From Scribal Understanding to Holy Living

Mk 12: 28-34

One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him,
“Which is the first of all the commandments?”
Jesus replied, “The first is this:
Hear, O Israel!
The Lord our God is Lord alone!
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind,
and with all your strength.

The second is this:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no other commandment greater than these.”
The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher.
You are right in saying,
He is One and there is no other than he.
And to love him with all your heart,
with all your understanding,
with all your strength,
and to love your neighbor as yourself

is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding,
he said to him,
“You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
And no one dared to ask him any more questions.

____________

In this gospel Jesus was approached by a scribe, who inquired, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus responds, “…Love God with all your heart with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength.”  Jesus continues, “…the second is this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself, there is no other commandment greater than these.”   The gospel story ends with Jesus acknowledging the scribe’s correct understanding of the scriptures, as he encourages him to continue working and growing as He states, “you are not far from the kingdom of God.”

This last point is a very interesting and important to note, that is, how a scribe can understand so much of the Scriptures, and yet – according to Jesus  – still be “…not far from (or outside of) God’s Kingdom.” This profoundly simple point can easily be overlooked and missed!!!

If prayerfully considered in light of one’s life, it has the potential to be one of those “Wait, Jesus said what?” points that can almost make both Catholics and non Catholics briefly rethink, if not to almost hope in, the Church’s teaching about purgatory

Throughout Christian history and especially in the last 500 years since the Protestant Reformation, I believe many Christians have studied themselves into this scribal state – gaining a  great understanding of  God’s law and Word, the Scriptures – but who, for some reason, is still not yet in  (and working towards)  God’s Kingdom.

Why is the classic scribe, still “in route to” and “not yet in” God’s Kingdom?

Well, what some of these scribes fail to understand about God’s Word – is that an academic, intellectual or simple believing sense of the Scriptures – should be just our first step and response to that dynamic and living Word that is the Scriptures.

That first step – accepting, acknowledging and learning more about what is contained and taught in the Scriptures – must be followed by a second and more important step: becoming a doer of God’s Word.

There is a huge difference between being a doer of God’s Word and an understander God’s Word.  The evil one Satan, definitely understands – in the common understanding of what understanding means – more about   scripture than most who have ever lived one may argue, but is he saved?

Let’s be clear: only Jesus as the Living Word made flesh could understand the Scriptures fully, as it is a dynamic and living book that cannot be fully grasped by any living soul.  By grace and faith, we are able to grow and to understand more of what is in the Scriptures, however no one apart from Jesus can or ever will master understanding the Scriptures.

However one can, even without knowing all the mysteries of God, by grace and faith become a faithful, consistent and holy doer of God’s Word.  The history and testimony from the lives of the saints reveals that living out the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ Laws of Love in our human relationships is very possible by grace and faith!!!

Their lives also reveal that it is the obedience to and living out of God’s law that actually leads to a true and Spirit filled understanding of the Scriptures, even though many today think, desire and believe that this gift is given freely and frequently to all – with or without holy living. I’ll stick with what the saints have witnessed to myself.

In the New Testament’s Book of James, we are taught that “faith without works is dead.”  And while yes, studying the scriptures is a necessary prayerful work that illuminates the mind, heart and will, only in conjunction with the humble, contrite and prayerful struggle to obey and live out God’s laws daily that the deepest Scriptural knowledge, truths and ultimately relationship with God is given.

Only by prayerfully accepting each day the graced struggle to become a Simon of Cyrene – to willfully and intentionally bear the Cross as given to us – will God infuse the depth and breadth of wisdom that the immature scribe in us all is truly seeking…

Common sense from our natural lives will pound home this point more clearly.  In the same way the doctors become great doctors by doing medicine and great artist become so because of their great depth, commitment and willingness to enter into and to develop the core of their work, so is it also with God’s people – we come to know, love and understand the depths of the scriptures primarily by living it, not solely  by studying about it.

In fact, it is probably best to only know and memorize the Ten Commandment and Jesus’ Laws of Love – if we had only to two things  in the whole Bible to both  memorize  and live out. The OT Law tells us what love actually consists of and how to do it whereas the NT Laws of Love tells us who to love and the depth, breadth and manner that we are called to love them in – in the Loving Spirit and Truth of the OT Law!!!

Simply put, who comes to understand the depths of love – any love – by studying and reading about it alone?  One must take and make a leap of faith to live that love in order to truly know it…

What did that scribe in the Gospel and many contemporary super-scriptured-up-Christians need, in order to actually enter God’s Kingdom? Simply to do more living of the Gospel, than studying of the Gospels…

When the scribe asked Jesus, which commandment was the greatest, I doubt if he expected to hear Jesus’ response linking TWO COMMANDMENTS  together into one great commandment. In doing so, Jesus clarified and simplified the scriptural criteria for what constitutes true knowledge and understanding of God’s Law.

Jesus taught that true knowledge and understanding of God’s Law is revealed in how we live and by our lives, not simply or only by what we claim to intellectually understand and give our accent to.

In contrast to our contemporary intellectualized and psychological understanding of what ‘understanding actually is,’ God’s Word presents and teaches that having Scriptural understanding requires more…

As reflected by the saints, it  requires one to be spiritually integrated and mature, having a  head (understanding/believing) plus heart (feeling and desire ) plus free will (action) that seeks to live daily by faith and in response to God through and in our relationships and communities…

I suspect, that if you are like myself and that scribe in the Gospel, you definitely still have a loooooong way to go before we catch up with the saints in living out God’s Word…

My prayer for us, is that as our inner scribe’s love of learning continues to grow, that God may grant us the grace to begin shifting our focus more on living out that simple ten cents of basic and core scriptural knowledge – the Ten Commandments – rather that seeking to understand (in the contemporary manner) Paul’s theology or some other deep scriptural and theological points…

My prayer is that, like the saints, we may move from primarily seeking to understand the Word in the contemporary and scribal sense, to living it with our lives – by strugglin’ to love, serve and to live justly in the various communities that we minister to daily.

My prayer is that by grace, we may accept the Holy Spirit’s invitation to let go of our youthful, milk based scribal understandings and to willfully accept each day – the mature struggle and food of the Cross – that God serves us daily in the everyday challenge to live the Ten Commandments and to Love our enemies.

May the Holy Spirit lead us in this endeavor, as we move and grow from being scripture and theology spittin’ scribes to simple, holy saints living out the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ Laws of Love.

A Universal 2019 New Year’s Resolution & Proposal

With the shadow of last year now cast, and the New Year’s first day upon us, I sit here prayerfully pondering what could be an American, if not a worldwide, New Year’s resolution for this coming year?

If I’m seeking to be consistent with our previous essays and the stated mission here at Strugglin’Catholic.com, the New Year’s resolution proposed here should be practical, spiritual and easily accessible to all readers, yet prompting a bit of prayerful reflection and or growth in the hearts and minds of readers…

It should be firmly grounded in the Gospel, seeking God’s grace and will for those we love: our selves, families and  the greater communities that we live and work in including the whole world!

Perhaps, and ideally – as a Gospel oriented resolution – it should also be one that can ALSO be understood, because of our human contexts, as one that seeks God’s grace and will ALSO for our enemies or perhaps a stated enemy.

In a perfect worldthat resolution would somehow be able to also impact all of those who are in most need of God’s mercy.  We are now talking about individuals, families and communities caught up in poverty, sub standard housing and employment issues… those living with violence or in/with drug infested communities/issues or with poor schools and inadequate healthcare…

And those of all backgrounds and ages who are living with and in despair, hopelessness, homelessness and in the agony or constant pain, whether of physical or other origin…  Since we all know this is not a perfect world, please forgive me when I fail in my attempt to offer such catch all New Year’s resolution…

Somehow it would also NOT forget the many seniors, veterans, children and the physically or mentally challenged – those who are rarely acknowledged…  … Or those who are willfully forgotten, like the myriads who are ‘enslaved’ in contemporary America’s sex market, illegal business practices, etc.

Hopefully and by God’s grace, it can be one that will positively impact our current world’s social and political developments, just as it can also positively impact our individual prayer and spiritual life, prompting both to grow in accordance with God’s will.

In short, we are talking about a resolution that can bless our lives as it touches American from every background, lifestyle and tradition…

Finally it should also be concrete and focused enough to be able to address current events,  yet also open and having the width and breadth to be able to anticipate even the unprecedented – which always await us each year…

What personal and individual New Year’s resolution can possibly ever fulfill and address all of these realties?  Its kind of funny, even though comedy is not my intent… And being  far from perfect,  please forgive me, despite being very serious

But it is…

To spend three good morning minutes each day – actively, willfully and passionately praying simply, that…

May God’s will be done, regarding President Trump!

Don’t pray for what you want regarding President Trump – whether an impeachment, a second term, etc. – just simply pray that May God’s will be done regarding President Trump!

If I can promise you nothing else, I can promise you this: that by praying this prayer daily as a New year’s resolution, both your prayer and prayer life will be transformed!!!

As a New Year’s spiritual resolution to pray a specific prayer for a whole year, you are dedicating and training yourself, as both a Christian and an American, to bring and extend your specific prayers and prayer life toward focusing on the community as a whole, not just your life and concerns.

This resolution can also train us to hone and direct our prayer and prayer life towards its proper goal, which is God’s will.  I believe this can be especially hard regarding persons or realities for which or whom we have very strong emotions/feelings – and for most, President Trump fits this bill to a tee!!!

On an every-day-change-your-life-in-a-powerful-way manner, regularly praying this emotionally charged, yet concrete and political New Year’s resolution after a month or two, may even lead you – by grace – to begin to creatively ponder and to actively seek, instead of sitting back and passively awaiting, God’s will to manifest in your life…

“Whoa, now!!” you say? “Sounds kinda scary…” I say, “Yea! … but in a scary good kinda way!!!”

Whether you choose to use and add our Strugglin’Catholic’s New Year’s resolution to your other resolutions is up to you…

However, whatever the resolution(s) you finally settle on and choose this year, I simply ask that you prayerfully bring them before God before starting them…

For even in the perennial common sense New Year’s resolutions like beginning to workout, diet, budget and tithe, visit Aunty Jane each month, or to limit drinking, etc., prayer can infuse a grace that can make this year’s attempt different than those in the past, allowing you to -this time – find that illusive success.

Also, I ask that whatever your resolution is, after bringing it to God in prayer, to please end your prayer with the following:  “…that in and with this resolution, may Your will be done. Amen.”

 

Have a Blessed and Grace Filled New Year!!!

 

 

 

On Christmas Peace & Joy

My prayer for every person reading this is that at some point during this Christmas season, you will  ‘find yourself’ experiencing and resting in the joy and peace of Christmas…

Experiencing Christmas peace and joy is a grace that comes from and rests in God alone – there is nothing one can do to earn or acquire it…   It is a divine gift that may or may not be experienced each year, for any number of reasons…

Unfortunately, these ‘reasons’ are because the adages that life ‘happens and takes no prisoners’ are often true: unforeseeable realities do occur which can steal or seemingly make impossible realizing the promises of experiencing Christmas peace and joy in any given year…

Either way, whether graced with Christmas peace and joy or not, all are STILL called to praise and thank God, for He is the Reason for this season…

By God’s grace, I have received and am STILL tasting Christmas peace and joy in my life this year – And in a nuanced manner unlike ever received before…  I know I am not alone…

Overwhelmed by and in gratitude for this gift, my heart now prayerfully ponders – yet already knowing – how this graced peace and joy has come to us this year…

How?

I suspect, simply as a loving response from a God who simply refuses to be out loved by His children… Perhaps, for some each year who’ve accepted Advent’s invitation to somehow and in some way prepare for Christmas, God allows their reservoir of insights and reflections to gracefully build up and fermented during Advent…

Can it be that just sometimes, all the – interior work in love of heart & mind – devotional prayers, reflections, resting and being with His Presence, extra or well prayed rosaries and Masses, etc., may actually move God’s Infinite Heart to sometimes simply love us back?   If only and so as to show us that, God responds to and can not be out loved!!!  

Can it be that sometimes God pours His inebriating gift of fine divine wine into chosen souls as Christmas joy and peace, simply as a “I love you back” gift moment?

How?

I believe many simply have been pregnant with God’s peace and joy this whole year…  Think about your year of Angelic Annunciations and invitations to ‘bear and bring Christ to others’ that you have – sometimes agonizingly and reluctantly said ‘yes’ to by grace – since last Christmastime…  Each tiny ‘yes’ nurtured that timely and holy, natural and spiritual gift that was growing within all year… a gift that was finally born now, during this season…

Like the first Christmas which ended Mary’s nine month pregnancy with the birth of Jesus, for many parents with children Christmas day is the end to an exhaustive year long period of physical, economic, domestic, religious, emotional, academic, etc. preparation and work. Parents, students and children are among those for whom this imagery is especially apt.

Christmastime can give birth to graced periods of rest and peaceful joy to these and for all who have travelled the year long roads of faith, struggle and sacrifice to grow. For many, I believe receiving this anticipated Christmas Peace is simply the holy fruit of their year’s faith filled and obedient labor.

However we may come to prayerfully and in gratitude, come to ascertain why God gifted us with Christmas peace and joy this specific year, one thing is for certain: this gift is not for us to hoard but to share!!

We know from the scriptures, that all of God’s gifts are given for the good of the community…

We also know and see, as revealed in the actual Gospel story of the Annuciation – when the  Angel came to Mary and she accepted God’s invitation to bear Jesus – that when accepting God’s gifts, we are often given opportunities to bringshare and give them to others during the Christmas season.

In Luke’s Gospel, the angel also shared with Mary that her elderly Aunt Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John the Baptist. The Living Gift of Love in her womb, Jesus, prompted Mary by charity – who was in her first trimester – to travel almost 3 days to both spend three months caring for her elderly aunt and also to celebrate the birth of the coming Messiah, Jesus…  We, like Mary,  must also be attentive to opportunities this season to be and to  share our Christmas gifts with others…

In some cases, sharing God’s Christmas gift may mean actively proclaiming and celebrating it with others – as in forcing ourself to go to THAT GOOD holiday party (ha, ha)!!!  In other instances it can and will also mean slowing down to quietly share it peacefully with others…

These are the cases where or when we are called to patiently be with or listen to others who are still seeking or are without Christmas peace and joy this year.  In these instances, we have to learn how to be and bring peace to others in our person/persona/presence and actions, and not always by using our word if we are to truly give them, by grace, a sense of our gifted peace…

I am almost certain that there may be an instance or two, when the Gift of Christmas Peace and Joy will prompt you to an unexpected and unprecedented act of kindness and charity – whooa now, you say!!!! It’s okay, go on, give that homeless person that $5 or $10 dollar bill or step up and give that relative what they DON’T expect but really need and want!!!!

Don’t be surprised if Christmas peace and joy in your soul creates gospel opportunities, like at THAT aforementioned Christmas party, when UNEXPECTEDLY your heart prompts you to converse with, befriend and maybe even mend fences with/offer forgiveness to someone from the past… You may even be so very tempted, to actually accept that 10+ year standing-but-never-acted-on family member’s party invitation this season…

In short, if you have been gifted with God’s Peace and Joy this season, please, please, please pass it on! Share it NOW, with others, while you got it…

Only in this way can…

…Christmas truly become a season for  ALL in our communities…

…God be truly given the glory, as the gift will grow and spread to other’s lives….

…The holy intent of the gift really be met: which is for it to flow freely to and through others before returning back to God its source…

Only in this way, can we authentically proclaim God as our Savior, walking as witnesses and disciples who are testifying to the reality of His Peace & Joy…

Let all receiving Christmas peace and joy this year, step forward to proclaim in word and deed, “…how even in a year like this, when  (fill in the ____________) happened to me… God has still walked with, carried and granted me His Peace…”

And so once again, my prayer for every person reading this is that at some point during this Christmas season, you will  ‘find yourself’ experiencing and resting in the joy and peace of Christmas…  By grace, when and if you do, please don’t hoard it, but be proactive and pass it on!

 

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!

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 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.

So… You Want to be Rich, eh? Okay…

In Mark’s Gospel, we find Jesus saying the following:

“Children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God!
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God!”

                                                                         Mark 10: 24-25

Why is it so hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God?

For those of us who do not have a personal money tree in our backyard, perhaps it will be helpful to understand the word ‘rich’ in this scripture as not only referring to money, but also as being rich or having an abundance ‘of smarts, etc.’

The ‘rich’ in intellect are those gifted ‘with smarts’ and who naturally or often through study, reflection and/or advanced education, can ‘understand and know’ things that many others simply can not.  Being smart and intelligent is a gift from God, just like being athletic or very attractive: there are smart rich, middle class and poor folks as there are also very intelligent youth, middle aged and older folks.  So… what makes it so hard for ‘the smart and intelligent,’ to enter God’s Kingdom?

Well, speaking from personal experience… It is soooooooo very easy for those of us with an intellect to overly respect and to trust in it, believing that we actually know something that we don’t!!!  I’ve had many occasions of this false knowing – that is, believing I know fully about x, whatever x is – instead of humbly acknowledging the limitations of my intelligence.  This is especially true today, when a good hour of ‘internet study’ can make almost anyone feel like they are a scholar!!! Yes, I am smart – but my smarts are limited to certain areas or disciplines, as are the intellectual gifts of all people. No one knows everything!!!

Simply stated, it is easy for the naturally intelligent and educated professional to think they can easily understand and grasp certain things, especially if they are of a spiritual nature – like the spiritual life and scripture – simply because of one’s intelligence and gifts!  By our pride, we ‘intelligent and educated people’ can actually out think ourselves very easily, often failing realize just how spiritual truths  actually become  known and confirmed in life: by simply obeying and  living them out and rarely if ever by  understanding them only.  After all, who does not understand the Ten Commandments?   Has any been saved by that understanding without obeying and living them out?  Can any be saved simply by understanding Jesus’ Laws of Love?  That kind of unhealthy pride in and of our intellectual gifts, can make us an easy prey for the evil one…

This unhealthy kind of intellectual pride is often vocalized starting with the following, “…well, I believe and think that…” or “…well, from my study (of the Bible), I found that…”, etc.. Then, after pontificating about what s/he spiritually believes or knows, it is easy to move on and to explain why, based on that reason and understanding, one is also excused from simply and obediently following some part of God’s Law.  It’s no wonder, that Judas was arguably the smartest of the Apostles and also that hell is probably populated with a lot of naturally smart people…

It is true: a keen and quick business intelligence plus hard work can and does often lead many to become financially ‘rich’ in America. For some of these smart and successful business people, the selfish and low hanging fruit of vices like, becoming a ka-billionaire and living lives of wanton pleasure, are willfully chosen.  These financially  empowered choices can rapidly  shape  one’s  character and person, from being a humble child of God into being  a very powerful mean, selfish and unholy person!!!  For these, who are ‘richly’ blessed but choose to disregard God’s invitation to work for the higher and selfless fruits of serving and loving others, they can find it easier to have that ‘Camel pass through the eye of a needle than to enter the Kingdom of God’ – despite being doubly rich, with both intelligence and money!!!

In Mark’s Gospel he continues, explaining how upon hearing this the Apostles,

“…were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,                      ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said,
“For men it is impossible, but not for God.                                                                  All things are possible for God.”

                                                                                                         Mark 10: 26-27

Today, I know many can quote and understand Jesus’ statement in Mk 10:24-5  literally and are not surprised by it at all, like the Apostles were upon originally hearing it. I wonder in my heart, how many now days can really understand and explore the true spiritual ‘richness’ of this verse, and in doing so, can also apply it  to the many different contexts that  make up their lives?

For instance, how many hardcore and conservative Catholics, who believe and have pride in our faith as the ‘fullness of the faith,’ truly understand that if this statement IS the truth, then how much more  will actually be required of us – as religiously and spiritually ‘rich’ Catholics?  It’s times like these, when I am especially grateful that “All things are possible for God.”

My prayer for all, is that as we grow to see and understand the varieties of ‘richness’ we are truly blessed with, that our willingness to love and  serve others will also grow…  In short, that the more we come to see and live out the richness gifted to us, the more we – by grace – will also become empowered to  give our rich gifts  away, especially to those who need them the most!