Unshakable foundation

The Gospels are a treasure trove. Sometimes what may seem like a minor detail can speak volumes or take Jesus’ message even deeper. However, we need to be on the watch for these jewels and when we see them, go back and ponder them, looking at them from different perspectives. Last Saturday’s reading offered one of those gems.

The second portion of Luke’s Gospel caught my attention.  It was about the two foundations (Lk 6:46-49). Because the example given captures our imagination, it’s very easy to skim over the initial words of Jesus, “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, listens to my words, and acts on them.” The example of the two foundations that follows, while helpful, is only in support of what He expects of us. He makes it very clear that if we call out ‘Lord,’ yet remain trapped in our own selfish needs and do not listen, He cannot help us. He states three specific steps that we need to take.

Since Jesus is no longer visible on earth, how is it that He expects us to come to Him? The language we use to describe the action required  may include words like turning towards Jesus, seeking Him, reconciling with Him. They all convey an initial action of moving away from our own self-interests and desires. We realize that what we think we want, or even already have, does not satisfy us or bring us peace. This moving beyond ourselves and looking toward Jesus is the first step we need to take.

Our world is full of sounds, which we may or may not hear, simply because there are too many of them. Jesus is asking us to listen to His words. That’s the second step.  Listening takes humility, since we need to park our own thoughts and feelings and concentrate on what is being said. We need to absorb the message of the words and let it infuse our thoughts, words, feelings, and understandings. 

When we turn to Jesus and allow His commands to penetrate deep into our being, our whole outlook changes. This transformation allows us to then act upon what we have pondered in the words we hear from Him. Instead of using our own perspectives as the measure of how we interact with the word, we become like Jesus instead, and bring the kingdom of God to earth in our small way. This action becomes the third step. 

The more we turn away from ourselves and look to Jesus, the more we listen to His calling and respond by acting in harmony with God’s will, the more our foundation is built on the most solid of rocks. Jesus doesn’t promise that we won’t have any storms in our lives, but if we follow His three-step process, we can be assured that no matter the storm’s wind speed or water surge, our house of faith will stay strong.   

Time bound

I was not looking forward to Labor Day weekend. Since my dad was born in early September, we always celebrated his birthday then. This was our first year without him and I wasn’t sure how the weekend would go. 

The Sunday prior to holiday weekend, my mom commented that the 29th marked the fifth month since his passing. Since they were married for over 65 years, I can understand that her loss is measured more acutely than mine. It’s a sobering thought that within the space of a week, we remembered my Dad on the two limits of life: birth and death. But those limits are what humans place on life because that’s the measure we understand.

I planned a visit to the columbarium, as I was concerned that the weekend would feel empty and odd. While I knew I would be missing him, at least visiting his resting place could provide a sense of peace that I did something. Yet while I was there, I kept wondering what did the birthdate mean any longer? The birthdate is only when he was born into the physical world. His death date, however, is when he passed into eternal life. At that moment, my human mind could not wrap itself around this concept and I kept trying to push away the thought. 

Part of human nature is to measure and categorize. Since we cannot usually tell when the moment of conception occurs, the next big milestone is birth. We measure our whole life against that single day. It’s a memorial for the living to mark the passage of time. However, once a person is no longer with us, the birthday no longer has significance since the person is no longer bound by time and space. Birthdays become rather bittersweet: recalling memories of previous birthdays and marking how old the person would have been.

In contrast, the Church often celebrates saints on the day of their passing. Perhaps this is why the thought kept niggling at my brain. Maybe the better day to celebrate is the day of a person’s passing. While we won’t know if that person is in purgatory or heaven, we hope in the mercy of God and anticipate his or her reception into the beatific vision. Loosed from the bonds of time and space, our loved ones are in a unique position to be both close to us and close to God, petitioning Him on our behalf. 

Whether we celebrate a birthday or the death day, or even both, our time-bound humanity can only measure the gain or loss of a person. But no matter if the person is a named saint or a family member, it is our memories of them that cast deep impressions on us and help us to strive to become better versions of ourselves. Perhaps one day they will be the ones to greet us on our death day as we pass from this world into eternal life. 

Embracing the mystery

Routine is the enemy of mystery, especially when it comes to God. While it is important to set time aside daily for God, it can easily fall into a routine habit that we check off as completed. However, if during our scheduled time with God we sit in wonder and awe, there may be a surprise that awaits us. Recently my reflection on the Sign of the Cross took me deeper than I ever expected.

While Catholics begin and end every prayer session with the Sign of the Cross, it is truly a prayer, prayed in both word and deed. It is through both action and voice that we enter deeper into the mystery of God. We do all things through this sign.

As we begin “In the name of the Father…,” we touch the top of our head. It’s not just mimicking where we would start if we are drawing a cross on paper, but rather an indication that He is above and beyond all else there is. It is also a reminder to ourselves to keep Him ever in mind, present to us at every moment in the day.

From the top of the head we bring our hand down to touch our heart as we say, …“and of the Son… .”  That gesture speaks of a Love so grand, it came down from Heaven to Earth, to dwell amongst us in our humanity. Yes, Jesus has a beating heart just like all of us. He took on flesh for us and He shed His most precious Blood for us on the cross. Allowing the centurion to pierce through his side, both His Blood and water flowed from His Body, a one-time act that forever lives on in the love and mercy that flow from His Divine Heart. 

As we say, “… and of the Holy Spirit,” we touch first our left shoulder and then the right shoulder. The gesture of touching shoulder to shoulder reminds us that we are never alone in this world, no matter where we find ourselves. The Holy Spirit’s reach is as wide as all of creation (yes, every single universe that is out there!). He hovers over all, between heaven and earth. This  shoulder-to-shoulder touch is almost like a heavenly hug, embracing us and welcoming us into the mystery of God. 

Lastly, we bring our hands together and say, “Amen.” This is our simple response to the amazing mystery that we just traveled through. This response means, “truly” or “so be it.” It is our assent that what we have declared and acted is true. For me the word is similar to “thank you,” since it means so much more at so many levels: intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, etc. I’m just glad that our response is scripted for us; after reflecting on the power of this prayer, I don’t think I would be able to find adequate words to complete the prayer.

We may never completely understand the Trinity, but if a simple, little prayer can speak volumes, how much more can we learn if we but open our heart, our minds, and our wills to God?

Mary at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, Washington DC

Hail Holy Queen

In God is our joy, through Mary, Our Queen, let us give thanks and praise!

— Magnificat Antiphon for the Queenship of Mary, August 22

When I read the antiphon that started my day last Saturday, the combination of words “through Mary” and “lets us give thanks and praise” hit me like a one-two punch. In praying through Mary as our spiritual Mother, prayers of petition are what first come to mind. How often do we raise our thanks and praise to God though her?

In ancient times it was the queen mother that wielded power by having the ear of the king. Since kings often had many wives, there was often no one, singular queen. But since a man can have only one mother, the woman who gave birth to him was the queen mother and was an intercessor with those seeking favor with the king. Jesus continues this tradition by allowing his Mother to plead on our behalf. 

Because of her humanity, approaching Mary for intercessory prayers can help mitigate any trepidation of approaching God ourselves. Even though she is full of grace and resides in heaven, we know she understands how challenging life can be, and how easy it is to agonize over even the simplest decisions. Her example of asking Jesus to help at the wedding feast of Cana illustrates how every Hail Mary we say matters to her. There is no detail small enough to escape her motherly concern. 

While we can be confident in asking assistance through Mary, shouldn’t we ask her to give God thanks and praise on our behalf? I’m sure God appreciates all the thanks and praise that we give Him directly. However, when we ask Mary to thank God for us, she takes our trivial little thank-you and shines it up so that any stain of sin is removed and only the beauty of our praise is presented to God. I imagine every rosary said, especially in thanksgiving, to be like a bouquet of 50 roses that she presents to God on our behalf. How can we not grow closer to God when we have a mother who reflects our prayers in a purified manner to Him? In praying the rosary in a meditative way, we are drawn into the major events of the life of her son, Jesus. She is like a magnet, drawing us ever closer so that when we complete our time on earth, the final distance between ourselves and Jesus can be removed and we will be one with Him. 

While God takes delight in all His creation, when we pray through Mary, we acknowledge His greatest masterpiece in humankind. Let us raise a joyful cry and ask Mary to present it to the Lord in thanks and praise!

Too much of a good thing

Rain is a good thing. A nice gentle soaking rain is good for everything and everyone. It replenishes the water in the ground, waters gardens and farms naturally, and washes pollen off my car. However, I’m starting to wonder if I should have invested in an ark rather than a house. As of Sunday, Richmond, VA, reported 14.87” of rain in the first half of August.1 Our average for the month is 3.5”.2 It’s now the second wettest August and fourth rainiest month overall. Receiving 4 times the entire monthly amount in half the time is clearly too much of a good thing. 

Wind is a good thing, as it plays a part in our climate, our weather and even in the local topographical features. However, its destructive power is not limited to tornadoes, as we saw last week with the derecho that devastated the Midwest. Most people would consider electricity not just a good thing, but vital for everyday life. I’ve met several people in my life who love watching electrical storms. But knowing a single bolt of lightning can contain up to one billion volts of electricity,3 that’s almost too much to comprehend. 

Weather extremes can be commonplace, like a thunderstorm, or unusual, like the derecho. While we may be rather new at keeping such precise records, tales of weather destruction have been noted in all types of written documentation throughout the millennia. Each location on Earth has its own blend of extreme  phenomena. It’s almost as if God created these as a basic reminder to mankind that moderation is the goal no matter where, or when, we live on the planet. Our culture, however, continues to cry for more. More power, more money, more food, more attention, and each grab for more than what we need is just like Eve taking the apple from the forbidden tree and taking a bite. 

When we reach for more of what’s around us, we are, in part, reaching for more control in our lives.  We are pursuing happiness, that drive to fill ourselves until we are content. Ironically, it’s really only God that can give us all what we need when we need it, and at the same time, fill us to completion. As St. Augustine said, “… our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Some may be blessed with more, not for their own use, but rather as stewards for those who end up with less than what they need. We can read about many saints who beg for the bread they eat, while other saints are known to give to those in need. One example in recent times is Saint Katharine Drexel, the millionaire heiress who spent her wealth establishing schools and missions, all while living a life of poverty among the people she was helping.4 

I know the sun will eventually come out to stay. And if it stays long enough to dry out the earth too much, we will be hoping for rain once again. From too many rainy days to too many sunny days, let us remember that we need to seek God first and not an excess of our daily needs.    

1https://www.nbc12.com/2020/08/15/nd-wettest-august-with-more-rain-ahead/

2https://weatherspark.com/m/20906/8/Average-Weather-in-August-in-Richmond-Virginia-United-States#:~:text=The%20average%20sliding%2031%2Dday,or%20falling%20below%200.9%20inches.

3https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/natural-disasters/lightning/#:~:text=Types%20of%20Lightning,one%20billion%20volts%20of%20electricity.

4https://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/st-katharine-drexel-shows-how-spiritual-poverty-and-submission-to-providence-go-hand-in-hand/ 

Different seat at the table

Vera has a new hiding place. The once trusted cat bed on the sill of the living room window has been vacant for several weeks. She has decided to lay on the seat cushion of a dining room chair. The one that she chose, of course, is what I would have considered mine. 

I’m not sure when, how, or why it happened. Perhaps next to my home office chair, I do spend the most time sitting eating my meals at the dining room table, along with the multiple nights  I have zoom meetings for Church. While her fascination may have started in protest to me of spending too much time in that seat, I noticed recently that she can look out the dining room windows as well as the living room windows with just a slight turn of her head before settling back down into a sleeping position. While I consider it a hiding place, since I don’t see her, she thinks of it as an advantageous perspective. No bird in flight around those windows will be missed (unless she’s sound asleep, which is usually the case). 

It’s amazing how much Vera reminds me of God. We can do the same things over and over again, yet we seem to miss a connection with Him. It’s almost as if He is hiding from us. We’re not alone in feeling that way. “Why do you stand afar off, O LORD? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” says the first two verses of Psalm 10. Psalm 13 begins “Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me?” Psalm 30 begins praising God for His assistance, yet in verse 7 the psalmist reveals how quickly things can change: “By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face, I was dismayed.” God, however, is not hiding, He is right there with us as always. We are the ones who have stopped seeking God, comfortable in the routine ways of our lives. 

At first I would nudge Vera off the seat when I was ready to eat at the table. But when she’s snoring away, I don’t have the heart to make her move. Instead, I take a different seat at the table. It is only me and there are three other chairs and a bench that seats two. Perhaps God doesn’t always ask us to move out of our comfort zone by stepping out of the boat and walking on water like Peter did. Perhaps, He wants us to try out a different seat at the table. One where we can see when hummingbirds come and hover by the windows. Sometimes a different perspective is just what we need. 

Why can’t God work with negativity?

We should always strive to do our best in all aspects of our lives as we offer our daily activities to God. But what happens when we fall short? 

The other morning was really tough. The alarm clock sounded, and it was a struggle to get out of bed. As I picked up my Magnificat to say my morning prayers, I realized that I really didn’t even feel like doing that. I can’t say that I really wanted to do something else, except perhaps going back to sleep. Since that was not an option, I tried to push down those uncooperative feelings and concentrate on the readings. During the few moments of contemplation after reading, I thought about everything I didn’t want to do: get up, eat breakfast, work in the home office, or even to pray. I was trying to ask God for grace, patience, enthusiasm, anything to get me through the day. However, when I thought about how much I really didn’t want to pray, that made me very upset. How can God do anything when I don’t even want to pray?

“So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” said Jesus. (Matt 5:48) My attitude, thoughts, and feelings were so far away from perfection at that moment. But just as quickly as I thought that God couldn’t help me because of my poor attitude, the next thought was, “Why not?” God is perfect. He is perfect Love. He wants to help me, bless me, and have His will completed in the person I am. It is only when I limit what He can do with a defeatist attitude. Even then, I’m not completely on my own. Jesus’ descriptive declaration of the Father’s perfection is the culmination of a discourse on loving our enemies. He reminds us that Father “makes His sun to rise on the bad and the good, and causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” (Matt 5:45) God’s blessings are not just for those who “earn” it; if they were, I don’t think there would be many blessings in the world. 

It’s times like that when we need to stop and think about the situation. I was trying. I may not have had the best attitude, but I didn’t completely skip my prayer time. I asked for what I needed to get me through the day, committing myself to trying and placing my day in His hands. Was I joyful about it? No. Unfortunately I could not rouse myself to that feeling. But faith is not a feeling. It’s a relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God understands our human limitations and knows that relationships with humans will have ups and downs. All He asks is that we try and trust in His care. 

The daily choice for God

In my blog about three years ago, I referenced one of my favorite songs, Diamonds, by the band Hawk Nelson. Recently, as I tuned in to watch the Word on Fire Show, to my surprise it was about the lead singer announcing his disbelief in God. Wow!

In a lengthy Instagram post, Jon Steingard gave a series of reasons why he no longer believes. As he was the lead singer for a popular Christian band, I’m sure I’m not the only one who was disappointed. In the Word on Fire Show, content director Brandon Vogt brought up a number of points Jon made in the post and asked Bishop Robert Barron to comment on them. Bishop Barron was encouraging of Steingard’s probing questions of the faith. However, Jon’s conclusion to these questions was not to investigate deeper, but to reject everything he believed.

Many of the issues presented have been around the entire history of the Church. One of the biggest, the issue of evil, was addressed in a Word on Fire blog by Matt Nelson. It is very difficult for our finite human minds to grasp many infinite concepts and we often oversimplify complicated realities. It’s okay to not understand how God can be three persons in one Trinity. It’s okay to doubt if there is any person who has been condemned to hell. My impression is that Jon held to a very simplistic belief of God and he was having trouble maturing in his faith. He referenced being a preacher’s son and perhaps between that and leading a Christian band, he was expected to be a leader before he was ready for it. There are times when the adage “fake it ‘till you make it” will not work, and this is one of them.  

As the statements were presented, it sounded to me as if Christianity was presented to him as if it was a single choice, and because those around him believed, it was not something to be questioned. It reminds me of the parable of the talents, where the one servant has no idea what to do with what he is given, so he gives the single talent back to his master. (Matthew 25:14-30) Faith is forged in challenges; it grows deeper and richer when it is put to the test. Sometimes the challenges are doubts that seem to overwhelm and overshadow the faith we have. Other times, they are silent encounters in our daily lives. In each circumstance, we have to make our choice. Hopefully, we can echo St. Peter, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69) 

Rise up

This past weekend, the gospel reading from Matthew contained several parables. As I was listening, there was one that really jumped out at me, even though I’ve heard it hundreds of times before. Comprising two sentences, this single verse spoke anew to the baker in me.

“He spoke to them another parable. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.’”

Matthew 13:33

Whenever you read reflections for this parable, Jesus is the yeast. He is the one causing the growth, and that makes logical sense, especially to one who does not bake. I’m not going to argue with the Church Fathers that this perspective is incorrect, but rather would like to offer another point of view. 

What caught my attention was the precise delineation of the amount of wheat flour: three measures. When details are given in the gospels, they can be easily skimmed over and overlooked, but they often have a deeper meaning. It’s not just that the yeast was added to wheat flour (another precise detail), but a specific count of three. What else comes to mind when we think about the count of three? To me, it was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So if Jesus, the Son, is one of the measures of flour, what then is the yeast? That would be each of us. Think about being mixed with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit until the heavenly kingdom is  leavened, that is, we rise.

The other major detail is that it’s not just any flour that the yeast is mixed with, but rather the flour is from wheat. It is the composition of the wheat flour that gives the yeast the food it needs to be able to do its job of creating carbon dioxide, which causes bread to rise. By itself, yeast can do nothing. It requires food, and only when it has an abundance of food, can it perform to the best of its ability. We require God; our nourishment from having a relationship with Him feeds us so that we can be the best version of ourselves and perform the good works that He asks of us. The more we feed on God, in prayer and in the Sacraments, the more we can leaven the bread of His Kingdom. 

Wheat and bread are common references throughout scripture. Each example illustrates a different aspect of our relationship with God. It’s amazing when you take something so simple as one verse of scripture and in reflection be impacted so powerfully and overwhelmingly, just by looking at it from a different perspective. 

Banking on Love

I don’t think I want to win the lottery. I was watching an episode of HGTV’s My Lottery Dream Home, enjoying seeing the different house offerings, and started to think about what it could be like to win from a scratch-off ticket or a Powerball drawing. 

What’s nice about the show, is that families who participate are not usually seeking multi-million dollar homes. Sometimes they really are the underdogs, who are just getting by and renting a home that is way too small for them. When they have the opportunity to choose to own a home that is much more roomy and has enough private space for each person, you can’t help but to share their joy. Yet sometimes it seems that the lure of the culture’s call for bigger and better weighs more heavily in the deciding factor. 

As the families walk through the various homes, it’s hard not to make judgements about what one likes personally. I know the decision has already been made, but I try to pick one, either that I like, or that I think they liked the best, and see if that is what they ended up choosing. During a recent episode, I started thinking, what would I do if I won a scratch-off ticket for one million dollars? I’d like to say that after taxes, I would set some aside for home improvements and travel and then donate the rest to select Catholic charities. While that sounds like a good plan, how much would be “enough” for what I want to do with my home and my travels? 

As my brain spun in all different directions pondering this, I realized that all the lottery would do is give me a false sense of financial security. It would also remove from me the ability to trust God for all my needs, not just spiritually, but also financially. We may look at the story of the widow giving the two small coins and Jesus’ praise of her (Mk 12:41-44) and think we always need to share, and that is one lesson to learn from it. Perhaps another lesson is that we need to trust that God will give us all we need, even when it seems that we have less than those around us. 

When we hear one of the most famous sayings of Jesus, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” (Mt 22:21) we may think that money doesn’t matter to God and it is separate from Him. But everything that we have is a gift from God. In reality, everything is His — including any money, even that of our paycheck. God has given us the ability and skills to make a living. Work is something that God commanded Adam to do in the garden of Eden. It was only after the fall that work became burdensome. If we trust God and pray for guidance to use our monetary resources to best meet His will, He will bless us. We just have to remember that God’s blessings are not always earthly ones, nor are they aligned with what our culture deems as a success. 

It’s no sin to dream about the possibilities of a lottery dream home, as long as we don’t live with the expectation that it will happen and forget to live in the present. We pray in thanksgiving for our homes, despite any flaws or imperfections we see. We also pray in petition to God to help those who are in need of a home, for whatever reason, and for guidance to help in whatever ways we can.