Got peace?

Peace be with you. What does peace mean to you: a silent place, a sense of inner tranquility, or perhaps a state devoid of conflict? All of the above? 

In this era of instant everything, noise seems to be all around us, as if we are burying ourselves in it. At the grocery store, one of the customers seemed to be dancing as he was picking out his produce. I realized a few minutes later that he was listening to music from his phone via earbuds, so he really was swaying with the music! From music and audio books, podcasts and conversations, to notifications and reminders, our mobile phones have become one of our main sources of noise in our lives. Not that any of the functions of the phone are a bad thing in and of themselves. However, we often let a noise maker, like technology, dictate our lives; we live in response to it. The question is, would we want to spend any time without our noisy distractions? 

Our brains work overtime trying to filter the noise we take in from the world around us. Our emotions can be a roller coaster ride as we react to not only what we hear, but also to the thoughts and feelings that can be triggered as a result. Each of us has our own unique triggers that cause disturbances within us. In some sense, that’s all part of the human experience. Similar to the noise level around us, if we live in constant reaction to fear, anxieties, and judgements, our lives become one of avoidance and isolation. 

While we say we want to live in harmony, our first instinct is to assess the world around us. We pass judgement with every interaction and observation. This is mine and that is yours: we divide the world up and take ownership. While we may talk about treating everyone  equally, do we really want to have more than others, get treated better or have more power and influence than others?  

In His Last Supper discourse, Jesus tells the Apostles that he leaves them His peace, one which is different from the world. (John 14:27). He uses a greeting of peace when He appears to them after the resurrection. This is a reminder for them, that they can put their trust in Him and all of His teachings. It’s also a reminder for us during the Mass, at the beginning as well as at the sign of peace after we pray the Our Father together. God’s peace is available to us; however, we need to trust in Him. Like the early Christians, we need to live, not for ourselves and our benefit, but rather for the benefit of others. What can we share, how can we help — these spiritual and physical (corporal) works of mercy are actions that bring the peace of Christ into this world. 

Peace is not something we obtain and keep for ourselves. It is the loving response to others; actions performed not for our benefit, but wholly for the betterment of the world in which we live. It is the faith-filled trust that God will be with us always, no matter what may happen. “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid,” Jesus told His Apostles. Yet it was only after the resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit that they were sufficiently emboldened to share and teach the peace they received from Jesus. Let us confidently ask Jesus during this Easter season to show us how to bring His peace into our lives so that we can share it in our little corner of the world. 

No mistake

Jesus died. He’d been weakened by the abuse He suffered from the guards of the chief priests and the scourging ordered by Pilate. The spear in His side after being crucified was the confirmation that all life had drained from His body. Jesus wanted us all to know that He died, physically and truly, without any doubt.

Since Jesus was divine, He could have been resurrected at any point in time after His death. But He chose to be resurrected on the third day. While the timeframe was in accordance with Scripture, I’m sure if He wanted to choose differently, the Scriptures would have reflected it. The time Jesus spent in the tomb was specific and purposeful. He knew His burial would be rushed because of the solemn Sabbath. He also knew that the women who accompanied Him would want to make sure He had the proper anointing as soon as the Sabbath was complete. They would be recorded as the first to find the empty tomb, a great blessing for their support even if they did not understand what was happening at first. Since He did not intend to stay buried, He rose before they got to the tomb.

Jesus chose an execution for His death, one that would be witnessed not just within His own band of followers or within His faith community of the Jews, but by the world as it was known at that time — a Roman execution that was public for all to see and recorded by the ruling government. Jesus died on the cross. His body was lifeless. He was as dead as dead could be, and there was no mistaking what happened.

Bishop Robert Barron often points out that Jesus’ death was God going to the limits of what we would consider “God forsakenness,” the very state that our mortal selves fear the most. Jesus had to die in order to be resurrected, but He stayed in the state of death so that there would be no doubt, no mistaking of what had happened. Would it have been easier on His disciples if He resurrected sooner, during the Sabbath? Perhaps. Would the Pharisees have had a change of heart if they saw Him resurrected from the cross? Maybe. 

Jesus’ disciples knew He had the power to raise the dead: the little girl, the son of the widow, and His friend Lazarus, were all blessed with resurrected life that was witnessed by at least the core group of His chosen followers. They knew He had the power to heal mind, body, and soul and conveyed numerous examples in the Gospels. Yet, even though He spoke to them about what was going to happen, they could not make sense of the event, since it was beyond their comprehension. It was one thing for Jesus to heal or raise another person from the dead; it was a different matter for Him to be the one raised from a certified state of death, one that all Jerusalem and its visitors knew about. The Gospels readings for this first week of Easter continue to reiterate the empty tomb is proof of Jesus’ resurrection to the astonishment of all who knew Him. 

Perhaps in our modern era of medical knowledge, if it had happened any other way, it may have been harder for us to believe Jesus is the Son of God, who came to save us from the power of death by conquering it. Yes, Jesus did die. I continue to be sorry for my participation that required His death: the sins and the wrong choices I continue to make. However, He has transformed death beyond comprehension, and so He can do that with me as well. It is the bitterness of death that makes the resurrection so sweet, refreshing, and joy-filled. I do not linger in it any longer than Jesus chose to linger in the tomb. I marvel along with the women and the disciples at the power of God’s love. It is a mystery. It is incomprehensible. And there is no mistaking that.

Loved to the end

“Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.’” (Luke 23:34) In the last moments of His life, Jesus asked God the Father to forgive those who had crucified Him. If Jesus could love His enemies in the most painful part of His human life, why is it so hard for me to forgive those whose only fault is to annoy me? 

What makes one an enemy of God? I would say it’s when that someone tries to prevent God’s will from occurring. The top enemies of God that come to mind are Satan and all the fallen angels. But they would be just as quick to accuse all of humanity of the same crime because we often seek to do our will rather than God’s will. And yet all the fallen angels continue to exist because God not only created them, but continues to love them. I’ve heard it said that the fire of hell is because those in hell reject God’s love and so it burns them. God IS love; if He ceased to love them, they would no longer exist. Even in their fallen state, He allows them to play a role in turning people back to Him.

If we seek to know more about the enemies of God, we only need to read the Gospels, especially the parts about the Pharisees. Time and again they put Jesus to the test, trying to “catch” Him in some offense. They were so sure of themselves and their superior knowledge of God, their resistance to Jesus is so absolute, it’s almost comical. Of course two thousand years later and voluminous reflections on the Gospel passages allow us to see how wrong they were. Yet how many times do we think we know who God is and how He works? How many times do we pass judgement on others based on our understanding of the commandments? Do we always look at things in black & white, right & wrong? Or do we look through the lenses of mercy and justice? 

Jesus sets the bar very high for us to forgive those who we see as our enemies. However, He also gives us a method to use: ask for God the Father’s help. We cannot forgive others all on our own, we’re only human. But each time we pick up the thought of how we have been wronged, we can ask God to help us forgive the individuals responsible. It’s not easy, but then again, we may not be aware of just how many times others have prayed for our forgiveness when we have wronged them. We can’t expect God and others to forgive us unless we seek to forgive those who have hurt us. 

In these last days of Holy Week, let us ask God for help in purging the grudges, hurt feelings, and all other annoyances — both superficial and serious, from our hearts and minds. It may not happen in an instant, but if we could lessen our anger against our enemies, we may find a little more peace and joy the Easter season brings. 

Connecting the dots

If I were bold, I would do it in pen, but it seems I would always make a mistake and the picture wouldn’t look quite right. I enjoyed the connect-the-dot pictures I used to do as a child. Sometimes the images were simple and had a few dots to connect, others had more details and were much more complicated to follow. The end result was a picture that I had drawn, and for a girl who did not get that creative gene, it was always a proud moment of accomplishment.

I’m 80 days into the Bible-in-a-year podcast with Fr. Mike Schmitz, and I’m starting to connect the dots for a much more detailed image of the story of salvation. A story that isn’t just history, but the present and future too. For about the past 30 days, the story has been of the desert wanderings and I’ve realized that my education about salvation history has been the Cliff Notes version, the punctuated key points. However, it’s in the minutia of text that is both the foundation and explanation of why the key events were important. I remember learning that because the Israelites worshiped the golden calf, while Moses was meeting with God and receiving the 10 Commandments, they were punished by being made to wander in the desert for 40 years. That is true, but it’s really only part of the story. 

Taking the story back to Egypt, why did God send the plagues on the Egyptians? The high level answer is that Pharaoh would not let them go. The deeper answer is that the Israelites were starting to behave like the Egyptians, worshipping their deities and following their customs. The plagues that God brought on Egypt were symbolically denouncing their deities and illustrating that He, and He alone, was the all-powerful God. Each plague corresponded to an Egyptian deity, and by controlling those created elements, God was educating the Israelites and breaking their erroneous beliefs. When they slid back into worshipping a false god, God had to give them additional education, thus the 40 years wandering in the desert. 

I’ve heard many homilies that link the 40 years the Israelites spent in the desert to the 40 days Jesus did, as well as the 40 days of Lent. Yet it’s only been after reading what transpired in the 40 desert years that I see how God was instructing the Israelites, giving them opportunities to practice trusting in Him (which often revealed itself as an issue). Living in the Promised Land was not going to be an end for the Israelites, but rather the beginning. Living according to God’s law, they were to be an example to the world as it was known then. They were to be a shining beacon that would gather all the peoples and bring them into belief of Yaweh, the personal God that took care of those who believed in Him and followed His commandments. That was to be the Israelites’ mission: to evangelize the world for God. Likewise, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert preparing for His mission: to preach, to heal, to die, and to rise again. Every year we are called into the desert of Lent to learn from God and to practice trusting in Him. Even though at the end of every Mass we are called to, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life,” we use the time in Lent to dig deeper into what God is calling us to do: our mission.

In connecting the dots of the desert wanderings to Jesus’ time in the desert and our Lent, I see that while times and details change, the pattern remains. And yet while the mission is to evangelize the world to God, how we do it — the focus of our activities, may change from year to year. Some years we may be called to spend in prayer, other years may be to donate to a particular Catholic charity, while other years we may be asked to be active participants helping to serve the needs of others, bringing the light of Christ to those who need it most. We are all called to a mission. When we fully embrace our own unique one, there is no limit to what God can achieve working in us. We only have let go and let the picture emerge, just like it does when we connect the dots, not just in pen but in permanent marker!

Return to sender

To whom do you pray? You may answer, “Why God, of course!” or perhaps, “Jesus Christ.” But is that truly whom you are addressing? The Gospel for a recent daily Mass caught my attention with a double meaning that made me ponder how I pray.

It’s a story we’ve heard many times over of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the Temple. “The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself…” (Luke 18:11) When I first read it, I was assuming it meant that he was praying silently, that he didn’t speak out loud, but rather spoke his prayer interiorly. I think that is a valid understanding and could be one way of interpreting the story, but I don’t think it’s the only way to understand it. Even though the Pharisee does say, “O God, I thank you…,” the prayer he continues with is not a prayer of thanksgiving, but rather an inventory of how he perceives his superiority. While I do believe that God hears every prayer, there are some that He listens and reacts to and some He just allows to float on by. 

Prayer is meant to be a conversation with God. It’s a way we learn to prioritize what’s important. We praise God, we acknowledge our deficiencies, we thank Him for His blessings, and seek His assistance for ourselves and others. This is the way Jesus taught us in the Our Father. However, the Pharisee was so enamored of himself, that rather than giving God the praise, he was giving himself the praise, in the space of one sentence, he uses the word ‘I’ four times! “I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income,” is not a prayer of thanksgiving for what God has given Him, but sounds like a justification as to why He expects God to listen to Him. He assumes it is his own effort that allows him to fast and tithe, when in reality, it is God’s blessings that allow him to be able to fast and His generosity to tithe. 

We can play Monday morning quarterback to a 2,000 year old Gospel story and say how wrong the Pharisee was, but back in those days, the Pharisees were looked upon well. They were assumed to be close to God because of their prayers and knowledge of Scripture. But knowing it and living it are two different things. 

It may be a subtle thing, but I think the bigger impact is the tax collector. Tax collectors were Jews who would collect the Roman taxes. They were not paid, but rather had to take their payment from the people. Can you imagine someone collecting a percentage of your earnings for the government and asking you to chip in a bit more for their own living? Tax collectors routinely charged the people more money than the tax and then kept the difference, sometimes at exorbitant rates. Tax collectors were not very welcomed in Jewish society. Yet the most marvelous thing for this tax collector is that he went to the Temple to pray. He went to God and he admitted his sin. He took a step closer to God and closer to being spiritually healed. While it is only a story that Jesus told, I wonder about how the story would unfold for that tax collector. Was he able to do his job without extorting money from his countrymen? Did he find another occupation that allowed him to live an honest life? He obviously wanted to correct his relationship with God, to the point of publicly seeking God in the Temple, a very bold step indeed!

When we put God at the center of our life, our way of praying evolves. We acknowledge His providence in every aspect of our lives. We look to Him for guidance and strength. We realize our lives are not about us but about the relationships where He has placed us. It’s less about me and my needs, but about God and what can I do for others through His grace and blessings. Let our prayer language indicate our reliance on God, otherwise we are just praying to ourselves. 

My God is Helper

“Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us, out from the grave like Lazarus?” The lyrics of a popular Christian song by the group CAIN, kept ringing through my thoughts. Yet we recently heard Luke’s Gospel of the other Lazarus and both started clashing in my head.

I don’t believe there are coincidences, especially where God is concerned. If Jesus is telling a story and names only one character, that name is rather important. I wonder about the audience to whom Jesus is telling the story; the Gospel references the Pharisees, so are these men familiar with Jesus’ friends? Do they realize that He is using the name of His friend as a man who faces tragedy on earth only to receive heavenly bliss in the comfort of Abraham after he dies? I think the use of a close friend’s name is significant in the story of the poor man named Lazarus; I think Jesus is illustrating His friendship with those who are poor and marginalized, people whom others wouldn’t even notice. By using the name of Lazarus, Jesus is telling the Pharisees about the types of people that will gain entrance to heaven and whom He considers His friends. 

The name Lazarus stems from Eleazar which contains a reference to God and the connotation of help or assistance. It can be translated as “God has helped” or “My God is Helper.” In both the story of the poor man Lazarus as well as the Lazarus of Bethany, brother of Mary and Martha, God does help each. In the story, God’s assistance comes in the rewards of the afterlife. For Jesus’ friend, it comes in his resurrection from the dead, a sign that Jesus has power over life and death; a power that is God’s alone. It shows that God helps us both in this life and in the one to come. God also identifies and calls us by our names. He wants us life for us, life in His friendship, and is willing to help us attain that.

We share similarities to both men named Lazarus. While we are living on this earth, Jesus continually calls us, up out of the grave of sin and death and into a life of His friendship. This life may not seem to be easy, and in the secular view, our lives may look more like that of the poor man named Lazarus: forgotten and neglected by those around us. Like the rich man in the story, others may know our name and our circumstances, but prefer not to assist us or befriend us and instead choose to ignore us since we are not like them. But if we remain in the friendship of Jesus, we will find comfort and rest in heaven.

This Lent let us respond to the call of Jesus, not just dying to our sin, but rising in the strength and friendship of Jesus. We don’t need to wait until Easter, as it’s not a once and done response, but one we continually give Him with each temptation we face and every sacrifice we make.     

Criminal judgement

At the time of Jesus when people saw a cross, they saw a criminal, or one who was judged to be one. Jesus was condemned and He died like a criminal.

In our era, judgement is all around us. Our society passes judgement on all facets of life. We interact daily with social media platforms that encourage us to share our comments/judgements about what another person has posted. While the concept of sharing to keep people connected is a positive goal, it only takes a thoughtless person to make an innocent post turn into a moment of anguish. We are very quick to judge others, and as much as I am aware of that weakness in myself, being cognizant of it does not make the battle any easier.

While the judgements we pass on others may not be condemning them as criminals, it does create a weakness in our relationships with that person or our perception of others in our community. For example, when a person is judged to be a criminal, that is a label that the person must carry around for the rest of his/her life. Even if persons are found guilty, served their sentence, and are now trying to return to society in an honest manor, they are viewed with distrust and written off as if their criminal behavior is the only thing they can do. And yet Jesus was condemned and died as a criminal. “He was innocent!” you  may say. But Jesus was willing to be in the company of criminals during His last hours. At one of the most important times in His life, He spent it with men with whom no one else wanted to be associated. 

I sometimes wonder about how the first converts to Christianity overcame the stigma of believing in a crucified man, a man that everyone  else would have thought a criminal. One logical thought is that Roman occupation may have crucified others who were resistant to them as invaders. Perhaps there may have been some sympathy because of the way Jesus died. Yet as St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, the crucifixion was a stumbling block for others, and perhaps it alone was the reason not to believe. (1 Corth 1:23)

During this Lent as we reflect on the cross, let us not forget that Jesus died judged as a criminal. Let us pray that we judge less and express mercy first, for we need God’s assistance to be more merciful like He is with us. 

The cost of living

If I say there is a high cost of living, most would agree; however if I say living is priceless, that may not completely compute. Most would think I’m talking about the daily essentials like shelter, clothing and food, yet these are all incidental to our very lives.

We are created by God, each and every person to be unique, each with his or her mission and purpose. Every action we take, every word we speak, every thought we consider is a reflection of our relationship with God. In a recent homily, Fr. Mike Schmitz said, “Every choice has a cost and every decision has a price.” Even when I am careful about making a decision, it’s usually because I’m concerned about the consequences in this life. Most times, I don’t think about how a  choice I’m making has an eternal consequence as well. However, if we love God, our hearts should pour out in all we say, do and think with actions allowing His Will to be done. When our choices are made from selfish desires, we may be hampering His Will, causing others as well as ourselves to be deprived of God’s glory and peace since our choices are not reflecting His presence in our lives.

It can seem rather overwhelming to be concerned about every little decision. For example, is God really concerned if we eat breakfast or not in the morning? That is a decision we have to make, but it affects the body God has given us, a body that is His temple on earth. The decision about breakfast, including the choices of foods, is one about fueling the body for the day. By feeding our bodies the right nutrients, we can better perform the tasks He has for us throughout the day. As we heard in Ash Wednesday’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to not neglect their appearance when fasting, but to be sure to groom themselves as if they are not fasting. (Matthew 6:16-18) At all times, we also should make sure we are well groomed. That doesn’t mean wearing the most expensive clothes, but ones that are cared for, showing appreciation and respect that God has blessed us with the ability to clothe our bodies. 

The true cost of living, however, is not the one we pay with careful attention to our choices. Rather it is the price that Jesus paid for us to return to God when we fall away and choose our own path. All the right choices in a lifetime still would not warrant eternal life with God. Jesus died and rose in order that we can spend eternity with God.  We have the freedom to choose life or death, heaven or hell. He will allow  us to become separated from Him, if that is our choice. We are given a lifetime on earth to practice choosing, and though we will make many mistakes, God loves us through all of them!  When we learn from our failures as well as our good choices, we will be able to make the final choice at the end of our lives: eternal life with God.

Lent already?

Is it Lent already? It can’t be! I’m not prepared for it!

I knew Lent was coming. I made notations on my calendar to remind me of days requiring fasting & abstinence. I’ve been bombarded with options to sign up for daily Lenten reflections from a half dozen organizations. I even bought a jar of peanut butter to have on hand. But I’m just not ready for Lent to start. And yet, here it begins, no matter how unprepared I am for it.

My routine changed when I moved down to Virginia two years ago and I have had a challenging time putting the puzzle pieces of my schedule together. The introspective side of me wants to tell the judgemental side of me not to be so harsh because I’m not doing the same routine I had in Pennsylvania. Things aren’t the same here, and I should expect Lent to be different as well. My former routine took another hit  in 2020, and now I’ve realized: we were in Lent when everything turned upside down. In a way, it seems like it has been one long Lent, even though we did, in a very odd way, celebrate Easter and in a somewhat more normal way, Christmas. Wearing masks, reducing travel and social distancing has felt like one long penance practice. How can I think of what to focus on while we’re still facing this challenging pandemic? 

The Church calls us to focus on three areas during Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It’s not meant to be a rigorous schedule executed to perfection. Rather it’s supposed to be practice, where we work to improve on our weaknesses. To do this, we take corrective action and really focus on what we are doing. We need to apply our bodies, minds and souls, together in our efforts. Do you engage your body in prayer? Does your soul participate in your fasting actions? How eager is your mind to write that check out for a donation? Just typing those questions has me thinking that I have a lot of practicing to do. However, I don’t have to tackle everything at once. I don’t have to have everything planned out down to the second. What I do need, with some guidance by the Holy Spirit through prayer, is a goal for each week within one of those three areas. Just as if practicing on a musical instrument or for a sport, you wouldn’t over-do it in the first few days, but rather work on the basics and grow from there. The same rings true for practice in the spiritual realm. The things you find yourself stumbling over indicate where you need to spend time practicing. 

The main goal of Lent is to prepare us to celebrate Easter feeling a little bit closer in our relationship with God and His Will for us. This results in heightened care and concern for all that God has created and lessened interest in our wants. Just as in sports, training and practices never end; the focus just shifts from intense training to get conditioned for the season to the actual games themselves. Lenten practices don’t have to end either; they can be incorporated into our lives, if not daily, then on a regular basis so we can keep ourselves in top spiritual condition.

While others may have different reasons as to why they are not prepared for Lent, I’m sure I’m not the only one. The Church in her wisdom gives us a place to start with fasting and abstaining from meat.  If you do that on day one, it is a solid start. You then have 39 days to focus on what to practice in additional areas. And with grace and guidance from God, those days will fly by so fast, we’ll be amazed when it’s already Easter! 

Blessing withheld or bestowed?

I would hazard a guess that most, if not all believers, at some point question why prayers for assistance are not answered, at least not the way they expect. I had a little insight on that dilemma with Vera’s recent trip to the vet. 

Vera and car rides are polar opposites like water and electricity, a dangerous combination when mixed. The vet’s office is less than 5 minutes away, a whooping 1.3 miles, yet to hear her, one would think she was undergoing the most horrendous torture. To some degree, I can’t fault her for crying so much when she is imprisoned in her carrier going at a rate of speed that is outside of her control. Much like me on a roller coaster minus the hills, although at least I choose to go on the ride; she didn’t have any choice. To add insult to injury, I only fed her the wet food portion of her morning meal, withholding the kibble portion until we returned. I’ve learned from previous experiences that all that crying and stress makes her vomit and the dry food is not as quickly digested as the wet. Add on the shot and being poked and prodded by a person she doesn’t know and that is the recipe for total misery. 

While I’m sure Vera understands some English, her comprehension of the language is on a par with my understanding of her meows. They get my attention and may give me a rough idea of what she wants. Unfortunately, there’s no way to explain to her why she doesn’t get kibble before a car ride. All she knows is that I’m not feeding her. That thought prodded me to reflect about how I feel when praying to God for some blessing: help with a job, healing for a friend, understanding Scripture better, etc., and those prayers seem to go unanswered. Just like Vera wanting her morning kibble, I want my request to be answered immediately and in the way I expect it to be. 

Sometimes when I am cognizant that God’s answer seems to be delayed, I wish I could understand why. If Vera did understand why her kibble will be given at a later time, I’m not sure I would be able to find her and get her into the carrier to take her to the vet. Who wants to go to the doctor and get a shot? I know there are some people who avoid doctors completely. So, if God wanted to communicate why the answer to my request was not forthcoming, in reality, I probably would not want to know. 

I also couldn’t help drawing a parallel with the pandemic situation. It’s been almost a year, and while the vaccine seems to herald the promised return to normalcy, we’re still in the midst of this challenge. Here too, it seems like our “kibble” is being withheld from us. It’s hard to see that this could actually be a blessing for us. And like Vera, when we do get our kibble, we will be able to  enjoy and benefit from it, because the stressful situation will be over and we’ll be able to more easily calm ourselves down. 

God does work in ways mysterious and hard to comprehend. We need to remember the vastness of His creation reflects His infinite care for all His creation, down to the tiniest detail. He knows what’s best for us, even when we think we already have the answer. And, if a blessing seems to be withheld or delayed, it just may be that the blessing is the delay. We can trust Him and His omnipotence.