Into the unknown

This holiday season is unlike any before it. Then again, depending on your age, there are only so many that you’ve experienced. For two millennia we’ve been celebrating events that were unremarkable in their day yet changed the world forever.

Sometimes the Bible includes details that we gloss over or don’t think are important, but other times the details leave us wanting to know more. For example, it’s approximately 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem and walking that journey took about a week. It would have been dangerous for the couple to walk that far by themselves. Most movies would have you think they were the only ones traveling for the census. However, if both Joseph & Mary were from the line of David, wouldn’t their relatives in Nazareth also need to travel to Bethlehem? Even if Joseph and Mary had no other immediate relatives who were making the journey, they probably joined up with a caravan of others making the trip, if not to Bethlehem, then to other towns in that direction. 

In this age of data, we want to know the facts by the numbers. Just how far along was Mary in her pregnancy when she had to travel? Was she in her last month? Or was earlier than that? According to The Data Administration Newsletter, the census was taken on one specific day throughout the empire for accuracy. We don’t know if the census process had already occurred and Mary was too late into her pregnancy for the arduous trip back to Nazareth or if Jesus’ birth occurred before the day of the census. But in the grand scheme of things, the only thing that matters about the census & the trip is the result of the Savior’s birth in the city of David. 

We don’t know if Mary knew that her Son would be born in Bethlehem. Perhaps they anticipated they would be back in Nazareth in plenty of time beforehand. Or was that journey a giant question mark of what was going to happen next? While Mary & Joseph knew their destination, the events of that journey may not have been what they expected, if they even had expectations. Mary believed in God and His promises. She also trusted Joseph. And Joseph allowed God to lead him. Perhaps as we enter into this season of Advent, we ask Mary & Joseph to increase our belief in God and trust Him to lead us into the future filled with the unknown.  

Sheep versus goats

I want to be a sheep, but I’m afraid I’ll be judged as a goat. This Sunday’s gospel for the Solemnity of Christ the King is taken from Matthew (25:31-46) and is how Jesus will perform His final act as shepherd at the end of time by separating the sheep from the goats. 

As a spinner and a knitter, I love working with wool. With the many varieties of sheep breeds, there’s a type of wool for almost any need: from the long, lustrous locks for rug making to the super springy and soft fibers for baby clothes and all different types in between. If I was a sheep, I don’t think I could pick which breed I’d be, as there are several that I enjoy working with, at least from a wool perspective. The variety of what we can do with just the fibers of the animals’ coat is incredible. While Jesus did not intend for us to take the passage of being sheep and goats literally, we are called to apply our particular strengths when helping to meet the needs of our community. We are not called to judge another who is in need of help for their worthiness to receive our assistance. Rather we are called to look upon ourselves and our own resources to see how we can provide support. It is our response that will be judged. If we evaluate others as being less worthy, we are actually passing judgement upon ourselves as being superior, and denying the mercy of God. For God’s mercy is meant to be shared upon receipt so that we can continually be a channel of His mercy on earth.

While there are breeds of goats whose fibers can be spun, like cashmere and mohair, goats are more well-known for their behavior. Perhaps they can be referred to as infamous in their ability to eat anything and everything in their path. I think the most frightening aspect of Jesus’ judgement on the goats is that they don’t even realize that they are goats. It’s not that they don’t know about mercy and don’t want to share it with others, but rather they look to the exclusive and narrow definition of who should receive assistance. When you think about it, how can Jesus ever be hungry, thirsty, naked, or somehow in need? Everything in creation is His. Yet Jesus associates Himself with the poor. In the very next chapter, His response to those judging the woman pouring perfume on His feet is, “The poor you will always have with you; but you will not always have me.” (Mt 26:11) Jesus started His life on earth as a poor person by being laid in a manger and ended it by being crucified on a cross like a criminal. Jesus knows what it’s like to be an outcast. When we focus on ourselves and only what we want, taking everything down in our path, we become goats and cease being a channel of God’s mercy.

It’s very easy to be caught up in the frenzy of our society and respond as the goats do. Just hearing on the news how particular household items have been bought in such quantities that the store shelves are empty, can trigger a response to make sure we’re plenty stocked up. Let us be vigilant not only in our current world situation, but also in the future when all our physical needs are met, that there are brothers and sisters in Christ who are less fortunate than ourselves and in need of our aid.   

Technology immersion

Vera had enough. She put her paw on my leg and gave a cry bearing meow. After working all day in my home office on my work computer and a quick bite of dinner, I was again on the computer. This time it was my personal laptop as I participated in an RCIA Zoom meeting. It was almost like she was saying, “Enough Mommy! Spend some time with me!”

We are blessed with technology. This pandemic has illustrated just how useful our e-connectivity is. Even though I was a virtual worker prior to this year, being able to work from home is no longer an oddity. In addition to work, I can grocery shop, workout, and connect with friends all without leaving the home. However, the biggest blessings have been the ability to attend Mass, participate in parish and diocese functions, as well as spend time in front of the blessed sacrament. If you can’t find what you need on the internet, there may be an app for what you are searching for. The divine mercy chaplet, the rosary, an examination of conscience guide, and even Biblical bedtime stories can all be found in the app store. While some may argue that the volume of choices is enough to overwhelm a person to not choose anything at all, I love the fact that through YouTube on my TV, I can pray in adoration of the blessed sacrament located in Melbourne, Australia. 

An extended workday is now the norm, since company resources have been reduced and the work still needs to get done. Yet with Zoom meetings, I can still participate in activities I’ve signed up for since I only need time to log into my laptop rather than driving to a particular location. However, all this screen time does come with a cost. It also raises expectations that you can do even more, since no traveling is involved. It also means that I’m going from laptop to laptop, TV, or mobile device. I’ve even had dreams interacting with the TV. But if we limit our screen time, it seems that we are shutting out the world, and depending on how much we are using the screens as tools of worship, turning away from God. 

The Good News is that God is always present to us, regardless of where we are or what we are doing. While it is a great sacrifice to take the time to drive to a chapel for holy hour before the blessed sacrament, God is still with us even if we decide to sit on our couch, open our Bibles and read, or pray the rosary using actual rosary beads. If we still feel disconnected, we can always ask our guardian angel to pay Jesus a visit in the tabernacle of our parish.  Technology provides us tools to help in our relationship with God, but should not be confused with the relationship itself. For 2,000 years, people have been able to get close to God without technology; it’s not a requirement to become a saint. It’s up to us to find the right balance of technology in our prayer life. Prudent use of the tools and setting fair expectations of ourselves can help us avoid being chained to technology. 

After my Zoom meeting was over and I sat in my recliner, Vera eagerly jumped up to knead on me. I said a Glory Be in thanksgiving for such a wonderful feline friend. That genuine and heartfelt prayer along with Vera’s purring ministrations gave me the peace I needed at the end of a long day. 

Holy work

At the start of a diocese class I’m taking was a prayer attributed to St. Augustine. The lines that captured my attention were “Act in me, O Holy Spirit, That my work, too, may be holy.” Work and holy seemed to be a bit oxymoronic to me and it made me think a bit deeper.

I have heard previously that if people are having issues with their job, they should think of God as their boss rather than their actual manager, and consider themselves as really working for God. While the theory sounds great, when you do have issues with your manager, it’s really hard to get beyond the human factor, especially when you need your supervisor to give you direction. I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes the decisions you make, while they seem reasonable and logical, are not always appreciated by your management. Yet, if you turn the thought that what you are doing is holy, how does that change your attitude? Can you find the patience to explain for the tenth time the process to another co-worker? Is your smile a bit more genuine when you talk to your colleagues — even if it’s only over the phone? If you approached every task with the reverence and respect as approaching the Eucharist, both you and your job would be transformed.

Work is not just what we do to earn a paycheck. It is also all the little things that keep life running: laundry, cooking, cleaning, shopping, etc. What if you applied the same holy attitude towards these tasks? What would happen? I do enjoy cooking & baking and often listen to Christian pop music while I’m in the kitchen, so it’s not a stretch for me to think of that in an elevated mindset. However, activities like taking out the trash, cleaning the toilet, or scooping out the litter box are a bit harder for me to think of as holy activities. Yet we know God is with us always, even in the midst of these less than glamorous chores, which means that even those can be thought of as holy. 

If we treat every action we do as holy, does that take away from those activities that are truly sacred? Perhaps the question should really be, if earth was heaven (and everything is holy in heaven), wouldn’t we treat everything with sacred respect? As Christians, our goal is to bring the light and life of Jesus to those around us; to bring heaven on earth. Should we start living as if we are in heaven instead of waiting to get there? If we start living and treating, not just people but the whole of our lives as holy, we are reflecting the light of Jesus, that same light that radiated from His simple manger, through His Passion and Death on the Holy Cross, and exploded from the tomb that could not contain His Resurrection. 

Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit,
That my thoughts may all be holy.
Act in me, O Holy Spirit,
That my work, too, may be holy.
Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit,
That I love but what is holy.
Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit,
To defend all that is holy.
Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit,
That I always may be holy.

— Attributed to St. Augustine

Emotions versus sin

It was a tough week and I felt frustrated and wanted to cry. The more I thought about curling up into a ball and sobbing, the more I became angry with myself, since there really wasn’t any “good” reason to cry. I didn’t like this battle that was brewing up inside me, so I took it to God.

In telling God about how I was feeling, I started to realize how we have categorized emotions as being good or bad. Crying is what little babies do, since they can’t do anything else. While it’s accepted in children, it seems to be accepted in very limited circumstances as adults. We’re supposed to just “deal” with whatever comes our way. Yet, just like infants, the world can sometimes overwhelm us beyond our ability to explain or even to process. While one or two things may not be upsetting, when you have four or five things, from different areas of life happening all at once, sometimes a good cry is what is needed. No, it won’t change the circumstances, but it can be cathartic. It allows us to pause and to do something, especially when the events around us are out of our control and influence. While there are many emotions that can prompt us to cry, the action of crying can be beneficially soothing and calming.

Anger is another emotion that has bad connotations. However, it is not the emotion itself that is a sin, but rather how we react to the anger that can lead us astray. When we feel anger bubbling up, rather than grabbing the closest thing and hurling it across the room, acknowledging that we are angry is one step to diffusing questionable behavior. Another is to identify why we are feeling this way. Anger may really be many little things that have built up. Anger seems to kick in when we have reached our capacity of processing little events impacting our lives. All too often it seems the switch is turned on by another person’s actions, yet if we really stop and think, whatever the other person did is really not an offense that deserves the emotion. Most times our anger outbursts are not of the righteous sort resulting in overturning money tables at a temple. Yet we shouldn’t be afraid to turn to God when we are angry. Jesus knows and experienced all of the emotions during His time on earth. The emotion of anger is nothing to be ashamed of, but if we don’t turn towards God to help us through it, our actions may be regretful.

God has given us the gift of different emotions. While the thought of being happy all the time sounds nice in theory, if we only had one emotion, happiness may not be it. It is times of pain, anger, and suffering that allows us to appreciate and embrace the times of joy, peace, and happiness. And no matter what our emotions are, they are most welcomed to be expressed and shared with God. He can truly take whatever emotions we have and help us to grow into the best versions of ourselves.

Deception of control

It’s that time of year again. Watching TV can be painful, especially the ads. No, I’m not talking about election season, although that does run a close second. I’m talking about Halloween. I can’t even watch the Food network, as the creations they are making compete with one another for the most foul and goulish edibles. Why must it all be so horrifying and distorted?

As I was flipping through channels trying to avoid the offending commercials and shows, I started thinking about what is it that makes people like this kind of thing? The closest I can get in thinking about this genre is the Harry Potter series; and the most unique aspect of the stories is the magic. In essence, the stories are about a boy who is learning how to control, not only himself, but also to manipulate what he comes in contact with: circumstances, things, people, etc. Yet even with this power, albeit very rudimentary due to his inexperience, life is not easy for him. Even the adults with their superior skills must face their own issues and trials. So why is magic so fascinating and desirable to us?

What is magic? It depends on the person; for one it’s about changing a frog into a prince. To another it could be spinning straw into gold. For others, like some characters in Harry Potter,  it could be endless power and domination over others. The allure of magic is that we can seemingly have whatever we desire. However, magic is not real. We sacrifice something real for the perception of an altered existence. Yet this attempt at controlling our environment ends up making us slaves to something not real and we will never be happy with the way things are. Magic is deceiving ourselves in what we want. Magic is a distortion of reality under the disguise of control. 

In all our efforts to get what we desire and to change what’s around us through magic, we miss what we truly have. We miss the beauty of the little things that can bring a smile. We miss the big things because we are looking for something else. We miss the true joy of being in the moment with those around us. God has given us the ability to think and to reason. With those tools, we can appreciate everything that crosses our path, accept what we cannot change, and assist in the transformation of what we can. God wants us to participate with Him in bringing His Kingdom to those we encounter. It’s a transformation to God’s will, not ours. 

God has given each of us the gift of free will. We have the freedom to choose. Our choices are what shapes us and the path we walk. It’s rather ironic that we look to control those around us and make choices for them, when the all-powerful Almighty God allows each of us to make our own choices. The God who is Love itself has given us an example to follow. Why give up freedom of choice and truth for the chains of control and deception?  

Can you hear me now?

Early in this millennium, a television ad phrase became quite famous, “Can you hear me now?” Perhaps the phrase may have been infamous, as many understood the challenges of trying to have conversation on a mobile phone, only to be told they were unintelligible. For me, I get the feeling God is asking, “Do you trust Me now?” 

Recently I experienced a delightful opportunity. Shortly before, in reflecting on various circumstances in my life, I felt like I came to the realization that I had unfair expectations of others. It seemed to me that I had two choices: I could let go and move on, or I could let myself linger in the what-ifs and wish-it-could-bes. Expectations are hard to let go. Similar to other negative thoughts, they are rather sticky and every time I think I’ve been successful in letting them go, they turn up like a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of my shoe. I know it’s a work in progress, so when the delightful opportunity presented itself, it was like God presenting me with a gift and the question, “How about now?” It was a moment of pure joy and the reminder that I needed not to try and plan everything out and that where I am is where God wants me. 

I’ve been praying the surrender novena for a few years now. Yes, the same 9-day prayer, repeating it over and over every 9 days. Perhaps because I am working on it, I’m a bit more cognizant of God’s blessings when I trust Him. It’s like the carrot that’s placed in front of a horse to encourage each step. God is our biggest cheerleader; He wants us to succeed, especially when it comes to strengthening our relationship with Him. I am very grateful for the blessing God has bestowed on me. I know the scope of trusting in Him needs to grow wider. I can’t place a limit on what I turn over to God. I need to turn everything over, big and small, and let Him direct it. The blessing isn’t one of completion, but rather of trying to make the right decision and being blessed with positive feedback. This delightful gift is just a small foreshadowing of other blessings just waiting for me as my trust in God grows. 

I don’t know if trusting in God will ever be completely easy for me. I don’t know if it will ever be automatic or if I will always need to work on it. What I do know, is when I do trust in Him, the results are surprisingly delightful!

Come and be remade

The parable of the wedding feast in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 22:1-14) used to trip me up when I would hear it. After all the originally invited guests decline their invitations, the servants are sent out “into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.” Yet the host ends up tossing out one guest for not wearing the appropriate attire. 

My logical brain used to think the host was acting unfairly. If the people who were invited to come were asked on the spot to come immediately, since the feast was ready, how could the guest be dressed appropriately? The answer was so obvious and stared at me from the text. In a way, it’s like a simple math problem. There were many guests invited at short notice, yet only one was singled out for not wearing the correct clothing. If that wasn’t enough, the big hint is that the person is speechless when asked about his costume. He didn’t say that he didn’t have the clothes, or didn’t have time to change, but rather allowed his silence to condemn him. The only way one could be singled out would be if that person chose not to change his attire. It must have been that the servants not only invited those from the main roads, but provided them the means and opportunity to change. 

Since the feast is a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven, we have to understand that nothing in our closets will be sufficient for such an event. In fact no material item will be available to us there. It is our souls that will be dressed in the thoughts, words, and deeds of our lives. Every single one will appear as either dark, dirty stains or bright, dazzling colors. How many thoughts do you have in a day? Do you pay attention to how they move you closer to God or turn you inward to selfishness? Just that thought alone is overwhelming! Yet we should not lose hope, for just as in the parable, God is forever giving us an opportunity to change. What it all hinges on, is our willingness to change. You may say this is just the way I am, I don’t need to change. But that is an excuse to have your own way. Maybe you say that change is too hard; and indeed it is! But if you’re trying to do it all by yourself, it only makes it harder. You need to reach out to One for whom all things are possible. Maybe you think that God should accept you as you are. God does love you here and now, but He doesn’t want you to settle for something less than perfection. He gives us His servants, the angels to guide our way. He gives us the tools and opportunities we need to better ourselves, to be able to put on those wedding garments and be properly dressed in heaven.

God invites us to come to His lavish and extravagant feast. He asks us to come and be remade into the image of His dearly beloved Son, Jesus. He sends His angels to meet us and provides the clothes we are to wear. Will you accept His invitation? Will you choose to change your garments and dress in a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors or will you enter dressed in stained rags?  

Tending the garden

Recently one of the readings from Isaiah reminded us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.” (Is 55:8) Our reflections are limited due to our humanity. Even when we pursue a life of faith, it can be difficult to recognize God’s work and will unfolding. We apply earthly success and accomplishments as our expectations. And if God’s thoughts and ways are beyond us, certainly His timing is very different than ours would be. 

Reading the full passage from Isaiah, we hear that God sends rain and snow to water the earth to make it fertile for plants to grow and produce the harvest. It’s not just one time that it rains or snows, and it’s not just one drop either. As much as plants need water, they also need a proportionate amount of sunshine. Plants take time to grow, needing insects and birds to pollinate the flowers that will bear the fruit. Snow and vegetation seem like opposite ends of the spectrum. Usually snow indicates winter and dormancy in plants, especially those that bear produce. Yet, it is both the rain and the snow that God sends that makes the ground fertile. And just like with the plants, our efforts to live a life according to God’s will take time. We also must face the possibility that the harvest of God’s will may be beyond our own lifetime. 

The analogy of the plant is very simplistic, and while we grasp the general meaning, we need to remember the plant has a singular purpose. Human life is much more complicated and the focus is on relationships: with God, our families, our friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc. It’s as if each relationship is one of those plants that is watered by God. To do God’s will, we need to tend each plant in the garden. How successful are we in bringing the love of God to each of these relationships? Rather than looking externally for success, perhaps we should look at our everyday interactions and try to bring a little extra joy to our encounters, taking time to listen to what others are saying, and being present in the moment. Maybe we need to do a little weeding and remove the negativity that creeps into our thoughts and words. 

God lavishly showers blessings down upon us. Rather than rejecting them for not meeting our expectations, let us look upon the things, people and events placed on our path as opportunities to reflect God’s love and cultivate the Kingdom of God on earth. 

Beautiful music

Recently I read a reflection correlating humankind to musical instruments. Being an eclectic music lover, that image has been turning over in my mind. There is truth in that correlation from a few different perspectives.

Thinking of humanity as one giant orchestra makes sense. While sometimes the noise we make is a cacophony of sound, at other times we can make beautiful music together. In order to make such music, we need to embrace who we are. If we are a bass and wish to be a trumpet, no matter how hard we try to sound like a trumpet, we will never achieve that sound, even if we play the same notes as the trumpet. Yet when we embrace our truest self, the one God made us to be, we find our unique way of contributing. When we find this voice, we can reach the high notes and the low notes and everything in between. The charisms that God has given us are like the sound of an instrument and the way it is played. We can’t ask for different ones, but we can ask to understand what we have been given and how we can use our gifts to fulfill God’s will.

If we each have our own set of charisms as instruments, then God’s orchestra is indeed varied and diverse. While it is nice to hear a piano or a violin playing, the music is much richer when more instruments are involved. As more instruments are added, they take on different roles within the music. While the piano is percussive in its nature, it can also take the melodious lead or support the other instruments in harmony. The bass most often has a joint role as it keeps time with the drum beat, yet with a note on the scale that forms a chord of music together with the other instruments. While we can appreciate solos, the best music is often heard when many instruments play in harmony. 

How incredible is it that all music is from a seven note scale! Seven is considered a holy number (the seven-day story of creation). While there are a number of “in between” notes, the sharps/flats, and many octaves of the scales, only frequency differentiates one C note from another. While music has evolved over time, there are still new songs being created daily. What seems so restrictive, with a little creativity, can produce limitless possibilities. Even  the cymbals that only have one note can either produce a famous musical exclamation mark, or be used to create a sense of movement, depending on how they are played. 

Beautiful music is created when practiced musicians play under the direction of a skilled director and listen with awareness to the instruments around them. When we embrace the gifts we have been given, practice using them, and look to God to guide us, and work in harmony with each other, the spiritual music we create will reverberate throughout eternity.