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.