On Getting God’s Special Gift this Christmas!!!

Advent can be a very special time of the year for Catholics.  It is that brief time allocated each December for us to reflect on the past year as we simultaneously prepare ourselves to receive – in some way – God anew!  

Each year, God’s Christmas Gifts will come to us in a myriad of different ways over the course of our lives: from finding new or restoring broken relationships with family and friends, to getting that grade or job that we wanted, etc.   At every age and stage of our journey, whatever  gift God  gives or allows to manifest in our lives, we can truly rest assured that 1) they are the best gifts available for us…  2) they are given to be used in and for the community.

If you think about it, the best gifts are almost always those that will somehow address bothwhat we needand also what we want in life!!!  I believe that God, knowing our hearts and the journeys that we are currently on, seeks to give each one of us just such a gift each year – one that will address boththe desires of our hearts and the needs for our lives… 

Unfortunately, I also believe that each year some of us will fail to receive God’s Gift simply because we did not take or make the time in Advent to prepare for it…  To dream of and to see it… To hope for it…  To name, pray and to ask for it, even with that molecular sized faith of ours…

In Jesus’ parable of the Wedding Banquet found in Matthew Chapter 22, it is at verse 11 where we find out that the one who did not adequately prepare and dress for the Banquet was thrown out!!!  

In the same manner, I believe many Christians are thrown out of God’s Christmas Gift line each year simply because they have refused to adequately prepare to receive it…   

Who knows, maybe they think that they DON’T need to prepare to receive God’s gifts…  Perhaps they are simply spiritually unaware and ignorant of God’s desires to actually give them gifts each year (really?)… Or, can it possibly be, like our own first-world-spoiled kids and grand kids, that they simply believe that they deserve and should be given these gifts, without preparation…

Gobble! Gobble! Gobble! Gobbling Up Gratitude Yearly!

As a high school teacher, I used to invite my students to do an extra credit assignment for Thanksgiving each year – but it was due on the Monday before Thanksgiving!!!   Since this extra credit assignment would elevate an ‘F’ quiz to a ‘B’ or makeup a skipped assignment, almost 95% of the class completed it!  What was the assignment?

Write a five paragraph Thanksgiving Reflection sharing: one paragraph explaining a gift you received in the last calendar year, one explaining an event you attended in the last calendar year, one explaining a new relationship (with a person or group) started in the last calendar year and one sharing a problem (it doesn’t have to be solved yet) that you encountered in the past calendar year.

In each paragraph, state what the event was and why you are grateful for encountering it this year.  End with a paragraph that summarizes, using an image, what this year has been like for you and briefly explain how it reflects your last year of life.

On the Monday or Tuesday before Thanksgiving, we would spend the class sharing and talking about what we were grateful for. Each class always went the same way: after one student opened up the floodgates, the story sharing would continue until the bell rang…   Each year after Thanksgiving, students would share how doing this reflection and sharing it in class helped to transform their holiday.

Many students often discussed how their reflection on the past year allowed them to actually see their own growth (or their family’s) in the past year – something few teens get the chance to share and talk about openly. Some talked about how it helped them to see how others have helped and loved them throughout the year.

Just hearing others share the why’s they are grateful for the specific gifts they have received or about the new relationships started seemed to magnify our common understanding and appreciation of gratitude as we approached the holiday.  Surprisingly, a few students even remembered and mentioned it in their end of the year evaluations – seven months later!!!

Now as a chaplain, I continue to do as I used to do back then as a teacher: I do this reflection each year, for myself!  In doing so, I to have relearned that I must make and take the time to critically reflect on each holiday’s real meaning – each year – if I want them to remain meaningful as my life changes.  Here are my brief Thanksgiving Reflections for this year…

Gift:   The new Camry Hybrid that I purchased last November… After driving a 2002 Lexus for years, it was very nice to FINALLY move into this century automotively, with things like Bluetooth, a rear view camera, great gas mileage, etc.  I am grateful because this purchase reminded me of the blessings that new technology can bring to everyday activities like driving. The purchase has highlighted the importance of staying technically up to date – if just because of the safety considerations – as I age.

Event:  The six weeks spent caring for my wife as she recovered from a hip replacement surgery this summer.  It was an extremely important event for both of us and we are grateful to God for making it possible for me to attend and care for her. This period gave us insights into and a foretaste of the care we may have to provide for one another as we age.  This time has allowed me to ponder and to prepare for it more realistically now than ever before.

Problem: It surfaced this spring as I had to decide whether I was going to continue and complete the Chaplain Residency program in August – with an extra and unnecessary credit! Or, whether I was going to leave it June after securing my final credit for board eligibility and begin searching to find a job! Almost all, from my wife and colleagues to friends, suggested that I should stay and complete the program for various reasons, but God told me in prayer to leave it and walk by faith! So that is what I did…

…And what did God do?  God showed out and once again proved to me that standing on faith is the only way to go!!!   By the time my resident peers graduated out of the residency program in August, I had already been working for almost a month in the field as a chaplain…

New Relationship/Community: The St. James/Franciscan Health Community that I am serving as a chaplain. Since starting in August, it has been simply a joy to walk with and to serve both my peers and patients in this Catholic healthcare community.  I am soooo graced and also grateful to – once again – be working closely with others who are on firein loving the Lord and in serving His people!

Image: I envision myself as an opened book lying flat on a table – the Book of My Life – with roughly two thirds of the pages turned or read and lying to the left of the book’s spine… The right page of the book is beginning a new chapter in my life that includes aging, empty nesting and how God is now calling me to serve through chaplaincy and writing…

Each year I do this reflection, it always summarizes the year’s memories for me and slathers them with a heavy dose of gratitude…

By God’s grace, I am able to glimpse – a bit clearer in retrospect – just how God’s hand providentially guided me through yet another year. This is by far – one of the greatest blessings of this reflection, especially as we end the liturgical year.

I invite you to review your past year one last time– through the lens of gratitude focusing on specific gifts, events, new/restored relationships and problems…

In it, may you come to see more clearly how God’s Spirit continues to walk with you and has guided you,  protected and/or restored and healed you this past year…

May your holiday celebration flow from and rest in a true Thanksgiving, one nurtured by gratitude and grounded in the graces that undergirds your memories…

Who are the Blessed? Reflecting on Luke 14:15-24

“Who Are the Blessed?”

In Chapter 14 of Luke’s Gospel, when a bystander comments that “those who will dine in the Kingdom of God are blessed,” Jesus furthers his insight about ‘the blessed’ by sharing the parabolic image of the Great Feast, in which all are invited.  Using this parabolic image, Jesus reveals a profoundly simple, yet defining characteristic about these ‘blessed people’ who will later be dining together in the Kingdom…

What is this simple, yet defining characteristic of the blessed? 

Well it is definitely not being the smartest, the richest, most articulate or socially connected in the community, that’s for sure…  Based on the parable, I believe it is simply their willingness and readiness to be used by God – right here and now – instead of waiting until later… In this reading, the key characteristic of ‘being blessed’ is having a willing and open heart that is centered on loving and building God’s Kingdom, instead of being focused on acquiring money, power, pleasure, success, etc.

This is why Jesus uses the examples of successful business persons needing to examine products and to complete purchases before coming to the Great Feast…   This is also why He uses the common example of newlyweds needing to attend to their spouse’s concerns before coming to the Great Feast…

…Both are examples of people with hearts that are so focused on, directed towards and consumed by their natural love(s), that these loves can hinder, enslave or even blind them from hearing, seeing and living out the FULLNESS of God’s call in life: to love God with all one’s heart, soul and mind and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

In this parable, we see Augustine’s theology personified which talks about and defines sin as a warped natural loved, in which one inordinately loves the gift and not the Giver of gifts.

What are the take away messages from this Gospel?  

First, that even naturally good loves like successful businesses, families and marriages can possibly enslave and blind us from deepening our love of God and growing in holiness, if they are not loved correctly, that is, in God and through God.   The blessed know this and will guard their hearts choosing wisely what to love & how to love what they do, for they know that the heart is a doorway to the soul.

Second: in acknowledging that sometimes what we love and how we love are opposed to God’s will, we must learn how to let our heart and our loves be openly discussed, critiqued, shared and tried in the fire – of life by others and God.  Our heart open to love + time + relationships + grace =  a life that is purified, transformed and finally reflects God’s image to the world.  The blessed know instinctively that in offering their hearts and selves to the world, they will be broken and run over by many but saved in the end by Christ.

Finally, the last take away message from this parable is that ‘the blessed’ are NOT so because of the eternal reward they will receive in the Kingdom, but because of their willingness and ready hearts to struggle, work and to build God’s Kingdom here and now, each day.

Be Blessed!

How God Graceful Jolted Me From Meditation to Prayer

          In my early twenties I began rising early to spend morning ‘quiet time’ in meditation and prayer before starting my day. In reflecting on these initial years of morning prayer and meditation, I can see now how God led me through a series of H U G E ‘baby steps’ that formed the foundation for and set the table regarding the real prayer and spirituality that was to come later in my life.

Perhaps the first ‘baby step’ that God graced me with was creating the desire to pray daily in my heart! In my early twenties prayer for me was simply a discrete activity that happened only when I was scared, in trouble or very, very ill!!! Of course I also prayed when I went to Church, the problem was that I only went to church on Easter and Christmas at the time!!! The idea that prayer could be a dialogue and become a constant reality in my life was foreign to me.   I knew nothing about the power of prayer, the various kinds of prayers one can offer or of the many blessings that comes with developing an active prayer life, despite growing up with a mother and grandmother who were prayer warriors. Like many other fundamentals in life, gaining a REAL knowledge about what works in this area will only come by committing to and doing it yourself…

When I first started rising early for ‘quiet time,’ my focus was not on prayer at all but actually on meditation.  Believing that I could wrestle spiritual truth and power from heaven by force and hard work [a common Pelagian and heretical belief], my initial early morning spiritual forays were decidedly not Catholic or even Christian! Prayer was simply a twenty – second ‘intro into and exit out of’ my morning meditations, which focused on tapping into latent occult powers rather than getting to know God or growing in holiness. My primary motivations for prayer were Santa Clausian or Big Brotherish at best: to either get what I wanted or to cover and protect my ass! I was blissfully ignorant and completely indifferent to what prayer actually was, and especially what it could do to and for me…

However all this changed after experiencing some initial success in dabbling with the occult.  It was a series of   G R A C E D  events – realizing that my experiences of occult ‘gifts’ were actually ‘demonic contacts and portals to hell,’ beginning to lose control of my newly found ‘inner’ life, seeing what happened when I called out Jesus’ name during an occult meditation or when one had gone awry, etc. – that basically scared me straight back to Jesus and flipped my morning spirituality from meditation to prayer!!!   I immediately dropped those occult/new age meditations and refocused my spirituality – both my spiritual reading and my morning quiet times – back to Catholic practices centered on scripture and prayer.

Back in my early twenties I was like so many in the world today – I knew God existed and atheism was not my problem…   My problem was accepting all that came along with that belief in God – beliefs like…   …I should commit to and work at living morallyinstead of primarily getting paid in life, or that I should serve others with my gifts and talents instead of focusing on constant pleasure or becoming rich, etc..   As a child I had learned of God’s goodness, His expectations for us to love others and, via grace, that each can embody and live out of God’s love through our unique gifts to love and serve others. My problem was accepting as true the consequences rejecting God’s offer….

You see, despite growing up on Chicago’s South Side and accepting as ‘fact’ all forms of violence and evil against myself, people and community, I had somehow bought completely that secular and New Age teaching of universal salvation! This is the belief that God’s love is so great, that in the end it even overcomes God’s justice, effectively eliminating for us any and all moral, spiritual and communal requirements to love as God loves in order to be saved. In acknowledging the world’s evil as real, grace led me to also consider and acknowledge its source – Satan – as real. After dabbling in the occult confirmed both Satan’s existence and that the ongoing war for my soul was real, the reality scared the living #@$%&! out of me!!! Now accepting these spiritual realities as truths, by grace I refocused and flipped my morning spiritual script, elevating prayer to a place of prominence over meditation. From that time on, I have limited all meditations to classic Christian meditations which focuses on Christian themes and the Life of Christ.

I believe many good hearted people today are following the same path and making the same mistakes that I initially made – dabbling in occult meditations to unlock latent spiritual potentials so as to gain success in the natural world, instead of choosing the hard walk of faith.  This hard path of following Jesus and walking by grace and faith, transforms our spirituality and its goals to that of serving, giving oneself away and growing in holiness – by grace and in imitation of Christ.

Unfortunately, many Catholics erroneously believe as I once did: that they can – free of any risks because God is all good and all love – develop their own ‘blended spiritualities, which combine traditional Catholic spirituality and the New Age.’   In doing so, I believe many experience what I have discussed above: a subtle refocusing on what a specific meditation can grant one as a spiritual gift versusthe real growth in one’s understanding of and deepening life of prayer.  Please note how this New Age spirituality almost always focuses on gaining or developing some ‘spiritual gift’ in hopes of doing some future good.  It does not require ‘faith in  God’ or present moral requirements like loving others in our relationships or ‘using our gifts in a holy way’ as prerequisites for receiving these gifts.

In working to develop and created an adult Christian spirituality, please, please, pleeeeeeeease do not be fooled by the empty New Age promises of some special spiritual knowledge or of some special spiritual gift that one can receive via meditation!!!!  Please reject these empty promises of acquiring and using either special spiritual knowledge(s) or special spiritual gifts to gain ‘wordly’ success in exchange for loosing your soul!  In your spiritual reading, please select readings that examine what growth in prayer really looks and feels like instead of how you can ‘unlock and develop’ latent potentials [I suggest the Doctors of the Church].

In your meditations, always keep a scriptural focus and remember that Jesus’ life and the Gospels are unparalleled meditation material for the believer. Finally in your spirituality, please remember that you are NOT ALONE on the path, that you are ACTIVELY IN A WAR and that winning both our daily battles and the war only requires PRAYER! Without a doubt, prayer alone is the greatest spiritual tool in our spiritual toolbox, not meditation. It is prayer, not meditation, which opens, transforms by grace and frees our hearts to love and serve as God’s only Son has modeled for us… So, focus on growing in prayer during your spiritual quiet times and, continue to pray on my fellow Christian soldiers…

On St. Paul’s Invitation to Pray Always

 

In chapter five of the New Testament’s Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul invites the believer to ‘pray without ceasing.’  Have you ever considered taking this invitation seriously? As a Christian adult with an active spirituality and deepening prayer life, has learning how to pray without ceasingever been  – a real spiritual goal for you?   If not, don’t feel too bad or beat yourself up about it, because you are not alone!!! Many – erroneously – believe that it would be easier getting a PH.D in a foreign language than learning how to pray constantly!!!!  When seeing Paul’s invitation, unfortunately many Christians are all too ready to dismiss it as just ‘another one of those scriptural impossibilities,” like loving our enemies.

However, just like that ‘impossible’ commandment’s call ‘to love always,’ this is one of those Gospel invitations that, over time, can pick and nag at one’s soul…  Why is this so?  My belief is that as we spiritually mature, the Holy Spirit empowers and leads each soul to that place where, by faith and grace, the impossible now becomes very plausible, possible, and doable – like loving one’s enemies!!!  While most realize that loving our enemies will not beeasyto achieve or always enjoyable, most also come to understand that it [loving our enemies] is something we can grow in and come to live out by grace!

In the same manner, the Holy Spirit confirms that  – by grace and faith – it is also some how possible for us to comfortably and to constantly ‘walk, talk and live in communion with God.’  The lives of the Saints testify to both God’s willingness andour human ability to, by grace, eventually live and walk in union with God.

Even in acknowledging the power of faith and grace, you may still be asking yourself, “How is thispossible or even achievable? Can I reallyspiritually pull this off – with bills, relationships, school, kids, family-work & health issues plus my money sometimes being funnier than a stand up comic? Where or how do I even start?  How can I grow my present spirituality of sporadic and occasional prayer experiences to that of finding it as the living continuum and background to my daily life?”

I apologize for NOT having a ‘one size fit all’ answer to that question… …I sure wish that I did!!!  However, what I can offer to you now is the onespiritual practice and method that God gave me as I first pondered this question years ago.  God’s response to my question was the following: just repeat – throughout the day– the two fundamental ‘first steps’ of any basic prayer: a) remembering God and then b) being with/sitting in God’s Presence. My response to God’s answer led me to begin linking these two stepsto ‘specific daily activities,’ like eating, using the bathroom, walking to and from the car, etc..

In reality, many ‘do these steps naturally’ when walking into a church, preparing to read scripture or to pray before a meal, etc.. They allow us to ‘slow down and turn off’ to both the world’s exterior and our own, inner noise.   Now, with inner stillness and quietness restored, we are able to turn within and to prepare our hearts and souls to both ‘return to and to receive God’s Presence.’  Most of us start prayer with this ‘returning to and remembering of God’because unfortunately, we generally find ourselves in thatplace where we have forgotten or even outright abandoned God, as we busied ourselves throughout the day.

These steps are arguably, the two most elementary required for any real prayer. As such, despite each being a profoundly simple spiritual exercise, each one can also be astonishingly difficult or even impossible to achieve on any given day. For a variety of reasons, any given day it can be very difficult finding and taking that 3-4 minutes to quiet our minds and to still our hearts. It can also be equally as hard simply to remember and think about God on some days…

Some argue that they are simply too busy at work and in life to even tryintegrating prayer into and throughout their day…  Okay, I get it – kids, work, social life, family, health issues, etc. – your life is very full!!!  So… just use the dead & in-between-times of your day to pray!!!! Link these two basic prayer steps – remembering God and placing yourself in God’s Presence – to a variety of simple activities performed daily.  Over time, the practice will eventually train and make ‘normal to you’ both returning to and remembering God throughout your day…

As you learn how to remember Godand to be with God throughout the day, your ‘discrete acts of prayer’ will gradually morph into a constant dialogue, feeling, turning to and ongoing REAL LIFE experience of God!!!  You will look up one day, to find that somehow, you are now – by grace – living an experience of God, prayer and your spiritual life in/as a living continuum!

What could this practice look like in real life? Well, by linking these two steps to simple activities, [like walking to/from your car at work, before and at the end of every meal, when using the restroom and when walking down a specific corridor/staircase, etc.] your spiritually really begins to adds up!!!   Using these ‘dead times’ to remember God is like throwing spare change into a huge coffee can over the course of decades…  Here’s the math: add 2 (to and from the car just once) + 6 (3 meals a day x 2) + 2 (using the bathroom 2x) = ten + times you will find yourself practicing ‘returning to and placing yourself in God’s Presence’ each day.  Wow!!! For many, I bet that’s a heck of a lot more  ‘turning to and remembering God’ than they are presently doing!!!!!

In the good 2 or 3 month struggle (at the minimum) it will take to transform these dead times into regular ‘periods for prayer,’ you will find out more about yourself and your faith life than even you might reallywant to know!!!!  For instance, you will find out that you have more time than you thought available for prayer…  you will also come to find that your inner world (mind and heart) are actually much so more undisciplined than you E  V  E R  thought they were!!!

You will also come to see and know much better those topics which are most difficult for you to stop ‘thinking about’ or ‘feeling in your heart.’  As you experience the frustration of finding out how undisciplined your mind is you will also come to know – in a new way – the joy of KNOWING that you are soooo much more than just, your mind – as many think today!!!

I have not even begun to mention the insights, feelings, blessings and joys that God will lavish on you – simply because God won’t let you out give or out loveHim!!!!  It is simply impossible to ‘out work’ Jesus in trying to develop and deepen our prayer lives with God…

I am not going to mention the personal benefits and transformations – at work, home and in one’s relationships – that you will begin to experience, simply because nowyour mind and heart is spiritually growing (exponentially) as it becomes so much more disciplined and grounded in God’s love than it E V E R was before!!!

The fact is, that we are often ignorant of just how undisciplinedour minds and hearts actually are – until we try establishing a simple spiritual practice like this – remembering and sitting in God’s Presence seven to ten times daily.  With this practice, we will come to realize the importance of learning how to listen to God and for God in our lives…

…And, as we develop our spiritual ears to hear and to listen to God throughout the day – in nature, strangers, family members, in our feelings and through our random thoughts/ memories – somehow by grace, we slowly begin to believe in and experience that which we once thought, was impossible. Only by taking a leap of faith to hope, believe and work at creating that which St. Paul said was possible by grace – of praying unceasingly – will it become a reality in our lives.  May the Lord grant you the grace to consider making St. Paul’s invitation your spiritual goal for this year.

On the Recurring Nature Faith Struggles

“Water runs downhill and follows the path of least resistance, but the Christian follows Christ.”                                      Fr. Elias  O’Brien[1]

The path of faith is truly a hard path that must be repeatedly chosen by the individual over the course of one’s life.  It can not be imposed on another from outside the self.  Most attempts at forcing others to live by faith will rarely result in it being chosen and loved with one’s heart. Forcing another to live by faith can and often does lead to a blind and mechanical religious obedience that is simply meant to appease others.  This is why as parents I believe it is smart to ‘lighten up’ on the strict enforcement of absolute faith observance for late teens as they approach young adulthood.  The ‘strict enforcement’ years of spiritually parenting, from birth to around sixteen, should give way to a simple list of basic expectations – like weekly Mass attendance, tithing etc. until the child departs from the home.

As a parent of an older teen, I believe my spiritual parenting should manifest itself not in forcing obedience, but in myself living, modeling and explaining the faith and its challenges to  my daughter. Since children often wind up doingwhat we do and not what we say, we must model and explain how living the faith can positively impact life – as it also challenges us to grow and change. We can lead others to, model for and teach others about living by faith in Jesus, but ultimately making THAT choice to live it will often comes through an encounter with Him at some ‘critical point’ in one’s life.  That ‘critical point’ more often than not, occurs once our children have left the nest and are out in the world on their own.

What that ‘critical point’ or ‘points’ is/are for each person varies as much as each individual varies from all others. For consistently hardheadedpeople like myself, we often need manyof them before we accept God’s invitation to live by faith!!!   A ‘critical point’ is an instance in life when it takes no prisoners and whips your tail into submission, leaving you in that humbled and often broken down space with no where to go but to God.  It’s the proverbial, ‘atheist in a foxhole’ situation!

Common examples include when we are blind sided by that unexpected relationship breakup with the love-of-my-life, the flunking-out-of-college or unexpected firing from that ‘good job’, the busting-of-my-childhood-dreams-to-be-a-________________(fill in the blank), or the death of a sibling or parent, etc.   These examples of life’s ‘critical points’ reveals the utter fragility of our human life and nature, however, we STILL – like the atheist – have a choice in them. If accepted with, in and through the eyes of faith, they can also becomeinvitationsto ‘walk with God by and in faith.’

For some, they are invitations to begin walking the path of faith, for others, they are invitations to stick to the path of faith previously chosen and to trust – even now, and for others they are invitations to deepen our present walk of faith.  However and whenever a ‘critical point’ is encountered in life, the simple truth still remains: we must make a choice… That choice… And no one can force us to choose any of the paths that lie before us.  That choice can not be forced on us; we must make or remake it anew, in the present moment in the face of the current situation. Often the hardest choice is that of choosing Christ, not the downhill path of least resistance like water.

May God’s grace accompany you in making that choice in accordance with His will, to begin, to continue or to deepen your walk in faith for the first or the next time you encounter a ‘critical point’ in your journey towards the Kingdom.

 

 

[1]6/17/18   From a homily at St. Thomas the Apostle’s  Morning Mass in Chicago, Il.

On Findin’ Character Kickin’ In…

You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself one.
Henry David Thoreau

            In this, my third year of transition from teaching as a vocation, I decided this spring to leave my garden fallow. In over 20 years of living here, I’ve never left my backyard untouched – twenty four years to be exact.  In these 24 years, I have grown vegetables, grown watermelons, grown various flowers and flower gardens int he soil and in outdoor pots, etc. The most consistent and yearly undertaking of mine throughout these two decades is to establish four rose garden which contain roughly a 15 – 20 beautiful rose bushes. I have one along the house and another in the rear yard, with two  – a square and a circular rose garden – as centerpieces to the yard.  They have been planted as testaments to my four beautiful daughters.

Almost a year ago in August, I began a chaplain residency program in a suburban hospital.  If you know anything about a residency program, you know that it can kill you both physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.  In addition to the long hours and overnight calls, I was also driving at least 3 1/2’s hours a day to and from my place of employment. In light of this grueling schedule, this spring I decided – for the first time – to leave the garden fallow. I decided to do nothing – not to reseed the grass spots left after a winter of my dog Jay’s defecating, not to plant any new rosebushes where a few from past years may have died, not even to purchase any cheap annuals to plant in the planters or even to buy and sow an $8 bag of wildflowers amongst the remaining roses bushes.

In my 24 years living here, I have slaved over this backyard: last year alone I roped off 95% of it from my dog Jay and proceeded to rake and reseed up to 50 different dead spots made from his first winter of taking complete ownership of it by usingeveryareaof it as his personal toliet. Last year I also sowed annual wildflowers amongst the roses and planted annuals in pots as I normally do, etc. This spring I began to notice and now, have finally realized as I sit here in the middle of the summer and having completed the residency program, that my backyard is still – without the work being put in – absolutely beautiful.  The perennials that I planted along the southern fence – and struggled with over the last two years – have all return and are the fullest they’ve ever been.  Each of my rose gardens, save for two or three rose bushes which did not make the winter, are all full and in bloom.  This second summer, even without re-seeding it, my lawn looks fabulous.  And finally, to top it all off, the annual wildflowers which were not supposed to return, have returned and filled the places they were last year as if they were perennials or as if I had resown them anew this spring!

~Morning Prayer is like Breakfast for the Soul –

Who Wants to start the day hungry?~

            What’s happening in my garden is also happening in my prayer life.  Having to leave very early in the morning to drive almost 2 hours through traffic to get to work at 8 AM, I had to let go of my morning prayer routine in order to enter into and complete the residency program.  Of course, yes I did pray a rosary and listen to the daily Scriptures in the car and then pray a podcast on the morning drive (Day Breakon the Relevant Radio App), but this morning drive time prayer was at times difficult and rarely gave me the comfort/peace  that taking an hour in the morning did for the last 30 + mornings of my life.  Now, having completed the residency I’m finding that my prayer life and garden is also very much intact.  All the work and time – by the grace of God – that I put in over the years has formed a spiritual character which was grounded in and formed by graced regular habits of morning prayer. Now like my garden, I’ve lost nothing in this time away at all… In this time of stepping away to grow and respond to God’s call in a new way in my life, I’ve not lost a single iota from the great gifts received by regularly integrating prayer into my morning over the years.  Like my garden where the flowers have changed over the years, the prayers and spiritual exercises have also changed, yet the overall character of the whole – my morning prayer time and spiritual garden – has remained, arguably even growing deeper in the time I stepped away.

In short, a lifetime of habits have formed a character which, “kicked in” and continued to grow on that graced trajectory already set, even though I had no time to put in the work as I was accustomed to. I’m sitting here now in my yard as I write this, reveling in the power of God’s grace to build character through the daily struggles, even in a sinner like me.  Praise Him!

On Suffering ‘More Than One Can Bear’

When tragedies strike, people often say, “God will not put on you, more on you than you can bear.”

I too, used to say this to others in the face of human tragedies, but since I’ve become a chaplain I’ve come to believe that this is one of the most frequently used statements of bad theology that is spoken by people of all ages and backgrounds.

The simple fact is, that the majority of true human tragedies do not have anything to do with the will of God.  God is not punishing us for past sins or getting back at us for bad attitudes or trying to teach us some subtle message by allowing tragedies to enter our lives. That is simply not how God works! The simple fact really is, that the majority of human tragedy comes from the hands of the world, Satan or people not to unlike ourselves.  How?  Let me briefly explain…

Believe it or not,each nation in the world uses specific tools to influence and guide its citizens into thinking, acting and using (or notusing) their freedom in specific ways.  In any nation these tools are generally or typically its culture, its laws and its media.  The culture of anynation – especially for those who are born into it – is often very difficult to truly critique and acknowledge the truth about.  This difficulty is akin to truly acknowledging and evaluating the very families or/and loved ones we find ourselves in relationship with: we are blinded by both our closeness to and our love for them.

The Old Testament reveals this human reality through the life and struggles of the nation, Israel. Despite having God’s laws revealed and God’s prophets sent to it, Israel still struggled against being blinded and influenced by its surrounding cultures and nations.  Today, many Christians ignore this scriptural truth and simplify the struggle to live God’s law down to an individual ‘free will’ issue.  These people are ignorant of or outright refusing to acknowledge the power of culture to influence human thought and freedom. Many of these same people even think that judgment is solely an individual reality and that God does not judge whole nations anymore…

For decades, the Catholic Church has critiqued American culture as something called, “a culture of death.”  “A culture of death” in the nutshell and simply stated is a culture that teaches, preaches and presents deathas an answer and solution to life’s problems.  In a culture of death, abortion is seen as an answer to a problem of an unplanned birth.  Euthanasia, or as some call it mercy killing, is seen as an answer to the crippling realities of aging, pain and disease.  Violence as the tools of death – physical violence, words of violence, the chemical violence of drugs and the use of all forms of weaponry – are seen and presented as an answer to everything from social inequities and political realities (war) to personal vendettas against private enemies – just look at our top rated games, movies and media programs regarding this last point.

The evil one influences each nation to live against God’s will by warping its culture in unique ways that teaches its citizens both reasons and methods for justifying and living against God’s will – or living out a culture of death.  With such teachings and methods taught by the culture and made legal, individuals of every nation are trained to exercise their free will in ways that are inconsistent with or out right against God’s will.  Because “the wages of sin are death,” death and suffering are spread far and wide around the earth and all people – rich, middle class, poor and people of every race and ethnic background – suffer greatly at the hands of others who are exercising their freedom in unholy and culturally sanctioned ways that are against God’s will.

It should be clear from above that one of the subtle powers of every nation’s specific culture is its ability to shape and form our – supposedly free – will.  It should also be clear that what we call free will it is often not in fact, free at all – but is often a function of the culture that we grew up in or presently ascribe to.  It should finally be also clear, that many are victims and suffer because of our culture, not simply or only because of isolated individuals making ‘free’ but bad choices.

So, in an American culture where illicit drugs are rampant, prevalent and cheap… A culture which teaches and presents a pharmaceutical reality that now, there is a ‘pill available for that’ to answer every problem… A culture in which our ‘war on drugs’ seemingly loses each and every battle…   The horrific tragedies of continuing opioid abuse and overdoses, drug battles ‘over turf’ in our inner cities and people of all ages and backgrounds becoming addicted to pharmaceuticals  in order to do everything from ‘passing a high school test’ to ‘having pornographic like sex’ are a function of our contemporary culture.  In these tragedies, real lives are ruined and there are many victims… And these tragedies are not sent from or find their root in God’s grace and will.  In short, God did not ‘put on or send any parent/loved one’ any death of a loved one by overdose or the death of one’s moral/character/will by becoming addicted to drugs or becoming a drug dealer, etc..

In an American culture and nation that is more armed than some other nation’s whole army… Where gun violence and death in my own city, Chicago, is so bad and common that the majority of it goes unreported by the media…  In a nation where the physical, moral and institutional violence against women and minorities continues often unchecked… These are very real tragedies rooted in our culture that continues to kill victims and victimize families…  …And none of it is or has ever been sent from God.  Nor is it rooted in God’s grace and will.  In short, God did not ‘put on any parent or sibling,’ that senseless murder of their son, daughter, brother or sister…  As God did not put on anyone the deaths that continue from police violence, violence against women and new forms of contemporary slavery, etc..

The simple fact is that the majority of the tragedies encountered in our lives, has everything to do with a warped and human free will that has been blinded and influenced by Satan through each nation’s unique culture of death. If God’s foreknowledge always stopped people from exercising their giftedfree will to participate in evil, we would not truly be free to really love as God loves – who ALWAYS chooses the good and holy! To love,requires human choice; if God stopped us from choosing evil, we would become programmed ‘goody two shoe human robots,’ and truly incapable of loving each other as God does.  The consequences of living in a culture of death, is a warped free will, victims from every walk of life, unchecked human and spiritual suffering, and widespread human tragedy and death – burdens which canbecome too much for many to bear…

No, God is not punishing us for past sins or getting back at us for bad attitudes or trying to teach us some subtle message through suffering and by allowing tragedy to enter our lives.  That is simply not how God works!  God does work to be present with and to carry us through the very real suffering we encounter, like as presented in the commonly read, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ poem. Through it all we are invited to struggle to suffer with faith and by grace.

By strugglin’ in faith to walk by grace through our suffering, God is then able to miraculously and eventually ‘write straight with the crooked human lives’ that we have been dealt.  We find ourselves being somehow, able to forgive those who have hurt us as we are also to somehow break those chains seeking to enslave us in emptiness and suffering. God’s grace is miraculously able to eventually restore and to give us new meaning and purpose in our ‘crooked lives that have been punctuated by real suffering.’   God’s love and Spirit continues its saving work, empowering us who were broken and now healed, to love and help others who have also become victims of the culture of death, who find themselves suffering in similar ways as we have.