence of Chapter Six reads “Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” Other translations put it this way: “Sufficient for a day is its own evil.” Those words always felt awkward, like there was a word missing or out of order. Surely Jesus meant to say “The day’s own good things are sufficient for the day,” or, “I’ll give you enough to help you through today.” Why “sufficient for a day is its own evil?” It’s as though Jesus is promising us bad things, and plenty of them. Seems very un-Jesus-ey. It feels particularly out of context in a reading about not worrying. I’m all set to live free as a bird, peaceful as the wildflowers, and comfy as Mary at Jesus’ knee (while Martha serves lunch). And then Jesus tells me that today’s gonna be a handful.

St. John Chrysostom must have talked to someone who knows me. He wrote about this sentence. His answer was this: “Doesn’t every day have enough burdens of its own? Why do you add to them by laying on those that belong to another day?”

This sentence is one of those examples of parts of the Bible that need to be read in context. You can’t just quote this as a one-liner at parties (unless you like being alone at parties). It just doesn’t make sense outside of the context of the idea that came before it. The sentence before it that goes, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself,” helps a lot. Backing up another sentence, Jesus reassures us that, “Your Heavenly Father knows that you need them all (clothes, food, shelter). But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows that we can only deal with things, both good things and bad things; in daily doses. This is one more reminder to live in a relaxed manner; by living for today and meeting today’s challenges as they come. And not by dragging tomorrow into the day’s fight.

One day at a time.

Remember, you are dust. And that’s okay

Welcome to Lent! Today begins our annual 40 day visit to the strange land called “Self Restraint.” Say goodbye to chocolates, sweets, coffee, alcohol, sex, TV, cursing or whatever earthly indulgence you’ve decided to set aside until Easter. I’m praying that you (and I) will have the self-control to spend the energy on Jesus that we normally spend making our human bodies happy.

I woke up this morning with the phrase, “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (GN 3:19) stuck in my head. For those of you who aren’t Catholic, that is what the Priest will say today when he rubs the sign of the cross on my forehead with ashes. It’s a logical thing to wake up thinking about on Ash Wednesday.

 And it’s also a great place to start my spiritual journey. With those words God was reminding Adam (and me) that we were formed from the things of the earth; the dust. And our human bodies are going to return to that earth. Our lives on Earth are temporary.  We are preparing ourselves to live with God in our true home. A big part of that preparation is recognizing our tiny place in this big universe (Yep, that old “H word” humility). There is only one God and I’m not him. But I can live with him if I choose to.

The World doesn’t like it when we think about our mortality. Everything seems to encourage us to strive to live forever on Earth; to be immortals on this planet.  Everything except that little phrase, “Remember, you are dust.”

In small ways this Lent, you and I will turn away from our temporary life and turn toward the much better life that God has prepared for us. I’ll miss my (FILL IN THE BLANK WITH THIS YEAR’S SACRIFICE), but I am looking forward to having a closer look at heaven. It’s okay to be dust.

God save the worry warts

Jesus doesn’t want us to waste time worrying. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus used a significant chunk of his Sermon on the Mount to address worry. He said, “…do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” (See MT 6:24-34 for the whole message. Spend some time with it; it’s worth studying.) In Luke’s Gospel, Martha tried to get Jesus to tell her sister to stop listening to the conversation and help serve the guests, but Jesus replied, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion; which shall not be taken away from her.” (LK 10:41-42).

Admit it now; you spend a lot of your time being Martha, don’t you? I know that I do. One look at my calendar for the week can send me scurrying about the house or my office, making lists, worrying, picking things up, worrying, drafting memos to my staff, worrying, rehearsing, and worrying, worrying, worrying. Fretting about the future seems to be the Great American Pastime. But it’s such a waste of valuable Christian moments.

In most cases, the things we’re worrying about never come to pass. Even when the worst happens, we come through the other side and are better for the experience. A few years ago, I was dreading losing a job. Sure enough; I lost that job. It was a rotten job, and shortly after I lost it, I found a much better one. What did the worrying add to the mix? Nothing; except a little indigestion.

If anyone in the world’s history had a right to worry, it would have been Jesus. He knew how his story was going to end. If you knew someone was going to arrest you for a crime you didn’t commit, humiliate you in front of the entire city, beat you while your friends all ran away and then nail you to a tree until you died…maybe you could worry. But, until the evening it actually happened, Jesus was laughing with his friends and going about his business. He had things to do and worrying was not going to help get those things done.

God knows how much we can handle and He knows what we need. He gives us just enough of both. Enough food and shelter to get through the day and enough challenges to help us grow. We have the ability to put more on our plate; more food or more troubles. In both cases, all we are accomplishing is making ourselves less fit for our mission.

So don’t worry. Be happy. God said so

Inspiration vs. Perseverance

Is it better to look for glorious inspiration or to keep your head down and just slog through your day? Do we seek to be inspired by God in his creation; by looking for our own special message in today’s scripture readings? Or do we put on the cloak of humility, saying our prayers, doing good deeds, and trusting that it will all turn out okay?

Today’s a good day for this topic. I woke up this morning in a slogging kind of mood. I didn’t sleep well and a full calendar faces me; lots of little bits and pieces of life to contend with. My mind is filled with the mundane. It’s certainly not the sort of morning that inspires me to sing with joy at God’s creation.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not facing a parole board, bankruptcy court, or a grim-faced oncologist today. In fact, it will probably be a just fine day as days go. The challenge is not from without, it’s from within (as always). I’m possessed by the demon named Mr. Grumpy Pants. (I know, demonic possession is no laughing matter. Get over it; it’s Monday.) I am just not feeling the Glory of God surrounding me, lifting me up, etc., etc.

So what’s a soul to do? The rain cloud over my personal space isn’t even dark enough to be called spiritual dryness. More like spiritual clamminess; not dry, not wet, just blah. How does one cope when life is too good to be a martyr and too dull to be an evangelical?

By putting one spiritual step in front of the other. By following our spiritual habits, even though there doesn’t seem to be much “spirit” in them. If Mother Teresa could keep smiling for decades while inside she was feeling totally empty, I think I can face the Monday morning blues. The Short Saint from Calcutta radiated goodness and never forgot her slogan to “Let no one come to you without leaving better and happier.”

Maybe I can do at least a fraction of that much.

So here goes. Happy Monday. (gmrfble, mumble, snarl, mmmfggt.) 🙂

God’s there for you today

Sometimes devoted Catholics get discouraged. A proliferation of apathy toward religion seems to have taken hold in the world. We feel that Christianity is waning and will soon simply fade away. We’ll have “outgrown” religion. I don’t think so.

Elijah probably had similar thoughts. If it’s been a long time since you’ve read the First Book of Kings, Elijah is a story that might be useful to bring back to your memory. Particularly Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal. (Chapter 18 in 1 Kings.)

God was trying to get across to the Israelites that He was the only One. The Israelites were being stubborn, and even their kings refused to limit their worship. Statues of Baal and other “gods” were everywhere. So God, working through Elijah, came up with a demonstration; a contest between his one prophet and Baal’s 450.

King Ahab and the Israelites were already on God’s bad side and were suffering from a drought that Elijah said was the result of their lack of adherence to God’s law. Elijah challenged the King to line up 450 of his best “prophets” and to have them make sacrifices, praying to the false gods for rain.  He even resorted to a little Biblical trash talk, telling the prophets they needed to pray louder, because maybe their god was resting or off on vacation somewhere. Of course, there was no response from Baal.

Elijah then set up God’s altar. He sacrificed a young bull but then ordered the Israelites to soak it with water. Over and over again he told them to pour water on it until it was sopping wet, with water running onto the ground. With a word to God, the whole thing was consumed by fire.

Baal and 450 Prophets: 0; Elijah and the One True God: 1. Game over.

In some ways it’s your typical fire-and-brimstone Old Testament story. It’s one of a long line of stories of our spiritual ancestors forgetting about God and trying to do things their way, leaving it to God, working through a faithful prophet to call them home. The Old Testament seems to be devoted solely to the question of “God? God who?”

God always wins. It may take time, sometimes generations, but eventually, the Israelites say, “Oh, you mean God?!  Well, of course. Why didn’t you say so?” (I suspect our spiritual ancestors drove God a little nutso at times.)

But the whole point of all of the books of the Old Testament seems to be that God is infinitely patient with His children. And that hasn’t changed a bit. No matter how many times we turn away from God and get obsessed with something from this world, He always guides us back and then welcomes us with a loving embrace. As my Priest said yesterday, every time you make a good confession, they have a party in heaven.

God is always with us; even when we’re not with him.

Searching for the right words

Some time ago, one of my sons called looking for advice. His wife’s grandmother was very ill and the prognosis was not good. She had lived a long and full life and had been a blessing to her family. She would be missed and my son knew it would be hard on his wife. He wanted advice on helping her through this difficult time. “What are the right words to say?” he asked me.

More recently, I was in conversation with a young woman who was in a dispute with her husband. Things were complicated as such things often seem to be, and she was struggling to understand how to unravel the knot they’d tied themselves into, or at least how she could avoid making matters worse. “I just wish I knew the right words,” she repeated.

Let’s face it. Sometimes there are no “right words.” No matter how hard we plan or rehearse, what comes out of our mouth seems to be exactly the wrong thing or just so much gibberish. Often we think to ourselves that we could have made a bad situation perfect if only we had said the right thing. Still more frequently we think that our words made things worse.

Foolishness. Life is not a 2-hour movie written by a team of dramatists and filled with witty, professionally-timed conversation. Life is lumpy, bumpy and uncertain. Each individual is listening and receiving at his own unique speed. Words are powerful and can have positive impact, but we seldom know exactly what another person needs to hear or when he or she needs to hear it.

And besides, it’s usually not about the words, it’s about presence. It’s about being there. To both of the young people, my advice was the same. “Just be there. Love them and let them know you love them. The rest will take care of itself.” Love is the only thing we can offer that works every time. Words spoken in love are never the wrong thing to say. We may not see the impact they have or get the response we had expected from our rehearsal, but that’s fine. It’s the love that matters, not the words.

“My word that goes out from my mouth will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:11

God knows what needs to be said.