God’s not in the noise

The Catholic Church is big. It’s complicated. It’s old. But it’s also very, very simple. The Catholic church is you and Jesus. Too often we lose sight of that. We get caught up in the complexity and forget the simplicity. We stare at the bark on each of the trees and we miss the incredible forest.  But the forest is still there.

I love the history and the mystery of the Church. I love to pick up the Catechism and wade through its thousands of paragraphs of Church doctrine. Every time I do that, I learn something I did not know before. Or I take the time to listen to a new author talking about one aspect or the other of Christianity. Scott Hahn, Edward Sri, Bishop Robert Barron, Matthew Kelly, Steven Ray, and dozens of other scholars and teachers who come up with new ways of looking at things that I had (theoretically) known since childhood. And I learn something.

But now and then I get lost in that learning. I find that I have instituted five different morning prayer regimens from three separate inspirational books. I find a pile of books on my reading table, almost all of them half-finished. There are scraps of paper, journals, and computer files filled with notes and ideas that were started and not completed. My Bible becomes a forest of bookmarks.

This weekend my wife and I went to Mass Saturday night. My mind was buzzing with different spiritual ideas, people I needed to pray for, intentions that needed attending and glories that needed me to glorify them. I knelt down before Mass and started through my litany of prayers. “God, Thy will be done, and can you take care of Mrs. So and So, and help my son with that problem, guide my coworker through the other thing, and, oh, yes, thank you for this gift of creation and please guide me to hear what I need to hear in Mass today, and give my in-laws good-health.”

I stopped to take a spiritual breath before diving into a scrutiny of my sins and successes and whatever else I’d forgotten to list, when that still, small voice said, “Hush.” The voice didn’t say much else; it didn’t need to. God’s very good at getting his message across with a minimum of extra words. I sat back and listened. And I’m still listening this morning. The books and notes and bookmarks are all still there. But for now, I’m listening. Waiting for that “tiny whispering sound” that Elijah heard and knew was the voice of God.

Our human nature calls us to fill our days with thoughts, activities, deeds and distractions. Our modern culture fills any gaps that remain with even more noise. But God still whispers, and waits for us to hear.

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.

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.

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.

A fun new activity for you and your spouse

Here’s something new that you and your spouse ought to do: pray together at bedtime. I suspect many of you figured this out a long time ago; I’m a bit of a slow learner in some areas. Couples should pray together. Linda and I attend mass regularly, say prayers at meal time, etc., but a regular moment of bedtime prayer was not part of our routine. She went her way with spiritual readings and I went mine (prayers followed by a junky novel).

But then I read the Book of Tobit. Specifically, the story of Sarah, who’d been married seven times only to have each of her husbands killed by a demon on their wedding night. Sarah was at her wit’s end and considered hanging herself in shame. Rather than do that, she prayed to God, who sent the Archangel Raphael. Sarah married Tobit’s son, Tobias. At Raphael’s instruction, they prayed together on their wedding night, and lived. The demon was banished, Tobit was healed of cataracts that had blinded him and they all lived happily ever after.

So, am I worried that I’m going to get strangled by a demon when I go to bed at night? No. The story triggered a memory of something else I’d read, something more modern. You’ve all seen the grim divorce statistics, right? But if you dig around you’ll find another statistic out there that couples who pray together are far, far more likely to remain married. In fact, one version of the statistic says that the rate of divorce among active Christians who pray together as a couple is less than one-percent. Prayer works.

Linda & I are coming up on our 36th wedding anniversary. After three-dozen years, I’m not too worried that I’ll come home one day and find my stuff on the lawn and a handful of papers from a divorce lawyer in her hand. But one of the reasons I’m not too worried about that is that we never assume we have learned everything there is to know about being in love and being married. Making a little more time for a little more prayer sounds like a perfect thing for a married couple to add to their love life.

Nothing but a prayer

It’s Monday again. The weekend is over, the Packer’s lost to the 49’ers, the Badgers crushed Tennessee Tech, the lawn got mowed, the flowers weeded and we went to mass yesterday morning. A typical weekend, or as The Monkees might have said back in the 1970’s, “Another Pleasant Valley Sunday.” Except that millions of Christians, Muslims and Jews came together around the world to pray for peace.

Did Saturday’s day of prayer for peace in Syria make a difference? All prayers make a difference. No, the guns weren’t magically silenced, but seeds have been planted. Now we need to water them. Keep praying, Christian Revolutionaries. God is listening and the world is changing, whether you can see it or not.

C.S. Lewis said that prayer doesn’t change God, it changes me. Prayer moves us closer to the center of creation, which is Jesus. Regardless of when God chooses to guide Syria back to sanity, the most important seed of all is this one: On Saturday, we joined hands with our brothers and sisters all around the world, and the world took one giant step closer to that center. That was the first miracle; I can’t wait to see the next ones.

Will you answer his call

Pope Francis has called for a worldwide day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria tomorrow. Will you answer his call, or will you say no?

Country after country in the Middle East has been torn by radical violence, civil unrest, and outright war. Billions of dollars and millions of souls have been lost to terror bombs, air strikes and the pestilence that always follows violence. Will you answer his call, or will you say no?

The government of Syria has allegedly done the unthinkable, unleashing poison gas on its own people. Rebels kill soldiers, radicals kill Christians, and the innocent are caught in between. Will you answer his call or will you say no?

Our country and the rest of the civilized world are near wit’s end. We know that to not respond is to encourage more evil, but we fear that a violent response will open the door to even more evil. Our President and other leaders are only human, and have only human tools at their disposal. Will you answer his call, or will you say no?

Jesus calls us to rely on him in small things and in great things. Remember how Jesus sent his disciples out two-by-two to heal the sick and cast out demons, but they could not exorcise a demon that had possessed a young boy? After Jesus expelled the demon, he explained to his disciples that some evils can only be removed by prayer and fasting. Will you answer his call, or will you say no?

They Found the “miracle priest”

I’m sure many of you have been following the Missouri news story about the”miracle priest,” who seemingly appeared and then disappeared from the scene of a serious car accident. For several days, media all over the world were abuzz with speculation about this apparent angel who did not show up in any photographs of the scene, and was known to no one. He showed up, said a prayer with the victim and rescuers, and was gone.

It turns out that he is a real flesh and blood pastor from a real parish. Father Patrick Dowling from Jefferson City, Missouri happened to be driving that particular highway that particular day and stopped to offer help. In his words, “I did what every priest I know would have done.”

So, no angel from heaven, no “divine intervention,” on this one. But, wait just one second. Before we all turn and walk away, I think it’s worth reading Fr. Dowling’s story. Take a second to follow this link to a Catholic News Service article about it.

Now that’s a miracle.

God is a foodie

Today’s readings were guaranteed to get my attention: they talk about food. God tells Moses in the old testament and the Christian disciples in the new testament that providing for everyone may be a challenge for us, but it’s a snap for God. He also tells us that His menu is unlimited.

In chapter eleven of the Book of Numbers Moses is despairing (again) about the Israelites who were complaining (again) about food. By now they’d been wandering around in the desert for several years, and the miracle of the manna that fell from heaven every night had grown old. We’re tired of bread, bread, bread, was the refrain. “Would that we had meat for food!” So Moses throws up his hands (again). “I cannot carry all this people by myself, for they are too heavy for me,” he said to God.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples to feed the crowd of over 5,000. But, like Moses, the disciples replied that this was one short order they could not cook on their own. “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here,” they told him, probably looking pretty overwhelmed. Without missing a beat, Jesus blessed the loaves and the fish and fed the whole group, leaving a dozen baskets full of leftovers.

Like most Bible stories, there are several themes we can take away from these two. On the one hand, God proves that what is difficult for you and I is easy for Him. He uses a universal human need (to eat!) to show his omnipotence. But he also shows his compassion; providing for our wants (meat, too, please) as well as our needs. He also demonstrates the power of prayer; in both the old and the new testament versions of this food-for-the-hungry story God waits for the people to come to him before providing what he knew they would need.

I’m sure Bible scholars would tell us there are even more meanings in those stories. Is it a coincidence, for example, that there were 12 baskets left over (12 Tribes of Israel), or that Jesus “said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples,”? (Sounds like the Last Supper and the Eucharist to me.) There’s no single “point” to the story, but there are an almost unlimited number of messages to help “feed” our souls today.

I wonder whether perhaps the next time I’m bored listening to the same old Bible readings, I should start listening a little harder. Are they ever truly, “the same”?