On Suffering ‘More Than One Can Bear’

When tragedies strike, people often say, “God will not put on you, more on you than you can bear.”

I too, used to say this to others in the face of human tragedies, but since I’ve become a chaplain I’ve come to believe that this is one of the most frequently used statements of bad theology that is spoken by people of all ages and backgrounds.

The simple fact is, that the majority of true human tragedies do not have anything to do with the will of God.  God is not punishing us for past sins or getting back at us for bad attitudes or trying to teach us some subtle message by allowing tragedies to enter our lives. That is simply not how God works! The simple fact really is, that the majority of human tragedy comes from the hands of the world, Satan or people not to unlike ourselves.  How?  Let me briefly explain…

Believe it or not,each nation in the world uses specific tools to influence and guide its citizens into thinking, acting and using (or notusing) their freedom in specific ways.  In any nation these tools are generally or typically its culture, its laws and its media.  The culture of anynation – especially for those who are born into it – is often very difficult to truly critique and acknowledge the truth about.  This difficulty is akin to truly acknowledging and evaluating the very families or/and loved ones we find ourselves in relationship with: we are blinded by both our closeness to and our love for them.

The Old Testament reveals this human reality through the life and struggles of the nation, Israel. Despite having God’s laws revealed and God’s prophets sent to it, Israel still struggled against being blinded and influenced by its surrounding cultures and nations.  Today, many Christians ignore this scriptural truth and simplify the struggle to live God’s law down to an individual ‘free will’ issue.  These people are ignorant of or outright refusing to acknowledge the power of culture to influence human thought and freedom. Many of these same people even think that judgment is solely an individual reality and that God does not judge whole nations anymore…

For decades, the Catholic Church has critiqued American culture as something called, “a culture of death.”  “A culture of death” in the nutshell and simply stated is a culture that teaches, preaches and presents deathas an answer and solution to life’s problems.  In a culture of death, abortion is seen as an answer to a problem of an unplanned birth.  Euthanasia, or as some call it mercy killing, is seen as an answer to the crippling realities of aging, pain and disease.  Violence as the tools of death – physical violence, words of violence, the chemical violence of drugs and the use of all forms of weaponry – are seen and presented as an answer to everything from social inequities and political realities (war) to personal vendettas against private enemies – just look at our top rated games, movies and media programs regarding this last point.

The evil one influences each nation to live against God’s will by warping its culture in unique ways that teaches its citizens both reasons and methods for justifying and living against God’s will – or living out a culture of death.  With such teachings and methods taught by the culture and made legal, individuals of every nation are trained to exercise their free will in ways that are inconsistent with or out right against God’s will.  Because “the wages of sin are death,” death and suffering are spread far and wide around the earth and all people – rich, middle class, poor and people of every race and ethnic background – suffer greatly at the hands of others who are exercising their freedom in unholy and culturally sanctioned ways that are against God’s will.

It should be clear from above that one of the subtle powers of every nation’s specific culture is its ability to shape and form our – supposedly free – will.  It should also be clear that what we call free will it is often not in fact, free at all – but is often a function of the culture that we grew up in or presently ascribe to.  It should finally be also clear, that many are victims and suffer because of our culture, not simply or only because of isolated individuals making ‘free’ but bad choices.

So, in an American culture where illicit drugs are rampant, prevalent and cheap… A culture which teaches and presents a pharmaceutical reality that now, there is a ‘pill available for that’ to answer every problem… A culture in which our ‘war on drugs’ seemingly loses each and every battle…   The horrific tragedies of continuing opioid abuse and overdoses, drug battles ‘over turf’ in our inner cities and people of all ages and backgrounds becoming addicted to pharmaceuticals  in order to do everything from ‘passing a high school test’ to ‘having pornographic like sex’ are a function of our contemporary culture.  In these tragedies, real lives are ruined and there are many victims… And these tragedies are not sent from or find their root in God’s grace and will.  In short, God did not ‘put on or send any parent/loved one’ any death of a loved one by overdose or the death of one’s moral/character/will by becoming addicted to drugs or becoming a drug dealer, etc..

In an American culture and nation that is more armed than some other nation’s whole army… Where gun violence and death in my own city, Chicago, is so bad and common that the majority of it goes unreported by the media…  In a nation where the physical, moral and institutional violence against women and minorities continues often unchecked… These are very real tragedies rooted in our culture that continues to kill victims and victimize families…  …And none of it is or has ever been sent from God.  Nor is it rooted in God’s grace and will.  In short, God did not ‘put on any parent or sibling,’ that senseless murder of their son, daughter, brother or sister…  As God did not put on anyone the deaths that continue from police violence, violence against women and new forms of contemporary slavery, etc..

The simple fact is that the majority of the tragedies encountered in our lives, has everything to do with a warped and human free will that has been blinded and influenced by Satan through each nation’s unique culture of death. If God’s foreknowledge always stopped people from exercising their giftedfree will to participate in evil, we would not truly be free to really love as God loves – who ALWAYS chooses the good and holy! To love,requires human choice; if God stopped us from choosing evil, we would become programmed ‘goody two shoe human robots,’ and truly incapable of loving each other as God does.  The consequences of living in a culture of death, is a warped free will, victims from every walk of life, unchecked human and spiritual suffering, and widespread human tragedy and death – burdens which canbecome too much for many to bear…

No, God is not punishing us for past sins or getting back at us for bad attitudes or trying to teach us some subtle message through suffering and by allowing tragedy to enter our lives.  That is simply not how God works!  God does work to be present with and to carry us through the very real suffering we encounter, like as presented in the commonly read, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ poem. Through it all we are invited to struggle to suffer with faith and by grace.

By strugglin’ in faith to walk by grace through our suffering, God is then able to miraculously and eventually ‘write straight with the crooked human lives’ that we have been dealt.  We find ourselves being somehow, able to forgive those who have hurt us as we are also to somehow break those chains seeking to enslave us in emptiness and suffering. God’s grace is miraculously able to eventually restore and to give us new meaning and purpose in our ‘crooked lives that have been punctuated by real suffering.’   God’s love and Spirit continues its saving work, empowering us who were broken and now healed, to love and help others who have also become victims of the culture of death, who find themselves suffering in similar ways as we have.

So… You Want to be Rich, eh? Okay…

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

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

                                                                         Mark 10: 24-25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                                                         Mark 10: 26-27

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

In Praise of Our Mothers on Mother’s Day

I believe that for most orthodox Christians, their love of and for God the Son, Jesus, is arguably more paramount and more demonstrably expressed than their love of and for God the Father!!!  Why is this the case?

I believe the answer is very simple: Fathers have, can and are often experienced – at least traditionally – as being the more distant parent who both lays down the Law (The Ten Commandments) and who also brings justice to bear on all those who break it! Fatherhood’s traditional Law Giver/Defender/Judge persona and role in the family has often reflected and been experienced as more of an Old Testament – Yahweh like power and authority figure for many.  Of course, I beg that you please don’t get me wrong – as for the purposes of this essay, I make these simplistic generalizations – because my mother could lay down the Law and tear  a new hole in my butt when necessary, like many moms could, would and often did!!!

However, I also knew instinctively that my Mother did and always would, until the day she died – be the first person in line to embody the love of Jesus Christ for me in my life!!!  Whereas my dad had clear laws, limits and expectations (and quietly, so did my mom), I saw and knew that my mom – from her daily work and sacrifice – was the one who was gonna gather the disciples to teach me…  Who would walk throughout Palestine to find and heal me…  And was the parent who would be unjustly condemned, yet still willfully choose to carry and climb that Cross on Calvary for me – just as my Lord and Savior Jesus did!!!  If my dad was God the Father, then my mom was DEFINITELY Jesus, God the Son!!!

That is why on this Mother’s Day and on all Mother’s Days, we celebrate our mothers – and all who have mothered us – by carrying us in their wombs… by feeding us at their breasts…  by cooking, cleaning and dressing us in this school of life… by listening, caring for and healing us when we have been hurt, misunderstood and abandoned…  And by embodying and teaching God the Father’s Laws in a simple-to-understand and down-to-earth manner.   Today we remember, cherish and honor our mothers, who have willingly and truthfully – laid down their lives and climbed the Cross – so that we may not just have life, but that we might have it abundantly!!!

Let your praises sing out the joys of Motherhood today!!!  As God the Son, Jesus, is the only one given that we might be saved, so often are our mothers – our first known Saviors – who have given their very bodies and souls for our lives!!!

On How Many Atheists and Christians Live Similar Beliefs…

Of course, as anyone knows, most atheists, by definition, do not believe in what the overwhelming majority of humanity has generally called, God.  As a matter of fact, atheists are historically and numerically a small minority compared to us who do believe in God.  Its my belief that at the heart of atheism lies the belief and lived reality, of simply choosing to do one’s own will, and not being accountable to anyone or anything but one’s self and one’s desires. If we briefly examine and compare the difference between one’s stated beliefs and one’s lived beliefs, I believe that the historical and numerical divide between atheism and what many today take as ‘Christian living’ is actually much less than many of us would like to admit!

A person’s stated beliefs, like one’s fundamental political or business, moral and social perspectives, can and do often change, grow and mature over the course of one’s life – especially if one is not super rich enough to evade many of life’s inevitable and very concrete daily struggles.  Our stated beliefs are those we proclaim openly in and to the community; they allow others to generally understand ‘who and what we are about’ or ‘what angle’ we are coming from: democratic, republican, Christian, atheist, conservative, liberal, feminist, etc. They allow others not only to better understand and/or to categorize us, but also, to some degree, to hold us accountable for our behavior in reference to these beliefs.

A person’s lived beliefs can be very different from one’s stated beliefs, and as such, by definition they are often not openly stated or shared with the communities that we are apart of. Lived beliefs are those we allow to truly guide how we live; those beliefs we struggle to willfully practice in our relationships and community lives. We have to hope, plan, seek and look for ways to practice our true lived beliefs.  Lived beliefs, if they are different from one’s stated beliefs, are generally hidden from most in the community.  To find them out, one often has to be ‘outted’ regarding them – with proof – before that person can be held accountable by the communities in which they live. Classic examples of this are the serial thief or the serial adulterer, both who publically proclaim their beliefs of respecting the property and personhood/relationships of others, only to eventually – be outted by proof – of what their real lived beliefs actually are.

What does this mean for the Christian? Well, it means that atheists are correct when they say that most Christians are hypocrites, except for the most holy among us (and that is probably notyou or me yet)!!!

It also means that those who are publically Christian in name, but who have no intention of acknowledging and prayerfully destroying their hypocrisy are very similar to atheists: they practically refuse to acknowledge and utilize the gifts of grace and the Holy Spirit given at baptism, which can actually transform them into a different – much holier person.  In short, though publically Christian – for whatever reason(s) – they always willfully choose to do their own will and refuse to live by and be held accountable to anyone or anything except their self and their desires.  It means they have truly accepted and live out the hypocrisy we have all been born into.

It also means that true Christian believers are those who not only recognize their hypocricy and failure, but who also – through the gifts of grace and the Holy Spirit received through baptism – prayerfully work daily toward reaching that hope, goal and day when their stated beliefs will actually become their lived beliefs. True Christian believers accept and acknowledge, but fight to change and eliminate the hypocrisy we find ourselves living in.

That day – of finding ourselves different from the atheists and being a true Christians – comes only by grace and often, after years of prayerfully picking up our crosses daily and striving to make God’s will our own by strugglin’ to live out the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ Laws of Love first and foremost in our lives.  Often, it comes only after years of prayers, when our prayer by grace has changed from being a discrete act done at church or before meals, to a real, living dialogue with God throughout the day…

On that day, our other naturally stated beliefs, like being good capitalists in our business dealings, good republicans or democrats, feminists or progressives, conservatives or liberal, etc. will no longer come first in our lives or will be argued forby using our Christian faith.  Like all the true saints, they will not fall away, but will seen and evaluated in light of our relationship with God.  As our publically stated Christian and lived out beliefs become one, all will see and understand the true love of God that we are both stating and living from.

On that day, we will no longer worry about being held accountable for what we really believe and will be willing to suffer for it as the real true Christians – the saints – have and are doing today with their very lives.

On that day, the community will increasingly recognize us as true, authentic and genuine Christians – the persons God has called us to be – as we lose the natural hypocrisy that we are born into and that has many living like true atheists.

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.

 

On Working with Our Unforgivable Sins…

Eons ago, when I used to teach high school religion to sophomores and juniors, invariably the subject of purgatory would come up since it was a Catholic classroom.  I let my students go back and forth, arguing for a while about almost every post death experience…  Almost always, every post life possibility was vehemently argued for, except for purgatory. We’d have the reincarnation group making their arguments, and of course we’d have both Catholics and non-Catholics passionately arguing for only heaven or hell as afterlife possibilities.  Of course we’d always find or hear one or two novel perspectives that were unique to the persons themselves, etc. After about 15 minutes of discussion and arguing, the students would pause and ask  about my perspectives – especially whether I believed in purgatory or not.

I always answered the question in the following manner: first, I compared myself to all those who’ve taught and tried to live the faith in the past, sharing that I did not believe that I was in a league with most of them – especially the St. Paul’s and Mother Teresa’s of the world, and if these were examples of people who went straight to heaven – I can honestly say, “I’m not there (walking in holiness as they did) yet!!!” However, I quickly added, that by faith and by grace I believe and truly hope that I wouldn’t go to hell either!!!!!  As is the case with theological arguments, despite making good sense, it was unconvincing and didn’t move the hearts of many students.  After briefly stating that argument, I then hit them with a second gut punch, which caught many of them off guard…

I asked my students to take three or four minutes to envision both the worst people they believed who ever lived in history and their own personal worst enemies.  If you know anything about teenagers, this was easy for most… After giving them three or four minutes to silently picture and identify those in both categories, I often saw in the eyes and on the faces of some of my best students, a gleefully hate that could virtually wish death with just a glance!!!  After all my students silently identified their enemies, I had them imagine suddenly dying and finding themselves at the pearly gates.  And then I instructed them to imagine the Archangel Gabriel welcoming them into heaven, opening the gates, only to see their most hated enemies standing right there before them!!!

The sheer look of utter confusion and disbelief on most of my students faces was no surprise to me!  Exactly at this moment, I asked them, “What’s wrong?  What are you feeling?”  Few were able to articulate the confusion that they felt amidst their passionate feelings of hate.  I immediately questioned the class, asking “What do you think the Archangel Gabriel will say to you, precisely at this moment?”  Not a single student would answer the question…   Then I’d say, “He would point his finger away from the pearly gates and say, ‘Go… …you are not ready yet, because you have not yet learned to love your enemies…” Then we would read the Poem of Gerontius together…

As a high school teacher, I used that story to explain the Catholic teaching about purgatory – how we, in fact, can be saved by God’s grace but still not yet ready to enter into eternal life.  Now, as a hospital chaplain and Christian writer, I share it with you my readers to highlight that which few Christians want to contemplate: our personal list of unforgivable sins that each one of us must learn how to forgive, if we are going to make it into heaven.

Taking this example to its very realistic conclusion, who will stun you when the pearly gates are opened?   Will the pearly gates open up and you see a serial rapist? Will the pearly gates open up and you see a murderer or a mass murderer?  Will the pearly gates open up and you see a sexual abuser?  Will the pearly gates open up and you see a lifetime abuser of drugs and/or alcohol?  Will the pearly gates open up and you see a serial adulterer or perhaps a child molester standing inside of them?  I believe that the answer to each of these questions regarding whether those who have committed our specific unforgivable sin will be able to somehow get into heaven, is yes!!!

You/me/we will probably see some of our worst enemies –  people who have committed our specific brand of unforgivable sin(s) but who have then repented – in heaven!!!  Given the story and message of the Good Thief who died on Calvary with Jesus and the Great Love of God that Jesus modeled and shared in His Gospel life, death and resurrection,  the Christian – who is really Christian – must say yes…  …at least to the hope and possibility of forgiveness being given to those we hate the most!

This brings me back to the central question of this essay: what is on your list of unforgivable sins?  …And how can we learn and grow from having them?

Can you and have you even identified what’s on your list?  Have you identified the sinner you  are least ready or willing to love by forgiving?  Or do you think you can die in and with your hatred of your enemies and STILL get into heaven?

Acknowledging and identifying your personal list of unforgivable sins is one possible starting point for learning about how to grapple with, learn about and to eventually live out that Gospel call to love our enemies.

It also can be an important starting point to begin learning about how to grapple with, learn about and to eventually live out the Gospel call to forgive others – as God forgives us.

Loving our Enemies and Learning to Truly Forgive –  is truly, the very hard, heart work which can, by grace and prayer,  lead to the very real healing in and of our hearts.  It is that graced work which can unlock our minds, hearts and will, freeing us to love again and to love in new and greater ways than before.

The Gospel call and spiritual work of loving our enemies and learning to truly forgive, starts with acknowledging our specific challenges regarding these Gospel invitations in our daily prayer lives.   Doing so can lead to both the restoration of important relationships and the loosening of those past shackles that still seek to binds us in our lives…

I invite you to first, sit down…  And to write out your list…

And then – each day – to begin praying over it and, more importantly, to begin praying – by name – for those who have sinned in these unforgivable ways against you and against those whom you love.

Despite realizing that you are not a murderer, serial rapist or adulterer, etc., you too may come to the day when you begin to acknowledge and pray about the probable fact, that, perhaps you too, have done the unforgivable in someone else’s life and are on somebody else’s list…  …And that you too, may need to be forgiven for what another deems as, unforgivable.

 

http://www.newmanreader.org/works/verses/gerontius.html

 

 

 

What will the Resurrected Life be like, according to Scripture?

Presented to: St. Thomas the Apostle

For: 2017 Lenten Series: The Ten Minute Catechism

Topic: On the Resurrection of the Dead

 

Scripture on the Resurrection[1]

When it comes to the topic of the resurrection and the resurrected life – life in heaven – we all share the same amount of experience regarding it: absolutely zero!!!…   So, given our ignorance, where can we turn for an accurate account that can lead us to clues as to what the resurrected life is like? There is only one source that I’m aware, and it is Scripture! Let us turn to the Gospel readings for (2017) for guidance, as we try to list five keys explaining what life in heaven will be like.

No. 1     2nd Week of Easter: Divine Mercy Sunday – Gospel Jn 20:109-31: the risen Christ meets the apostles in the upper room and gives them his Divine Peace…

Peace – This is the 1rst fndatin of RL… reflect on the moment in your life when you’ve experienced real peace… Perhaps moments with your family or children… Moments with significant others on vacation away from it all… Perhaps it’s that uncommon moment on a spring walk or the peace that you unexpectedly finding a hectic day when you slow down to pray…

… These are all very real moments, but are only moment or tastes – that reflect THAT ETERNAL and everlasting peace that passes all understanding… that Peace we are promised in the resurrected life in heaven.

No. 2 and 3. In that same Gospel when Jesus appeared, Thomas was initially absent… …the Gospel famously concludes with Jesus asking him to place his fingers in His holy wounds… …this points us to the 2nd key aspect of the Resurrected Life: Certainty – absolute and beyond all doubt!!! In heaven, we will have absolute certainty about those life ‘fundamentals’ that like truth, love, etc… In life, our best instances of certainty are like those of our greatest and deepest experiences of peace – but mere moments and partial reflections of that pure, absolute and never ending certainty we will experience in heaven…

Love – this is the third key I’m listing but it actually can be stated as the first of them all! Love is the core of God’s Kingdom and the Resurrected Life; this teaching can be found throughout Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God before his death and resurrection. It is also manifested as the core of the Risen Lord in the Resurrection accounts of the Gospels.

The reality of Divine Certainty of God’s Peace & Everlasting Love forever – is simply humanly unfathomable…   We only experience glimpses or reflections of the realities now on earth, but these moments can, if held and experienced with a grateful and prayerful heart, lead us to the truth about eternal life.

Please note how each one of these key aspects of the Resurrected Life (Peace, Certainty and Love) are rooted in what we discussed last week Ten Minute Catechism: God’s Presence! In God’s heavenly Presence, there will no longer be any need for faith or for hope, because our greatest faith and hope will be eternally realized. Only love remains…    The pure and holy love of God – which will light both God’s Kingdom and the hearts of its inhabitants…

In Week 3 of Easter, in the Road to Emmaus from Luke’s Gospel (Lk 24:13-35), Jesus reveals who will be in the Kingdom Resurrected Life: those who do not flee from their fears or their crosses, but who, through communion with the Risen Christ finds the grace and strength to turn around, and to return to Jerusalem and Calvary…

Those who choose to pick up their crosses… Those who choose to be Simon of Cyrenes for others, by willfully carrying the crosses of others that have been placed on them, especially those who have fallen down like Jesus, after he fell for the third time, completely exhausted and was unable to continue carrying the wood of our salvation 3rd time…

No. 4 and 5.     All of the Resurrection narratives point to two final key Roman Catholic beliefs about the Resurrected Life: a). the actual physicality of the Resurrected Life and b). the community dimensions of the Resurrected Life. Regarding the physicality of it, examine how Jesus asked Doubting Thomas to “stick his hands into the nail and lance wounds that He received during the crucifixtion. Find the Gospel story where the Risen Christ eats fish with the eleven Apostles, etc. These stories are presented for a reason: if the Risen Christ was just a vision, it have been a false apparition by one of Satan’s demons, etc. By resurrecting in His same body, Jesus seals and confirms both the scriptural teaching that the human being is an integrated and living spirit within living flesh, who will rise in the same manner on the last day. Finally, the resurrected life is not an individual experience of ourselves eternally in ecstacy, gazing in awe of God. It is a community experience of the saved who are praising, serving and fellowshipping with God and each other in perfect harmony.

A Quick Summary to the Resurrected Life –

It is a state in which the saved will experience absolute and everlasting…

Peace, Certainty and Love, which are all grounded in God’s Presence

 

It is a perfected physical/spiritual state where we live in a holy community with the Eternal and   living God.

 

[1] I am using the Gospels from the second, third and forth weeks of the 2017 Easter Season Readings as my scriptural basis for this reflection.