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.

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.

Holy Week is Humble Week

In his homily yesterday (Palm Sunday), Pope Francis said we should follow Jesus this week, and that the path we should follow is a humble one. On Palm Sunday we remember how Jesus came into Jerusalem as a hero. As he rode into town it was like a parade, with people laying palm branches in front of him just as they would do for a new king. But Jesus wasn’t heading for his castle and a throne. Within days he would be arrested, put through a kangaroo court, convicted of a made up charge, abandoned by his friends, stripped, beaten and then crucified. So much for the hero.

Looked at through human eyes, we know that it didn’t have to be that way. Jesus could raise people from the dead, he could walk through crowds trying to stone him; surely the petty plans of jealous leaders didn’t need to end in His death. One of the wonders of the cross is that, yes, Jesus could have come down from the cross or summoned legions of angels to help him. But he didn’t.

He didn’t because the humiliation of God was necessary in order to accomplish God’s purpose. In this most graphic, brutal and humiliating way God shows us that His way is not the way of power or success. We aren’t going to get to Heaven by fighting our way to the front of the church. We get there by offering our place to someone else. We get there by how we treat others, particularly those others who are poor and hungry, perhaps dirty and homeless.

Today is the Feast Day of St. Dismas; the first person to be canonized. Dismas was the thief crucified next to Jesus. He acknowledged that he was guilty of the crimes for which he’d been crucified, but he asked Jesus to forgive him; to take him along to Heaven. And Jesus said yes. How’s that for a lesson in humility? The very first saint was a man who lived a disreputable, criminal life; a man who (apparently) didn’t repent of his sins until just moments before his own death. And God promised him paradise.

The way of the world is not God’s way. Our struggles to “get to the top,” in life, in business, or in society are of no interest to Him whatsoever. And they are of no credit to you in God’s plan. A grubby little thief got there ahead of you. He took the humble way.

The smart person’s dilemma

Why is faith so hard for smart people? I struggle with that question sometimes. There seems to be a vague prejudice out there that says you have to be rather dense to believe in all that stuff in the Bible. Do “they” know something “we” don’t know? Are they aware of some cosmic fact or formula that “proves” God doesn’t exist? Are they smarter than God?

There are plenty of smart people who are also faith-filled. Many of the popes were multi-lingual scholars, experts in their fields. Lots of scientists understand that they can explore creation and still be children playing at the feet of the Creator. The basis of the Big Bang Theory, the Expanding Universe Theory, was proposed by a Catholic Priest, Georges Lemaitre, in 1925. Theologian Peter Kreeft has commented that there are no conflicts between true Catholic doctrine and true scientific observations, none.

So the “conflict” between faith and reason is only a conflict if we want it to be. God doesn’t have a problem with us poking, prodding and postulating about His creation. He put it here for us to manage. It stands to reason that He also expects us to learn about His creation.

Perhaps the conflict isn’t between what’s real and what’s not. It is not a “faith-versus-reason,” argument. Maybe the real conflict is about who’s in charge. Maybe that’s what Jesus is talking about when He told us that we need to “become like children,” to enter the Kingdom. It’s a question of humility rather than a question of IQ. He isn’t telling us to close our eyes and be ignorant. He’s telling us to open our eyes and be amazed.

Bad news, Christian bloggers

I may be writing myself out of a job with this one. Perfect followers of Jesus don’t need a book, blog, or weekend seminar to know the lord. In fact, literacy, higher learning and lots of smarts are probably more of a liability than an asset when it comes to having a deep faith. Don’t get mad at me; it was Jesus’ idea, not mine.

In Chapter 10 of Mark’s gospel, Jesus gave his disciples a verbal wrist-slap when they tried to keep children away from Jesus, and he said, “Truly, I tell you, anyone who will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” In case that lesson wasn’t clear enough, he told them that the teensy little seed of a mustard plant had more faith than they did. Nowhere in the gospels does Jesus give a disciple a pat on the back for being brilliant. Nobody got an Almighty fist-bump for knowing the ten commandments in order or the precise location of Jacob’s well. God likes the simple approach. Him, you, love, repeat. That’s it. Not complicated, scholarly or confusing.

This of course, leaves us with an obvious question (not to mention a lot of surplus word processors and office paper). Why did he give you the ability to write, read, and reason? Why do we have curiosity? Why did He create DaVinci, what is the point of Augustine and who needed John Paul II? And what are we doing here with a cup of coffee and a tablet computer at 5:30 in the morning?

His gifts, including the gifts of wisdom, knowledge and communication, exist for a reason. God did not create the universe and drop leftovers. Every atom, tear drop, word and university exists for a reason. That includes your PhD in art history. And it includes all of our current brilliant theologians. They are here to help guide us. The simple reality is that we are not “perfect” believers. We were born with natures that draw us away from God.

Worldly education and worldly base pleasures lead us to worldly answers. God put gifts of knowledge in the world to act as signposts, guiding us back to our eternal home. For many of us, the road home leads through the library. For others, it’s the laboratory, and for still others, the pulpit. Our Father calls each of us in a language as unique as we are. Learning is a way of listening to His voice.

The challenge is to accept that no matter how smart we are, it’s God, not us, who knows the way. Approaching God in simplicity and faith requires humility. And the smarter we are, the harder it can be to maintain that humility. We get in our own way. No matter how much we learn, we will always be first grade students. Knowledge and learning should always be a part of our growth as eternal beings. And so should humility

Keep the faith. Keep it simple.

What is the dumbest apology you’ve ever had to make?

The apology is one of God’s greatest tools. Apologies re-open doors, they heal two people at one time, they rebuild relationships, but best of all, they are great humility-builders. Believe me on that last one. Over the years, I have had to offer atonement for some of the dumbest reasons imaginable.

Unfortunately, I don’t seem to be growing any wiser. Take this morning for example. I had to take my wife into my arms, look into her beautiful brown eyes and say these words: “I am sorry for getting mad at you because you were thoughtful and caring.”

Oh, sure, laugh. That’s exactly what she did. Almost hysterically, in fact. Can you blame her? How in the world does someone get angry over being cared about? That’s a blog post of its own, and I will write it just as soon as I figure out that goofy little character flaw in myself. But today’s post is about the humility of apologies.

What’s your best apology story? Let’s have a whole string of stories about the best…or maybe the silliest…acts of human atonement. Maybe it will grow into an apologizers-anonymous group. We could call it “A,OK?”

“Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (MT 5:23-24).

Human, Humble, Humus..hum……

So, is it a coincidence that all three of those words start with the same three letters? Actually, it’s not. Human and humble are both derived from humus, which is a Latin word for earth or dirt. And, in case you’re wondering where the word scientists (etymologist is not a very humble word) came up with it, go back to the third chapter of Genesis, and re-read the second part of verse 19. “Remember, man, you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return.” That was God’s parting shot to Adam right before he and Eve got kicked out of the Garden for breaking the rules. God wanted to remind the fallen Adam that he was a simple creation, made out of dirt, and that his body would return to that dirt. We humans have some pretty humble beginnings down there in the humus.

I was disappointed to learn that another “hum…” word wasn’t cut from the same clod. I think “humor” should be one of the essential words describing us humble, humus-derived humans. Let’s face it, if the thought that you are God’s mud-carving doesn’t make you laugh at yourself, nothing will.

And humor seems to fit so well into the man-as-mulch relationship. After all, what emotion do we turn to more than any other when we want to put ourselves back onto more even ground, humility-wise? Humor. We laugh at ourselves as a self-policing mechanism. It’s very hard to take yourself too seriously when you are laughing. We use humor to cheer ourselves and others. Humor has a way of making giant bad things seem smaller. Scientists discovered a long time ago that humor has restorative powers. If man is earth, humor is fertilizer.

Humor is derived from a 13th century medical term for the fluids of the body. Humor has as its root the word meaning humid, or wet. Doctors at the time believed that humans had four different types of internal fluids, called “humors,” and those humors determined your general physical and mental health. If you got sick, they figured your humors were out of balance. But that’s just not funny. I don’t get it. Humor has far more in common with humble dirt than with icky people-juice. I think the etymologists got this one mixed up.

What do you think, fellow earthers?

God plans, we plan. I choose His.

In the first reading this Sunday, King David had a great idea. He was going to build God a house. He felt bad that he lived in a really nice place (probably had a pool and a three-chariot garage). God lived in a tent. Nathan, God’s prophet and advisor to the king agreed that it was a neat idea. Imagine it; Israel’s strong and mighty King David. Money would be no object, and you can bet he’d have built God the most awesome house in the neighborhood. God told him otherwise. God wanted David to do other things. His son, Solomon, would get to be God’s contractor.

Contrast that with God’s plan in Sunday’s Gospel. He would have an unmarried, barely-literate, poor teenage girl conceive a child, and that child would be the Son of God. Hmmm, King of an entire nation; wealthy, powerful, David, or humble, uneducated simple Mary of Nazareth. Whose plan would you choose?

Over and again we opt for the big and powerful, only to see our plans fall flat. We look for wealth, influence, and education. God looks for simplicity, humility, and faith. We look for earthly success. God looks for eternal joy.

St. Peter is my favorite

I like St. Peter, because he reminds me so much of myself: a bonehead. And that gives me hope. If God can use a simple fisherman whose greatest talent seemed to be sticking his foot in his mouth, perhaps God can use me too.

The four gospels are filled with several examples of St. Peter screwing up or saying something foolish. Or, if not foolish, then rash and impetuous. After all, who else gave walking on water a try, just because he saw Jesus doing it? Or which of the other apostles argued with Jesus when Christ told them he was to be crucified? And who thumped his chest at the last supper and vowed that others might run away, but he never would? Let’s face it; St. Peter talked first and thought second.

And yet Peter was Jesus’ chosen one from the earliest times of his ministry. Peter, fast-talking, slow-thinking Peter, was selected to be the cornerstone of Christianity. The rock, upon which we all stand two thousand years later. After receiving the Holy Spirit, it was Peter who first stood up to the authorities, and who led the apostles in the creation of the church. Time and time again in the Acts of the Apostles, we see Peter opposing authorities regardless of the consequences, preaching the word of God, and leading his fellow disciples. St. Peter, the man who Jesus once referred to as, “Satan,” became the voice of God on Earth.

If God can do that with a simple fisherman, why would you ever think your life is hopeless? Just as God made Peter, He made you. Just as God had a purpose for Peter, He has a purpose for you. Like Peter, though, we have to accept that we are here to fulfill God’s purpose, not our own. Along with his shortcomings, Peter had the humility to accept that without God, he was nothing. With God, he could do anything.