A Man of Sorrows

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The images of Holy Week draw us into the drama of Christ’s last few days before Calvary. On Palm Sunday we hear the crowds shouting, “Hosanna!” as Jesus enters Jerusalem There’s a kind of frenzy in the air. Lots of people are following Jesus. Lots of soldiers are following Jesus. He’s coming to celebrate the Passover feast with his friends. He’s coming to suffer and to die, betrayed by a friend and denied by a friend. And He’s coming to rise from the grave on Easter morning.

We’re so familiar with the story that sometimes we gloss over the uncomfortable images in our haste to roll the stone away and cry, “Alleluia! He is risen!” It’s a common human mistake. In fact, it’s the core of the prosperity Gospel fad. But here’s the truth: Jesus said, “If anyone will come after Me, let him deny himself, take up His cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). He never tells us that if we follow Him we’ll be rich and powerful and healthy. Or even, happy. The saints have always known this. They view suffering and sacrifice as the doorway to an intimate relationship with Jesus.

In Jerusalem, the path that Jesus walked from His condemnation to Golgotha is called the “Via Dolorosa” or “Way of Sorrows.” This recalls the prophet Isaiah’s description of our Savior: “He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief…”(Isaiah 53:3). Pilgrims today retrace His footsteps, stopping to pray and to remember His passion and suffering for our sake. The Stations of the Cross, these same instances as on the Jerusalem “way,” are in every Catholic Church and we pray them often during Lent. We recall how Christ was arrested, beaten, stripped, and burdened to carry His Cross. At each fall, at every humiliation and torture, we kneel and pray these words: “We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You, because by Your Holy Cross You have redeemed the world.” Christ performed many miracles of healing, and yet His miracles didn’t save us. He taught beautiful parables of mercy and forgiveness, yet His preaching didn’t save us. What saves us? His death on the Cross. And that’s what this week is about.

Last summer at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis prayed the Stations of the Cross with more than a million young people. He asked them 3 questions. This week is a good time for us to ask ourselves these same questions: What have I left at the Cross? What has the Cross of Jesus left for me? What does the Cross teach me?

We pray to be more like Jesus. We beg Him to hold us close to His Sacred Heart. Yet it can be hard for us to accept the fact that suffering comes with that embrace. To be more like Him, we must walk the Via Dolorosa, too. We’re beaten down, spat upon, kicked and left alone with no one to stand up for us or defend us or make a case for us. We fall down. We get up. We fall down again. We get up again. Through our blood and sweat we can see that hill ahead of us, two crosses already there. Two thieves hang in agony and we know that soon, we’ll take our place between them. Each one of us bears a cross of suffering, just at the Church does. She is maligned, accused of every wrongdoing and shortcoming and sin. She will suffer because Her Spouse suffers. And She wouldn’t have it any other way. Her very life is in Him, and apart from His Cross, she is nothing but a social club: well-meaning but not life-giving. The glory and power of the Resurrection are bought at the terrible price of His suffering and death. On Good Friday, on the Cross, Easter looks a million miles away. But without suffering, without the power of His Blood, the stone of the tomb is impossibly heavy, unable to be rolled away. In these days of Holy Week, we walk with Jesus, and we weep.

“He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our sins. The punishment that brought us peace was on Him. And by His wounds we are healed.”
—–Isaiah 53:5

You’re Powerless

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You can never be good enough. You can never be kind enough. You can try as hard as you can, but you’ll never be humble enough or generous enough or merciful enough. You can strive every day to be patient and long-suffering, but it won’t work. You’ll never make it, no matter how virtuous and “good” you are and how hard and tirelessly you try.

You see, there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more.

Unlike all other religions, from Islam to Buddhism to animism, Christianity teaches its followers that God loves them totally and completely, just as they are. His love for you and for me is dependent on NOTHING that we can ever do or say. His love is His Nature and is contingent on nothing else.

Accepting this fact is life-changing. This is pure, unconditional love and most of us find it a radically-new experience. Only the love of parents can mirror in a human way the perfect love of God for His children. Far too many of us believe that we’re not worthy of this kind of overwhelming love. Somewhere deep inside of us is a list of stuff we think we have to do in order to MAKE God love us. I have to read the Bible more often. I have to tithe. I have to volunteer for more ministry work. Nope. To repeat: there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more. He already loves you perfectly. All you have to do is to accept that love.

There’s more good news, too. God is not impressed when you think you aren’t worthy of His love. In fact, there’s NOTHING you can do that will make God love you any less. Think about that for a minute. Probably you’ve always believed that when you do bad things, what we call “sin,” it makes God love you less. But it doesn’t. God IS love—–it’s His very Nature. He can’t not love you, no matter what you do or what you think of yourself.

Does your sin disappoint the Lord? Sure it does. It offends Him and it distances you from Him when you choose to sin. If it’s a serious sin, it can cut you off from a relationship with Him and endanger your immortal soul. It’s serious. But even in the middle of your worst possible sin—–God loves you just the same. One of my favorite Scripture verses promises us this: “…while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”(Romans 5:8). Before we even knew Him, He suffered and died for us on the Cross. That’s incredible love. It’s beyond our human imagination. And I think that’s part of why we can’t consider ourselves worthy of His love.

We please God when we take Him up on that love. When we turn away from our sin (repent) we find Him already there, already and always there, waiting to welcome us into His friendship. He’s never been anywhere else.

His love calls us into loving each other. This means loving even most the unlovable among us. That means loving sinners. Just like you and me. And it means forgiving people who have wronged us, even if they don’t apologize and even if we’re still angry or hurting. Forgiving others is being like Jesus, and when we love and forgive one another, it pleases Him.

Sometimes it’s tempting to make our faith really complicated. But the heart of it is pretty simple: to love and forgive others as Christ loves and forgives us. Easter is coming. And it’s all about His love for us and how much He wants to know us and have a relationship with us. We Catholics believe that Jesus rose from the grave on Easter morning. He wants to raise you from the dead, too. He wants you to know that you ARE good enough and kind enough—that none of your sins have changed how much He loves you. He wants you to know that you belong to Him, and you always will.

God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.”
—St. Augustine (354-430 AD)

Her Smile

Whenever I saw her, usually very early in my workday, she was always smiling. Short and stout, probably in her sixties, her toothless grin greeted me several mornings a month. She never wanted much from me and I didn’t even know her name. But her patient, happy smile always touched me. One morning she came in with a paper folder clasped in her hands, her smile even broader than usual. “I remembered to bring it this morning,” she said, and held the folder out to me. “Oh, thank you,” I replied, having no idea what she was talking about. She watched me expectantly as I took the folder from her. “May I look inside it now?” I asked, not knowing what to expect—a letter? a drawing? an old newspaper clipping? Her quick nod told me she wanted me to open it. What I pulled out was a photograph of her, a recent one. Full-color and a little fuzzy it showed her in a dark blue dress, her long brown hair pulled back and her broad sunken smile looking back at me. Startled, all I could say was, “Oh, your eyes are so beautiful!” And they were. Deep blue and clear, they bored into me and for the first time I realized that she was pretty. Despite her age and poverty and lack of teeth, she had a certain beauty about her. I told her thank you and she hugged me and left the office, her mission accomplished. I slipped the photo back into its folder and went back to work. Later that morning I mentioned the woman to a coworker and showed her the picture. “Oh yes, I know her!” she exclaimed and she told me the woman’s story.

Born into a large family, they lived in the hard mountain poverty of the South, the kind not yet softened by more recent government assistance programs. Farming and logging made for a poor living, but they were no different in that from most of their neighbors. Their differences were much more sinister. From her earliest years, “Sue” had suffered her father’s horrific sexual abuses. Her brothers and sisters and their mother were also victimized. While the community seemed to know what her father was doing, no one stepped in to stop it. Years of abuse and poverty had shaped Sue’s life, surely. Yet what I knew of her, what she was always showing me was her disarming smile. I mentioned this to my coworker and her response stunned me. Thoughtfully, she replied, “You’re probably the best thing in her life.” What? A few minutes a week spent in casual conversation? How could that mean so much to someone? Could that even be possible?

Of course it could be. None of us knows the power that simple kindness can have to heal a wounded soul. A smile, a soft word, a few moments of simple conversation—this can be great love to someone who lives in wounded isolation, in an invisible prison of hurts, abandonments, or history. Being Christ to others happens every day. In what can seem like very small things, we can reveal His very great love for all of us. Sue has taught me to be more mindful of every opportunity God places in my path each day as a chance to live the Gospel and to never take for granted His call to love my neighbor. And Sue’s constant, life-affirming smiles heal me, too. Now, more than ever since I know her love has blossomed despite her life circumstances. We are both Christ to one another and I thank God for allowing me to know her in my small way.

“Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”
—Blessed Mother Teresa

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God Still Speaks

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One of my favorite images in Holy Scripture is revealed in Genesis. Picture the loveliness of the Garden of Eden, perfect in every way, filled to overflowing with every good thing. There are beautiful flowers and trees, peaceable animals of all species, clear waters, gentle breezes—truly heaven on earth. Adam and Eve, our first parents, live in complete harmony with God in the “Paradise of enjoyment” (Genesis 2:15). God and His children were so close that He would walk with them in Paradise “in the cool of the afternoon”(Genesis 3:8). God spoke to them as you and I would speak to our beloved children. They heard His voice and He heard theirs.

What joy it must have been to walk with God, talking with Him and feeling His closeness. Throughout the Old Testament we hear stories of God talking with us. He spoke to Noah and to Abraham, to Isaac and Solomon, and to His holy prophets. He spoke with them as directly as you would speak with your best friend. He also spoke to men in their dreams and in visions He would send to them. But things change in the New Testament. Here, God speaks to us in His Perfect Word: His Son, Jesus Christ. It’s not that God stopped speaking to us—far from it! Through Jesus. God pours out His entire Heart to us. His Holy Spirit inspires us and guides us, like a magnet pulling us closer and closer to the Lord. God wants us to know Him. We see this when Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:13). Peter alone among the disciples answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Then Jesus says to him,”Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father Who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:16-17). St. Peter’s private revelation from God led Jesus, in the very next verse, to found His Church upon him. “I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church and the gates if hell shall not prevail against it”(Matthew 16:18).

Today the Church continues to reveal God through His Son and the working of the Holy Spirit in the Sacraments He created. Jesus founded a Church which, in turn, gave us Holy Scripture. The Bible is a living text through which the Lord reveals His loving plan for our lives. So the idea that God no longer reveals Himself to us is just wrong. The problem may be that many people are listening to who they THINK is God but is in reality only their own desires. Or they’re following a kind of “spiritual” path that feels good and seems right, but that isn’t founded by God. “One road leads home and a thousand roads lead into the wilderness,” writes C.S. Lewis.

Jesus gave us His Church which contains the fullness of revelation and the boundless deposit of faith and grace. The Lord never meant for us to find our way alone or to struggle to try and understand the meaning of Scripture on our own. He didn’t mean for us to walk a lonely path in the hope of finding the one that pleases Him. His Church, His path, is known to us. We know it because Christ revealed it. We hear His voice in the prayers of the Mass, in the Scripture readings, in the mercy of the confessional. He speaks to us in the Church’s art and music and in the many, varied lives of the Saints over the centuries. Most especially, Christ speaks to us in the Holy Eucharist when He comes to us most fully and most intimately. Even Adam and Eve in the garden didn’t know Him like this. Through God’s perfect Word we hear His voice calling out love to us, begging to know us, to share our lives with Him. This is our foretaste of heaven, the home to which we long to return.

If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.”
—Hebrews 3:7

Our Greedy Hearts

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Our popular culture is reflected in the kinds of television shows we watch. Take a look at any night’s lineup and you’ll see lots of programs that revolve around greed. We have shows where people put their lives on hold to mine for gold, to find expensive logs mired in river mud, and to bid on abandoned storage lockers in the hope of getting something for nothing. There are dozens of other shows which reveal the lives of the richest consumers among us, from housewives to sports stars to “celebrities” like the Kardashians. We seem to be fascinated with stuff: getting stuff, buying stuff, having stuff, and then getting more stuff. We enjoy seeing other people’s stuff, although that only makes us want it, too. We are, it would seem, a greedy culture.

Why are we so drawn to the things of the world? We know that life is fleeting. We know that our time here on this earth will all too soon be over. And we know we can’t take any of it with us. Buy many of us spend the great part of our lives working to buy things, to own things, to acquire more things. We’re fascinated by those among us who have the biggest, the best, the newest and the latest. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good thing to work and provide for your needs and the needs of your family. It’s okay to have nice things and to enjoy them. Beautiful things remind us of the source of all beauty which is God. When we admire a beautiful painting, we’re acknowledging that “something” in the painting that reflects the beauty of God. But far too many people in our culture look only to things for their happiness. We think we’ll finally be happy when we have enough good stuff. The problem is we never seem to have enough and the stuff we do get never seems to be good enough. More and more only leads to more and more. And still we feel….somehow….less.

When we search for happiness anywhere but in a relationship with Jesus, we’re bound to be left wanting. “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world,” writes C. S. Lewis. When we put “stuff” at the center of our lives it’s pride that has taken the place of the Lord. At the heart of greed is the sin of pride: the deadliest of all sins. Pride says we’re in charge and we make the rules. Greed says he who has the most and best stuff makes the rules. Both pride and greed run counter to the Christian mission of charity, discipleship, sacrifice and submitting our lives to Christ.

Now, think of those “real” housewives. Do they make you think of charity, discipleship, sacrifice or submission to Christ? The “housewives” franchise doesn’t have a corner on the pride market, of course. But their shows are easy examples of our cultural obsession. In them we can see the fruits of greed and pride: discord, divorce, substance abuse, family dissolution, anger, infidelity, and even suicide.

As we continue our Lenten journey, let’s reflect on the greed and pride in our own lives. Where can I be more generous? How can I be more patient and forgiving? What part of my heart am I greedily holding back from the Lord? How can I humbly follow Jesus every day in every situation?

Humility is the only thing that no devil can imitate.”
—St. John Climacus
(525 – 606 A.D.)

It’s Lent and I’m Online

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Many of my Facebook friends and Twitter followers have chosen to go offline for Lent. By leaving social media behind they hope to use these weeks leading up to Easter in a quieter and more spiritual way. A lot of what’s “out there” can be distracting, silly, and burdensome. I completely understand their need to be rid of all that might keep them from becoming what God wants them to be. Lent is a time for spiritual growth. But I’ve decided NOT to go dark and maybe I can explain why.

I can’t think of a better place to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel than on Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and Instagram, etc. And I can’t think of places that need it more. The internet is the public forum of our day. It’s where everyone in the world comes together. It’s where Christians should be gathering. We can be a presence that shares the love and mercy of Christ in a way that brings light to darkness and hope where there is discord and despair. It’s not always easy or pleasant, but easy and pleasant isn’t what He promised us, after all. Imagine what St. Paul would have tweeted if he’d been on Twitter. Or St. Paul’s Facebook posts or Instagram photos. I’m sure the Apostles would have used social media as another one of their tools in their way of connecting with people. I don’t know about you, but for all its annoyances, Facebook is sometimes where I first learn about what’s going on in the lives of my friends and extended family. I read about illnesses and worries, their troubles and triumphs, even the news that someone I know and love has passed away. Facebook is full of prayer requests as well and I’m humbled and thankful for the chance to add my voice for healing and peace in God’s good time.

Having said all that, I think it’s prudent to be prayerfully and thoughtfully engaged in social media. It’s way too easy to let the internet control you—instead of you controlling your use if the internet. To begin with, remember that the internet is NOT FREE. When you’re online you’re spending your most valuable resource—your time. So make it count. During Lent (and the rest of the year) it’s best to limit your time online and to use some discipline and self-control. Don’t respond immediately to every post or photo. Be thoughtful and reflect on what fruit your response might bear. Sometimes the most loving response is your silence. You don’t need to comment or “like” or retweet everything. Don’t post just for the sake of posting something or updating your status. Posts that prompt others to say “how cute!” or “how sad!” or leave people wondering (e.g. “Feeling lonely right now…”) are self-serving and better left unsaid. Here’s where you can do some more Lenten fasting. Fast from posting selfies, from new profile pix, from gossip and snarky comments. Don’t post photos of what you had for dinner (especially that steak you ate on a Friday in Lent!) or your latest game score or quiz results. Nobody cares what kind of tree you are anyway. These kinds of posts say: Look at me. Think of me. Like me, please. They’re at odds with the spirit of preparing ourselves for Easter. “He must increase but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

On a positive note, there are lots of good digital resources that can help you make your Lenten journey more spiritually-nourishing. I’m following Fr. Robert Barron and Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Both these men offer daily Lenten reflections and prayers that help me stay on track. Using the iBreviary app, I can pray the Divine Office. I use a rosary app that let’s me pray using my iPhone. Lent is a great time to increase our prayer time and develop better prayer habits. Post a favorite prayer on Facebook instead of your Candy Crush score.

Social media isn’t always a bad thing. Like everything in the world, it’s how we use it that gives it value. Moderation and prudence are key. But it’s where people meet to talk things over in our modern world, so I’m staying involved in the conversation this Lent. I’m posting. I’m praying. I’m trying to be a witness.

It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways…we need love and to be loved. We need tenderness.”
—-Pope Francis

How’s The Health Of Your Parish?

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We’ve all been in parishes that seemed so alive with the Holy Spirit. We were energized with a passion for our faith, to evangelize and to contribute our time, talents, and treasure. Volunteers were plentiful and full of energy and joy. And the pastor smiled a lot. But there are those parishes where things were different—lots of committee meetings, a financial focus, the same people in the same roles year after year—and a not-so-smiling pastor. It’s a church on life-support. Have hope. When you’re able to recognize some of these early warning signs you’re on the road to helping your parish become what God has called us to be: lighthouses and not clubhouses. Here are some questions to ask yourself about your parish. Are you getting it wrong or right?

1) Your parish doesn’t look like the community around it. Do the folks in the pews reflect the diversity of age, race, income and the overall demographics of your neighborhood? If not, then there’s a disconnect somewhere. Hint: it’s NOT the neighborhood’s fault.

2) It’s a problem if the only thing your community knows about your parish is where the buildings are located. And for some parishes even this might be asking a lot. If you’re invisible to your neighbors you aren’t sharing the light of Christ with them. You’re just a blank spot where Jesus should be. Ouch.

3) Do your ministries spend more time and money on their programs rather than on helping people? Sometimes we can invest a lot of effort DOING our ministry (meetings, planning, recruiting, fundraising, etc.) than we do in actually serving others. What’s the point if all we do is talk about service but rarely actually feed or clothe or visit or comfort someone in need?

4) Is the first question we ask, “How much will it cost?” rather than, “How will it lead people to Christ?” Of course money is one of our parish resources. But only insofar as we can use money to share the Gospel. From which hymnals to buy to which Vacation Bible School program to use—our primary consideration has to be people. Always.

5) Do you think of your church as a “place?” Of course it has a physical address. But the truth is that your church is a parish family with a God-given purpose—and that purpose must look outside of itself for its mission. Too many parishes exist to serve themselves alone. Too few parishes find their purpose in the service of their neighbors. Does your church “stop” at the doors?

6) Every parish wants new members. But some only want new members if they look and act and pray and worship and tithe like the old members. If we aren’t seeking out and embracing our neighbors (of all races, ages, finances, and backgrounds) we’re nothing more than a secular clubhouse. We’re salt that’s lost its flavor and what good are we? (Matthew 5:13).

7) You think it’s the pastor’s job to make all the hospital, nursing facility, and homebound visits. Sure, only the priest can hear their confessions and anoint them with the oil of healing. But it’s every member’s calling to do what Christ tells us: love one another. This means you and me visiting the members of our parish family who can’t come to Mass with us. The pastor isn’t our proxy when it comes to this.

8) And here’s what I think might be the biggest problem in many parishes: half your members are missing. Look around the pews. How many moms bring their children to Mass alone? How many ministry members are women? What are you doing to engage entire families in your parish mission? How are you reaching out to those missing husbands and fathers? And if they do come to Mass, are they just space-holders or do they embrace the call to service? The simple fact is if the men of your parish are spiritually-dead, then so is your parish.

So. How does your church stack up? Is it a living, growing family or the church of the walking dead? Are you the salt and light of your community?

We are called to become a living Gospel in the world.”
—Pope Francis

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