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.

Thy will be done

Your will be done

Sometimes, I hate those words. I finish all of my prayer times by saying; “your will be done.” I lay out all of the needs that I have for myself and the people around me, and I offer up my requests for the day. And then I close with, “thy will be done.” But oftentimes that’s not what I really want.

The willful, self-centered me wants it my way. I am the man in the midst of the action, and whether it’s healing, guidance, a miracle or a parking space, I can clearly see the right solution for the world’s needs; or at least for my needs. Dear God, I’m humble, but please trust my judgement in this case.

I was sitting in church yesterday, marveling at the people around me. To my left was a family whose daughter was in the hospital suffering, and yet here they were at mass, asking God for strength. Behind me was a wife sitting by herself because her husband was at home recovering from having donated a kidney. In front of me sat a shy man who was no doubt thinking about a speech he was to give that night about his struggles to find God. Over there, an empty spot where an elderly couple had sat. Empty because the wife was in her final hours on earth, and her husband was at her side. Your will be done.

God, you have given us each our own path to walk. Each one of those paths is different. We will enjoy great moments and we will despair during great trials. You have given us self-will, to decide how to react to the obstacles, challenges and gifts that we will encounter in our path. We can tell you that the path is just too hard, and turn away. We can soldier on miserably. We can jump off the path and decide to make our own way if it looks like our way makes more sense. Or we can simply walk forward, one more step at a time; trusting that this is the right path for us.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was terrified. He knew what was coming and he was in agony, so much so, that he literally “sweated blood,” (see Luke 22:44).  He could see the next obstacle; the cross. He had a choice to make. He could have chosen to walk away. He begged God for another way out. But he closed his prayers with, “They will be done.” And because he did, he saved my life.

I doubt that I’ll be faced with the agonizing choice Jesus had to make. My obstacles are more of the, “do I say bad things about that guy or don’t I?” variety. “Do I give or do I withhold?” “Do I go, or do I stay?” I cannot save the entire world, as Jesus did. But I can relieve a little bit of suffering here and there. I can share a burden or two. I can make this small spot on earth just a little better for the people around me today.

What would Jesus do?

Thy will be done.

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.

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.

Another Holy Week begins

Last Friday, I attended two funerals. Two men I have worked with passed away. They were not young, but they left this earth short of a full life’s ride, and their passings were sad occasions. The two men did not know one another. They lived several hours apart. One of them was a former boss I liked while the other had served on a nonprofit board with me. They were two good men who did good things in their lives and now will be missed by the rest of us.

Being a couple of hours apart meant I had plenty of alone time in my car to think before and between the two funerals. As a result, by the end of the day Friday, I was pretty sad. And then came Saturday evening’s Palm Sunday gospel, which tells the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus rode into town to the cheers of the crowd, only to find himself arrested right after the Passover Holiday dinner. Needless to say, this was not my singing and dancing weekend.

In an uncomfortable way, though, I have to say I appreciate God’s timing. I can sit and mope about how mean our ancestors were to Jesus and how sad we should be that he was killed. But I can only do that if I ignore that which I know comes next. In less than seven days, we will be singing the “Gloria” at mass again, because Jesus showed us that death is the beginning, not the end.

In the same way, I can miss my friends Mike and Jerry. I can be sad that they were ill and didn’t live as many years with us as we would have liked. I will not be able to hear their wit and their wisdom any more. But just as I am confident that Jesus overcame death, I am confident that both Jerry and Mike did too. And that they are now enjoying the real life, the eternal life, and the life without tears, illness and pain.

Holy Week is a sober, somber week for me. I can easily get pulled into a sad place, thinking about the suffering of Christ. But Holy Week always ends the same way. We are not meant to remain sad, and we do not have to fear death. We know how this story ends, and it is a terrific ending.

I miss you, Jerry and Mike. But I will see you again soon. Because Jesus went there before you and has shown us the Way.

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 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.

 

Forgive to live

God’s pretty sneaky sometimes. Take forgiveness for example. Jesus told Peter to turn the other cheek not seven times, not seventy times, but seventy-times-seven times. In other words, always. But what Jesus didn’t tell Peter, at least not directly, is that the forgiveness was for Peter’s benefit, not the benefit of the other person. We have to forgive to live.

Anger, resentment and jealousy kill us from the inside. According to an article posted on WebMD.com, one study said people who are frequently angry are 19% more likely to have a heart attack, and within the group of people with heart disease, angry people are more likely to have worse health outcomes than people who are calm. Anger kills.

Negative emotions are also contagious. In my own case, I have often seen that my mood impacts how I interact with other people. If I’m feeling grouchy, I’m more likely to snap at my wife, grandchildren, the dog, squirrels, other drivers, et al. And guess what happens to them? Yep, they are more snarly and snappy. Anger begets anger.

Today’s Gospel has Jesus telling his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. So, along with your Fitbit and your goal of fewer sugar snacks today, if you really want to be healthy, follow Jesus advice. In the words of St. John, “Little children, love one another.”

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.

Amen.

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.