Sunday, November 27, 2016

Why we Must Live the Great Commandment

Romans 13:8-12 (NLT): Living the Great Commandment

These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law. (Romans 13:10)
Life can be a rollercoaster of emotion, and at the peaks and valleys of that ride are the faces of those we encounter. Coming out of the tumult of time with family at Thanksgiving, we enter into the preparation for Christ’s coming through Advent. This is a time to reflect on God’s great love for us. Throughout Advent, Scripture reminds us of how God calls us to love one another. And in the busyness of Christmas preparation, spending, and gathering, loving each other with the heart of Christ can be a challenge.

In chapter 13 of Romans, Paul focuses on Christ’s commandment to love: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (9). Loving the person in front of us, Paul states, is the basis of who we are in Christ. In 13:11, Paul continues by giving a valid reason for the necessity of neighborly love: “[Loving your neighbor] is all the more urgent, for you know how late it is; time is running out. Wake up, for our salvation is [near].” Paul advises his hearers to reexamine their faith, for many have been ignoring this fundamental tenet of Christianity. Paul’s proclamation to neighborly love, however, traverses generations to our own place and time.

Although Paul was shaking up those tepid in their faith during the first century in Rome, his message reverberates in our day, too. We are to live our Christian lives in the moment, knowing that God’s kingdom is right in front of us. Our lives need to be tuned in to the love of Christ in the world so that we become vessels overflowing with God’s love and grace.

As we prepare for Advent, as we shop for our Christmas presents, as we make ready for the gathering of family, let us keep in mind the core of our faith, for it is so easily lost in the frenetic pace of the Christmas season. Let us love each other with the love that God gives us. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Fred Holywell offers a beautiful meditation on how Christmas should open our hearts to love:

But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely…

I pray that we open our hearts to the love of God, allowing His love to pour out and penetrate the person in front of us. Amen.

Have a blessed week.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Why we Should Always be Prepared for God's Presence

Jesus reminds his listeners to be vigilant and prepared for the final days. The risk, he says, is to be caught off guard because we become so self absorbed with the worries of life, deviant living, and drunkenness. The ways of worldliness distract and blind us to the way of eternal life in Christ, and Jesus reminds his listeners to stay focused on living, loving, and forgiving like him: “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (36).

Our strength to be in Christ is initiated by God’s grace and fulfilled by our choices. We must pray, then, for God’s grace and the openness of our hearts to receive and act on it. If, instead, we lean on own strengths and choices, “the worries of this life” will eventually lead us to sin. And sin robs us of the eternal life God is so eager to give.

Jesus reminds his hearers to live lives focusing on God, praying for the courage and strength to persevere in faith amid a troubled world. And when our isolated choices lead us to fail (which I often do), we cannot give up and lean on our own pride. We must remember that God permits our failures for the purpose of building us up in Christ.

When I fail and realize my sinfulness, I lean on the mercy of Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, St. Paul reminds us that the power of Christ is made stronger through personal struggle: “...[Jesus] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” The temptation, however, is to adopt a smug attitude, put on airs of pride, and justify our behavior in the context of a modern world. Personal pride always pulls us away from God.

In the ugly face of my sins, I choose humility, “... praying that [I] may have the strength to escape” (36) temptation and live in the mercy of God’s love. And while enveloped in the merciful love of God, I, too, can live a life reciprocating that love and mercy to others.

Friday, November 25, 2016

How God is Not a Divine Bookkeeper

. . . “And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books.”

It is tempting to fall into the closed-minded, legalistic way of interpreting this passage (and others in Scripture), and I do it quite often. The train of thought looks like this: If I do enough good works on this earth, I’ll balance out my struggles with sin and be accepted into heaven. If I offer enough prayers, earn enough indulgences, volunteer enough hours, or give enough money, God will cut me some slack and put my name in the “book of life.” Scripture and Catholic Tradition teach something quite different.

In his commentary on this passage, Fr. Frank Doyle, S.J. states that:

Scripture makes it very clear that all the good we do does not originate from us but is God working in and through us. If our lives are full of good works, it is because we have opened our hearts to God and taken him into our hearts so that we become transformed through his love working in and through us. (Living Space)

In other words, our works do not originate with us; they are God’s own works operating in and through an open, faithful heart that loves and receives God’s grace. God does the work through the Holy Spirit. In faith, we cooperate and offer ourselves to him.

Fr. Doyle further explains that our often-held false conception of a ledger-keeping God opposes the true God of love and mercy who became incarnate in Christ:

It would also be wrong to imagine God keeping a credit and debit ledger of our lives and that, provided we end up with a plus rather than a minus, we will “go to heaven.” God is not an accountant; there is not a ledger with some entries in black and others in red. It is clear from the Gospel that God does not work like that. (Living Space)

Being judged by our works, then, means we are not judged by the good works we do on our own volition, seeking to earn points on a divine stat page. Instead, we are judged by our openness to and cooperation with the Holy Spirit entering in and renewing our lives in Christ. In paragraph 2008 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the writers state:

The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man's free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man's merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.

Our charitable works are not ours; they are “due to God” and “proceed in Christ.” When we try to attribute what we do as payment for what we shouldn’t do, we adopt a false view of God’s grace and our redemption. God is not a bookkeeper. He is a loving, merciful Father who wants us to choose his grace and allow his love to penetrate and dwell in us so we can shine it on the people we meet and serve in the world.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Why We Should Always Offer God Thanks

Often the busy predictability of our lives causes us to forget to give thanks to God. All that we have -- faith, family, health, career, skills, and material goods -- comes from the bounty of God’s love. It is easy to attribute our own work as the genesis of all we have. And, in a sense, this is partly true. All that we have, however, comes to us through our cooperation with God’s grace and love. But his loving grace comes first; our cooperation, if we choose, follows. We have much for which to be thankful. Offering God thanks, however, is all too easily forgotten in the everyday occurrences and decisions of our hectic lives.

When I was a graduate student, for instance, there was a crucial moment in my second semester where I considered changing my graduate program. I thought my program lacked the academic rigor I experienced in college, and on some levels, it did. Instead of making a hasty, life-changing decision, however, I sought the counsel of a trusted former professor. It took some moxie for me to make that phone call, but I am glad I did. Through that call, he gave me pertinent direction and advice. But it wasn't just my phone call and his advice that led to my right decision. It was God working through that professor and in me. I had an important choice to make. That professor’s advice, though, influenced my decision to stay the course, excel in my classes, graduate from the program, and embark on a rewarding, service-oriented teaching career. Make no mistake: I was given free will in my decision. But in it, I opened myself to trustworthy outside counsel. During that time in my life, I did not have a relationship with Christ. But God loves us no matter our situation, and in that and numerous other instances, God rescued me and led me along his path. All thanks and glory, then, go to God.

In Luke’s gospel, too, gratitude is a key theme. When the ten lepers meet Jesus, stand at a distance, and plea for pity and healing, Jesus just says the word and they are cleansed. The nine presumably local Jewish lepers leave without a word of thanks. They take Jesus to be a prophet and healer, receive his healing as if they are entitled, and go on their way to meet the priest who will certify their return to the community and Jewish life. The one Samaritan, however, a foreigner hated by the Jews, realizes the magnitude of Christ’s healing. This Samaritan falls to the feet of Jesus and thanks him. Moreover, the Samaritan knows what it is like to be ostracized and plagued not only in his leprosy, but in his ethnicity. It is that sense of understanding, lack of entitlement, and learned humility that tunes the Samaritan leper in to God’s healing and grace. This sense fills the Samaritan with overflowing gratitude, which Luke intentionally contrast with the ingratitude and sense of entitlement conveyed by the other nine. Jesus says, “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” (17-18).

Often, I find myself among the ungrateful, entitled “nine others,” blind to the multitude of healing graces in my life. But if we more authentically tune in to life and notice God working through others, we will witness life’s many miraculous moments. In that realization, then, may we all be compelled, like this Samaritan leper, to glorify God in a loud voice and drop to the feet of Christ in thanksgiving (15-16), never forgetting that God is the source of all that is good.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Why we Should Choose Humble Honesty

Luke 23:39-43 (NRSV): Choosing the Better Way
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding [Jesus] and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other [criminal] rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:39-41)

I am always moved by the testimony of “the good thief” in the Gospel of Luke and how it reminds me that being humble and seeking God in all things is so important. Life tempts us to be critical and bitter. But the good thief’s testimony prompts us, instead, to embrace the humble way of Christ.

On Calvary, Christ is crucified between two criminals. As Jesus hangs on the cross, the religious leaders and soldiers mock him, even after Christ prays to the Father to “forgive them; for they know not what they are doing” (34). The audience is ruthless. Even one criminal crucified next to Jesus “[keeps] deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’” (39). In what looks like worldly, religious failure, the crucified Jesus is disowned, mocked, ridiculed, and denounced by all, even this rightly-condemned criminal.

One voice, dim among the group, however, shines. He, too, is a criminal dying next to our crucified Lord. And what he says on the cross is full of humble honesty. First, he rebukes the other criminal and says, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong” (40-41). The good thief points to Christ’s innocence and admits his own guilt. This humility directly contrasts with the other criminal’s self-willed pride.

In Romans 5:8, Paul says, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” The good thief's humble admission testifies, then, to God’s unrequited love. And the sheer beauty is in Christ willingly giving up his human life on the cross for us all, even those who crucify, mock, and jeer at him.

God gives us the gift of free will to live and conduct our lives any way we choose. One choice is to function as critics, complainers, and antagonists much like the criminal who derides Christ. A better choice, however, is to humbly admit we are works in progress in need of God’s love, healing, and forgiveness. When we choose the latter, Christ turns to us, like he does the good thief, and says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (43).

Let us Pray:
Loving God,
May we all choose the better way of the good thief, a life of humble spiritual poverty.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
In Jesus Christ we pray, amen.

Have a blessed week!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Why we Should Embrace Christ Amongs us

How many times in our lives do we reject the peace of Christ in our midst? As Jesus visits and weeps over the reluctance and spiritual blindness of Jerusalem (41), he often visits and sometimes laments over us, too.

Jesus comes to us in the clandestine disguises of those who need our love and attention. He comes to us as “the least of these” among us (Matthew 25:40). The thought often, however, is that those in need are far away, and at times that may be true. But the true Christ among us is the person who we look at next, our neighbor or family member that stands in front of our eyes. Through our flawed choices, we turn away and reject him. Jesus says to the people of Jerusalem, “[Y]ou did not recognize the time of your visitation” (44). If we look back, moreover, at Mary’s words of rejoice in “The Magnificat,” we see her sing about God’s redemptive visitation through Jesus, the child she will bear: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,/ for he has visited and brought redemption to his people” (Luke 1:68). Jesus is Emmanuel, “God is with us,” so let us embrace and welcome him in the people who we meet today. Amen.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Why Material Wealth Should Never Substitute Faith

Christ warns the Church of Laodicea that they are tepid in their faith, and this tepidity nauseates him to the point of vomiting them out. Because they are rich in material wealth (17), they have a false sense of independence and slough off God’s grace. What this community doesn’t realize, however, is that despite their pride-filled wealth, they are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (17) in what really matters. Jesus offers them his grace, “gold refined by fire” (18), but they must repent and be earnest about serving him instead of putting material wealth above God.

Then, the sacred author gives us the beautiful, inviting image of Christ knocking at the door (20). But the onus is on the one receiving the knock, in this case Laodicea. Jesus will not break down the door, but he will enter upon invitation: “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me” (20).

When our lives are going well and we are financially secure, when we have all of the toys modern culture offers, we are tempted to forget our faith in God. Our arrogance might ask: Why would we, who are rich in all of the world’s possessions, need God? The sacred writer implies the same question upon the Laodiceans who have a lucrative export business in eye balm. Whether it is a church 2000 years ago or us today, the supplanting of faith in God with material comfort is a common form of spiritual blindness. Jesus tells the sacred author to write that we are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (17) and in need of his grace and mercy, no matter our material wealth. Our true riches are found in the selfless love, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. When it comes to eternity, the materially rich and poor are the same. We are to live this life devoted to God, never forgetting that our material wealth is a gift from God. And we are to invite Jesus into our abode so that life on this earth is not a nauseating lukewarm faith but a faith radiating the burning flame of Christ's love. Amen.  

Sunday, November 13, 2016

How we are Called to be the Good Amid the Bad

3 John 5, 11 (GNT): Being the Good amid the Bad
My dear friend, you are so faithful in the work you do for other Christians, even when they are strangers” (5).
“...Do not imitate what is bad, but imitate what is good. Whoever does good belongs to God…” (11).

In a world where it is so easy to malign others, we are offered the daily choice to love. Sometimes that choice is a difficult one, however. And as we stand in the middle of disunity contemplating our next step, we often do the human thing and fall into the trap of despair. In that despair, we are often led to corrosive gratification, loss of hope, and an absence of faith. This is dangerous territory. Nonetheless, there is an antidote to the poison of despair. Through grace, God offers us an invitation to love.

Throughout Scripture, God calls each of us to live out a life of faith, hope, and charity.  For instance, the third letter of John is a testament to this call. The sacred author tells a faithful church leader, Gaius, to persevere in doing good for others, even in the face of a despairing world and dissident leaders. The author tells Gaius, moreover, to “imitate what is good” even though others do the opposite. To further this argument, the author commends Gaius for the faithful work he does for those in his church and, most importantly, for those who are strangers. This reminder to offer love and mercy to the stranger recalls Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:35: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Through loving others, especially the outsider, we love Christ in all of his disguises.

In looking through my Twitter news feed, I notice many people who fester negativity and counter-productive discontent, and I am often tempted to be one of them. I have to admit that the pull is intoxicating. Through God’s grace, however, I instead seek that “still small voice” in my heart that calls me to love. Like Elijah in 1 Kings 19, it is difficult to hear God speak in our hearts amid the tumult of the times. But God is there if we stop and listen.

Choosing love in the context of hate requires cooperation and giving up our personal agendas. It means that we choose to be the light rather than the darkness. We are called, finally, to be the light of Christ. In No Greater Love, Mother Teresa writes, “If we do not radiate the light of Christ around us, the sense of darkness that prevails in the world will increase” (12). In the midst of a dreary post-political climate, a world already challenged by skepticism and hate, let us all choose to be the light of Christ for others.

Let us pray:
I love it when a prayer touches the center of who I want to be in Christ, so I am sharing a prayer written by John Henry Newman. It is the one that sits on my desk at work as a reminder of who I am made, called, and yearn to be in Christ. Please pray it with me.

Dear Jesus, help me to spread Your fragrance everywhere I go.
Flood my soul with Your spirit and life. Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life may only be a radiance of Yours. Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel Your presence.
Let me thus praise You in the way You love best: by shining on those around me. Let me preach You without preaching, not by words, but by my example, by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what I do, the evident fullness of the love my heart bears to You.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Why Our Lives Should Seek The True Wealth Christ Offers

Luke 16:9-15: True Wealth
“The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones. . . If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth?” (10-11)
“. . . for what is of human esteem is an abomination in the sight of God” (15).

Jesus instructs both his disciples, those forming in “the Way” of Christ, and the critical Pharisees about the difference between temporal and eternal wealth. In telling the parable of the dishonest steward (Luke 16:1-13), Jesus sets out to teach an important lesson that contrasts the temporal, distracting character of wealth and social status with the “true wealth” which is eternal and leads us to the kingdom of God.

What is the “true wealth” that Jesus points to in this passage? It is antithetical to temporal wealth, the fixation with status and money that leads people to live dishonest lives. The Pharisees took issue with Jesus’ teaching on this topic because they thrived on living pious lives entrenched in the observance of the Mosaic law and earned status that placed them higher on the social/religious hierarchy: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all these things and sneered at [Jesus]” (14). Jesus, in closing, points out that people who justify themselves in the face of their peers, those who seek approval of others in high social standing, are not justified in the eyes of God who sees into their hearts (15).

But we don’t have to live in first-century Palestine for this lesson to have meaning, for it neatly applies to our lives today. Many businesses, for instance, are fixated with the “bottom line” so much that they look at the slightest earnings potential as greater than the lives connected to their company. The “dishonest wealth” mentality, therefore, puts many people out of work.

By condemning a self-centered, socially-hierarchical mindset, Jesus emphasizes the opposite. As children of God, we are to love Him above all things and work toward loving our neighbor as ourselves. This means abandoning the pursuit of exclusive self-service and an unhealthy fixation on wealth and social status. Instead, Jesus guides us to a life that embraces service to God and others.

Giovanni di Bernardone (better known as St Francis of Assisi) is the perfect example of someone who abandoned selfish “dishonest wealth” for Christ-centered “true wealth.” Giovanni’s father was a wealthy business owner and had groomed his son to take over. Young Giovanni had a penchant for money and public relations, so he was talented at sales and shrewd at landing business deals.  Additionally, Giovanni had a fascination with soldierly bravado, and he joined the army to fight in wars and earn a decorated status among his peers. Imagining his life as rich and famous, Giovanni was self-centered and focused on human esteem. But something happened. Giovanni was captured during his stint as an ill-prepared soldier and kept prisoner for a year. Once he returned to Assisi, he was broken and worn out by his experience. Riding home on his horse one day, Giovanni saw a leper, one of the most rejected people of his day, and although he would always stay far away from lepers and look on them with disgust, this time he felt moved to get off of his horse and embrace him. Giovanni saw Jesus in the disguise of the leper. By embracing and kissing the leper, Giovanni realized God was calling him to a life of simplicity and service to the poor, rejected, and outcast. St. Francis (formerly Giovanni), moreover, moved from a life pursuing “dishonest wealth” to a life embracing “true wealth.”

Although we are not all called to be the next St. Francis of Assisi, we can move our lives in small ways to seek the “true wealth” of service to others and to God, and we can embrace Christ in the disguise of the needy and rejected all around us. Does this mean we must seek out an inner-city mission? Maybe. But there are plenty of abandoned people right in our inner circle. Think of that family member who could use a phone call, card, or visit. Think of that long-ago abandoned former friend. Think of that student in our classes or in the hallway who needs a smile, a “hello,” or a few minutes of our time to let them know they are loved and matter. Think of that colleague who irritates us, you know, the one we try to avoid. Can we offer a hello or inquire about their day? In a sense, Jesus calls us all off of our horse as we trot on our way to the life we envision. Jesus invites us to love Him in the disguise that we often ignore.

Please pray with me:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

~ This prayer is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi

Have a blessed Week.