King or president?

We are in the last days of the liturgical year, heralded by celebrating the feast of Christ, the King of the Universe, last Sunday. In our modern era, do we really understand — and accept — Christ as our King?

Earthly kings, just like other parallels to the sacred, are imperfect reflections of a relationship with the divine. Ever since God led the Israelites out of Egypt, God intended to be King of the people, sending judges and prophets only when the people went astray. However, by the time of Samuel, the people were so consumed with mirroring their surrounding countries, that they asked Samuel for God to designate a king to lead them. While Samuel was quite unhappy about this, God allowed it, but not without first clarifying the consequences of this request. (Spelled out in 1 Samuel 8:10-18.) A king would  take the best of everything and require the people to do his bidding. The king makes all the decisions and the people of the realm are but mere servants,  carrying out whatever tasks his majesty declares. 

Today in many countries, the ruler is not a single person, but rather a government of elected officials who collectively make laws.  In these countries it is necessary to have a single person represent them and that office is held by either a president or a prime minister. Here in the United States, it has been almost 250 years since we rebelled against a monarchy, so how can we claim Christ as our “king”? Or is it easier to correlate Him as our spiritual president? Do we “elect” Him to the office because we agree with His teachings? Or do we feel we can pick and choose what we like and don’t like, because that’s the perspective we have for our government? Do we complain about what God has — or has not — done in our lives, as if He answered to us and our rights and wants are the only things that matter? Do we view God in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mentality? 

For a freedom-loving country, it can be hard to recognize God as the supreme ruler of our lives. Letting go and letting God lead us, even when we do want to choose it on an intellectual level, can still result in a struggle against one’s will. It can seem like we say, “Yes, God, but…” rather than submitting to His will instead of ours. SImilar to rights of the king as identified in 1 Samuel, God does require the best of us; He wants our first fruits. Yet unlike an earthly king, God does not hoard what we give Him, nor use it trivally. Rather He receives it, multiplies it, and shares it not just with ourselves, but with others as well. We don’t receive back what we give, but we receive it transformed and elevated in a way only the Divine can do. Even knowing all this, and that what we can receive will be better than what we give, we still struggle with God as our only  King. 

We are blessed that Christ is a merciful King, understanding our human nature and quick to forgive us when we seek reconciliation with Him. It may be a struggle of our wills, but through prayer, petition, and the grace of God, Christ can be King of our lives.

Sitting and waiting

For the first time, since I learned to drive at 16, I am without a car. Nothing bad has happened, it’s just that my lease on my current car ended and the one I am purchasing won’t be in until the end of the week. This has  given me time to reflect on waiting and preparation, and aptly so since the Church’s theme of the final weeks of the liturgical year is preparing for the end. 

Since it’s just me, I have no other choice but to drive anywhere I need, or want, to go. (Until now, of course.) Now I have to rely on the goodness of others to get me where I need to be. I’m very grateful that I am a full-time remote employee, working from home, so I don’t have to worry about a daily commute. However, any church functions that I participate in, as well as Sunday Mass, I’ve asked others to be my “wheels.” My friends are wonderfully supportive; and we’ve used the opportunity to attend craft fairs and go out to dinner, since they needed to drive me around.  This has really been a blessing which I truly appreciate. 

Even with these wonderful encounters, I don’t want to be rude to my friends by making them wait for me if I’m not ready at our rendezvous time. My goal has been to be ready 5 or 10 minutes early, just in case they arrive earlier. In reality, I have been ready much earlier than that, and thus I’ve had to wait. I didn’t want to start anything that I couldn’t quickly put away. I didn’t want to be in another area of the house, in case I didn’t hear them when they arrived. I was concerned about picking up any one of my hobbies as I can get so lost in them that I might lose track of time. The sensible thing was to sit and wait, looking out the window. I was ready. I was prepared. And then my mind began to ponder.

When one is prepared and waiting, especially for something that is imminent, one is on hyper alert, looking at every flash of movement and ready to spring into action. Is this what God expects of us in terms of readiness when our final moment on earth happens? Does our human nature allow us to be that hyper vigilant for extended periods of time? If we’re going to live another 10, 20, 50 or more years, how can we be prepared for our final hour? Unlike waiting for a ride, our final moment will not wait until we are prepared, we won’t miss it, nor inconvenience someone if we’re not ready. Perhaps to be ready for the end is not so much about being hyper vigilant, but rather to be vigilant in our day-to-day, recognizing the opportunities God gives us to be His hands, His feet, His ears, and His smile to those we meet. When we seek to do His will, we’re not waiting for Him to come to us, we’re actively seeking Him out, spiritually walking towards Him. 

Perhaps that’s what it means to be prepared for the end: to walk the journey towards God, looking for Him in every person we encounter and letting His love flow through us to others. If we always see life as a path that leads to God, then there is no sitting and no waiting for the end, there’s just the action of living and witnessing to all we meet along the way. 

Finding in need

God gives us what we need, when we need it. I truly believe that. However sometimes the patience needed for God’s timing can be a challenge.

There are a number of things, both professionally and personally, that are causing me to wait. I have continually prayed to Him that these circumstances were fully in His command. The prayer is part reminder to me that I have no control over the situations and partly to God to remind Him that I’m still waiting. Perhaps God is being His overgenerous self in giving me the opportunity to practice two virtues at once: trust in Him and patience. I have received little glimmers that give me hope, but sometimes the day-to-day can overwhelm the little blessings along the way. In His infinite wisdom, God had a way to illustrate to me, once again, that He will provide when I need it.

A few months ago I was about to place an order from a catalog using a gift card I had received, only the card was not where I thought I had placed it. I had looked in many alternative places that it may have been, but my searches were fruitless. I then started to wonder if I had accidentally thrown out the card with a previous catalog when I was tidying up. Disappointment churned inside me and I chose not to order. It wasn’t anything that I absolutely needed at the moment and tried to face the consequences of my rushed cleaning efforts by shrugging off the unnecessary. Recently, I realized that I was starting to run low on some items and knew I needed to place an order soon. I dreaded ordering and was trying to delay since I thought I had lost the gift card and with the cost of everything rising, it would have really come in handy. However, as I was rearranging my decor to bring in some autumn themed items, I was astonished to find the gift card! I laughed loudly and looked up at the sky and said a hardy, “Thank YOU God!” Then I promptly sat down and cried, overwhelmed that God truly does take care of us. It wasn’t the lottery, it didn’t solve all my issues and worries, but to me it is a shining example of how God can help us even in the most ordinary ways. 

This past Sunday’s first reading featured Naaman’s cure from leprosy by simply plunging into the Jordan river seven times. Recognizing the power of God, he vowed to worship the Lord as the one, true God. The Gospel told a similar story of Jesus healing 10 lepers and only one returned to thank Him. While leprosy may be the most obvious similarity, the real message is that by turning to God in our affliction, we find our relationship with Him. We continue the conversation with God when we allow His blessing to fill us and respond with humble and thankful hearts. 

We find when we are in need, not in want. We thank God for His blessings yesterday, today, and tomorrow, since He will provide and answer us when it is in our best interest; we just need to be open and aware of the possibilities.

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

Reflections on a Queen

Mass on a Thursday evening? I was so excited, that I pushed the questioning thoughts out of my head. I was going to go to a weekday Mass!

When I lived in Pennsylvania, the daily Mass schedule was one that fit into my workday. Since moving to Virginia that has not been the case and I’ve missed being able to spend time with God, hearing His word and receiving Him more than just once a week. When I saw the announcement in the Flocknote of a  Thursday evening Mass for the nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I was thrilled! I knew the attendance would be small, but I didn’t realize that a particular population of the parish was responsible for organizing the Mass. I must admit I felt a little out of place and a bit unprepared. Most attending were Indian or Asian and as families came into the church, they placed bunches of flowers on a table. I thought it was an odd place to put them and wished I had known about the tradition. While the Mass proceeded as usual, after the homily, the attention turned back to the flowers, which had been released from their wrappings in order to pick them up individually. Row by row, we processed down, took a flower and then processed over to the statue of the Virgin Mary where large vases were placed to receive the flower tribute. Even though there were plenty of flowers for everyone, I did have some reservations about participating since I didn’t bring any flowers. I hope they do this next year, so I can fully participate!

The feast of the nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is rather unique in the church. For most saints, we celebrate what would be their death day, as that is the day they pass from this life into eternity. So why is it important to celebrate Mary’s birthday? It’s really quite simple: it is through Mary that Jesus took on flesh and became human; through Mary’s humanity Jesus enters into our world. Since Mary conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit, the only DNA that Jesus had was from her. It is most appropriate that we celebrate Mary’s birth so that in the fullness of time, Jesus was born into the world. 

Although the feast is more about Mary’s humanity, her role as the Mother of God is ever present, even in the Gospel reading for that Mass. Mary’s selflessness in allowing God’s will to be done through her makes her a model for us to strive towards. Her motherly concern extends through all time and to all children of God. Mary does have many titles, including Queen of Heaven and Earth. Her queenship is based on her powerful intercession on our behalf to Jesus. She always wants God’s will for us and will help us to seek a deeper relationship with God. I must admit I found it rather ironic when I heard the sad news that the passing of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom happened that same day. Perhaps the Queen of Heaven welcomed Queen Elizabeth to eternity? While her majesty was a pale comparison to the Blessed Virgin Mary, she did emulate some similar qualities, including making oneself a gift to others. She made a vow to serve the people of her country, and she did so until the very end. How much better would the world be if we all practiced a bit more of giving ourselves to others, rather than demanding what we want because we think it is our right to do so.

Celebrating Mary’s birthday is yet another reminder that she, too, is one of us — human. She understands the craziness of life, the joys and the sorrows. Let us thank God for her and ask her to help us be a bit more like her in being open to God’s will for us.

Milk and honey

From a  billion-dollar lottery to the parable of the rich man in the Gospel, wealth was definitely the hot topic this past week. While attending a Catholic training conference over the weekend, even one of the speakers commented about God’s promise of “a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3:8) Throw in the popular quote from Ecclesiastes about “all things are vanity” from Sunday’s first reading, and all references seem rather confusing. (Ecc 1:2)

During the RCIA training (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), the speaker referred to the land of milk and honey promised in the Old Testament as an indicator of how wildly God is in love with us. I started to think about what milk and honey could represent. Whole milk has a richness to it, coating the glass that contains it, and honey is sweet without being overly sweet. The taste of honey can reflect the location and pollen  from the flowers the bees used to make it and milk would have been primarily from sheep and goats in Old Testament times and locations. If the land was flowing with milk, then the amount of those animals grazing there  would have had to have been massive. Also, the weather would have had to be the right combination of both rain and sun so that there would be enough grass on which the animals could feed and enough flowers to bloom for the bees. With the right weather, both the animals and the bees could thrive. It all comes down, however, to trusting God. If we believe that He will provide for us, even when things look bleak, God will give us what we need, when we need it. 

I was very tempted to play the lottery last week. I know my chances to win, especially if I only bought one ticket, would be miniscule, but it only takes one to win. With such a large jackpot, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to win, as that amount was just way too much. So how much is enough? If I wanted to retire today, I don’t know how much money I would need, especially with the soaring cost of everything. Would one million dollars be enough, or would I need a hundred million? And while retiring today would relieve me of the stress and drama of my current work situation, something else would ultimately come along to replace it. This is true, unless I put my total trust in God. We can learn from the various stories of the Saints, that a carefree life is one lived by doing God’s will, even amongst the hardships and difficulties that it brings. 

Perhaps winning enough to pay off my house and my car, and make the home improvements I want to make would be worth buying a ticket. For example, I want new windows (and there’s a lot of them!), but I don’t yet need them. However, do I trust that God will help me make good financial decisions so that when I do need to replace them, I will have the funds to do it? God gave us a model of work and rest to follow in the story of creation. He wants us to live life to the fullest and be the best version of ourselves. He wants us to work at improving ourselves and our fallen world. Our anxieties about money come from a need to control our circumstances and our future, to take what we want in the attempt to satisfy ourselves. Yet the Gospel reading reminds us that we can only control our response to what we receive. Most of us know the joy and satisfaction of a job well done. God wants us to experience that, balanced with rest and leisure, all while sharing an intimate relationship with Him in everything we do.

In sending Jesus, God has spared nothing to show us how much He loves us. His “crazy love” wants to shower us with the blessings of rich milk and sweet honey when we put our trust in Him. If we work for Him and with Him, He will provide. In the times when we are distracted by the world around us, God’s Word will remind us what is truly important: a life spent in love with Him.   

Doubt strengthens faith

I’m sure it’s possible for someone to go through their faith journey without ever doubting anything of what they believe or what they are called to do. However, I think that those who do doubt can travel through that and come out with their faith strengthened. 

Last Sunday at Mass Fr. Goertz mentioned that July 3rd, when not on a Sunday, is the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear his name? Doubting Thomas. In our sound-byte world, poor Thomas will forever be known with that moniker. Father even pointed out that Thomas, because he was absent for Jesus’ first appearance, had left the Church even before there was a Church to leave. Yet it was through the brotherhood bonds of the Apostles, that they would not leave him to wander away. So the next time Jesus came into the presence of the Apostles, Thomas was able to see and believe. I find it interesting in the Gospel that Thomas, during his unbelief, says he won’t believe until he can probe the nail and lance marks, and while Jesus invites him to do so, the text doesn’t mention anything except Thomas proclaiming Jesus as “My Lord and my God.” (John 20:28) 

Doubt can have many levels. One level could be the entirety of the divine itself. Another could be a particular tenant of the faith. While another could be our response to either the faith or the practice of it. A Google search of “saints who doubted” comes back with about 72 million results, with that much commentary on the subject, we are in good company. According to Merriam-Webster, doubt is “to call into question the truth of ; to be uncertain.” When we dive deeper into understanding our faith and its practices, we do need to form questions and search for answers. If our hearts are open to the truth God reveals to us, we can emerge from our doubt strengthened and renewed in our faith. 

What causes doubt? Here again there are a multitude of possibilities. The divine is beyond our complete understanding, and we call some of the doctrines “mysteries” for good reason. For example the Trinity can only be explained by analogy, and since we are not divine, we cannot truly comprehend the relationship that makes up the Triune God. Another is the example of the culture that surrounds us. We see non-believers (or perhaps those that have fallen away) being successful and seemingly happy with their choices in life. We need to remember that since we do not know their faith journey, what looks like happiness to us, may be a mask of doubt or indifference. While most would like to pretend otherwise, another cause of doubt is Satan. He is the accuser, and he does a supernatural job against our mere mortal capabilities. There have been times when either in adoration or when receiving the Eucharist, it’s been hard for me to sense the presence of Jesus. During these moments, I need to lean on the faith that I have, my relationship with God, and make the choice to believe and ask God to help me in my doubt. 

Most of us have times when we want to probe the nail and lance marks of the risen Jesus. And there will be circumstances when we need to be okay with not being in control of what we can know and understand. If we genuinely seek to strengthen our relationship with God, let us offer our doubts up to Him with confidence that He will be as gentle with us as He was with Thomas.  

“Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

John 20:29

Free to serve

At the Last Supper, Jesus gives us the example of a servant by washing the feet of His  Apostles and telling them that they should follow the example and seek to serve others (John 13:12-16). Yet a bit later He remarks, “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15) So, are we servants or not?

The word serve in the dictionary has many meanings. (38 nuanced definitions depending upon how it is used!) Some definitions that fit the purpose for my reflection include: to answer the needs of, to attend, to comply with the demands of, and to be of use. In the etymology of the word, it may be traced back to Latin, “to perform duties for (a master) in the capacity of a slave, act in subservience, to be at the service of.”  However, it is possible that the original sense was “watcher (of flocks), or guardian,” per Merriam-Webster. It should be of no surprise that the Good Shepherd would ask us to follow in His footsteps and serve, or watch over/guard others. Yet there seems to be a fine line between servant and slave. 

Baptism has freed us from original sin, and that means we have freedom of choice. Does that choice mean we can choose anything we want? Yes AND no! The “yes” answer is conditional in that we need to accept the responsibility and the consequences of our choices. The “no” answer is based on our understanding that we are just one tiny part of a bigger world (of nature, community, history, etc.) and our choices have impacts that can have a ripple effect that we may never realize. Our current self-indulgent culture has a great distaste for serving, unless it is in favor of the individual being served. Freedom and service seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum; an either/or decision. Yet God calls us to both. We can be servants to others without losing our freedom. 

When we freely choose to serve another, to do a task at the request of another, we live out the example that Jesus gave His Apostles. We become not less of ourselves, but more fully ourselves by relating to that person and to Jesus in the same action. These experiences shape and develop us, opening us up to doing God’s will. If being of service to others means I am a slave, then by all means let me be a slave of Jesus — for He purchased me with His own Body and Blood on the cross. But Jesus has called us His friends, for we do not blindly take commands. Rather with the Love that is God, we perform acts of service. First, to acknowledge the love we have for each person made in the image and likeness of God; second, as an expression of praise and worship to God for bestowing his Love on us; and, third as an acceptance of the Love God gives to us.  

If we seek to be truly free, we should seek to serve God and do His will. 

Caterpillar or butterfly?

All around us in nature are reflections of God’s handiwork, as well examples of spiritual truths. This past week’s Gospel of Jesus’ transformation on Mount Tabor calls to mind the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. The question becomes: are you a content caterpillar or a future butterfly?

The purpose of a caterpillar is to eat. It’s eating so that its body can go through metamorphosis. I think for many of us who are on a spiritual journey, we are hungry and just eat. We know we need to be fed, but may not be careful about what we are eating. We may forget that eating has a purpose, that we are not supposed to stay caterpillars forever. Yet we sojourners may become content caterpillars, just “eating” our way through life. We may absorb the information about God, but never find ways to put it into action.

During the spiritual journey, if at some point a person realizes that something needs to change in them, they become a potential future butterfly. The person who recognizes that all the “eating” they’ve done as a caterpillar means that they can’t remain the way they are, then they are ready for the cocoon. In some ways, we can consider Lent a type of spiritual cocoon, as we look deep into ourselves and focus on our relationship with God. It can be a time of darkness when we realize with stark realization how much we’ve strayed from what God had planned for us. In that cocoon, as we open ourselves up to God’s grace, we may be a bit surprised that God doesn’t put us back together the way we were, but truly makes us a new creation. As a caterpillar in a cocoon digests its cells so that it can make new ones, so we too, in our spiritual journey, allow all that we have learned to be put into action as we become a spiritual butterfly. 

The Catholic faith is not an intellectual pursuit, it’s not a club to join. A Catholic Church is not a place to be entertained or a place to go once a week “because we have to.” The Catholic faith is one of action: as our thoughts and words are channeled into action; we become God’s hands and feet in the world. When we worship God and acknowledge that we need to be spiritually fed by Him, we choose to attend Church Masses and events to be filled by God’s Word and Sacraments. We also volunteer to fill others by participating in outreach programs. We are not called to be content caterpillars, but rather to transform and become spiritual butterflies, spreading the love of God by our actions.

Deep cleanse

How often do you pay attention to what you are eating? Perhaps you like to plan your meals in advance, but I tend to be one who  is more reactive when I eat. Lent for me is an opportunity to not only approach food differently, but also to approach my relationship with God differently.

“Give up” is one phrase associated with Lent. It sounds so negative and it also sounds very hopeless. If you don’t know what follows that phrase, it seems we are already defeated. But that’s not what Lent is about at all! Just like we put our whole body into weekly worship at Mass (standing, sitting, making the sign of the cross, etc.), we put our whole body into cleansing ourselves spiritually. For some people, they specifically fast a whole day just to cleanse their digestive tract. But in reality, since all of the body is dependent on what we eat, it actually affects all of it. Catholics use methods like fasting (although with a bit more mercy than not eating anything for 24 hours) as a tool to gain insight on what is the center of our focus. If our focus is not on God and doing His will, we will slowly drift away from His presence. 

Fasting for Catholics is only required two days within all of Lent: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting means eating only one full meal and two “snack” meals that don’t add up to one full meal. However, for every Friday in Lent, the Church requires us to abstain from eating meat derived from land animals (such as beef, chicken, or pork.) However, seafood & eggs are okay. This abstinence is yet another tool in the Church’s wisdom to make us conscious of what we are doing and when we are doing it. While it is using tactile methods, the objective is spiritual in nature. The idea is not about saying, “I can’t have meat”, but rather about saying, “ Jesus sacrificed His Body for me” as we eat our fish dinner. It’s a physical reminder for us to pray, to reach out to God, and to reflect on how we can better do His will. 

While we feed our bodies with food, our minds, emotions, and souls are fed with our experiences, and specifically what we choose to do. While some are addicted to food, others are addicted to social media or being the center of attention. The Church may not have specific guidance for Lent, but does encourage us in fasting, praying, and almsgiving. We can use these tools to set guidance on our social interactions, pray when we are tempted, and make a donation to a charitable cause as a form of consequence if we exceed our commitments. Another option could be to “pay” for each minute we spend on social media. Perhaps each week we send a donation to a different Catholic charity for the time spent. If fasting from social media sounds too difficult, how about abstaining from the normal channels we follow and add some Catholic channels that will encourage us in our Lenten journey.

Lent is a time, not to give up, but to change our thinking. It’s a time to be conscious of what we are doing and saying. It’s a time to re-evaluate what’s truly important in our lives. It’s a time to add spiritual practices to our daily life, not just for the Lenten season, but as a challenge for us to see how our daily lives can be shaped to God’s will, and if we are open to incorporating a new practice. Ultimately, it’s a time to cleanse the surface litter in our lives and go deeper with our relationship with the Lord.

Shades of love

This past Sunday’s Gospel from Luke hit rather close to challenges I’m facing. “But rather, love your enemies and do good to them…” (Lk 6:35) But what exactly does it mean to love one’s enemies?

The Magnificat® had a wonderful reflection of the Gospel from Maria von Trapp (yes, that von Trapp who  inspired the Sound of Music). She talked about how one grows learning to love. First we love our parents and siblings. Then we learn to love our school and the friends we meet there. And as adults, the loves of our lives change yet again. “It is perfectly amazing how many shades of love move a human heart during one short life,” von Trapp writes. 

Love is a word that we, at least in the English speaking world, throw around way too often. I love my cat, Vera, but I also love chocolate, yet those loves are very different. Neither of these loves are the same as what I have for my family. I remember from my schooling days that the Greek language had three different words for love: eros, philia, and agape. Eros is used for romantic love, philia is for friendship, and both have an aspect of self-interest. Agape is the odd one out; it stands for the kind of love that is self-sacrificing. 

Of course,I don’t want to have enemies, but if there is friction in a relationship, I think it’s safe to say that we need to take extra care. While another may not perceive us as an enemy, when a verbal argument is launched, it’s very hard not to immediately respond in defense of ourselves but Jesus is calling us to do that and more. I don’t think His directive on loving our enemies is limited to just doing good for them. In fact it’s the whole last portion of the Gospel: stop judging, stop condemning, forgive, and give gifts. When others want to pick a fight with us, it seems impossible for us to do what God is calling us to do. Here we fall into the pit of pride, thinking that we, all by ourselves, need to deal with the issue. We forget to lean into God, asking Him to help us to forgive, to turn judgment over to Him, and to walk the path He wants us to walk. 

Unemotional is a word von Trapp used to describe the love for our enemies but I’m not sure I agree with that assessment. While our initial reaction can be highly charged with emotion, letting God in to help us in a confrontation will cause the emotional surge to change from anger to peace. We will cease calling them enemies and instead see them as fellow children of God, to be treated with dignity and respect. I do agree that loving our enemies is not a feeling, but rather an act of the will: specifically ours and God’s. Perhaps this is why God allows these challenges in our lives, so that we can become closer to Him and be more like Him. 

Lastly, agape is the  kind of love that all Catholics, all Christians, are called to love the whole of mankind. Let us pray for God’s assistance so that we can change our hearts, and perhaps make the lives of those we interact with just a bit better.