Okay, He’s Risen. Now what?

I look around our home and see that the Easter decorations have been stored away. Gone are the pink bunnies, the baskets with green plastic grass and the Lenten reminders to do this, abstain from that, and pray thus. God is risen and we’re moving on. Moving on to do what?

This in some ways is my favorite time of year, because the daily scripture readings come from the early chapters of The Acts of the Apostles. If you want to be inspired by early Christians, read that book! Immediately following Pentecost, Peter, James, John and the rest of the 12 started preaching and healing. Unlike during Christ’s passion, the Apostles were fearless. They knew that Jesus had risen, and that knowledge, coupled with a double dose of the Holy Spirit, put them beyond fear of anything the authorities could do to them. The apostles were repeatedly threatened, arrested, beaten and jailed. Through it all they laughed, prayed, and told everyone the Good News. More than their words, their courage and spirit built the Church that has thrived for two thousand, one hundred seventeen years and counting.

I got to thinking about that yesterday when I came across something Pope Francis had said. In a homily from a couple years ago, the Pope was talking about St. James comment that “Faith without works is dead.” The Pope said a person can have a great knowledge of scripture and theology, but if that knowledge wasn’t put into practice, it was worthless. “A faith that doesn’t get you involved isn’t faith,” he said. “It’s words and nothing more than words.” Faith, according to Francis, always leads to action. It can’t help itself.

That’s how I see the actions of the Apostles in the early days of Christianity. Peter stood up to the Jewish authorities not because he had somehow found the courage to do so. Rather, Peter couldn’t have done anything else. He could not have stopped talking about the tremendous news of Christ. Have you ever known something that was so awesome that you couldn’t wait to tell your spouse or your  friends? It’s like that, times ten. Peter was so filled with the Holy Spirit that his teeth would have burst if he tried not to speak.

For many, many years I tried to get my Christianity out of books. I love to read and study, and there have been lots of authors who inspired me. But what really lit my fuse was a men’s retreat. Spending time with a small group of men in prayer, study and sharing lifted me up in ways that can’t be described. The Holy Spirit blew through that church basement, lighting fires in hearts right and left, including mine. This, I thought, is what the earliest Christians must have experienced. Living in small clusters, sharing ideas, experiences and insights. Holding one another up and building one another up.

The Catholic Church is many, many things. It is God’s visible place on Earth. It has thousands of years of wisdom of saints and saintly people. It has a rich and long history.  But the true “catholic” Church is you and I. It’s the network of human beings, all connected to each other and to Jesus through the Holy Spirit. The life of the church lies in our interactions with one another, not with the books and the history. Those are important guides, but they are only guides. Guides to our real work, which is to love God and one another.

Easter is over. Christ is risen. The Holy Spirit has come. Let’s get to work.

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 forgets. So should you

One of the greatest and probably least-appreciated lines in the Catholic Church is this: “I absolve you of your sins; go in peace.” That’s the moment in the confessional when, no matter what you’ve done, the Priest tells you that God says it’s okay; you are forgiven. God sent Jesus to give us this incredible gift. Jesus passed the authority to Peter who passed it on to every Bishop since, who delegated it to your parish priest, who just gave it to you. You have just been given the most incredible Get out of Jail Free card ever. From God to you.

And now that your sin has been taken away, don’t take it back. How many times does God forgive us, but we don’t forgive ourselves? Stop it! By that I mean stop carrying the guilt around. You did it, but you admitted it, you atoned for it, and God forgave you for it. It’s done; let it go.

Too much of our life’s “burden” is a sack full of guilt. We are still holding onto the guilt from that time in the second grade when we pulled that little girl’s hair and made her cry. Or when we flipped off the Honda driver who was annoyed by our sudden lane change. Or any one of the hundreds of other times we were less than fully-Christian. Do yourself a favor; make a list of those, take it with you to confession and LEAVE IT AT THE ALTAR. When Father says, “Go in peace,” do it. Leave! Go home! Get out of there! And leave the guilt behind.

Because you can’t be the loving Christian Jesus wants you to be if you are using up all your energy hauling around old guilt. You can’t carry God’s message if you’re too ashamed to talk to women with long hair or people who drive Hondas, or your mom or your coworker, or… Forgiveness is part of God’s plan, and it’s an important part. You need forgiveness to become the person God created. But, like the body and blood, eternal life and all the other facets of Christianity, we have to make the choice to believe it, and to accept it.

Micah said God has “cast your sins to the bottom of the sea.” Don’t swim down there and pick them up again.

 

A cure for dead souls

Saint Maximillian Kolbe said, “A single act of love makes the soul return to life. Let us often make use of this means.” Father Max just gave you the secret to raising yourself from the dead.

One of the weird things about being one of God’s children is how frequently we can die. Unlike our earthly bodies, which have a one shot warranty; our eternal souls can, and do, die often. We die whenever we fall into a mortal sin. Our soul loses its eternal life when we feed it the poison of greed, lust, pride, jealousy, anger, sloth, or gluttony. If our soul is dead on the same day our body dies, we have lost the key to heaven.

But God does not want us to end this way. He equipped us with a spiritual reset button. No matter how many times we fall (and for most of us, there will be many), we can pick ourselves back up. We can spiritually pull our souls out of the grave. By loving our neighbor.

This the greatest deal in all of creation! The price of eternal life is nothing but love. Not riches, not brilliance, not thousands of hours of painful toil. Just love. Free, renewable, heartwarming love. You don’t even have to feel it; you just have to do it. Hold the door for a shopper with his arms’ full. Help a little girl find her mom in a crowd. Call your mother to say hello. The action is what matters. Do it. And live.

On Christianity, on Cuba, on apathy

I have to stop reading polls. I allowed myself to wallow in a moment of depression yesterday when I saw the news article about the decline in the number of U.S. citizens who describe themselves as “Christian.” The Pew Research Center issued its latest poll on religious affiliation, and there’s no way to polish the spots off this wormy apple: Christianity is down. According to the Pew poll, the Christian share of adults fell to 70.6 percent from 78.4 percent between 2007 and 2014, with declines among all major Christian denominations. For the first time, the number of people in the U.S. who describe themselves as “un-aligned” with any particular religion exceeds the number of Catholics.

The news isn’t really surprising. How many of us have relatives, friends and coworkers who just don’t bother making a faith connection? They’re not atheists, they’re not even agnostics, they’re just not paying particular attention to their eternal Life. Making buffalo dip for the afternoon football game takes priority over sharing the body of Christ with fellow believers. As Charles Schultz, creator of Charlie Brown, would say so eloquently, “Sigh.”

But then along comes Pope Francis. I don’t think the Pope reads polls. Or if he does, he doesn’t spend time wallowing, he spends his time doing Jesus’ work. The Monday, May 11 Wall Street Journal is sitting next to me as I write. And on the front page, just below the headline is a beaming photo of Raul Castro, President of the avowedly-atheist, Communist country of Cuba. Who’s standing behind him? Why, Pope Francis of course. And the headline reads, “Cuba’s Raul Castro lauds Pope, says he’d consider return to the church.” Castro was so struck by the Pope’s work to restore his country’s relations with the U.S. that he read all of the Pope’s writings and speeches and says he is seriously-considering returning to the faith of his birth.

So, I guess God’s lesson for me is: less reading, more doing. If we want our relatives, friends and families to return to God’s house, it’s on us to show them that this house is a house of love, a house of joy, and a house of great fellowship. We aren’t going to convince the “Un-aligned” with words and arguments; but with actions. If you want to attract new Christians, behave like Christ. Just ask Castro.

Are you a Cub Scout Catholic?

Catholicism ought to come with badges and sashes, just like Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Under this scheme you’d only be able to advance in the Church as you learned more about it or as you became more involved. The Pope would be an Eagle Scout while Mother Teresa would have earned the Girl Scout Gold Rank. Me? I’d still be sweating my Tiger Cub badge.

While I was never a Boy Scout or Cub Scout, I did have 4 sons and one daughter. As a result, I have plenty of experience from a parent’s perspective. Our home is filled with Scouting “memorabilia.” (I have learned that the term memorabilia translates to “Your children’s leftovers.”) We have everything from the simple handbooks for Tigers and Brownies to the fascinating Field Guide for Boy Scouts, which teaches you how to live on a mountaintop with nothing but wild berries and a letter-opener.

I’m not proposing to debate the merits of Scouting. Like every other human endeavor, Boy Scouting and Girl Scouting are no better and no worse than the human beings who are involved at any given time. No, my point in comparing Cub Scouts and Catholics has to do with how we develop as human beings, which directly relates to how we develop as Christians. Like Cub Scouts, Catholics usually start out pretty ignorant of the rules and the knowledge of how things work. But you can’t throw Saint Augustine’s Confessions and Pope John Paul’s Theology of the Body at them right off the bat. Just as Cub Scouts start out with simple crafts and in-home meetings, so too Catholics should start with the basics like the Golden Rule and the Our Father. I’d even hold off on the Nicene Creed until they’re reached the Catholic Equivalent of Tenderfoot rank.

I believe this is just as true for those many of us who are already fully-Confirmed in the faith, but who want to start over and rediscover it. We should go all the way back to the basics, in style if not in fact. Too often, those of us seeking Jesus approach our study from the wrong side of the library. We reach for the deep stuff, when we should start with the basic concepts. Before you try to slog through Saint Augustine or Saint Ignatius, listen to some audio recordings by Matthew Kelly, or some of the early works of Scott Hahn. Kelly and Hahn, along with Stephen Ray and Father Larry Roberts are my favorite writers for “Re-beginners;” people like me who realized they missed something basic in their faith journey.

You’ll find that your appetite for faith knowledge will mature at about the same pace as your ability to absorb wisdom. C.S. Lewis makes a lot more sense once you’ve mastered the ideas proposed by St. Therese of Lieseux, the “Little Flower.” But don’t fear that you’re missing anything. The Faith is every bit as powerful at the Kindergarten Level as it is at the Doctoral. A few weeks ago was the feast day of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas essentially rewrote the manual of the Christian church in the 13th Century. He was an incredible theologian, and an inspired genius. But one day as he was celebrating mass, Thomas Aquinas had a vision that stopped him in his tracks. He never wrote another word, despite the pleadings of other church leaders. He said, “I have seen things that make my writings like straw.” This from the author of Summa Theologia, one of the deepest, most incredible and most important documents of the Church. Nothing he could write would compare to the brief glimpse of eternity that he had during that mass.

If we step back, we can see that it has to be this way. God is greater and more expansive than Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint John Paul and Saint Therese of Liseux. The most we can learn is still just a faint glimpse of a sliver of His majesty. But even that faint glimmer is amazing. And the best way to learn it is to approach it with humility and the realization that we are all Cub Scouts and Brownies in the eyes of God.

19.625

It’s time for your next assignment, Christian warriors. Today, Jesus is assigning each of us a patrol area. We will each be given a plot of ground to monitor. Our job is to make sure that charity and love prevail over this entire patch of ground. Are you up for it?

Great. Your patch of ground is 19.625 square feet. That is a circle about five feet across with you in the middle. It’s roughly the area within reach of your outstretched arms. Anyone that comes into your Christian Defense Zone is your responsibility. Whether you hug them, shake hands with them, listen to them, lend an ear or lend ten bucks is up to you, but in the words of Mother Teresa, “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier.”

We spend too much time fretting over the Big Problems in the world and not enough time acting on the Little Problems within our grasp. I have nothing against solving Big Problems, and I think we all should do our part. But often, our part in solving the Big Problems requires doing the seemingly-little stuff that is within our reach. Concerned about poverty? Donate more to the church or St. Vinnies. Upset about income inequality? Pay your workers more, or spend your money supporting companies that do. Heartbroken about abortion? Pray and write a check to a pro-life pregnancy crisis center.

But beyond even these problems is a world full of small challenges that could dissolve in an instant with just a word, or a hand, or a moment of time offered by the billion or so of us who are Catholic. Most of the time, the incredible power of Christian love is not headline material. It won’t require a new national tax or international treaty. Just a helping hand, a kind word or a moment of that gift of time you’ve been given. Simple problems often require the simplest of solutions and all simple solutions come down to this: love your neighbor.

I am a big believer in the power of the pond principle. The pond principle is the notion that even the smallest pebble dropped into a pond starts ripples that can make a big difference. Your simple hand, word or gesture will start ripples that quickly spread beyond your 19.625 square feet. Jesus didn’t have a megaphone, a microphone or even a Popemobile, and yet his simple message of love covered an entire globe and continues to spread after 2,000 years.

Keep an eye on your Christian Defense Zone today. Don’t let love disappear from that zone even for an instant. You’ll be amazed at the huge difference you’ve made in the world.

It’s faith versus fear

Lately I’ve been realizing how much of a role fear has played my life. It has impacted everything from my job to my spiritual life to my choice of recreational activities. I’ve passed over opportunities to apply for jobs because I feared that I would be embarrassed if I wasn’t interviewed. I spent decades treading spiritual water because there were some nagging doubts that I was afraid to face for fear of God smiting me. In my 20s, I gave up downhill skiing because I was afraid of falling down and hurting myself.

Some of these fears are rational. Given that I am a clod, downhill skiing was probably a poor choice of outdoor activity for me. Hiking was much more my speed, both literally and figuratively. But just about all of my other fears accomplished nothing. And held me back from everything.

Way back in one of my earliest posts in this blog, I related how God coaxed me into facing my doubts about Catholicism. With my Divine Buddy lighting the way, I was able to peek into that dark closet and discover that there really were no theological monsters hiding there. In fact, I discovered an incredible community of joyful people, and a religion that is full, complete, and a perfect fit for me. It wasn’t a flaw of the Church that was keeping me from the fullness of God’s kingdom. It was my own chicken-heartedness.

And then there’s faith. Quiet, humble, steady, faith. Faith that Jesus was talking to me when he said, “Do not worry,” “I go to prepare a place for you,” and “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” The more you pray and study, the more you realize God has your back…and your front…and both sides, and up and down too. What exactly is left that’s worth being afraid of?

Fear will always be a part of us. We were born and raised with human instincts, which (assuming the scientists are right) evolved from the apes and before them lizardy things and before them little bitty bacterium who were food for larger bacterium. Fear is a mechanism the little things evolved to avoid being eaten by the big things.

But faith will also always be a part of us. Faith is knowing that God is within us no matter what we think or how many big things want to gobble us up. God is there and wants nothing more than to forgive us no matter how low we’ve fallen. If fear is the dark, faith is the light switch. All you have to do is reach out for it. And then enjoy the view in the daylight.

Simply Catholic is not an oxymoron

A book publisher challenged my core philosophy last week. I’m glad he did; the spiritual self-exam was healthy and overdue. How, he asked, could I claim that Catholicism is “simple”? The Church is one of the oldest, largest, richest and most multifaceted religions in the world, a faith that has more saints than anyone can count, thousands of individual parishes and dioceses, millions of priests, hundreds of pages of dogmatic rules and regulations, and mysteries galore. There are more than one million books in the Vatican Library. The lay version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is over 800 pages long. We have rules dictating when we kneel and when we stand, what color the priest wears on Sunday, and how long we should fast before receiving communion. What is so simple?

Just this: love. We were created by love to love. We have no greater purpose than this. We have no other purpose than this. All (yes, all) questions about existence are answered in love. Everything the Church has or does is in some way tied to the purpose of spreading the message that Jesus taught Peter, James, John and the rest of the original apostles and disciples. The message is this: Love God, and love one another.

Each of us has been given a unique basket of spiritual, physical, material, emotional and intellectual gifts. Each of our roles in His creation is different, and your role cannot be fulfilled by anyone except you. We are each necessary and a unique thread in God’s creation. This multibillion-thread tapestry defies understanding by any one of us, no matter how brilliant we may be. We just can’t see the whole thing. But we can fulfill our role. Our unique, irreplaceable, critical role. And fulfilling our role is simple: we use the gifts we were given to Love God and to love our neighbor.

It’s that simple.

The prayer for when you don’t know what you should be praying for

Thomas Merton wrote a great prayer. It fits me perfectly on those days when I get all tangled up in my thoughts about God, and my uncertainty about whether I’m doing what God really wants me to do. In other words, this is a good prayer for me just about every day of the week. Enjoy.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk and one of the 20th century’s most prolific Catholic writers.