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. 

The cost of living

If I say there is a high cost of living, most would agree; however if I say living is priceless, that may not completely compute. Most would think I’m talking about the daily essentials like shelter, clothing and food, yet these are all incidental to our very lives.

We are created by God, each and every person to be unique, each with his or her mission and purpose. Every action we take, every word we speak, every thought we consider is a reflection of our relationship with God. In a recent homily, Fr. Mike Schmitz said, “Every choice has a cost and every decision has a price.” Even when I am careful about making a decision, it’s usually because I’m concerned about the consequences in this life. Most times, I don’t think about how a  choice I’m making has an eternal consequence as well. However, if we love God, our hearts should pour out in all we say, do and think with actions allowing His Will to be done. When our choices are made from selfish desires, we may be hampering His Will, causing others as well as ourselves to be deprived of God’s glory and peace since our choices are not reflecting His presence in our lives.

It can seem rather overwhelming to be concerned about every little decision. For example, is God really concerned if we eat breakfast or not in the morning? That is a decision we have to make, but it affects the body God has given us, a body that is His temple on earth. The decision about breakfast, including the choices of foods, is one about fueling the body for the day. By feeding our bodies the right nutrients, we can better perform the tasks He has for us throughout the day. As we heard in Ash Wednesday’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to not neglect their appearance when fasting, but to be sure to groom themselves as if they are not fasting. (Matthew 6:16-18) At all times, we also should make sure we are well groomed. That doesn’t mean wearing the most expensive clothes, but ones that are cared for, showing appreciation and respect that God has blessed us with the ability to clothe our bodies. 

The true cost of living, however, is not the one we pay with careful attention to our choices. Rather it is the price that Jesus paid for us to return to God when we fall away and choose our own path. All the right choices in a lifetime still would not warrant eternal life with God. Jesus died and rose in order that we can spend eternity with God.  We have the freedom to choose life or death, heaven or hell. He will allow  us to become separated from Him, if that is our choice. We are given a lifetime on earth to practice choosing, and though we will make many mistakes, God loves us through all of them!  When we learn from our failures as well as our good choices, we will be able to make the final choice at the end of our lives: eternal life with God.

Reading the Word

Have you ever read an entire library worth of books? Just that thought of it sounds intimidating. What if that library was contained in one large book, would that make it any easier? If you have ever read the Bible, cover to cover, then congratulations! You have read an entire library!

I have taken a number of Bible studies that either incorporated sections of the Bible or focused on one specific book. I remember, quite a number of years ago, I attended a weekend parish presentation by Jeff Cavins, the developer of the Great Adventure Bible guide and “The Bible Timeline, The Story of Salvation”. I learned much, took many notes, and started reading the Bible each day based on the plan outlined in the materials I received. But it was hard, especially reading it myself. 

This year, it’s a bit different. I’m following the podcast by Fr. Mike Schmitz, The Bible In a Year, which is based on the salvation history story developed by Jeff Cavins in the Great Adventure Bible study. I can tell this time will be different. The sessions are about 20 minutes long. These can easily fit into my day, and for those days that are jam-packed, I can always do two sessions another day. By subscribing to the podcasts within my Google app, I can see where I’m at, especially if I need to catch up. The format for the session is that Fr. Mike reads the Bible chapters, does a short prayer, and then gives reflection on what was read. Even though I’m following along in my Bible, hearing it read makes the difference. 

When I was a lector, I was told to practice delivering a reading by reading it aloud three times in a row. I did find that when I heard the word spoken out loud, it changed my comprehension of the text. I found this a critical practice, especially when the readings were from St. Paul, as he often dictated his letters to a scribe. I could almost see him pacing back and forth as he was forming his thoughts and speaking them aloud. Since we’re only a month into this year-long plan, we’ve only covered a few books, yet I am beginning to see that in some respects, the early books are much like poetry. They tend to repeat phrases and sentences numerous times. I interpret that as a way for the ancient people to learn the stories so they can pass them along. To get the details right, you repeat it again and again, and if you only take away 10% of what you heard, chances are you’re recalling the repeated text that conveys a particular message. 

While we will not cover every book in the Bible, we will cover the books that include the salvation history narrative, as well as a number of the complementary stories and books that support the main story. For most of January we read Genesis, and along with that we read the book of Job as well as a number of Psalms and some chapters from Proverbs. We recently moved into Exodus and its companion, Leviticus. Previously, I would groan when I had to read passages from Leviticus, giving the instructions to the Israelites of how they were to worship. In the past, I would’ve said it’s boring. However, by reading only one chapter of Leviticus at a time, in conjunction with the story of the Exodus, somehow it doesn’t seem quite as dry. Hearing it read at times it actually sounds a bit poetic. Perhaps it’s because of the repeated line, “a pleasing odor to the LORD” that seems almost like the refrain in a song. 

I’m familiar with the Bible from reading the daily Mass readings, but I know that only gives passages from the Word of God. Granted, they are the really important passages, but diving deeper into the Bible offers us a way to strengthen our relationship with God.  I’m excited to be on this Bible adventure, and grateful that Fr. Mike is a great leader (and lector!) who will shepherd all podcast followers through this amazing story of salvation history. 

Out of sight but firmly in mind

It’s time to turn off the Christmas lights for the last time. Time to un-trim the tree and pack away all the Christmas decorations. Another Christmas season is over, but is that it?

As we return to the ordinary routines in our lives, Christmas can easily become something that falls from our minds. We complain when stores start stocking Christmas ornaments in the summer, or a cable channel plays Christmas movies for the month of July. Yet, the reality is that we need to keep the most miraculous gift to mankind always in mind. As mortal beings, we seem to look at the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus as the most important thing of all. Perhaps because of our own mortality, the thought of willingly giving up oneself as a sacrifice is very hard to comprehend. However, in order for Jesus to give up that life, He first had to take on flesh, He had to become one of us. There is no logic that can explain the action of a deity that will put aside His glory and become fully human. The only possible explanation is love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17) It’s this love for us that gives us every beat of our heart and every breath we take.

With Lent right around the corner, our focus will shift to that penitential season, yet in the week prior to Holy Week this year, we will pause our Lenten somberness to celebrate the feast of the Annunciation on March 25. If in the season of Lent the Church reminds us of Christmas, we too should look for ways of keeping Christmas alive all year long. One way is praying the joyful mysteries of the Rosary, perhaps with a deeper sense of meditation and allowing the joy of the season to wash over us. Another way is in the celebration of the Mass, as the priest consecrates the Eucharist, Jesus becomes as present in the Holy Communion as He was in the manger all those years ago, for He is truly Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in that sacrament. As we lift our hands to receive Him, let us approach the sacrament as if we were receiving a little baby, careful of how we cradle Him in our hand and respectful in how we receive and consume Him.  

If we want to keep the Love of God firmly in mind, we need to practice. Perhaps the next time we see something Christmas related when it is “out of season,” instead of rolling our eyes and complaining about the commercialism of the holiday, we might instead say a prayer of thanksgiving for being reminded of how much God, through Jesus, loves us and ask for help in keeping the Christmas gift firmly in mind all the year through. 

One of us

Regardless of whether we are ready or not, all the preparation and time waiting has come to an end. Christmas is here! Even knowing it is coming, it can seem like Christmas springs up before us, catching us off guard. While our panic may be different from that of the shepherds, perhaps we can look to them for inspiration as to how to react. 

Can you imagine looking up into the night sky and seeing a “multitude” of angels? How awesome! How terrifying! The shepherds were the one of the lowest in ancient society, and to be granted such a sight, not to mention the wonderful message given to them, must have been overwhelming to them at the least. What did it sound like when they heard the praise of God said in unison? Perhaps their solitary life and their skills at understanding the nature surrounding them prepared them to be able to receive this message. After all, in order to manage the flock they would need to be cognizant of the health of each individual member of the flock, be aware of any dangers in the area that would want to harm the flock, and make sure the animals had enough food to graze on and water to drink. If they were watching over the flock in the night, perhaps they worked in shifts. Did the angels wake any who may have been sleeping? Or were some told about the magnificent appearance?

As a spinner and knitter, my curiosity is in the details of the flock. How many were there? Was it a combination of sheep and goats or just one or the other? How did the animals react? Were they the ones who noticed the angels first? Did they join in the angels’ chorus of praise with their bleating; or was the angels visit no different than a thunderstorm with loud noise and bright lights? Since the shepherds were guarding the flock at night, they were responsible for all of them. Did the shepherds discuss who would go and find the child that the angels spoke about? Or did they all go into the town? What about the flock, did it journey with them or did they stay in the fields? Did they find Jesus that very first night or did it take several days/nights of searching for Him?   

It is only Luke’s Gospel that gives us the account of the shepherds. What we do know is that there was discussion among them and they agreed that they needed to quickly go into Bethlehem and find the Baby. Once they found the Holy Family, “they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.” (Lk 2:17-18) For people who were on the outskirts of society, who did they tell? Travelers? Other shepherds? Townsfolk with whom they came in contact? Perhaps who they told is not important, but rather that they spread their experience and the message. This is what Christmas is all about. God became one of us. He came so we can have a personal relationship with Him. By our encounter with Him, we are changed and we cannot keep the details to ourselves; this is the good news that we are called to share with others and to invite them to seek out the Christ Child and experience Him for themselves.

Lastly, “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen,” (Lk 2:20) forever changed by this monumental event. While they may have returned to their shepherding jobs, they continued to praise God. Most likely they knew they would probably not see this special child become a man or hear his preaching. Yet this encounter with Love personified became a blessing without end. So let us feast on this Christmas season with all its wonders and songs of praise, filling in us a never ending storage of praise for God who became man to be with us, redeem us, and invite us to everlasting union with Him.

Joyful preparations

We’re at the halfway mark now. Just a little less than two weeks to the big day. In terms of preparation, this is my favorite Sunday: Gaudete Sunday. 

Gaudete means rejoice in Latin. After two weeks of quiet preparation through introspection, we are asked to, “Rejoice always.” (1 Thes 5:16) We are reminded, “Rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul.” (Isaiah 61:10) In most years, it is easy to get carried away with the joy of the season, singing Christmas songs and seeing all the beautiful light displays that adorn humble homes. It’s almost too easy to commemorate Christ’s coming over 2,000 years ago. However, Christmas, and the Advent preparation season, is more of a bi-directional celebration and anticipation. We look at Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem to celebrate, but we also prepare for His second coming. 

If you knew Jesus was coming on December 25 of this year, as in His second coming and the end of time, are you prepared to rejoice? “I’m not ready yet,” is the thought that springs to my mind. Others may think about all the things they wanted to do and haven’t had an opportunity to do so. However, our Christmas preparations should be that which prepares us for both comings. This is why Gaudete Sunday is so important, not just to enjoy celebrating the past, but to train ourselves to look to the future with joyful anticipation. 

When we look at the Christmas celebrations, what is it that gives us the most joy? Is it the gifts? Is it the food? Or is it spending time with family and friends and sharing all the material things that we surround ourselves with in order to celebrate this holy day? The value we place in spending time with those we love should be inclusive of God. Not only is He “the reason for the season,” but He is also an active participant. The more we share our celebrations with Him, the deeper our relationship becomes. When we long to spend time with God, we can rejoice in Him and look joyfully towards His second coming. 

In a year that has been challenging — mentally, socially, economically, in the light that is Jesus Christ, it is all rubbish (as St. Paul would say). When we focus on Jesus, when we fill ourselves with His light and His love, joy is a happy and undeniable side-effect. We are halfway through Advent, and with the Church’s reminder to rejoice always, let us focus our preparations to be filled with the joy of the first Christmas as we look with anticipation to Jesus’s second coming, whenever that may be.  

No room for you

Bethlehem was not very welcoming to the Savior. The Holy Family was homeless in that town, seeking shelter for their stay. The only thing they could find was a place where the animals were kept, most likely a cave.

Since it was the census that brought Joseph and Mary to the town, I have a hard time believing that there were absolutely no family members, even those distantly related to them, who could help. Perhaps it was the family members that suggested the stable; thinking it would be a more private place for Mary to give birth. Or maybe they weren’t so welcoming either, and they were not going to turn a blind eye to Mary’s questionable marital situation. This is one topic for which the Gospels are rather slim with the details. “While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Lk 2:6-7) The lack of shelter is an explanation for using the manger as a crib, and offers nothing  to help us understand their living situation at that time.

In our modern era of luxury hotels and just-the-basics motels, we wouldn’t even entertain the idea of allowing strangers into our homes for the night. Yet in previous generations, hospitality was an honor to bestow to those traveling. The family’s evening meal, however meager, would be shared with the strangers, who would also receive the peace of mind in the security that a home provided from the elements and wild animals. There is a particular dignity that a home provides, regardless of whether it is owned or rented, and reflects a sense of stability and responsibility. Yet how close are we to being homeless? In our current world crisis, many who live paycheck to paycheck have found themselves out on the street because of the loss of their job. And there are others who are quick to complain when the “riff-raff” set up tents too close to their development.    

It’s very easy for us to pass judgement on those in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago and say that we would have made room for the Holy Family. Even if we don’t have the same type of opportunity to show our hospitality to strangers, do we make room in our hearts for others during this busy season? Do we give to the poor and help spread the love of God to others in need in our communities?  In the shopping, the baking, the parties — even those virtually celebrated, do we take some quiet time to spend preparing for Jesus to come more deeply into our hearts? When we look back at His first coming, being laid in a manger of hay, we know that He’s not expecting the Taj Mahal. He’s looking for a heart that is thankful for family, receptive to all of His children, and sharing with them the warm, swaddling clothes of His love.