So… What exactly is Jesus’ Narrow Gate?”

Love is that universal language and narrow gate that can be exchanged in truth by strangers from completely different worlds, even if they are meeting for the first time!  Every person reading this has experienced this spiritual and existential truth!

“Someone asked him,

“Lord, will only a few people be saved”?

He answered them,

“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,

for many, I tell you, will attempt enter but will not be strong enough.”

Lk 13: 23-24

_____________

What is this narrow gate that Jesus spoke about?

Before reading further, take moment to answer the question for yourself…

______________

            There are some who will or can only answer this question from a denominational or religious perspective like, “it means being a _____” (fill in your denomination or religion) or preferred term like being a ‘Bible Believer, etc..’ YES, I once was,one of these people, who understood that universally narrow gate as the faith that I had settled on – Catholicism.  Even most nondenominationalists subscribing only to the simplest articulations of the faith, have some standard that is ultimately rooted in and traced back to a specific theological or scriptural belief…

Please forgive these people (like that old me), for it is often out of a zealous young love for Christ that we may debate you to the last dying breath about why _______ is the definitive narrow gate (lmao x a mil)!!! One sounds like Love engrossed religious newlywed, who honestly look you in the eye and argue that their spouse is DIFFERENT and definitely the most…  …who has ever lived (ok! Let’s wait a decade…). 

In that first decade after my conversion, if you asked me what was Jesus’ narrow gate, you had better watch out!!!! Suddenly I would ‘switch on you’ and morph into this theological and scriptural monster, parroting Catholic interpretations of scriptures and theology as that narrow gate.

And trust me, NO, you don’t have to have a graduate degree to be a skilled expert at this.  All it takes is the spiritual pride that often accompanies one’s initial decade of real adult spiritual growth in the faith – whether Baptist, Non Denominational, Catholic, C.O.G.I.C., or Jehovah’s Witnesses!!!!  

There will always be peoples at/in the various stages of the spiritual life in the various communities that we live in (1rst = Purgative, 2nd = Illuminative and 3rd = Unitive stage of the spiritual life).  Like many young professionals come to experience vocationally, this initial enthusiasm of this first stages eventually changes…

Today, in a patient and hopeful way that is respectful of each person’s journey, I pray for those I see like this… Asking God to shorten this period before they come to see, experience and share by grace the sheer scope and universality of Jesus’ great love, sacrifice and saving work… Without being locked into or limited by their own scriptural, religious and denominations perspectives and language.

In responding to the question regarding what is Jesus’ narrow gate, some Christians reading this will insist that I must answer this question theologically and scripturally – and yes, I can agree with them in Spirit – but only for myself and not for the universal catholic church, if that Catholic language is an impediment.  This can especially be the case for those who are nonbelievers or who have rejected organized religion because of its history of abuse and sin I their lives.

Perhaps the one scriptural and theological answer that I can readily accept as the narrow gate, and in fact, which I must accept as the answer in order to be Christian, is that Jesus Himself is that narrow gate!  This means that this gate is not a metaphysical and cosmic wormhole, door, principle or truth – but a Divine Person of the Most Holy Trinity!

Truth be told, the Truth – that Jesus Saves!– must often be lived out for years/decades before it can actually be witnessed to and shared with the tongue – from a natural, lived experience and universal manner… and with a language that transcends organized religion. Of course, grace can do for you what has taken decades for me, but then this Taurean was given that special gift of steadfast tenaciousness (translated: hard headedness)!!! Anyways…

I was once a babe in Christ, and that was okay at the time! Decades of marital and family life, work in and outside of the church plus adding fundamental spiritual practices like integrating prayer into my daily life and trying to live out the Ten Commandments, has transformed and simplified all that graduate school theology into a graced life of obedience, sacrifice and applied love of my gifts. 

I am not alone on this journey; there are many of us being transformed in Christ through simple lives honed by grace, obedience and sacrifice.  It’s a quiet, joyful life of ‘prepping for God’s Kingdom’ through love and service that is not Facebook focused and outwardly pretty.

A few decades older and now serving as a hospital chaplain, I meet people from every age and walk of life…  I am, by God’s grace and training, now able to touch, walk with and to serve the human needs – like simply listening to and being with another – of various peoples and backgrounds in a manner that even  sometimes surprises the patient. How?

Trust me, NOT always leading with witnessing to or about ‘the faith’ – that is simply not the way to  approach most people – EVEN OTHER CHRISTIANS!!!  Why? Because, we must always be humbly aware of our own ignorance regarding another’s story, history and spiritual journey – and especially  where they are even at’ because of the day they may be having!

It is for these people and for this reason, that as a chaplain when meeting new people, I now first show my answer to the question about the narrow gate with a joyous smile reflecting God’s love. I follow by simply being present to  their person and listening to them, even if we never touch on anything religious… A simple loving presence is all I often give…

As a chaplain, I am sometimes questioned about my faith affiliation and title.  Some believe my answer will give them a lens into what my core understanding, beliefs – what my narrow gate – is, and they are correct.  I tell ‘em all that first and foremost, I am just “a simple servant of God – not even ordained! Once called to teach, but now called to chaplain and walk with God’s people on our common journey to God’s Kingdom.”

My response and ministry reflects my heartfelt believe that in heaven, there is just God and God’s children (without titles).  I have found, that by the grace of God and the Spirit given through baptism, my  “narrow gate”  is growing more and more to truly and simply be LOVE: in word – theologically and scripturally, but more importantly also in DEED.

LOVE is Jesus’ narrow gate.

Of course, I am agreeing theologically and scripturally with the orthodox Tradition and my heart, as I am also practically applying it via grace and prayer in a manner that touches all relationships and aspects of all lives. In acknowledging that Jesus is Love, I am also acknowledging that He is not only the Standard and Judge, but also the ONLY spiritual lens/door/model through which the truth of our loves will be evaluated, assessed and revealed.

Love is that universal language and narrow gate that can be exchanged in truth by strangers from completely different worlds, even if they are meeting for the first time!  Every person reading this has experienced this spiritual and existential truth! It is one of the revelatory messages found in Jesus’ parable, the Good Samaritan. This radical love for the other that is grounded in God’s Love is that narrow gate Jesus spoke of, modeled and made possible by climbing the Cross for us.

Love as that narrow gate makes it truly universal, because its Source, God, and the ability to live in and by God’s power of love is available to all through faith and grace.

As that gate, love is narrow because as we all know, any true and real love – like those grounded in God like family – will sometimes require and is the source of life’s  most gut wrenching sacrifices and our long term sufferings.

Because “Love cancels out sin,” it really is the only thing that we can take with us to ‘unlock and enter’ through the narrow gate that is Jesus, the Entrance to God’s Kingdom!!!

Jesus’ 3 life stages/phases to reaching the Kingdom

I’m convinced that one can easily find three basic phases or stages in the Gospels that reflect our general spiritual journey to heaven, which are loosely grounded on Jesus’ life. Using Jesus’ mission as our guide and model – that He was sent and willfully came to die, that we might have life in the Kingdom – what are these three missionary stages?

I see them in the following manner: the first stage or phase is Jesus’s hidden life, the second is his public ministry and the third is His passion, death and resurrection.  I believe many but not all of us, will generally follow this same path that Jesus travelled in our journey to the Kingdom. Lets examine each stage of this journey a bit closer.

In the first stage of Jesus’ life– and ours – much is often hidden about our origins and the context surrounding our birth! As literal babes, we have to rely on the stories shared by others to find out about our birth and earliest life.  From these stories, we come to know and understand much about our own hidden parts: like from what kind of relationship we were created, how we were originally perceived and eventually received by our parents, family, the larger world, etc..

Like Jesus’ life as presented in the Gospels, our hidden life also contains gaps, missing historical sections and strange memories which are all grafted into an existing family narrative that can paint a very accurate picture outlining what life was really like when we were born.  And just like Jesus’ life, sometimes truths hidden in these narratives will resurface later in our life, giving us a new meaning, truth and mission.   Grappling with these painful memories and hard core truths is tough stuff and may require professional help.

Without getting into those arguments regarding what Jesus definitively did or did not ‘remember’ as a baby – we do know for sure that his parents certainly shared this history – and their reflections on its meaning – with him later!!!  Their sharing of these events certainly shaped and prepared Jesus to first understand and ultimately to face and defeat those same forces of death that initially surfaced at his birth.

Similarly, often the seeds that eventually grow into both the wood of our personal crosses and the contexts of our life missions can be found in these earliest and often hidden parts of our lives. In conjunction with a growing and integrated prayer life, professional help, the prayers of our friends and prayer warriors, etc. we can uncover and learn how deal with and then offer to God these real life crosses in a grace filled manner.

This early hidden life education about our unique crosses and contextual challenges, often yields and becomes the ground from which many of our specific gifts and character traits surface and are developed.

The second phase or stage is Jesus’ life is His public ministry.  This three year period in the Gospels often starts when we leave home through and continues into the period of establishing of our families and vocations – the basic ministries of our lives.  The family is the first church, where both parents exercise an actual and practical spiritual priesthood in the family of modeling and imbuing the family in Christian character. All work and vocations are extra community invitations in which believers are sent out to serve and love, through one’s gifts and in Jesus’ name.

Like Jesus’ second stage of public life and ministry, we too must leave our family to find, build and to live out our unique ‘mission’ in life.  For most of us, the path to our mission is found through the exploration and development of our personal gifts. For others, the path to their mission may come through a unique opportunity to work, to live in a different area, or through the meeting a specific person – all examples of new life possibilities that will deepen our spiritual journey.

Like in the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, we too often undergo some kind of baptism – a public declaration of and witnessing to our gifts and/or calling.  This baptism is often coupled with a public acknowledgment of our gifts which correspond to our specific calling.  After finding and initially responding to our call, many experience a kind of ‘forty day fast and preparation in the desert’ – (college, training, mentoring, etc.) – which prepares us to answer God’s call more effectively.  Finally, often successfully passing ‘tests in the desert,’ we are able to break free, going forth to begin our specific ministries of serving and loving with our gifts.

I believe this second missionary stage of our lives,  our public ministry, is by far the most extensive and can be the longest.  It includes the vocational work that we do, the friendships and loves that we build and live commitments to, the families and children that we parent and the greater communities/nation/world better served with our specific gifts.  This period in our lives, which can span from the late teens to our sixties or even later, is analogous to Jesus’ three year ministry of teaching, preaching, healing and saving.

Whereas the challenges of the second phase are often more exterior, public and relationship based as we work to ‘give ourselves away’ in the community as we grow in holiness and love, the third phase reflects a deeper, more interior spiritual challenge and work. It often includes a very real ‘stripping away’ of the very gifts, ministries, families, etc. – all that we have seemingly built – as we return to a simple dependency on the Spirit to make Its final preparations for us to enter the Kingdom

Finally, the last stage of our missionary life is that of our passion, death and resurrection.   I could be dead wrong (ok – bad joke), however I have come to believe that for many people, God saves this last stage of suffering for the end of one’s journey.  Why?  Only God knows… but by faith I am certain, that God indeed knows what is best for each of us.  For those like myself who are not yet (as far as we know) on Calvary’s final Road to the Cross, the Gospel narratives about Jesus’ suffering reveals some powerful insights about this final stage…

For instance, a prayerful reading of the Gospel  reveals that it was not the three year ministry that saved us.  It was  what Jesus did on the Cross -the last stage of His suffering,  passion and death – which saved us!!! As a chaplain, I have been blessed to witness many holy men and women follow Jesus’ model…

That is, after showing their family, friends and the world for  x decades how to  live, love and serve  in faith, they finally through stage three show them  how to suffer and die in faith that same faith and hope in God’s Kingdom.  These saints  are following Jesus’ example, and showing others how to live for God and how to die for Him.

In fact, modeling how to fearlessly confront death in a holy manner is one of the greatest gifts we can leave to our first church and family – how to defeat the final enemy in faith and with hope. By following Jesus’ example, our witness of faith and hope can, by grace, empowering others to likewise fearlessly stand on God’s Word and follow Jesus to the end.

God also reveals in Jesus’ resurrection, that despite all the very real sin and suffering surrounding each human life and natural death, God can and will continue to proven what is witnessed to in the Gospel: that He will ‘write straight’ with the crookedness of our lives leading us to His Kingdom.  He will teach and save others via our sufferings, while leading all of us to His Kingdom.

In our personal passion and through our unique cross, we are by grace, finally able to imitate Jesus by making a sacrifice and gift of love to the Father which is complete, reflecting Jesus’ total surrender and giving back of His very Self.  Whereas Jesus gave all from the beginning, I believe that through obedience, grace, faith and the Crosses given – we grow via these 3 stages to imitate Jesus’ total sacrifice by the end of our lives.

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.