Filters of life

I found it rather ironic that the sunglasses I bought from Two Blind Brothers could allow me to see what I hadn’t before. 

After seeing so many advertisements from Two Blind Brothers and needing a new pair of sunglasses, I decided to give them a try. I wore my new shades the same day I received them and after getting into my car, I thought there was something odd about my windows. The windshield was fine, but when I looked a certain way through the side windows, I could see a web of darker tinting in the glass. I kept looking back and forth between the two trying to figure out what was happening. I then looked over the sunglasses and the pattern disappeared! Hmmmmm… Something in the sunglasses was enabling me to see what isn’t usually visible — the unique properties of the glass used in car doors, perhaps the treatment they use to resist shattering upon impact. 

I’m sure the automakers do not intend for drivers to see how safety glass is made; all that matters is that it works. Seeing the pattern did not enhance my safety nor cause distraction. Yet I can’t help but wonder: what else am I missing; what am I not seeing? I think it’s common enough for us to think our vision is good, that we don’t need any correction; or for those of us who do require corrective lenses, they are enough. But blindness can be far more than lack of physical sight, it can also be a lack of perception in our relationships with family and friends, in our workplace, as well as our relationship with God.

For about 180 days, I’ve heard Fr. Mike Schmitz begin the Bible in a Year podcast saying, “we encounter God’s voice and live life through the lens of Scripture.” The story of salvation is not a collection of bedtime stories about ancient people, but rather a how-to manual for life. Our relationship with God affects our relationships with others. When we learn to trust in God, we are richly blessed and bring blessings to others. If we treat the Bible like any other book, expecting to read it cover to cover, it can be confusing and intimidating since it’s not just a book, but a library of books. When we understand that the different books were written for specific audiences and particular purposes, the story of salvation unfolds in a uniquely personal way. St. Jerome remarked, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” From Catholic Study Bibles, containing commentaries and a plethora of footnotes, to Bible studies like Walking with a Purpose, to the Bible in a Year podcast, there are many ways we can pursue getting to know God better. It’s not only about reading the words or listening to the stories, but finding out more about the book, the time period, and the people that brings the Bible alive! Diving deeper into the Scriptures allows us to put on different filters or perspectives, seeing not just how much God loves Israel, but how He loves us, even in the chaos of our own times. 

The first step can sometimes be the hardest: acknowledging that our perspective is limited. However, with prayerful guidance of the Holy Spirit when we make it a priority to seek out God through the Scriptures, we will be rewarded, not just with blessings on earth, but with a vision of the Kingdom more lovely than anything we can ever see within creation.

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

Mary our mentor

Recently I received an email from Ascension with a short video about the vocational callings of Fr. Mike Schmitz and Fr. Josh Johnson. While their ‘yes’ to God was not quite as straight-forward as the Blessed Mother Mary’s fiat, reflecting on their stories brought a new appreciation for Mary as well as for those who profess religious vows.

The comment that struck me the most was when Fr. Mike indicated that as a youngster, he thought priests were perfect. From the laity’s perspective, I can see how those in religious life appear to have a connection with the divine that ordinary people don’t. I think we hold them to a higher standard, expecting them to be beyond reproach.  That’s also why it can be devastating to us when their failings are revealed. Rather than putting them on this pedestal of perfection, we need to remember they made a choice, a commitment to say ‘Yes’ to God for their whole lives and in every part of their lives, including family and career choices. When we are struggling or having doubts about what God is calling us to do, we only need to reach out to our local parish priest for guidance. Priests and religious that minister within communities are wonderful resources for prayer and guidance. They are like us, part of our community, and they understand our struggles to follow the call of God.

Community is what God IS: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Community is also what God wants for us: to be in communion with Him, by being His Body for others and ministering to one another. Participation is what a community does, how it acts. God wanted us to participate in salvation history. He asked Mary to be the vessel in which His Son took flesh to walk among us. While Abraham may have been  first to say ‘Yes’ to God, Mary was the first to experience the full communion saying ‘Yes’ brings. 

Praying the rosary or just a simple Hail Mary, we invoke the spiritual assistance of a Mother who constantly pleads on our behalf to Her Divine Son. We rejoice in her agreement to participate in God’s will, not just for herself, but for all creation. She is a mentor for all of us, but most especially for priests and religious, who vow their lives in service to God in imitation of her. And for those times when we need to interact on a human level, we can look to those dedicated spiritual sons and daughters of Mary to provide guidance and support in our challenges and struggles. 

In thanksgiving to all priests and religious, let us say a Hail Mary or two, lifting them and their struggles up to the Mother who showers grace on all of us as her response. 

Resulting success

No one wants to fail. No one sets out with the intention of failing. We may lack confidence in our ability to succeed, but we all want to succeed in every aspect of life. Yet God does not ask us to be successful, rather He wants us to be faithful. 

As the Bible in a Year podcast transitioned into the successors of Kings David and Solomon, Father Mike Schmitz pointed out that all the wealth gained under David and Solomon was lost within the first generation that followed. But it wasn’t just gold that was lost, but also the unity. David gathered all of Israel under his kingship, yet Solomon’s sons divided it up so that 10 tribes became the kingdom of Israel, and 2 tribes were known as the kingdom of Judah. It is through the kingship line of Judah that Jesus comes. If you recall, Judah means “to praise.” It was the name of one of Jacob’s sons.  

The kingdom of Judah contained the city of Jerusalem where the temple was located.  Under David and Solomon, it  was recognized as the only location where the sacrifice to God could be offered. These sacrifices, described in the book of Leviticus, formed a calendar of worship to God. Without access to the temple, the 10 tribes that broke away lost the ability to adhere to the practices of the faith. This faithlessness resulted in a lack of success for the kingdom of Israel; they were the first to succumb to foreign invaders and soon lost their territory. Even with the ability to worship God as written by Moses, the kingdom of Judah struggled to remain faithful, but they were successful in keeping a remnant of the kingdom even through to the time of Jesus.

King David was not perfect. He failed to be faithful on a number of occasions as documented in the Scriptures. Yet when faced with his sins, he acknowledged his failings and sought reconciliation with God. God blessed David’s efforts to remain faithful to the Lord; it is through His blessings that David found success in spite of his weaknesses.  His son Solomon started out strongly in his kingship, seeking the guidance of God and asking for wisdom to govern the people rightly. God blessed Solomon’s initial humility and eventually his wealth surpassed that of his father David.  Solomon, however, became a victim of the pride that came with that success.  He had many wives and built temples to their gods, diverging from the right praise that David upheld.

There will always be trials and hardships, yet if we remain faithful to God, if we place ourselves into His hands, He will see us through. When we emerge from these trying times, we need to thank God for blessing us with success, rather than taking credit for it. God blesses us with talents and opportunities, so any success of ours is really from Him. When we reap the benefits He sows for us, we should seek to share them with others. When we fall, we can remember the example of David and ask God’s forgiveness. 

We can be only as successful as our faithfulness to God and His will for us. Our faithfulness is not just restricted to our worship of God, but permeates throughout our lives: into our families, relationships, professions, and communities. If we first seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness (i.e. being faithful to His will), He will shower us with blessings and success beyond measure. We need to be mindful not to get caught up in the blessings and successes, but keep aligned on God’s will for us. 

Word choice

According to a Google search, there are approximately 600,000 words in the English language. These words are the tools we use to communicate to one another, not only in the moment, but also into the future through written and digital form. How well do we use these tools?

The language at my new company is, indeed, different. Yes, I do expect differences in the normal business functions context.  I also expect all the acronyms companies love to generate or repurpose for their own use. Yet I noticed during orientation, one team member talking would thank another team member who was assisting in communicating links to various company websites being mentioned. The specific wording used was: “I appreciate you.” I was fascinated by this saying, especially since I heard it several times during orientation, as well as a few times by my own team members to one another. Reflecting on my own speech, I would normally say, “I appreciate that,” meaning the action that a person did for me. By saying “I appreciate you,” the acknowledgement is on the person, not the action. Wow! How powerful is that?

Another unique phrase I’ve come across in my new company is “cordially required.” The word cordial has its root in Latin word for heart. Originally the word conveyed heartfelt or deep sincerity. The word is used now to convey warmth and welcome. Usually, one is cordially invited to an event. While these company invitations are not to be declined, its use does, however, still convey warmth and welcome. I don’t look at something I’m “cordially required” to attend with the same outlook as I would consider a “mandatory” meeting at my old company. Using the word cordially to explain the meeting type gives me the opportunity to review other meetings that may be scheduled at that time and make this one my priority. A mandatory meeting makes me feel I need to clear my calendar and indicates I will be instructed in that meeting and perhaps penalized if I don’t attend. I don’t even want to refer to something “cordially required” as a meeting, but rather as an event, one in which I am a participant. 

If these two instances of word usage have made an impact on me in the few weeks I’ve been at the company, how much more can we do as Christians and as Catholics to convey to others that we see Christ in them? And it’s not only in speaking, but our writing, which includes our texting and posting to social media? Do we ever pause and think about the potential damage our words can do to others, or the effect our words can have on their perception of Christians if they know our religion? Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh and His words brought healing to many. Our words may not bring the healing that Jesus’ did, however, they can bring comfort, companionship, and counsel to those we encounter. 

Words are what we also use to communicate with God. We order our thoughts and petitions through the words we use. While it can be comforting to use memorized prayers like the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be, they do not provide us a pass to let our minds wander while reciting the words. Memorized prayers are meant to focus our concentration more deeply on God, allowing us to explore the mystery of God in ways we haven’t thought of previously. Praying is meant to open our spiritual ear to hear God speaking to us. We need to listen to what we say when we pray and mean what we say. If we pray for the right words to use in difficult situations, we then need to listen to hear what words we need to use. If we pray for the knowledge of how our words are perceived, let us also pray for the wisdom and grace to change how we speak so that we can be more Christ-like. 

We have over a half million words to choose from, let us choose wisely so that our words reflect the positive love of Christ to all who hear and read them.

Being remembered

How many generations can you go back in your family? Do you know their names off the top of your head or do you need to look them up? “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” begins the book of Ecclesiastes. The use of vanity, according to the footnote in New American Bible translation, represents the Hebrew superlative expressing the supreme degree of futility and emptiness. For many, the fleetingness of life is being forgotten within our own family.

Listening to the Bible in a Year podcast as the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes were being read, I was hoping that as the book progressed, I would be able to understand what the author was saying. All I could glean from it was how depressing life is: it is worth nothing and no one is remembered. Yet Fr. Mike Schmitz’s comments that followed unpacked these chapters illustrating it is only in and through God that life makes sense. If life is only reduced to what we experience here and now and has no bearing after we complete our time on earth, then yes, life is nothing but vapor, fleeting and useless. However, if we live our life with the belief and guidance of God, then life does have a purpose and every choice has a meaning. Our ultimate end is whether we want to enjoy the after-life-on-earth within God’s presence or if we choose to turn our backs on Him. 

I really enjoy hearing so much of the Bible read by Fr. Mike. There have been so many names that I would usually glaze over because I did not know how to pronounce them. But hearing those names made me realize just how many people have come before me. I wonder how long they lived; what their favorite food was; what was their favorite story around the fire at night? I think of how the names mentioned carried significance, like Joshua, son of Nun. Who was Nun and why was it so important to identify Joshua as being his son? Were there numerous men named Joshua that they identified the father to tell them apart? Some may say it was the beginning of having a family name, but if that were the case, why aren’t all the names mentioned in conjunction with the paternal relation? While in some areas of scripture, a family line may be traced, Joshua is mentioned specifically as the son of Nun in Deuteronomy (1:38 and 34:9), as well as at the beginning and end of the book of Joshua (1:1 and 24:29). Perhaps Nun was an ordinary man, who lived a life of faith in God that was so strong, he imparted it on his son who was then able to lead the Israelites into the promised land. Nun may not have had the great actions of Moses or even his son, but his ordinary faithfulness was rewarded by God since he is never forgotten as long as the Bible is read. 

There is great power in naming things after people. I remember when I first moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia and kept hearing DeKalb mentioned. There were several renditions of DeKalb used in naming the area roads. It wasn’t until I visited a portrait gallery in the Independence Hall area of Philadelphia that I realized why that name was so important: he was an officer in the Continental Army of the American Revolutionary War. Just like Nun, we may not remember what DeKalb did in the fight for independence, but his name has lived on and used on a daily basis each time mail is delivered to a house on one of many streets that bear his name. 

I see the finger of God at hand through the ages that aligns the reading of Ecclesiastes with the celebration of the Memorial Day weekend in the United States. From the Revolutionary War to the present day conflicts in the Middle East and to all places where our troops are deployed, we take a moment to not only lift up to God those we know who give their life for their country, but also those whose names are known only in heaven. Life may be fleeting and we may be forgotten within a generation or two, yet if we live a God-centered life, we look forward to seeing God after we breathe our last. Perhaps we will spend all eternity meeting those who have preceded us — those within the family of God, and even those who come after us! 

Encouragement for the journey

How would you expect God to reach out to you? Through passages in the Bible? Through Mass or reconciliation? Perhaps even through a family member or a friend? All those seem like logical sources for God’s wisdom. Perhaps He tried to get through to me using one of these methods and I missed the message. But of all things, I certainly didn’t expect God to speak to me through a cozy murder mystery story.

I have been following Fr. Mike Schmitz’s Bible in a Year podcast and I have learned so much in the four months I’ve been listening. However, recently I wanted to pick up a book to read purely for entertainment, something that didn’t require too much thinking to read. With a love for Scotland, knitting, and mysteries, I loaded my e-reader with Murder in a Scottish Shire by Traci Hall. The heroine of the story is a single mom who owns a yarn stop and she’s dealing with many changes in her life. She may even need to relocate her shop. As she struggles to come to terms with the changes, she’s often reminded of positive things about change that her grandmother shared. These sayings certainly seemed to apply to what was going on in my life as well.

I officially gave notice to my company and am preparing to begin a new job, however, I’ve been plagued by doubts about this huge change. While the platform I’ll be working on is the same, it is a newer version. Add that to almost 20 years at the same company, and it’s not surprising that I’m feeling all sorts of fear and anxiety. 

“‘Change is opportunity, and only a fool fears it!’ Gran’s voice shouted in her head.” That line stopped me in my tracks. It was then that I realized all the negative thoughts I’ve been having about switching jobs were fear of the unknown. The new job is an excellent opportunity and I really am thrilled to embark on this new path in my career. This line from the book was like the voice of God reassuring me that I made the right decision. As I paused and reflected on this line, I felt nothing but comfort and peace. And then I started chuckling, realizing God certainly has a sense of humor and only He could speak so eloquently through another’s writing. 

I should not have been surprised. As the author of life, God can speak to us through all of what’s around us: people, animals, plants, music, or any other vehicle He chooses. I don’t believe in coincidences. I was not actively looking for a job, yet one was practically wrapped up with a bow and presented to me. I hadn’t been reading fiction for months and to pick out the one novel that I not only found enjoyable, but that conveyed the very encouragement I needed  cannot be chalked up as a fluke. It is the very hand of God waving hello to me, letting me know He’s here on the journey with me. He knows best how to communicate with me. What an awesome God He is!

Need versus want

Do you need God? Or do you want God? Does it matter? Yes! We tend to use these words interchangeably, but I think wanting God is subtly better to needing Him. 

A recruiter recently reached out to me and over the course of several rounds of interviews they indicated they wanted me. It was a rather intoxicating feeling to be wanted. Not just that my skill set matched what they were looking for, as the job I initially interviewed for  was not the best fit for me. Because of my eclectic career path, I could fit in several different groups at the company, and they wanted to find where I would fit best before extending me an offer. We discussed several potential positions before an offer was made. Being wanted has fueled my desire to join the company and motivates me to stretch myself to do more than my very best.  

I know I need God and He knows that I need Him. While I do seek out a relationship with Him, needing God in my life does not require much effort. If I engage in a relationship with God only when I need Him, I may spend more time ignoring Him than seeking Him out. Having a relationship solely based on need may also make me resentful when I have to reach out to Him for help. While a need-based relationship may be more robust than that; however it can also promote stagnation, limiting us to just what is comfortable.

To have a relationship with God built on want, we must pray for that: God, I want to want you. I want the desire to want to do God’s will. I want to see what God wants in the circumstances of my daily life.” To want God in a relationship is to actively look for Him in every situation we experience. Jesus said, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [our daily needs] shall be yours as well.” (Matt 6:33) Wanting God is to seek Him above any of our other desires. By filling up with God, we can better serve Him in our daily decisions and tasks as well as in the monumental life choices like accepting a new job or moving to a different state. Wanting God allows us to look for His blessings the way He wants to provide them, rather than having a narrow vision that reflects our own expectations.  

Wanting God is a choice each of us has to make for ourselves. It’s a lot easier to stay in a relationship of need with God, but if we seek out a relationship built on our want of God, His generosity will far surpass our needs.

Hungry for the Lord

Vera has not met a string she has not found tasty. This includes my scapular. During a recent cuddle time, as she tried for the countless time to yank the thread around my neck into her mouth, I told her that she couldn’t eat Jesus! She gives a whole new meaning to, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:9)

It’s one thing for her to spy the scapular during the summer, when the cut of shirts are more open. In the winter, I thought it wouldn’t be so bad. However, now that she knows it’s there, she looks for it, trying to move my shirt out of the way if she doesn’t see it. While it can get tiresome trying to pet her and at the same time discourage her from eating it, I have to give her credit for her persistence. In this simple, repetitive action, I can complain about what she is doing or I can dive deeper. She may think the string around my neck is tasty, but do I think the same of God? Am I as persistent in searching for Him as Vera is for my scapular? While even the Psalm instructs us to taste the Lord, is that meant to be the Eucharist host, or something more? 

Hunger is a basic response of the body, yet it is used to describe our yearning for more than just food. We can be hungry for love, power, fame, accomplishment, or almost anything. To describe the need for God as being a hunger is very appropriate, as it expresses our core desire for Him. Tasting what we are hungry for is our interaction with what we desire. Tasting is also indicative of having a small amount. We don’t need much to realize how good God is to us. Yet that little experience can change our whole lives. 

I think in order to taste the goodness of the Lord is to allow Him into our life without constraints. We need to let Him be our God: to listen to Him, to let Him lead us, and to trust Him with our whole lives. This is difficult because we have become accustomed to “junk food,” and we crave that over what God provides. But God is always walking with us, waiting for us to take a bite of what He offers, to turn our midnight cravings into conversations with Him, and to balance our diet with a healthy serving of a relationship that only He can satisfy. 

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.