God whispers

God whispers

As I was settling into my prayer and meditation chair, I took a quick peek at emails. I received one from an employee who was going on for four paragraphs about a particular problem that she wanted me to fix. Poof! Instead of quiet meditation, my mind was now occupied with chastising her. Not the real her; my mind was doing a one-man, one-act play of me chastising her. A total waste of energy, but I couldn’t get it out of my head.

But then I remembered what an older gentleman once told me: if someone is annoying you and you can’t stop thinking ill thoughts of them, say a prayer for them. I said a short prayer asking God to give the employee an enjoyable weekend. And the irritation and obsession went away. The employee’s concern still needs to be addressed, but my irritation is gone. And that portion of my head is now clear for more useful things.

Our God is often the God of small things. While God certainly works on the big stuff, in my everyday life I see His handiwork most often in the everyday things. In prayers like that about adjusting my obsession. In granting the grace to get through a personal situation calmly or lovingly. God is the God of All, but often mostly the small.

Is that because the small stuff is easier, or is that because the small stuff is what 90% of life consists of? I suspect it’s the latter. Most of our life is comprised of day to day, moment to moment interactions, connections, irritations, decisions and actions. Think about it; which do you say more often: “I do,” “It’s a Girl!,” “I will go to the Prom with you,” and “Get me the nuclear launch codes,” or “Yup,” “Nope,” “I’ll have it for you in an hour,” “yes, please” and “I’m working on it.” Perhaps we see God in our daily actions because that’s the stuff of life and God lives right here with us.

Our God is an awesome God. He created the stars and the earth and humanity and heaven. He told the atom which way to spin and He bound all of existence together according to a set of natural and moral laws that we have only begun to understand.

But God is found in a whisper. God does not roar. God hugs, God soothes, God corrects and He guides. I can’t hear my God when I am loud or when the world around me is loud. I need to draw back into calm and quiet to hear the Almighty’s counsel.  And when I do, He is there. Without fail.

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.

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.

Jesus the man, Jesus the God

Happy Easter! Once again, God reminds us of his over-the-top, perfect, all-consuming love for you and I. He gave us everything to show us the path to both earthly and eternal joy.

Jesus the man gave us the ultimate human gift: his life. But he gave more than that. He lived among us, teaching us new ways of looking at life and at each other. He gave us a model for living that has endured for thousands of years and that is so effective it underlies the social structure of half the world. He endured humiliation, punishment, and a painful, gruesome, and worst of all an unjust, death. And at the climax of his undeserved agony, he asked God to forgive his tormenters, because, he said, they didn’t realize what they were doing. Jesus the man gave humanity a new Way to live.

Jesus the Christ gave us even more. He endured our abuse of him, our humiliation and, worst of all, our turning away from him. The One who created the world and the people of the world allowed those same people to kill their creator. He demonstrated for us what the truest love looks like. We rejected him, but he never lost faith in us and never turned away from us. And then he gave us even more.

He rolled aside the stone that lay between life and death to show us that there need not be “death.” Our God allowed himself to die in the flesh to show us that the flesh will rise again, and that the spirit never dies. Jesus went to Heaven, where there is no pain, no suffering, no tears. But he didn’t stay there. He returned to us. After all we had put him through, he came back to us to show us in the most convincing way possible that there truly is a heaven, that there is a place for us there, and the Way to get there is to simply walk hand in hand with Him.

…and I haven’t even started talking about the gift of God as the Holy Spirit. More on that later..

God bless you, and may you and your family have a most blessed Easter.

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.

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.

Don’t say it, PRAY it

Catholic confession time!.How many of you are willing to admit that sometimes Mass is boring? Come on; be honest with me. There have been times when the Priest’s message seems to be about as meaningful as the hum of an electric dryer and your own responses about as automatic as the recording that says, “Thank you for calling. Your call is important to us. Please listen carefully to the following options…” Many of us, particularly those of us who were born and raised in the Faith, get so used to what we hear in church that we could repeat it in our sleep. (In fact, there has been a Sunday morning or two when we have nodded off.)

My own personal struggle is tied to the King-James-ization of the prayers. I’m like one of Pavlov’s famous trained dogs. I may not salivate when I hear a dinner bell (well, yes I do, but that’s another story), but I get woozy whenever I hear words that were not written for 21st century ears. When I hear the words “thee,” “thy” or “thou” my lights go out. It’s an automatic response. What’s a sleepy, undisciplined, yet earnest Catholic to do?

Try this: don’t SAY the prayers, PRAY the prayers. Have a conversation with You Know Who. When it’s time for the Our Father, lift up your hands, close your eyes and picture God standing in front of you. And then TALK to him. TELL him that his name is “hallowed,” that you believe his wonderful kingdom is coming and that you accept his will for you and for all of creation. ASK him to provide you with the bread you need to get through today. Apologize and ASK FORGIVENESS for pulling that cute girl’s hair in third grade and fudging your taxes last year, and assure him that you FORGIVE that little girl for sticking her tongue out at you and you forgive the IRS for, well, being the IRS. ASK your Abba to keep you out of mischief. And then say AMEN! like you really mean it.

It’s reality that many parts of the Mass cannot be ad libbed. We need to use the same words to keep from sounding like a pet shop at feeding time. But whether those words have meaning to us individually is up to us individually. We are praying together as a community, but we are also speaking to God personally and directly. In every part of the mass, regardless of whether it’s the Priest, the Lector, the Cantor, the Choir or yourself, God is always part of the conversation; He’s either speaking or listening. Use the words of the Mass to talk with Him.

It’s a Holy conversation between Ye and He.

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.

 

Does God cry?

I have often wondered whether God cries. God is all powerful and one would think He is too strong to cry. He is the great I Am, the Alpha, the Omega and everything in between. As modern scholar/philosopher/filmmaker Father Robert Barron puts its, God is so immense and unfathomable that, “if you understand, that’s not God.”

But does God cry? We know He gets angry. The Bible is filled with anecdotes of God’s anger boiling up over our faith-ancestors’ adolescent actions. People are getting smited right and left in the old testament. In modern terms, Jesus “lost it” in the temple when he chased all the money changers out with a home made whip. The word “Anger” might not be as common a phrase in the Bible as hope, charity or faith, but it’s definitely in the top fifty Google searches.

And we know He gets happy. Especially when one of us lost sheep finds our way home. “I tell you there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Lk 15:17). God feels anger, God feels joy, and God IS love. So does God weep?

I think He does. After all, for every one of those lost sheep who come home, how many are led astray to their death? How many people around us are dead in faith, captives of worldly pleasure? If God rejoices over the one who was lost and is found, surely he is heartbroken by the one thousand who become lost and are never found. To know love is to know pain. How much more for the one who IS love?

One of my most painful childhood memories is my mother sobbing over a favorite antique dish that two of her rambunctious children had broken (my brother pushed me). It wasn’t the scolding that hurt, it was Mom’s tears. It was the sadness that remained after the anger. Knowing my foolishness had caused pain to this beautiful woman who I loved was worse than any punishment she may have dished out.

Does God cry?