Sometimes God confuses me

I will confess that there are some passages, chapters, and even the occasional book of the Bible that are just simply over my head. The message is just too profound for my little mind. Take this morning’s first reading for example. What sort of message am I supposed to take from “Brothers and Sisters, as God is faithful our word to you is not ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was proclaimed to you by us, Silvanus and Timothy and me was not ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ but ‘yes’ has been in him.”? (2 COR 1:18-19) Am I the only one doing a reverent, “Huh?” at that statement?

I feel like the Ethiopian who needed Phillip’s help in Chapter 8 of Acts. An Ethiopian had come to Jerusalem to worship and was sitting in his Chariot reading the Book of Isaiah. Philip asked him if he understood the book, and the man admitted, “How can I understand without someone to teach me?” Phillip walked him through the meaning of the particular passage the Ethiopian had been stuck on and then baptized him before God whisked him off to his next assignment. And thus the Church was introduced to Ethiopia. But Phillip isn’t here this morning. Just me and the dynamic, brilliant and sometimes-confusing words of St. Paul.

If I’m at Mass, Father will usually explain what I need to know. If that fails, a good internet connection and a few minutes of judicious searching will give me enough insights to set me straight. I often turn to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops web site (usccb.org), and Catholic Answers (Catholic.com) is the largest lay-run apologetics web site in the country.  It’s also useful sometimes to simply type, “Explain 2 Corinthians 1:18-19” into your search browser and see what comes up. Be cautious about that last method, however. There are all sorts of bizarre web sites that can lead you down strange paths. With a little careful reading a consensus of meaning emerges quickly if you look at several, always including Catholic.com or the bishops.

But then there are days like today, where I think it might be useful for me to just accept the word as it is and not try to wring every nuance of meaning out of it. After all, there’s plenty in God’s creation that makes no sense at all (Middle Eastern politics comes to mind). Perhaps there are days when the Holy Spirit is saying, “Just trust me.”

God’s full plan is hidden from us. As humble creatures of our creator, even though we’re made in His image, we’re not Him. How a blade of grass in my front lawn fits into the cosmic plan makes perfect sense to God, but I’m not going to fully understand it. Nor do I need to. A little bit of humility guides me to realize that I can do my part in the plan, loving God and loving my neighbor, without the need to fully-grasp the big picture.

I’m confused, and that’s good

Last week’s daily scripture readings confuse me. We were reading from Paul’s forceful letter to the Galatians warning them not to get enslaved to the law of Judaism. We also read Jesus’ “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees,” speech, in which he chastises the Scribes and Pharisees for teaching the law but not teaching and practicing love. It’s new testament Christianity at its most bold.

But at the same time, the Psalms for the day rejoice over the law. Meditate on the law, contemplate the law, the law, the law.

When I step back from these readings, this looks to me like the conflict between Catholicism and Protestant “Free Churches.” Catholics have the Catechism and all of its rules, explanations and consistency; Free Church Christians have Paul and his Live-by-the-Spirit, Die-by-the-Law attitude. Which is right? Are they both right? Are they both wrong? Or, more likely, am I just missing something?

I’m a Roman Catholic. I am a believer in the Church that Jesus built on the shoulders of St. Peter (“The Rock.”) One church. A universal church. A “catholic” church. That’s not going to change. Is the Church wrong in teaching the Old Testament? Should we tear Psalm 1, 119 and others out of the book and say that they no longer apply? Somehow, I don’t think so.

I used to cringe when something appeared in my spiritual path that I didn’t understand. I would quickly turn the page and move on to something easier. But after a very powerful epiphany several years ago, I learned that these moments can be doorsteps to a whole new understanding of Christianity. The Catholic Church has honed the Mass over two-thousand years. The readings chosen for the Mass were handpicked and arranged as they are for a reason. That reason may not be obvious to you and I, but there is a reason.

The Church says the New Testament, the story of Jesus, is hidden within the Old Testament, and the Old Testament is made manifest in the New. The various books are written in a variety of styles, from poetry and song to historical narrative, and they are interconnected. It’s a treasure trove, filled with inspirations and surprises. The Bible is one of the most important ways God speaks to us, and when God speaks to us, he speaks to us one-on-one. God doesn’t do mass marketing. God has a relationship with you that is unique and different from his relationship with me. He has things to say to you that I won’t understand. And God uses all of His tools, including the Bible, to convey that personal message.

So, last week, he was provoking me by putting two readings together that appeared to contradict each other. God was saying to me, “Child, it’s time to learn something new.”

Living between the lines

The Church that Jesus Built is awesome. It’s filled with miracles, with saints by the thousands, and with countless stories of faith-filled heroism. Its boundaries are the outstretched arms of the one and only God, who allowed Himself to be humiliated by His own creation; to be tortured and killed so that He could show us that our Earthly lives are just the beginning. Since the dawn of creation, the Church has been the “Greatest Story Ever Told.”
But most of the Church’s story is never told. Most of what takes place under the big tent of Christianity will never be written about, or spoken about, or made into a movie directed by Cecil B. DeMille. God is truly with us, and because He is with us, the majority of His work is the work of day to day living. It’s not the epic stuff of Moses talking to a fiery shrub, or St. Paul getting knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus. It’s not even Pope Francis tweaking the egos of the College of Cardinals. It’s doing the dishes for your wife just because. It’s calling old Aunt Tess to ask about her day. It’s turning to God with a problem while you’re at work and listening for a bit of small inspiration to get you through. It’s slogging through your day and remembering to take Him with you.
Sometimes I read Jesus’ admonition to “be perfect,” and I despair because…well, I’m just not. Sometimes I read the lives of the Saints and wish that I had that kind of faith. I read about Fatima and dream that maybe I could be there for the next one. I want the drama, I want the excitement of the Big Story.
Then God gives me a little poke in the side. He whispers a sentence or two to guide my writing. I blow the dust off the cover of my Bible and read the Book of James. And I’m inspired. “Faith without works is dead,” is a pretty simple and profound motto to live by. I turn to Him with a worry about my wife, daughter, son or friend and within a day that worry evaporates. Or he simply makes the sun rise in a particularly beautiful way.
The Bible was never meant to be the whole story. The stories of Jesus, of Abraham, and all the others in the Bible are just small slices, quick glimpses of the lives that they lived. As John the Apostle said in chapter 21 of Revelation: “There are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.” But that doesn’t mean the other stuff, the stuff that was not written down, is any less wondrous. God gives us the Bible as a tool, a source of inspiration. But God gives us something much greater than the Bible. He gives us his presence throughout our day, and through all of our ordinary, non-heroic little lives. God is with us between the lines.

Who’s in charge?

Last Sunday, December 28, was the Feast Day of the Holy Family. Right after Christmas we are treated with a portrait of the new family of Joseph, Mary and their newborn son, Jesus. After Christmas the three of them trekked over to Jerusalem for Jesus’ circumcision and other Jewish rites for a newborn and his mother. (Luke 2:22-40) After the prescribed rituals, and, undoubtedly some oohing and aahing from friends and neighbors, they went home, where not much more is said about their family life, except that Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

Alongside that inspirational family photo, for many of us, the Feast of the Holy Family could be known as “Who’s In Charge Day” because of one sentence in the second reading. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he provokes arguments when he says, “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” (Colossians 3:18). Let the debating begin, as we couples try to maintain our Christianity and at the same time square these words with modern beliefs about the roles of men and women. Which side should I be on? Paul or Modernity? Is my wife in charge, or am I? Or are we equal partners?

It’s a false choice, and getting caught up in that debate pulls us farther away from the point Paul was trying to make: “Above all these, put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.” Paul was using the understood family roles of the day to tell us how to love one another. And how’s that? Like Jesus loved us: humbly, and with everything we have. Whatever role we are called to play in our family, our marriage, our work and our society, we must act out of love in everything we do. Stewing about who’s in charge takes us in the opposite direction.

Paul was not trying to establish or re-establish the rules of social order. He was taking people where they were: as sons, daughters, fathers or mothers, masters or slaves, and saying, in essence, whoever you are and whatever you do, do it in love and service. He was telling us to fulfill our duties to one another in love, knowing that when we serve one another we are serving God.

Beautiful Bibles are bad?

We have a beautiful Bible at our house. We received it as a wedding gift over 30 years ago and it is magnificent. It has an ivory cover with gold printing, and is majestically-illustrated. It is so beautiful we keep it in a box, on an important bookshelf in the office. Or maybe it’s in the living room…

We have another Bible. It is not beautiful at all. It was given to one of my boys for Middle School CCD. He wrote on the cover, and his little brother scribbled on a couple of the pages. I take it on trips with me, and many of the pages are wrinkled from being stuffed into my briefcase on a crowded plane. The front cover fell off months ago, and we have been steadily losing pages. So far, they have only been introductory pages, but chapter one of Genesis is in imminent peril. It’s about to split in two, right around the third chapter of Daniel. This Bible has some miles on it.

I think that is how it should be. Bibles are meant to be heard, not seen; read and reread, not admired for their pretty covers. Thumbed, held, even yelled at and wept upon. God talks to us through His word. That’s a little difficult when you’re sitting in a box on a shelf in the living room…or maybe the front closet…

It’s not a book, it’s a conversation

We look at the Bible all wrong. Most of us see the Bible as a collection of words that we read (hopefully) now and then. Inspired words, but just words nonetheless. If we read it often enough or if we are lucky, maybe the words we read will help us live a better life. But that’s not the way He wants us to use His Word.

The Bible is much more than that. The Bible is a conversation with God. It’s a two-way interaction. We seek and He responds. We ask and He answers. We knock and the door is opened. We cry out in pain and He comforts. The Bible is one way that Jesus can talk to us without the need for clouds, dazzling lights, or other manifestations that would terrify us and wake the neighbors. It is a classic God-way; quiet, peaceful, intimate, and unexpected. And filled with love and wisdom.

I’m one of those slacker Christians who have yet to read the entire Bible. Over the years I have tried, but I keep getting lost somewhere between Proverbs and Obadiah (which is a great name, by the way, but I digress.). I have read the Gospels numerous times, and the rest of the New Testament at least a dozen times, but the old one is a tougher slog for me.

Lately, I’ve changed my strategy. Actually, I have abandoned any pretense of a strategy for reading the entire Good Book. Now I go wherever the conversation leads me. If I hear a verse at Mass that inspires me, I go home and read that particular chapter. If one of the daily readings raises a question, I go to the Bible looking for an answer. No matter what sort of mood I am in, God is willing to share it with me, whether He speaks from an Old Testament book, a psalm, a proverb or a Gospel. I don’t go looking for words of wisdom, I call out to my Father, and he replies. And we talk.

Next time you and God have something to talk about, grab your Bible. Dust it off, open it up, and say, “Good morning, Abba. I have a question for you.” and then enjoy the conversation.

“And the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us, and we saw His glory, the glory of the Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”–John 1:14