Sunday, January 30, 2011

Blessed Are the Poor In Spirit


Humility is one of the most important virtues of our faith because it enables us to put God’s will first in our lives.  Pride, on the other hand, has a way of making our own wills more important than God’s.  Zephaniah the prophet spoke to the Jewish people encouraging them to put aside the pagan religious practices they embraced during their time of exile.  The Jewish people intermarried with pagans and they lost their identity which was rooted in the covenant relationship they shared with God.  They had become complacent, overly comfortable with foreign ways of worshiping false idols. 

St. Paul admonished the members of the Christian Church in Corinth to seek greater unity in their faith.  The community was divided into different camps that had their own evangelical heroes.  Each group thought they were smarter and better than the others.  Saint Paul said that none of them were all that important or wise before they were baptized, and they were acting quite foolishly after they were baptized.   He said that God chooses weak and lowly people because they boast in God who is the Lord of their lives.  Instead they were boasting about how great their own little groups were, while they hated the rest of their brothers and sisters in the faith.

Human nature does not seem to have changed much.  We so easily fall into the understanding that we are better off living our lives in our own ways; worshiping our own idols and gods, seeing our own wills and desires as more important than God’s will.  We do this in our pride because that’s what seems to make the most sense.  It seems much more logical to trust ourselves because of what we can see, feel and do with our lives.  We so easily trust our own rules for living, our own sense of morality and our quest for enrichment, happiness and contentment over the peace of salvation Christ offers us. 

Steve and Pat were married in 1973, two years after Steve returned from Viet Nam.  They were married in the Catholic Church because they were baptized Catholics.  However, neither of them had been practicing the faith. They didn’t feel they needed the Church.  Nor did they feel the Church needed them. 

They worked hard to keep their marriage strong, though, and that was a challenge because Steve had terrible bouts with depression and anxiety caused by what he experienced in Viet Nam.  He had painful nightmares.  There were times when he would be filled with uncontrollable and inconsolable rage.  He would lash out at Pat and the children with harsh, abusive language.  Ultimately, Pat would send him to a psychiatrist who helped him with medications and therapy.

These episodes always caused tremendous anguish in Pat’s life.  There were times when his irrational temper was so abusive she was convinced that she could never love him again, and she doubted that he ever loved her.  One lonely night after a very bad fight, Steve went to the basement to be alone, and Pat just sat at the dining room table with a copy of the liturgy aid they used for their wedding Mass.  She saw that the gospel reading was Matthew 5:1-12, the Beatitudes.  She found a Bible and read the words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

For years Pat had seen her marriage as a living hell.  She was resigned to the fact that she and Steve were cursed by God.  But she saw in those words, “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” a promise that gave her a glimmer of hope.  She saw, for the very first time, that her life was not hell, but it was, rather, a kind of poverty; a sense of homelessness, loneliness, a hunger for peace, a brokenness that only God’s love could heal.  After years of being away from the Church she started going to Mass again.  About a year later, Steve started going with her, then their nearly grown children started going too and they went as a family.  No miracles were performed, they still struggle through difficult times, but they work through them more effectively now.  Their faith has given them a better sense of direction in the difficult times.  It has strengthened and nourished them in the good times.  They see themselves as living in the kingdom even in their poverty.

We see poverty as a curse because those who are poor suffer so much.  But sometimes poverty can actually bring us to that sense of humility that enables us find our peace in God’s love which is so powerfully expressed in our love for each other, and in the love of Christ.  It is in our lowliness that we find comfort, support and unity in each other.  We all have a place in the Kingdom of God, the Church in the world.  We need each other, we are to love one another in such a way that we can build up the Christian community.

The Beatitudes teach us that in our lowliness, our humility and even our poverty we are truly blessed by God.  It may not always seem to make a lot of sense to us, but placing God’s will first reveals the beauty of our lives in his eternal kingdom.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Harvesting Winter Wheat

Sometimes the biggest surprise of all is no surprise at all.  Usually Jesus’ parables have a surprise ending, something people could grab hold of and take home with them to ponder and appreciate.  In this gospel passage, Jesus is talking about THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, something of profound importance for devout people of faith.  But he speaks about the kingdom of heaven with a simplicity that almost makes us want to yawn.  The kingdom of heaven is simple, it is ordinary.  It is so common that we might even feel like it doesn’t exist at all because there’s no reason to pay attention to it.
But the farmer knows that when the grain is ripe, it’s time to get out the sickle because the harvest is ready.  The wheat needs to be gathered so that it can be baked into bread that will feed the hungry.  “Give us this day our daily bread.”  God provides for us, but we have to do the work.  The seed has to be planted, and the earth does the rest until it’s time to be harvested, made into flour, kneaded into dough and baked so that the bread nourishes our lives.  How ordinary, how common, and that’s the kingdom of heaven.
The seed of the kingdom is planted in the soil of our lives.  It is a part of who we are.  The fruits of the kingdom; justice, peace, love, compassion, generosity and kindness grow within us and we don’t even know it until we harvest the grain and the virtues of our faith become bread for a hungry world.
Bon apatite

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Measuring Up

"The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you, and still more will be given to you."  - Mark 4:24

God will not be outdone in generosity.  This pithy little saying isan encouragement for usto be generous without worrying about the cost.  Rather than worrying about what we sacrifice, it is always better to trust in the generosity of God who will not allow us to suffer because of our generosity.

Still, that little clause at the end of the scripture passage from St. Mark can at times be something different than an encouragement to be generous; there is something kind of dangerous about knowing that still more will be given to us if we are generous in the sacrifices we make.  If being generous is motivated by what I am going to get in return, how generous am I, how well do I really measure up?  It seems that generosity must be somewhat inauthentic if it is motivated by the understanding that I am going to get more from God.  It would certainly be a faulty logic to be motivated to love knowing that I am going to be more loved as a result.

As we look at our lives we can see countless ways we are to love with a generosity that is deep.  There are poor people all around us who can benefit from our daily bread.  There are grieving people who need our compassion, sick people who need our comfort, people who are troubled by depression, addiction, or just plain old winter blues who need cheering up.  There are so many ways that we can give of ourselves.  How well do we measure up?  If we are at all worried about the costs of being generous with our time, our energy, our money we will always struggle to be as generous as we can be.  If we are looking forward to what we will get in return for our generosity our giving will be compromised.

Perhaps that final statement "...and still more will be given to you" is really just an encouragement to us to trust that even though we might be tired and spent because of the ways we have been generous today when we go to bed tonight, God will give us what we need tomorrow to continue living generous lives.  For God will not be outdone in generosity.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Real Change of Heart

St. Paul experienced the kind of metanoia (a complete change of heart) that very few people in the history of the world have known.  He went from trying to destroy the followers of Jesus' Way to becoming one of the greatest evangelists of Jesus' Way.  This change of heart allowed him, in his zeal, to see the best in the Church in her infancy, rather than seeing the worst in it.  He had to see the value of the Church rather than her threat to the established religion.

Sometimes that kind of vision is all we need to knock us down.  A real change of heart demands that we are stopped in our tracks and that we are given a new vision.  It is so easy for us to see the worst in people.  We are often too quick to see the worst in ourselves.  That kind of image of the world is destructive because it blinds us to seeing the truth of God's love and the dignity of human life. 

If you think about it, we don't need that dramatic shift St. Paul experienced in order to share in his change of heart.  We just need to allow the voice of Christ to open our eyes.  Sometimes this can be one of my most fervent and fruitful prayers.  I am not a morning person, and a lot of days my attitude can be quite sour.  Being the kind of person who wears his emotions on his sleeves, if I'm not in a good mood, people are going to know it - even though I don't want them to.  So, the first thing I have to pray for is trust, I have to ask God to help me change my attitude and that prayer is said before I even put my feet on the floor.  It really works.  There is no faking it through the day.  My real commitment is being the best that I can be in my attitudes toward myself, the work I'm called to do, and in those I have been asked to serve.  No one deserves the worst I have to give.  Rather, I must see the proclamation of the Good News of God's love for the world as the best mission for my day.  If it isn't in me, it can't be done.  If I'm not willing to embrace it in myself, I can't give it away.  And so I pray that I can see the best of who I am - a child of God - one who is to hear and speak the Gospel to the world.  I believe that is our mission too.

May God bless you on this Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Come After Me


Jesus gave James and John an interesting nickname.  He called them Boanerges, or “Sons of Thunder.”  It’s probably because when James and John left their boat, nets and father behind, their old man went off like a thunderstorm: “Hey, where are you knuckleheads going?  Get back here right now!  We’ve got work to do you know.  We gotta finish mending these nets, then we have to fold ‘em up.  I said you get back here you matza balls.  Who do you think you are walking away from me.”  Old Zebedee probably had no idea who this Jesus guy was, or why his boys were following him, he must have been at least a little ticked off to be sitting in that boat all by himself watching James and John running away with Simon and Andrew.

“Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  Peter and Andrew and James and John were fishermen.  Catching fish was their trade.  It kept their families fed.  Fishing was the main industry of that part of Galilee; the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, Isaiah spoke about.  That region of Galilee was a backwoods part of the northern kingdom of Israel, where nothing happened.  No one important lived in that region.  The people were seen as poor, uneducated hicks.  And Jesus was one of them.  He had the same dialect, he was the son of a carpenter, he didn'teven fish.  The Messiah was not supposed to come from that part of Israel.  The Son of God would never have come from a place like Nazareth.  And yet, Peter and Andrew, and James and John walked away to follow him. 

Our translation of Matthew’s gospel places these words in Jesus’ mouth, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  I would like for us to reflect upon those first three words.  He said, “Come after me.”  Jesus wanted them to follow behind him so that they could watch what he did, so that they could learn what it means to be catchers of men.  He wanted to make sure they could observe him.  He wanted them to see him in action so that he could prove to them he was the Messiah.

“Come after me.”  What an interesting choice of words.  Follow behind me and let my word be a lamp to guide your feet.  Come after me, and I will teach you how to live the gospel.  Walk in my footsteps and I will show you what it means to be disciples.  Stay close behind me and I will show you how to take up your cross, to die to yourselves for the good of others.  Come after me, and I will bring you to salvation.

But how often do we say, “No thanks, I believe I will go my own way.  No thanks, I don’t need to know the Gospel, I’ll just be good and nice and live a comfortable life and not cause anybody any harm.  If I can say my own prayers and be my own person I will be perfectly happy with my life.”  This is what God’s people have said for thousands of years now.  Isaiah the Prophet described the people Zebulun and Naphtali as people who walked in darkness because they refused to listen to the word of God, they refused to obey the commandments and they were unfaithful to the covenant God gave them.  They lived in darkness because they chose disobedience to God’s will, and in their sin they were made weak. 

“Come after me.”  We don’t always like to be followers who must obey the commands of another leader.  We’re Americans, we don’t think that way.  We think of doing it our own way because that’s the American Dream.  We don’t want to be subservient to the demands of a Gospel that tells us we are to love our enemies, and do good to those who hate us.  We don’t even want to read the Gospel let alone live it.  But in so many ways we are a people who walk in darkness.  We are being torn apart by immorality and sin.  We are divided by those who say they have all the answers on the right, and those who say they have all the answers on the left, and no one does anything to help the poor who live in between them.  We call ourselves a Christian nation, but we refuse to pray, to worship, and to love as Christ demands.

“Come after me.”  These are challenging words for us because we are being told that we cannot find our own way to salvation, we must walk in the path of Christ whose word illuminates our way and shows us what it means to be disciples.  But on an even deeper, more personal level, these three words “Come after me” demand a response from us; “No thanks, I will just go fishing for my own salvation,” or “Yes, I will follow you, I will learn from you to live and speak the gospel, I will let you show me the way to salvation.  I will try to be a fisher of men.”

Friday, January 21, 2011

"Jesus went up the mountain and summoned those whom he wanted and they came to him." - Mark 3:13

Can you imagine the crowd watching Jesus go up the mountain, turning around and then pointing to the ones he wanted?  I can just see Thomas with his right pointer finger pointed at his own chest with his head looking around from side to side and his inquisitive eyes asking, "Is he pointing at me?  I think he is.  Maybe I should go up there too?"  There goes Simon the Zealot, along with James and John (the Sons of Thunder) "Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war."  Peter is leading the way, but sheepishly, his head hung low as if he wants to hide behind every rock and crevice along the way.  As they walk along the trail Judas can't stop talking, the consummate politician - he's going to go far. 

Mark tells us that there mission was simple; proclaim the gospel and expel demons.  Fill the world with good news.  Bring peace to those who are troubled by sin and healing to those who are in pain.  Let the world know the mercy of God who calls us to salvation.

How do we walk up that mountain trail?  What questions do we ask?  What doubts fill our souls.  He's pointing at us, yes us.  Let's go to him.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Come up here before us." - Mark 3:3

Jesus used the man with the withered hand as a teaching instrument, and as a statement about the importance of doing good, even if that means the letter of the law has to be overlooked.  It is clear that his compassion for the man with the withered hand is given with a conviction that would be difficult to copy.  According to the Pharisees, what Jesus did was wrong.  The healing should not have taken place on the Sabbath.  Still, Jesus would not allow that fact to stop him. 

What can we learn from this event?  In a time in which the Church seems to be more concerned about keeping its reputation clean after all the scandals that have taken place, we sometimes overlook the broken, the people with withered hands, shattered homes, and empty pantries.  We are afraid to break beyond the security of the old ways of doing things.  We place our lives within the mirage that says we should just go back to the time when the law was the law, and we didn't have to worry about the slippery slope getting steeper all the time. 

Jesus' adversaries were threatened by the risk of compassion on the day of Sabbath, they were looking for reasons to silence him from the very start of his ministry.  Compassion is always a risk because it means investing something of ourselves, and those who see it often find that they look worse in comparison to those who are kind.  But how can we, who share in the divinity of Christ, ever feel it is right to overlook the opportunities to show compassion in a world so full of pain?  How is possible that we, who are called to live as the mystical body of Christ in the world, should feel our reputation is more important than service to those who need our compassion?