Birthday gifts

Usually when we talk about a birthday in regards to the Catholic faith, everyone immediately thinks of Christmas and the birth of Jesus. However, there is another birthday we celebrate at Pentecost: the birthday of our Church.

There was no cake or ice cream at the first Pentecost, and no need for candles for the flames of  fire of the Spirit that we read about. However, there was no shortage of gifts bestowed on the Apostles by the Holy Spirit. After the strong, driving wind and the tongues of fire appeared above the heads of those present in the upper room, evidence of what was received was on full display. Peter spoke to the crowd with fortitude, knowledge, and counsel, which encouraged those listening to be baptized. Strengthened by the gifts, the Apostles began to preach, traveling to places further than they had ever been before; places unknown and unfamiliar to them.

In this age, Pentecost seems like just another Sunday. All the treats and decorations from Easter 50 days ago are all consumed and put away, like the season is over. But from a liturgical standpoint, the last hurrah culminates with this amazing feast. If it had not happened, Christianity may have become a minor religion or a temporary Jewish cult. While we don’t seem to celebrate adequately God’s continued generosity, that doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit has stopped pouring out His gifts on us. Bishop Robert Barron, Father Casey Cole, Dr. Scott Hahn, and Matthew Kelly are just a few of the popular evangelists of our time. Yet the Church didn’t spread to only those evangelized by the apostles personally  Rather all the early Christians through word and deed participated in spreading the faith. 

What do you do with a birthday gift? Politely say ‘thank you’ to the giver and bury it in a closet, or seek to return it for something else you prefer? It can seem like some Catholics try to do that  with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. However, the best presents are those that we use and use often. The Spirit’s gifts are of no benefit if only hidden away. He gives us charisms to be used: knowledge, wisdom, understanding, and counsel are not static gifts, but rather dynamic actions that must be cultivated and practiced. If we want knowledge, we need to seek it out. We cannot give good counsel until we gain understanding by practicing our beliefs in a concrete manner, not just intellectually.  And we don’t know fortitude unless we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and put into challenging situations, especially ones where we have to defend our faith. It may be uncomfortable, yet the apostles literally went out of their comfort zone to spread the Gospel, not by themselves, but with the grace and strength provided to them by the Holy Spirit. In all that we seek, say, and act, if we fully embrace the gifts of the Spirit, it is not our doing, but Jesus working within us.

We are the Church and it is our birthday that we celebrate — one that links us from the very beginning, through all the previous ages and into the future. Wear something red in honor of  Church this weekend as a reminder of the fire of that first Pentecost and your own Confirmation. Have some cake to celebrate and use the gifts the Holy Spirit has given you! Unlike a regular birthday gift, you can never exhaust or wear out the gifts from the Spirit; He is the giver that keeps on giving! 

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.

Loved to the end

“Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.’” (Luke 23:34) In the last moments of His life, Jesus asked God the Father to forgive those who had crucified Him. If Jesus could love His enemies in the most painful part of His human life, why is it so hard for me to forgive those whose only fault is to annoy me? 

What makes one an enemy of God? I would say it’s when that someone tries to prevent God’s will from occurring. The top enemies of God that come to mind are Satan and all the fallen angels. But they would be just as quick to accuse all of humanity of the same crime because we often seek to do our will rather than God’s will. And yet all the fallen angels continue to exist because God not only created them, but continues to love them. I’ve heard it said that the fire of hell is because those in hell reject God’s love and so it burns them. God IS love; if He ceased to love them, they would no longer exist. Even in their fallen state, He allows them to play a role in turning people back to Him.

If we seek to know more about the enemies of God, we only need to read the Gospels, especially the parts about the Pharisees. Time and again they put Jesus to the test, trying to “catch” Him in some offense. They were so sure of themselves and their superior knowledge of God, their resistance to Jesus is so absolute, it’s almost comical. Of course two thousand years later and voluminous reflections on the Gospel passages allow us to see how wrong they were. Yet how many times do we think we know who God is and how He works? How many times do we pass judgement on others based on our understanding of the commandments? Do we always look at things in black & white, right & wrong? Or do we look through the lenses of mercy and justice? 

Jesus sets the bar very high for us to forgive those who we see as our enemies. However, He also gives us a method to use: ask for God the Father’s help. We cannot forgive others all on our own, we’re only human. But each time we pick up the thought of how we have been wronged, we can ask God to help us forgive the individuals responsible. It’s not easy, but then again, we may not be aware of just how many times others have prayed for our forgiveness when we have wronged them. We can’t expect God and others to forgive us unless we seek to forgive those who have hurt us. 

In these last days of Holy Week, let us ask God for help in purging the grudges, hurt feelings, and all other annoyances — both superficial and serious, from our hearts and minds. It may not happen in an instant, but if we could lessen our anger against our enemies, we may find a little more peace and joy the Easter season brings. 

Connecting the dots

If I were bold, I would do it in pen, but it seems I would always make a mistake and the picture wouldn’t look quite right. I enjoyed the connect-the-dot pictures I used to do as a child. Sometimes the images were simple and had a few dots to connect, others had more details and were much more complicated to follow. The end result was a picture that I had drawn, and for a girl who did not get that creative gene, it was always a proud moment of accomplishment.

I’m 80 days into the Bible-in-a-year podcast with Fr. Mike Schmitz, and I’m starting to connect the dots for a much more detailed image of the story of salvation. A story that isn’t just history, but the present and future too. For about the past 30 days, the story has been of the desert wanderings and I’ve realized that my education about salvation history has been the Cliff Notes version, the punctuated key points. However, it’s in the minutia of text that is both the foundation and explanation of why the key events were important. I remember learning that because the Israelites worshiped the golden calf, while Moses was meeting with God and receiving the 10 Commandments, they were punished by being made to wander in the desert for 40 years. That is true, but it’s really only part of the story. 

Taking the story back to Egypt, why did God send the plagues on the Egyptians? The high level answer is that Pharaoh would not let them go. The deeper answer is that the Israelites were starting to behave like the Egyptians, worshipping their deities and following their customs. The plagues that God brought on Egypt were symbolically denouncing their deities and illustrating that He, and He alone, was the all-powerful God. Each plague corresponded to an Egyptian deity, and by controlling those created elements, God was educating the Israelites and breaking their erroneous beliefs. When they slid back into worshipping a false god, God had to give them additional education, thus the 40 years wandering in the desert. 

I’ve heard many homilies that link the 40 years the Israelites spent in the desert to the 40 days Jesus did, as well as the 40 days of Lent. Yet it’s only been after reading what transpired in the 40 desert years that I see how God was instructing the Israelites, giving them opportunities to practice trusting in Him (which often revealed itself as an issue). Living in the Promised Land was not going to be an end for the Israelites, but rather the beginning. Living according to God’s law, they were to be an example to the world as it was known then. They were to be a shining beacon that would gather all the peoples and bring them into belief of Yaweh, the personal God that took care of those who believed in Him and followed His commandments. That was to be the Israelites’ mission: to evangelize the world for God. Likewise, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert preparing for His mission: to preach, to heal, to die, and to rise again. Every year we are called into the desert of Lent to learn from God and to practice trusting in Him. Even though at the end of every Mass we are called to, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life,” we use the time in Lent to dig deeper into what God is calling us to do: our mission.

In connecting the dots of the desert wanderings to Jesus’ time in the desert and our Lent, I see that while times and details change, the pattern remains. And yet while the mission is to evangelize the world to God, how we do it — the focus of our activities, may change from year to year. Some years we may be called to spend in prayer, other years may be to donate to a particular Catholic charity, while other years we may be asked to be active participants helping to serve the needs of others, bringing the light of Christ to those who need it most. We are all called to a mission. When we fully embrace our own unique one, there is no limit to what God can achieve working in us. We only have let go and let the picture emerge, just like it does when we connect the dots, not just in pen but in permanent marker!

Return to sender

To whom do you pray? You may answer, “Why God, of course!” or perhaps, “Jesus Christ.” But is that truly whom you are addressing? The Gospel for a recent daily Mass caught my attention with a double meaning that made me ponder how I pray.

It’s a story we’ve heard many times over of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the Temple. “The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself…” (Luke 18:11) When I first read it, I was assuming it meant that he was praying silently, that he didn’t speak out loud, but rather spoke his prayer interiorly. I think that is a valid understanding and could be one way of interpreting the story, but I don’t think it’s the only way to understand it. Even though the Pharisee does say, “O God, I thank you…,” the prayer he continues with is not a prayer of thanksgiving, but rather an inventory of how he perceives his superiority. While I do believe that God hears every prayer, there are some that He listens and reacts to and some He just allows to float on by. 

Prayer is meant to be a conversation with God. It’s a way we learn to prioritize what’s important. We praise God, we acknowledge our deficiencies, we thank Him for His blessings, and seek His assistance for ourselves and others. This is the way Jesus taught us in the Our Father. However, the Pharisee was so enamored of himself, that rather than giving God the praise, he was giving himself the praise, in the space of one sentence, he uses the word ‘I’ four times! “I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income,” is not a prayer of thanksgiving for what God has given Him, but sounds like a justification as to why He expects God to listen to Him. He assumes it is his own effort that allows him to fast and tithe, when in reality, it is God’s blessings that allow him to be able to fast and His generosity to tithe. 

We can play Monday morning quarterback to a 2,000 year old Gospel story and say how wrong the Pharisee was, but back in those days, the Pharisees were looked upon well. They were assumed to be close to God because of their prayers and knowledge of Scripture. But knowing it and living it are two different things. 

It may be a subtle thing, but I think the bigger impact is the tax collector. Tax collectors were Jews who would collect the Roman taxes. They were not paid, but rather had to take their payment from the people. Can you imagine someone collecting a percentage of your earnings for the government and asking you to chip in a bit more for their own living? Tax collectors routinely charged the people more money than the tax and then kept the difference, sometimes at exorbitant rates. Tax collectors were not very welcomed in Jewish society. Yet the most marvelous thing for this tax collector is that he went to the Temple to pray. He went to God and he admitted his sin. He took a step closer to God and closer to being spiritually healed. While it is only a story that Jesus told, I wonder about how the story would unfold for that tax collector. Was he able to do his job without extorting money from his countrymen? Did he find another occupation that allowed him to live an honest life? He obviously wanted to correct his relationship with God, to the point of publicly seeking God in the Temple, a very bold step indeed!

When we put God at the center of our life, our way of praying evolves. We acknowledge His providence in every aspect of our lives. We look to Him for guidance and strength. We realize our lives are not about us but about the relationships where He has placed us. It’s less about me and my needs, but about God and what can I do for others through His grace and blessings. Let our prayer language indicate our reliance on God, otherwise we are just praying to ourselves. 

My God is Helper

“Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us, out from the grave like Lazarus?” The lyrics of a popular Christian song by the group CAIN, kept ringing through my thoughts. Yet we recently heard Luke’s Gospel of the other Lazarus and both started clashing in my head.

I don’t believe there are coincidences, especially where God is concerned. If Jesus is telling a story and names only one character, that name is rather important. I wonder about the audience to whom Jesus is telling the story; the Gospel references the Pharisees, so are these men familiar with Jesus’ friends? Do they realize that He is using the name of His friend as a man who faces tragedy on earth only to receive heavenly bliss in the comfort of Abraham after he dies? I think the use of a close friend’s name is significant in the story of the poor man named Lazarus; I think Jesus is illustrating His friendship with those who are poor and marginalized, people whom others wouldn’t even notice. By using the name of Lazarus, Jesus is telling the Pharisees about the types of people that will gain entrance to heaven and whom He considers His friends. 

The name Lazarus stems from Eleazar which contains a reference to God and the connotation of help or assistance. It can be translated as “God has helped” or “My God is Helper.” In both the story of the poor man Lazarus as well as the Lazarus of Bethany, brother of Mary and Martha, God does help each. In the story, God’s assistance comes in the rewards of the afterlife. For Jesus’ friend, it comes in his resurrection from the dead, a sign that Jesus has power over life and death; a power that is God’s alone. It shows that God helps us both in this life and in the one to come. God also identifies and calls us by our names. He wants us life for us, life in His friendship, and is willing to help us attain that.

We share similarities to both men named Lazarus. While we are living on this earth, Jesus continually calls us, up out of the grave of sin and death and into a life of His friendship. This life may not seem to be easy, and in the secular view, our lives may look more like that of the poor man named Lazarus: forgotten and neglected by those around us. Like the rich man in the story, others may know our name and our circumstances, but prefer not to assist us or befriend us and instead choose to ignore us since we are not like them. But if we remain in the friendship of Jesus, we will find comfort and rest in heaven.

This Lent let us respond to the call of Jesus, not just dying to our sin, but rising in the strength and friendship of Jesus. We don’t need to wait until Easter, as it’s not a once and done response, but one we continually give Him with each temptation we face and every sacrifice we make.     

Criminal judgement

At the time of Jesus when people saw a cross, they saw a criminal, or one who was judged to be one. Jesus was condemned and He died like a criminal.

In our era, judgement is all around us. Our society passes judgement on all facets of life. We interact daily with social media platforms that encourage us to share our comments/judgements about what another person has posted. While the concept of sharing to keep people connected is a positive goal, it only takes a thoughtless person to make an innocent post turn into a moment of anguish. We are very quick to judge others, and as much as I am aware of that weakness in myself, being cognizant of it does not make the battle any easier.

While the judgements we pass on others may not be condemning them as criminals, it does create a weakness in our relationships with that person or our perception of others in our community. For example, when a person is judged to be a criminal, that is a label that the person must carry around for the rest of his/her life. Even if persons are found guilty, served their sentence, and are now trying to return to society in an honest manor, they are viewed with distrust and written off as if their criminal behavior is the only thing they can do. And yet Jesus was condemned and died as a criminal. “He was innocent!” you  may say. But Jesus was willing to be in the company of criminals during His last hours. At one of the most important times in His life, He spent it with men with whom no one else wanted to be associated. 

I sometimes wonder about how the first converts to Christianity overcame the stigma of believing in a crucified man, a man that everyone  else would have thought a criminal. One logical thought is that Roman occupation may have crucified others who were resistant to them as invaders. Perhaps there may have been some sympathy because of the way Jesus died. Yet as St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, the crucifixion was a stumbling block for others, and perhaps it alone was the reason not to believe. (1 Corth 1:23)

During this Lent as we reflect on the cross, let us not forget that Jesus died judged as a criminal. Let us pray that we judge less and express mercy first, for we need God’s assistance to be more merciful like He is with us.