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. 

Cushion life

Sometimes my cat, Vera, reminds me of Jesus. Though I may be tired, upset, frustrated, angry, or any other emotion and when I look over at her, she’s asleep on a cushion. 

As I was reading an art essay in the February edition of the Magnificat® on The Miraculous Draught of Fishes by Peter Paul Rubens, I started to think about the times in the Gospel that places Jesus in a boat. Besides the one depicted in the painting, the first one that came to my mind was when the boat was sinking and the disciples had to wake Jesus up because he was sleeping through the storm that was about to sink the boat. The other instance that quickly came to mind was when he was walking on the water and intended to pass the boat by, but they thought he was a ghost and in an effort to prove he was not, Simon walked on water towards him. While we don’t have an exact record of every moment in Jesus’ life, I’m hoping the events that were recorded were due to the extraordinariness of what took place. It does make me wonder if these were the only events that took place at sea, or just the most amazing, or most repeated ones?

The essay prompted a deeper study of the painting. Much of the detail goes unobserved since I’m reviewing the copy that’s only as big as what fits into one page of the Magnificat®. The essay called out the movement of the fishermen and the strain on their muscles as they wrestled with the large catch. I began to think of the correlation of life without God’s presence or His guidance. We work so hard and while we may not strain our muscles, we do tire out without anything to show for it. Yet when we follow God’s direction, not only are we blessed, but we have to work harder than we can ever imagine. God’s blessing is so overwhelming, we can’t keep it to ourselves, we can’t even receive it all ourselves! We need to share it with others, ask others to help us with the blessings He’s given to us.

Even when we are following God’s guidance, there will be storms in our lives. We may wonder where God is, thinking He’s a ghost and passing us by or asleep while we live in terror and fear. All emotions have their purpose, but they are not meant to overcome us, but to instead caution us. Sometimes we need to step out of the boat into the tossing, stormy seas, and be bludgeoned by the wind. Yet if we keep our focus on Jesus and not the wildness of the elements around us, we too can walk on water. And for the times when we think Jesus is sleeping? He’s even more aware of what’s going on in our lives than Vera is of what’s going on around her as she’s sleeping. On occasion I may be able to leave Vera napping, but usually she knows when I leave the room and if she hears me elsewhere or I don’t come back to the room when she expects me, she will come and find me. Most times when I think she’s fast asleep and the moment I get up from my chair, her eyes pop open and she watches what I’m doing. If my cat does that for me, I know Jesus is many times more attentive to the details in my life. 

A life with Jesus doesn’t mean there won’t be any trouble or hard work. It means that when we pursue a relationship with Him, He will always be with us, supporting us through the wild storms of life and blessing us with the help we need to share His blessings to those in need. 

Clutter soul

It doesn’t matter how big, Jesus just needs an opening.

It’s been a challenging and overwhelming time at work. After a particular difficult Friday, I was disappointed that I had to schedule a meeting first thing on Monday to address some issues. It’s easy to say, “Leave it in God’s hands,” or, “Don’t think about it.” And I know worrying about it won’t make it any better; all it does is make me feel even more stressed. Yet even with that logic, I couldn’t let it go. I just kept turning it over in my mind, again and again all weekend long. I, who pray the Surrender Novena regularly, was having a hard time accepting this suffering.

Ever since I started the new job, there has been negativity towards the new application being implemented. Each time we reach a milestone, I think we finally have turned a corner and things will get better, only then to feel like the headwinds have increased to the next range on the hurricane scale. I was feeling very useless. My prayers were focused on being able to communicate better, to keep from seeing the naysayers as my enemies, and to help me forgive them of the hurt I was feeling from all the stress.

Upon awakening on Monday, dread filled my stomach; I was not looking forward to my first meeting. As I was asking for help, trying to turn it over to God, I felt like my soul was cluttered. I spent so much time worrying and rehearsing what I was going to say and the points I needed to make that there didn’t seem to be much room for anything else. Yet all Jesus needed was for me to recognize how much I needed Him and needed to open up to Him. If He could give sight to the blind, heal the lame, and bring the dead back to life, I believe He can take my cluttered soul and tidy it up. 

While the meeting was actually more pleasant than I anticipated, definitely far from perfect, but not the disaster I was expecting. The day still had a few rough spots in it.  Perhaps it will take a few more decades of me praying the Surrender Novena before I can confidently leave everything in the Lord’s capable hands. Maybe I should expect miracles to happen more often. What I do know is that God put me in this situation for a reason, not for punishment, but because I have gifts that can be of great benefit. I may not know while I’m in this position the specifics of God’s will, I know that as long as I lean on Him and ask for His grace and blessings, He will see me through, especially in the most trying of moments. 

Yes, my soul can get cluttered with me holding onto grievances and anxiety, yet God is always there to help me. It doesn’t mean He’ll make it all sunshine and roses, but it will be a bit brighter and convey His special peace.

Life challenge

It’s easy to believe in a cause that is just. The difficulty is finding a way to support that cause fully, not just the immediate efforts, but the long-term effects of the changes that result.

After hearing about the recent Pro-Life March in Washington last week, an announcement on the local Christian radio station I listen to caught my attention. The World’s Largest Baby Shower supports five Virginia pregnancy centers by supplying the most needed items. I smiled when I heard that message and thought that it would be a good idea to participate. I then remembered how many donations pet shelters received in memory of Betty White on what would have been her 100th birthday. Suddenly, the thoughts collided in my brain: what if every year on the Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children (i.e. Respect Life Day), we all donated to these pregnancy crisis centers? 

In this throw-away culture, there may be some people that consider children as things to have, as opposed to unique individuals that deserve dignity and respect. When women are pregnant, the decisions they make aren’t just for themselves, but for their unborn children as well. Pregnancy crisis centers help with education, counseling, as well as some medical testing, so that expectant moms can make life sustaining choices both now and in the future. This may be especially important when women are surprised to learn they are pregnant.

It is important to continue to march on Washington, as well as to pray outside abortion clinics. It is equally important to help women and families who do choose life by decreasing the cost of medical and material needs associated with children. If we believe that every person matters, from conception to natural death, then we need to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us in how we can demonstrate this belief. For some, it may be participating in the march every January. Others may be called to volunteer their time at a pregnancy resource center. Still others may be called to support these efforts with financial donations. We all have our part to play in supporting life for all, not just for those whom we may know. 

It’s never too late to show your support. I challenge you to open your heart to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. What can you do to support life? 

Grape leaf and bunch of grapes gilded on a church door in Israel

Water jars

They were just standing there; tall sentinels watching over the wedding festivities. Once their purpose of ceremonial washings was already completed, they didn’t seem to have any purpose. Until Jesus put them to use. 

The wedding feast of Cana was the Gospel proclaimed last weekend, and is such a well-known story, that sometimes the details get lost. If there were six stone jars holding at least 20 gallons each, those vessels could practically be used as seating options! Most likely they were probably used at the beginning of the ceremony for the participants to draw water out of for the ritual cleansing. And then the party began, and, as typical in ancient times, it went on for days. The lack of wine meant several things: the party was about to end, the bridegroom and his family did not prepare sufficiently for the party, and/or the family did not have the funds to procure enough. Imagine how embarrassing it would’ve been to start one’s newlywed life being the laughingstock of the community! 

I read one commentary on the Gospel reading that mentioned there would have been wine casks from what had already been distributed. But Jesus did not choose them. Rather, He chose the vessels that were specifically intended to be for the ritual cleansing as identified in Leviticus. Oddly enough, stoneware was the only material that could come in contact with ritually impure items and not be rendered unusable. Clay vessels, if tainted, had to be smashed and no longer used. Stoneware jars were like mini cisterns that kept the ceremonial water for washing, usually around a town’s synagogue or in the houses of priests. It’s from this “pure water” that Jesus turns an embarrassing situation into a non-event. Jesus keeps this celebration of uniting two lives into one going, not just for a few more hours, but potentially a few more days. After all the wine that had been already consumed, only God knows if all the wine Jesus provided (120 gallons?) was consumed or if some was leftover. 

It’s interesting to ponder how Jesus transforms these Old Testament jars into a New Testament miracle. One perspective is to see the old order, and habits, passing away for what Jesus is instituting. Ceremonial washing is good, yes, but living life and celebrating it, which is what the wine represents, is far better. We may look at the people in the Bible or even the saints throughout the ages and say that we can’t be as holy or do the good deeds that others have done. Yet Jesus takes these jars that were largely ignored and repurposed them. He gave them new life in abundance, and He wants to do the same for us. We cannot change water into wine any more than the stoneware jars could. But when we let Jesus into our lives, anything is possible. 

Rather than watching the world go by, let us offer ourselves as vessels for Jesus to bring new life into the world. And don’t be surprised to find yourself the life of the party.