Get up. Again.

How many times have you heard the parable of the seed that fell on fertile ground? You know the one I mean; from Chapter 8 of Luke, verses 4-15. “ While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable:  “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”

When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

His disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, “‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.’

“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.  But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.”

I must have heard that particular parable and Jesus’ explanation of it hundreds of times. It’s a good, sturdy, reliable story. But the part that never struck me until now was the last phrase; “by persevering, produce a good crop.” Once again, God is calling me to keep at it.

Earlier this week, our men’s faith sharing group was reading Dan Burke’s book on prayer called, “Into The Deep.” While describing the challenges of meditation as a brain filled with noisy monkeys (it’s a great analogy), Dan acknowledged that, “The world, the flesh and the devil are all arrayed against you. Even so, God is greater than all these forces, and if you cooperate with him and get up every time you fall, you will find greater success than you ever imagined possible.”

I have a rule in my faith. If I see a message twice within a few days, my rule is that God is trying to get my attention. He got it on this one. I don’t have to win. I don’t have to succeed every time I try. God doesn’t hold me accountable for the results. God just asks me to keep the faith and to keep on trying. In prayer, in love, in pursuit of sainthood, victory isn’t achieved through greatness or strength or brilliance. Victory in faith comes when we simply keep returning to Jesus. No matter how we’ve failed, or even how we’ve failed to try; all God asks is that this time we get up once more and accept his love and try again.

Keep the faith.

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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.

 

 

Doubting Thomas

Today is the feast day of Thomas the Apostle, famously known as “Doubting Thomas.” In the modern world, Thomas is remembered as the Apostle who said he would not believe in Jesus’ resurrection unless he touched His crucified hands and put his fingers into the stab wound in the Lord’s side. Jesus granted his request, and the rest is, literally, history. Thomas became a lesson to us all and a reminder that living a Christian life requires us to take some things on faith. Trust, without the “verify.”

Thomas is mentioned at least two other times in the Gospels. First, when Jesus announced that they were going to see Lazarus (who had fallen ill and died). Thomas said to the other disciples, “Let us go and die with him,” knowing that they were returning to an area where official hostility to Jesus was high. And the third mention was during the last supper, when Thomas, probably speaking the doubt that everyone else in the room felt, admitted to Jesus that he did not know “the way” to heaven that Jesus described. This gave Jesus the opportunity to reveal that He Himself is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

There is some dispute about what happened to Thomas after Jesus’ ascension. While it is generally believed that he brought the Gospel to parts of India, it is unclear where and how he died.

Saint Thomas was used by Jesus to show us that our doubts are an inevitable part of our faith. We accept some pretty outrageous things, things that people who insist on hard proofs will never accept. As St. Paul says, “We walk by faith, and not by sight,” (2 Cor 5:7).

Learning to accept those doubts and to move beyond them is one of the first battles that a developing Christian must face, although “battle” is probably the wrong way to say it. Because our challenge is to stop fighting it and accept it. To let Jesus be a part of our life despite the lack of tangible physical evidence. Once we do that, the spiritual evidence will come pouring into our souls. When we give our doubts to Jesus in faith, he gives back to us proof in the form of spiritual grace. And like a torrent on a grass fire, spiritual grace extinguishes doubt.

So, accept those nagging questions. Admit that you wonder why certain things are the way they are. Don’t hide them, set them down at the table the next time you and Jesus are having a quiet cup of coffee. And then be prepared to be amazed.

Quiet Evangelization

The topic of evangelization has always made me squirm. Jesus told us quite clearly to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” (MT 28:19) Jesus’ words and the work of the Catholic Church for centuries is clearly-focused on taking the Good News to all corners of the world. Our work isn’t done until everyone has been given an opportunity to join the Body of Christ, and it’s my job to present those opportunities.

But for a quiet little bookworm like me, that’s scary. The idea of trying to win over an atheist or any non-believer is intimidating; in large part because I don’t feel equipped with “the answers.” What if they ask me something hard, like the definition of Consubstantial, or the Biblical origin of Mary’s virginity? I can’t even recite the Ten Commandments in the correct order.

And there’s the whole 21st Century Political Correctness thing. We have imposed a gag order on ourselves in the name of civility. We don’t talk about religion or politics in polite company. It is a modern rule that we have to avoid saying something that someone might be uncomfortable hearing. (This topic is a whole conversation in itself that we’ll get to another time.)

Once again, my favorite Apostle has come to my rescue. In last Sunday’s second reading, St. Peter tells us that evangelization should be a modest, humble experience. One of my most beloved lines in the Bible comes from the First Book of Peter. In Chapter 3, he tells us that we should “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,” but that we should also “Do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.” The whole book is a good, short read on the topic of humble evangelization.

I don’t have to stand on a soapbox at the corner of Main Street, singing the praises of God. But I do have to live a good life; I do have to love everyone around me (friend and foe). I have to be kind to such an extreme degree that people may think I’m some sort of weirdo, but I don’t have to shout about it. I just need to do it. And if anyone asks, I have to give credit where credit is due: Jesus made me do it.

Perhaps as important as all of that, I also need to spend time in prayer so that I have the explanation if someone asks for it. Could I answer the question right now if someone asked me? Why am I absolutely, rock-solid, no doubt, Hallelujah!-convinced that Jesus is God’s only “begotten” son and that we all have a share in the eternal kingdom? Perhaps that’s an even more difficult task.

Let’s talk some more about this next week.

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”?

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

Following Jesus home

In Chapter 5 of Mark’s gospel, Jesus drives a legion of demons out of a man. Overjoyed, the man begs to go along with Jesus, to drop everything and follow him like the Apostles did. Instead, Jesus tells him no, “Go home to your own people, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” Sometimes our missionary journey is to our own dinner table or family room.

My personal Catholic journey didn’t start in a church. Well, I guess technically and formally it did. I was baptized in a church and received the sacraments there. But my true understanding of Jesus and the seeds that sprouted into a loving relationship with him began at our family dinner table. My parents were devout, old-fashioned Catholics. During the 1950s they were part of a Catholic youth movement and in their retirement years they were frequent attendees of Catholic retreats. But most of all, my parents loved to talk. Our dinner table was almost always a lively place of conversation. And often that conversation was about religion. Because of their upbringing, both Mom and Dad had a pretty fair grasp of the details of Catholicism and they were also willing to express their opinions and to listen to mine. (They also didn’t hesitate to disagree with me when my opinion was on the flakey side).

Whenever you talk to a person who is passionate about their topic, it is often the passion, rather than any specific fact or statement of opinion that sways you to their point of view. And my parents were passionate about Christianity in general and Catholicism specifically. Looking back it is clear that their passion laid the foundation for my own faith.

My parents were not famous. They were not grand orators, or studied authors or theologians. It’s doubtful that they are on the Vatican’s short list for Canonization. They were simply two people who loved Jesus and who loved their children. They passed on their love.

It all starts with faith.

Everything starts with Faith.

Because faith is confidence. Confidence that God has your back.

If God has your back, you will never look over your shoulder in fear.

Confidence gives you courage. Courage to move ahead boldly.

Courage allows you to serve. To serve your fellows without fear, without shame, without embarrassment.

Service gives you joy. Joy in God. Joy in yourself. Joy in the company of others.

It all starts with faith. Pray for faith.

 

Facing Up to My Hypocrisy

I am a hypocrite. I claim to follow Jesus and to live my life according to his word, but that’s not true. In at least one way, I am defying the will of the Lord. “Sell everything you own and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Luke 18:22)  I can’t do that.

I truly struggle with this. I know that possessions occupy too much of my time. I am not wealthy, but I am comfortable. I own two houses, two cars, nice clothes, books, electronics, et al. They distract me from living a life of service to others; in other words, from living according to God’s word. But I also know that I will not give them up. I have a family to support; I have bills to pay. These things seem necessary parts of my life.

I have put this on God’s altar. I don’t have the courage to literally offer him all that I possess, but this much I can do: I offered up my fear of poverty, my love for material things, and I offered  him my unwillingness. I have prayed to God to make me willing to give these things up.

And I prayed for trust. Trust, because that same bible chapter says that we will receive 100 times more of these things in this lifetime, plus eternal life in the next. Trust because later in that same chapter, when people say, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus responds, “For man this is impossible, but for God nothing is impossible.” God is not calling us to live a life of poverty; he is calling us to live a life of complete trust in his will. Trust in His will, not our own. That is the key.

Because it’s not the possessions, it’s the attachment to those possessions. It’s not the money, it’s the love of the money. It’s not the clinging to financial security, it’s the lack of trust in God.

Pray for me, Brothers and Sisters.

An Easter resolution?

Lately, I’ve been thinking that Easter is when we should make our new years resolutions. It is the beginning of the church year, after all. And it marks the beginning of new life for Christians. What better time for resolving to live one or more parts of your life in closer harmony with Jesus?

I think this year I will resolve not to fear. Why fear? Because fear keeps us away from being close to God, and fear is also a sign of that distance. If we’re afraid, we’re not connected to God.

Think about it. Think about the time you were worried about your job, or your health, or your spouse’s job, or health, or your son’s relationship, or the price of a barrel of oil or unrest in the Middle East. Think about the worst possible outcome in each case. You or someone you love ends up on the other side of eternity. That’s it, The End; the big D.

And now let’s think about the next question: do you believe in God, in Jesus, in Heaven? Do you believe all that stuff you claim to believe every Sunday? Yes? Good; me too.

So let’s stir those two ideas together and ponder them for a bit. The worst thing that can happen to you or to your loved ones on this earth is you leave it. But you know that when you leave it, you’ll be with Jesus. And every tear is wiped away, every pain, every suffering, every worry ceases to exist. You will be in the presence of God, the One we describe as “Love.” Sit back and think about that.

When Jesus was arrested, the Apostles scattered like sheep. Peter was so terrified of what was going on that he denied, with curse words, that he had ever known Jesus. But then after the Lord’s resurrection the Apostles told everyone they came upon the good news. And they wouldn’t quit, even under penalty of death. The authorities arrested them, threatened them, beat them, jailed them, and the Apostles sang, and laughed and went right back to preaching. What changed?

Jesus changed. Jesus changed the rules by showing that we are not creatures of the Earth; we are creatures of a love-filled eternity. He showed us that death is the wonderful beginning, not the horrible end. Jesus conquered death. He also conquered fear. It is Easter; Jesus lives and fear no longer exists.

Happy Easter.