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!!!

 

 

 

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 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.

On the Sandwiches We Serve in Our Victories

Both hard fought and unexpected victories – like the righting of a personal wrong and the seeing of justice served as an evil perpetrator is punished – are great opportunities for the tempering our mouths, hearts and imaginations in a manner not unlike those offered by our losses and sufferings. When experiencing a great loss or suffering, we must often learn how to talk honestly about it as we also learn how to accept its cross more humbly… In talking about our losses and suffering in life, we often have to pray and learn how to not blame others as we also pray for the grace to honestly accept our fair share of the credit for having them…

Often, with an unexpected and/or even hard won victory, as with the seeing of justice served, there is not just the celebration of the hoped-for moral good, but there’s also often present an ‘inordinate relishing’ that lingers in our hearts, minds and imaginations.  Please don’t get me wrong… Yes!  We are to experience, enjoy and celebrate moral goods – especially in the righting of a wrong and when an injustice is brought to justice, just as it is also in the achieving a hard fought victory in life, etc.

However the former, is often accompanied with a relishing of the suffering experienced by evil’s perpetrators, which belies and reveals a lack of God like love in our hearts. Let’s make the eternal case in point: does God really relish the suffering and loss of any souls in hell? Hardly not! Even in the celebrating of an unexpected or hard won victory, there can be an inordinate rise in that unhealthy kind of pride, which takes increasing credit for the victory, even when it is not due – at least, not due to ourselves but to the grace of God only!

I wouldn’t know, but I suspected some big lottery winner’s can attest to this fact… Initially giving glory to God but then talking ad nausea about how they’ve played the lottery for years and perhaps, even worked out a system which eventually led to their winning!

If we must learn to temper our very real life sufferings and to pick ourselves back up off the ground and – by grace – learn how to continue journeying forward; we must also learn how to temper our very real victories – even if they are expected and was worked hard for.  We must learn how to humble our minds, hearts and tongues by attributing these victories to all who assisted us in thier attainment as we also humbly learn to consistently give the glory to God for them.

A common occasion and invitation for doing this that is available to all: is not taking full credit for successfully realizing the potential of our gifts and talents which, by the grace of God and the sacrifice of many others – has resulted in personal blessings not realized by others in the community…  …like being moderately healthy or truly becoming financially independent or graduating from college or having and maintaining a career or even raising healthy and ‘successful’ children, being blessed with a loving spouse and marriage, winning that case against a perpetrator of evil, etc.  Whether worked and hoped for or unexpectedly received, each of life’s victories invite us to temper our response to them…

I’m not sure which is harder for you, but for me, it’s an easy call: it’s harder for me to temper my joy from hard fought victories than with the unexpected ones like the winning of a lottery ticket!!!  Truly and consistently giving worthy credit to others as I also humbly and gratefully give glory to God can be difficult for me, especially if I think that I worked hard for, earned or somehow deserve it!!!!  Don’t get me wrong, yes… I too and do, loudly exclaim the praises of God in those initial moments of the victory, but with each passing minute it seems that in all honesty, I find myself giving less glory to God as I increasingly take more credit for them as the hours pass.

In short, I often find myself praising the Lord at the outset – as the first piece of bread – and then piling on a huge stack of “mein the form of ‘what I did’ meat” – before ending with another thin slice of bread that praises and gives glory to God once again!!!  And just like that, the longer I’ve run my mouth and talked about the victory, the more I find that I’ve created a quite tasty and very big ‘pride sandwich’ which I’m all too willing to share with others… A pride sandwich is always like that huge-with–meat-falling-off corned beef sandwich on two thin pieces of rye bread that my dad used to buy us as kids…

On the graced and Spirit led occasions when that pride sandwich is absent, I find myself speaking both honestly and succinctly about the victories I have received.  I am able to give glory to God at the beginning like in my pride sandwich, but then I am able to acknowledge all those who’ve truly made it possible in the middle – as the meat and cheese – before, once again, praising God with an ending slice!  On these graced occasions, my hard work, sweat, and suffering in achieving these victories are honestly presented more like that thin layer of mustard or piece of lettuce – as a condiment– on that short, sweet and truly grace filled sandwich that I share with others.

My prayer for myself and for all reading this, is that with every victory in life – whether hard fought or unexpected like a lotto ticket – that we may serve more grace filled sandwiches than pride sandwiches to those in the communities where we walk, live and serve. Amen.