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 reason for our hope? Love.

Last week we talked about the idea that evangelization for most of us is the simple exercise of acting like a Christian with everyone we meet. Be kind, be loving, be helpful. For the former Boy Scouts out there, carry Lord Baden Powell’s admonition with you and, “Do a good turn daily.” It’s Jesus’ second greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

But remember that loving your neighbor is the second commandment. As important as loving your neighbor is, Jesus did not list that one first. God comes first. We are absolutely commanded to “Love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength.” (see Mark 12:30). When we’ve done that, we can move on to loving one another. But God comes first.

Recall last week’s conversation from the First Book of Peter. In Chapter 3, Peter asks us to “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” The reason for our hope is pretty straightforward: Jesus came into the world and gave himself up in exchange for our sins. We will live forever if we believe and live with Jesus.  And that takes us right back to Commandment’s #1 and #2. Love God. Love our neighbor.

We exist in this earthly place for one simple reason: to spread love. God’s plan is to save as many of his beloved children as possible, and to do that, he has enlisted us to spread this simple message. Love God and love one another. It doesn’t get more complicated than that. We can think about it, study on it, debate it for millennia. And we have. It still comes back to five words, and two of them are “love.”

The first commandment doesn’t ask us to “understand” God. It doesn’t say, “Study about God,” or “Give all your money to God,” or “Shout God’s name from the rooftops.” It says “Love God.” Love God the way you love your worldly partner: with everything. Your heart, your mind, your soul and your strength.

I love my wife. We’ve been married nearly 38 years and her smile still makes me weak in the knees. She knows I love her. But I still have to tell her. I still have to make coffee for her in the morning and write her little love notes now and then. And I still have to give her hugs. Love needs to be shown.

Love for God is no different. God knows you love Him. But we have to say it. We have to pray it. We have to spend time with Him. We have to do what He’s asked us to do. Love is not a noun or an adjective; it’s a verb. Love is action. Or it’s not love. And love is everything.

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”?

As simple as breathing

I am in search of proof for my belief that being a Christian is simple. But it’s not working. I keep finding that Christianity is more like life itself; simple on the surface but more complex than I can possibly understand underneath.

This morning I wanted to write a post claiming that being a Christian is as simple as breathing. We breathe in, we breathe out; that’s it. We do it without even thinking about it; 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is more reliable than the U.S. Post Office. What could be less complicated?

But the whole simile falls apart when you examine the act of breathing and realize how incredibly-complex it is. Think about it. What machine in your life is operating continuously 24/7 for decades, adjusting automatically to changes in demands for its services without any operator input at all? How many muscles have to bend and flex in perfect harmony to produce the acts of inhalation and exhalation? Breathing is more like a symphony than a one-man band.

Perhaps Christianity is more like breathing than I thought. It is universal; with us everywhere and at all times. It is always the same but at the same time always adapting to the people it touches. It is simple in the sense that it demands nothing from us other than to allow it to be part of us. But it is as rich and complex as life itself. We can study it for years and never learn everything about its mystery.

Or we can simply accept it as essential to our lives and it will sustain us.

Charity before clarity

I use up a lot of prayer time looking for answers. I want to know. Why did God create me? Why am I here? Why am I in the midst of this particular group of people? What’s my mission? What’s my narrow road? Why, God, why? I’m tired of seeing through the glass darkly, or whatever Saint Paul says we do in this lifetime. I want a clear picture; of myself, of God, and of God’s purpose for the world. God grant me clarity!

Sitting here meditating this morning, I ran across one of those little word plays. Clarity, I realized, is virtually the same word as Charity. There’s only one little letter difference between the two, and it’s a short walk up the alphabet from “h” to “l”. (This could be a sign that I’m spending too much time thinking when I should be meditating!) But this little spiritual side trip helped me realize something: charity comes before clarity.

One of the spiritual axioms that I live by is that Christianity is not a spectator sport. Being Christian is a verb; it demands that you do something, not that you just sit there and think about it. Pope Francis says it means “taking on the smell of the sheep;” getting out there among the flock and helping them along. (I’m glad Pope Francis didn’t grow up in hog-farming country.)  The path to heaven for us is marked by actions, not signs.

A Christian looking for clarity need look no further than the person sitting next to him. Or the woman walking next to her. Or the old man in the hospital, the young child looking lost, the couple crying, or the poor man begging. Do you want to understand why you’re here? Love your neighbor. Do you want to grasp God’s plan for the universe? Love your neighbor.

Christianity is written about in thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of books. Christian philosophy and Catholic Theology are explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, on EWTN, on the web site of the Conference of Catholic Bishops and more. You could study Catholicism and Christianity for decades, and still you would only see through the glass darkly. But try just one act of charity, and then you will find clarity.

How much prayer is enough?

One of the awesome things about the parish we attend is the prayer chain. Parishioners in need of a prayer submit a request to the church by email. The request is forwarded to everyone who’s asked to participate in the prayer chain. There aren’t many rules or guidelines, but there are dozens of reports of grateful parishioners who have felt the love and support of their neighbors, and the healing touch of God.

However, as a recipient of the prayer requests, I sometimes wonder if I’m “doing it right.” On a typical day, we may see three or four prayer requests, and my usual routine is to pause for a moment and say a silent prayer according to the request. Then I delete the email and move on. Is that enough prayer? Should I drop to my knees at that moment (not always practical)? Should I gather up all the requests for a special prayer time before bed that night? Are my prayers sincere enough to get through to God, or do they come off as distracted second-hand mumbling?

The Apostles asked Jesus how they should pray. In response, he gave us, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” He also reminded us to pray together (“Wherever two or more are gathered, I am in their midst…”), to pray often and to pray confidently (“If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you…”). Jesus set the example by praying frequently, sometimes at length, sometimes in just a few words. Sometimes in grateful conversation, and sometimes in painful anguish. Sound familiar?

I don’t consider myself a prayer expert. I think this is an area where I could use a lot of practice and perhaps more of my time should be focused on it. But I also have this feeling that God takes all the prayers we offer and none of them are wasted; no matter how brief, no matter how technically-incorrect. Like a Father admiring his children’s scrawling artwork, God appreciates the effort and the love that goes into our prayers, perhaps more than the words and technique.

God loves us and asks only that we love him in return, and that we talk to him in prayer.


You are no accident

Sorry once again for the long pause between posts. I won’t make excuses; procrastination seems to occupy a large portion of my DNA. I’m working on it.

I had one of those moments yesterday. I was doing some last minute nature-loving at our cabin in the woods and Jesus decided to sit with me and have a talk. The quiet fall day was a perfect setting for a conversation with the Lord, because he always talks to me in a very soft voice. It’s easy to hear Him when you’re sitting on a porch step staring at the orange and brown leaves. The conversation was about purpose.

Prior to my visit with the Almighty, I had been reading a detective novel. Toward the end of the novel, the Chief of Police was telling the main character that “You were put on this earth for a purpose.” In the case of this novel, the detective’s purpose was to solve crime. But it struck me that we were all put here on this earth for a purpose. Each of us has a unique thing to do and a unique path to follow.

It’s tempting sometimes to feel that God has forgotten to tell us our purpose. He hasn’t forgotten. Discovering our purpose is in some mysterious way an integral part of our mission. Life in the flesh is primary school; we can’t graduate to eternal life until we’ve done what we’re assigned down here. But how do we do that? By following your God-given talents. I’ve met a lot of people in my half-century or so of life, and every one of them has a unique batch of talents, interests and opportunities. God set up your kitchen with a specific set of tools and ingredients. Just follow the recipe. Follow your talents; follow your heart. That’s where your mission lies. God’s purpose for you becomes clearer when you use the path God laid out for you.

You see, none of us is here by mistake. The saddest story being told by some of God’s lost children is that we are nothing but an accidental result of a multi-generational DNA mix-and-match. We are the product of random evolution and natural selection. Nonsense. We are the product of evolution, it is true, but there’s nothing random about it. Every hair on your head has been counted (or, in my mid-life case…subtracted). You have been placed where you are for a purpose by a God who knows the name of every sparrow that falls in the woods. You’re a whole lot more important to him than that sparrow.

Our lives may look random to us, but that’s to be expected. We are the creatures, not the creator. We don’t see all the moving parts. But Jesus has. He knows where we are heading.

So, I’m back to writing. I may not be great at it, but it’s the one thing that has always come easily to me; a God-given talent if you will. I didn’t create it; He did. Where will this lead me? I don’t know…I’m just following the path He set for me.

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.

Be God’s Greeter

There’s a very large chain store that for many years hired people to do nothing more than say good morning as you walked in. Their mission was to start the shopping part of your day on a positive note. I am told that the position of “greeter” is no longer being offered. That’s too bad. I don’t begrudge any store their business decisions, and undoubtedly, paying someone to offer up nothing of substance other than a cheery face and a few words of welcome is hardly the most efficient use of human capital. But, from a human perspective, I think Greeter should be the essential job in any corporation.

We all need greeting. We all need to be recognized and made to feel welcome just because we are human. Just because we are here in this place right now. Just because God said we are supposed to love one another, and with most people, smiling and saying hello is about all the loving you’re going to be able to give them.
Greeting isn’t a marriage proposal or a challenge to Repent, for the end is near! Greeting is a sidewalk form of love. It’s one basic way humans can reassure one another that the world is not quite controlled by evil. Like a gang sign or the password of a secret society, greeting is our way of giving our co-conspirators a wink and a nod that says, “Yes, Jesus is still here, and he still loves you…and I’m here for you too.” Greeting is our daily dose of anti-aloneness medicine.

God has long-recognized the vital role that greeting plays in life. Saintly Mother Teresa of Calcutta told the women of her religious order, “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness.” In a book for recovering alcoholics published by the Hazelden Corporation, the thought for February 24 says, “Take all who come to you as sent by God and give them a royal welcome.”

So, I greet you. Good morning! I hope you have a wonderful day. I really do.