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.

On ‘Spiritual Stages’ in Our Unique Journey Towards God’s Kingdom

 

I believe that our Lord and Savior guides each of us uniquely along our own spiritual paths in route to the Kingdom of God.  Even though each of our paths has its own unique orientation, challenges and gifts, I believe that most of us will go through a number of very similar stages in the spiritual life – even if when and how we encounter these similar stages will vary according to the individual.

The last couple years, in going through the common and natural transition of a vocational transition, I have ‘graduated from’ and have been invited to live out of a new spiritual stage. In moving from teaching to chaplaincy, it is only now, years later, that I can truly look back in retrospect and celebrate this transition as yet, another one of these graduations to and spiritual invitations to live from another stage of the spiritual life.

What am I talking about when I say “similar stages” in the spiritual life? I’m thinking in terms of universal stages in which we learn “spiritual ways thinking and being” that we must, by grace, integrate into our being and life before God allows us to, as it were, graduate onto the next spiritual stage and disciplines in route towards heaven. Let me give a couple examples of the spiritual stages that I’m talking about.

I believe one stage in the spiritual life is that of learning to appreciate, live out and respect the Scriptures of our own specific religion. Scripture, as the divinely revealed Word of God, should come to play some kind of role in guiding and leading us, even if we are not scripture scholars.  Scripture is often where our primary images about who and what God is can be found as well as being the source of the moral expectations that God has for us as his children.  Even if one does not study Scripture as a Scripture scholar, the acknowledgment of Scripture as holy/divinely inspired and that we are called to live out of its commands and expectations, like morally frm the 10 Commandments and the New Testaments Laws of Love, is an important stage in the spiritual life of the person in route to the kingdom.

Another one of these stage in the spiritual life, is not just the recognition of our own unique gifts and talents as natural human beings, but the recognition that they are gift given to us for the purpose of loving and serving others in route towards God’s Kingdom.  Many recognize and are graced to be able to develop their gifts and talents as young adults, leading to various levels of professional, vocational and financial success in this world, but only later come to realize and live from the spiritual reality that they are given to them and are not theirs alone to own. Many of these people become more philanthropic as they age, sharing both their resources and time to build up the community in ways they would have never imagined as young adults.

Finally, the third and final example of a common stage that I believe all are invited to grow through, is that of acknowledging that God’s goodness and grace is not and can not be limited to and cornered within our own specific religious understanding, communities and practices.All, whether growing up in a specific faith or choosing one as an adult, must eventually get and grow to a point in which they can theologically and practically acknowledge that the greatness of God’s and His grace transcends all specific religions.  This stage invites us to both live fully from our chosen faith path as we also and willfully refuse to limit how, when and where God’s grace may be working in the lives of others, and regardless of their religious and/or spiritual beliefs and practices.

These are but three common stages and/or “schools, disciplines or moments” within the spiritual life leading to the Kingdom of God.  I believe that the Holy Spirit leads each of us to and through each of the schools and disciplines based on the uniqueness of our own life, choices, journey and contexts.  In short, there is no universal first step for all humanity: God can start with any school/discipline/stage and guide us to holiness throughout the course of our lives.

Often, the transition from one spiritual stage to another occurs unexpectedly, through the natural realities that make up human life: like finding and developing our gifts as the young adults, acknowledging and learning to struggle through the specific “– isms” that may stamp and affect our lives with their sin and pain, falling in love and struggling to live lovingly in relationship with others, and of course in such realities as marrying, parenting and of course, the common struggle that we all face – aging.

Allow me to briefly state and explore one gift I have received from entering my present spiritual stage that has been offered through my present vocation as a hospital chaplain, in my journeying towards God’s Kingdom.

The gift given, received and that is now being honed is an ability to truly ‘walk with’ and to ‘be genuinely present to’ those I am serving – without being tethered to or guided by specifically stated theological/educational goals, like teaching specific learning outcomes/philosophies/religious doctrines, etc., as found in Catholic high school religion class rooms and departments.  Being no longer responsible for imparting any specific religious denomination’s ‘good and stated outcomes, doctrines and philosophies’ to those I am serving – apart from walking with and being completely present to those I am serving and their needs – has been such a refreshing change, that I now look back and am amazed at how God’s grace allowed me to minister and teach in that context with ‘so many religious doctrines, outcomes and goals’ hovering over and guiding my ministry.

In retrospect I do very much appreciate the two plus decades of formation and guidance, even though in looking back as one does with high school, undergraduate education or early parenting stages, I can say, “Whew!!! Been there, done that… and I am now soooo glad that it is over with!”    God knew that during that period of ministry andfamily life, I needed the structure and guidance offered institutionally.

Then, by God’s grace, my vocation corresponded to my role as a father guiding and laying the moral and spiritual foundation for my young family.  Now, as they are now young adults finding their way in the world, the new gifts and vocational freedoms I am experiencing, once again and by God’s grace, correlate with my journey as a parent of adult children.  Only God can do these kind of mysteriously beautiful things, like writing straight with the crooked lines of our uniquely human lives.

My prayer is that all who read this will also come to experience and one day testify to the power of the Spirit and the universality of God’s grace, in leading them through life’s various stages and on towards God’s Kingdom.

 

Whatz love got to do with it (Lent)?

The first Monday after Ash Wednesday…

Reading 1: LV 19:1-2, 11-18     Gospel: MT 25:31-46

          In today’s first reading, the Lord tells Moses to assemble the children of Israel and to instruct them to, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” Then the Lord gives Moses examples of His holiness, which includes living out the 10 Commandments in addition to a number of social laws that focused Israel on living justly as a community. Finally to summarize and seal His teaching, the Lord instructs Israel to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Many are surprised to find Jesus’ Law of Love stated so early – within the first five books of the Bible!

In the Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 25, we find one of the only readings where Jesus specifically addresses what the Last Judgment will be like, when the sheep will be finally separated from the goats on that Last Day. He lists how all those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the ill or those in prison – in short, all those who responded to the needs of others concretely with their gifts and talents – are those who will enter the kingdom. These are they who have met the mark and successfully loved correctly, Gospel Style, in their lives.

The word love gets both over and under used so much in our world today!!!

It is often under used in relationships by those needing to say and/or hear it… and it is clearly overused by the media who applies it to everything: from cartoon characters to candy bars!

There are good loves and bad loves in each of our lives… Whether good or bad, the love that reside in our hearts – must and will be expressed – in some manner, eventually…

Because the world’s great examples of natural love often seems so superficial and flawed, its no surprise that many doubt the existence of love, question its reality and seriously ponder whether it is just a natural and emotional reaction or really, as scripture says, the only lasting reality that grounds us in and with God.

Be not dismayed, nor loose hope about, the reality of love this Lent! Love is real!

Not only (and just as) is it better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all; SPIRITUALLY, it is also better to have sought after and tried to live like Love (GOD) – and to have fallen short, than choosing to never love anyone at all. Note: the former failed attempts to love as God loves can net us heaven, whereas never trying to love anyone at all can only net us hell.

>Real Love, like its Author and Ground, requires and demands a response to the other with our gifts and talents.

>Real Love is, as attentive to the needs of others, as it is to its own needs.

Real love, not the fake or philosophical kind (lol), seeks to reveal and give its self away through words, deeds or some sacrificial manner in response to the other.

What does love have to do with Lent?  It has EVERYTHING to do with Lent!  If Lent is about growing more holy, more God like and more loving – then our Lenten devotions and practices must eventually result in some measurable and demonstrable increase in our love of and for others.

This Lent, identify how you are trying to imitate, grow in the knowledge of and to deepen God’s love through your Lenten sacrifices and devotions. Be specific, i.e. – by giving up/adding xyz I am saving more time to do abc with my family, etc.. Start by listing what your Lenten sacrifices are for this year and then briefly explain how or why it will prompt you to better love both yourself and others in a more holy manner. If you can not explain how your Lenten devotions and sacrifices are going to make you a more loving and holy person, then perhaps your Lenten sacrifice needs some tweaking…

 

P.S. If you are making the same Lenten sacrifice each year, can you now look back and explain how/why it has prompted both real loving acts for others and also real growth in holiness for yourself? If not, who are you foolin’? Whereas Lent should prompt spiritual growth and development in one’s spiritual life, what kind of spiritual character are you really forming by these actions? As Arsenio Hall used to say, this is one of those “Things that make you (spiritually) go, hmmmmmmmm.”

 

 

On the Complaint that the Church Needs to Change…

While sitting in church last Sunday, a fellow parishioner turned to me and, after lamenting the low attendance at Mass, asked what’s going to happen here when we die? I responded, that others will replace us just as we replaced those who came before us…. And just like life triggered in us the need for God and a faith community, the same thing will happen to others and they will fill our seats.

The parishioner then responded, “I just simply think the church needs to change! I think the church needs to change if they’re going to get more people in here.” I whispered back, “…yes the church may need to make some changes and is changing, but I also think it’s the people who need to change too.”

Sitting there thinking about our brief exchange, I had to stop myself, as I began asking questions of this parishioner to myself like: Are you living the faith in a manner that invites others to what you have and experienced in the Church… or are you living a private faith that simply enjoys its treasury of blessings and then goes home to chill? When was the last time you invited someone to come to Mass? What is your active ministry in this Church, or are you like most too busy for an active ministry? Who in and what in this Church needs to change so bad? What have you done to bring more people into the church?

Prideful and feeling like a military person (which I am not) who was listening to civilian complain about America’s woes, but then glibbly slips in how they have never voted or served because of some easily forgettable reason, I had to humbly remind myself that no one knows the heart of another or how they are standing before and serving the Lord! Yes, thanks to the Spirit, I was able to give myself a severe self-check right there in church!! Aware of my bad attitude that accompanied these good questions, I refocused on praying the Mass and didn’t share them with the parishioner. However the questions did stay with me, especially the one about living out an evangelical faith.

The challenge of living the Gospel is always ongoing and difficult for all Christians. It’s easy to hold the faith as a personal spiritual treasury, a place for us to personally be restored and empowered… but it is hard to acknowledge the Gospel’s universal call and mandate (to us in the pews especially) to share and live it always and with all. Sharing the Gospel is not force-feeding it to others; it is simply living the Gospel in our speech and actions in an open and inviting manner.

It is so easy to believe the lie that spreading the Gospel is optional for us in the pews and that it is primarily the job of the clergy, religious and the institutional church. The rush to judge our clergy, religious and institutional church and the willingness to repeatedly gloss over our own gross sins – reflects the universality with which this lie is held by “the faithful.” Even the sweetest believer in the pews – if the right topic is brought up – can unmercifully straight crucify the clergy and/or church in a record time that will have Mr. Guinness knocking at their door about the new world record! [Hmmmm…. what is this topic for you?]

Sharing one’s faith with others – especially when our secular culture holds that it is a private manner and faith discussions are frowned upon in the public sphere – can be daunting. It takes courage, vulnerability and the willingness to be unpopular in doing so. Please believe me – there is a cost – at work and in public – for standing on the faith. I worked in Catholic high schools for over two decades and still found that people were afraid of being ridiculed or worse, when faith discussion surfaced in the teacher’s lounge. It often got very quiet as many were all ears but unwilling to enter into discussions, as they were STILL scared or CONDITIONED not to speak and share – even in a supposedly openly religious context where the open exchange of ideas was suppose to be welcome! Why? Because even today in many Christian institutions – there is still a cost of being too orthodox or not being politically correct on certain issues, etc.

Despite Christians being force fed secularism, consumerism and various other “-isms” 24/7, we Christians are scared to take the initiative and to simply share with another Christian, for fear of being charged with or being confronted by our brothers and sisters with proselytizing or over zealousness! Don’t believe me? When was the last time you said yes to that Jehovah Witness at your door?

Many are often so willing to talk about how the church should change – and yes this is true in many regards – but often these are the very same people who are hesitant to acknowledge that they/we are first and foremost the church, not its buildings and institutional structures! Yes the church has to change, and that change begins with me/us – the person in the mirror (Church) – to quote Michael Jackson.

Later, in the post-communion song the minister of music sung and proclaimed that “the fight is not ours, the fight is the Lord’s.” The priest gave an ending prayer reminding us “to be hopeful, to not be discouraged and to remain strong in the faith.” I nudged the parishioner and we both chuckled.

I agree whole-heartedly! It is the Lord’s fight, but we have to be His hands, feet and voice as we take up the battle in our daily lives. We do have to remain hopeful and seek not to become discouraged; we must also continue to pray for and not judge others if and when they momentarily succumb to it while on this pilgrimage. We must also pray for the Spirit to give us the self-awareness to self-check ourselves when we do!

May Spirit speak through and use each of us this week as we continue fighting the fight and running the race of faith. Amen.