Called To Kindness

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She’s out there almost every day of the year. Now in her mid-eighties, sometimes the weather keeps her inside, but even that is rare. When the tide goes out on the beach near her home, she goes walking. You’ll see her with her head bent searching the rocks, bundled against the constant wind, carefully stepping down along the way in her rubber boots. She’s looking for starfish. In this part of Ireland, the tides are quick and extreme, by our standards. And when the waters pull back out to sea, they strand starfish on the rocks. Unable to swim, they’re stuck there until the next tide comes in, many hours later. If the sun is out, they can dry up and die. My sweet old friend can’t bear that, so she patrols her stretch of beach and when she finds a stranded starfish, she picks it up and drops it in the basket she carries. She says when she was younger she’d throw each one back into the water as soon as she’d find it, but that doing that now is hard on her shoulder. She waits til she’s done and then empties her basket into the sea when she’s finished with her walk. You see, she’s been doing this for more than sixty years. How many starfish do you think you’ve returned to the water in all those years, I ask her. Oh, a lot, I imagine, she says. I do a little math and calculate that her efforts have easily helped more than a hundred thousand starfish over the decades.

My friend doesn’t know the Loren Eisley story about the man who saves starfish, like she does. In the story when he’s confronted about the futility of his mission, it doesn’t faze him. “You can’t save them all. What you’re doing doesn’t make a difference.” The old man picks up another starfish and throws it back into the water. “It makes a difference to this one,” he replies.

You could certainly argue that the limited efforts of one old lady on a tiny stretch of beach aren’t going to effect starfish populations worldwide. True. I even wonder how many of those starfish get picked up and “saved” again after the next low tide. But that misses the point, I think, just as the often-told Eisley story misses the point. For me, it’s not about the starfish, but it’s about how acts of kindness change our own hearts. And the world.

I believe that kindness is its own reward. You never know the effects of an act of kindness, nor is that even a consideration for us. As Christians, we’re called to charity and sacrifice. That’s how we follow Jesus. We give because He gives. We love because He loves. We bend over and pick up the fallen and the stranded because that’s what He does for us. We don’t stop to consider the cost of our kindness or even the “good” that it accomplishes. We just do it. We reflect Christ’s charity, which is freely given to everyone, whether they treasure it or not. The act of loving and caring for others is transformational in and of itself. Kindness exercises the muscles of our hearts just as a workout at the gym conditions our physical bodies.

Over the decades, my friend has enjoyed her walks on the beach every day and she’s doubtless helped thousands of starfish in the process. But what she’s really done is to live a life caring for the least of God’s creations. Everyone who sees her is reminded that we can all make a difference in the world, and that no act of charity is every lost. God sees even our smallest kindnesses: a smile, a hug, a word of encouragement. Or one little starfish given another chance to live another day.

“The great acts of love are done by those who are habitually performing small acts of kindness.”
—-Victor Hugo

Are You Being Called?

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I stopped being surprised years ago at how many protestants come to our parish on Ash Wednesday. As a convert myself, I know the appeal of those ashes on our foreheads. They say, “I’m a sinner saved by God’s mercy and without Him, I’m lost.” That’s a strong message in a few little bits of ash. And that’s the thing about the Catholic faith. We have a lot to offer. And I’ll bet, deep down, you know it, too. No matter your denomination, or even if you don’t belong to any church, there’s something about the Catholic Church that draws you in, and you want to know more, even if you don’t know exactly why.

To begin with, you love the Bible and you revere it as the inspired word of God. Yet for hundreds of years after Christ’s death and resurrection, there was no Bible. It wasn’t until the fourth century that the Catholic Church assembled the Bible into one collection of texts. Jesus didn’t leave us a book, He left us a Church and He empowered it with the grace of the Holy Spirit.

This early Church as first called “Catholic” by Bishop Ignatius of Antioch in 107 AD. It was a Church founded on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, made up of deacons, priests, and bishops, led by the Bishop of Rome. Just as the Church today gathers to worship at the altar of God, so did that early Church. St. Peter and St. Paul were Bishops in this Church, with St. Peter being the first Pope.

Deep down, you’re drawn to the permanence and history of the Catholic Church. You know we’ve been on earth since the days of Jesus and no power or circumstance will diminish His flock. You know that Holy Communion is more than just a symbol. You can read Jesus’ own words and know that. After all, He never said, “This is a symbol of My Body…this is a symbol of My Blood.” When you see Catholics kneel and worship before the Blessed Sacrament, you know we’re kneeling before the King of Kings and not just a piece of bread. You love the reverence of Mass and the beauty of our churches. Catholics worship with our senses as well as with our hearts and souls and that seems only right. We stand, we sit, we kneel. We hear the bells and smell the incense while candles glow around us and lift us out of our everydayness. Mass means more than that and you know it, too. The Liturgy connects you to God and to heaven in a deep and profound way.

You know that Mary is important in our salvation story. When God chose her to be the mother of our Savior, He gave us the best model of the Christian life that we could ever know. Her purity, faith, humility, and trust in God shows us how to live. Mary and all the Saints are our role models because their lives reflect the light of Christ. They are our faith family, alive now in heaven and they long to pray for us, if we only ask them. You know that the Church’s unfailing defense of human life from conception to natural death is right and true and will never change. The Catholic Church’s teaching on the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman is the truth that God has revealed to us in the Bible. It’s good to know that the truth never changes, even if society wants it to “get with the times.”

So we welcome you to come and get to know us and ask us any questions you may have. Come to Mass. Or come by just to sit and pray in the presence of The Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament. We are all looking for the peace that only Jesus can give us. All of us know what it feels like to search for the meaning of life and our place and purpose in the world. The Lord gave us His Church so that we can know how we fit in and to help us along our journey with Christ. Open the door and know that you’re welcome here.

“One road leads home and a thousand roads lead into the wilderness.”
—-C.S. Lewis

The Garden of Lent

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It’s a bitterly cold morning here with wind chills below zero, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about spring. I love looking through seed catalogs and imagining all those beautiful flowers in bloom. And nothing warms the heart of this Southern woman like the taste of that first ripe tomato. Gardens give us new life. They sustain us, both in food and in beauty. Our gardens remind us of that first Garden, created in perfection until we disobeyed. What was once effortless in grace is now the result of toil and sweat. Yet beauty and sustenance remain for us.

Jesus spoke a lot about gardens and vineyards. These symbols were things His followers knew and understood. And those images still ring true for us. God’s wisdom places Lent at this time each year. Lent means “spring” after all. It’s that season when we take stock of the garden of our lives. Just as the gardens that we plant outside need attention and planning and pruning—so do our souls. So think of Lent as an investment in the mercy and grace of The Lord which allows our harvest of charity to increase and flourish. Let’s look at how we can use our Lenten journey to glorify and God and be ready for His great gift of Easter.

1) Prepare the soil. You can’t expect a bountiful harvest if you don’t make the effort to prepare yourself. Take an honest look at yourself. Examine your conscience. What keeps you from doing’ God’s will for your life? Name it and confess it.

2) Choose your plants. Where do you feel called or gifted to serve God? Maybe you’re an encourager or a mentor. Perhaps you have a gift for music or writing or organizing. Where can you put your gifts for His good purpose?

3) Get planting! It’s easy to think about doing something, but we’re called to follow Jesus and not just think about following Him. Commit yourself to daily prayer and reflection. Fast. Go to Mass and Adoration as often as possible. Be kind to one another. Bear your crosses with joy and thanksgiving.

4) Feed your garden. Frequent Holy Communion is nourishment for your soul. The Bread of Heaven is our hope and our sustenance. Receive Him worthily and the treasury of God’s grace will fill your life to overflowing.

5) Weed your garden. Form good habits that replace your bad ones. Turn off the television and pick up a good book. Pick up THE good book. Are there people in your life that are stumbling blocks to your spiritual good? Spend time with folks who encourage you and build you up in your Lenten journey.

6) Watch your garden grow. Take time to rest in The Lord and reflect on what He is revealing to you. Walk with Him in the cool of the day, like Adam and Eve did in that first, perfect Garden. Don’t neglect the peace of a Sunday afternoon spent in the presence of God. There is great growth in these times given over to Him.

7) Harvest and share your bounty. Easter will be here before we know it. Your Lenten garden is your gratitude to God for His great gift of the Holy Cross and our salvation. When we grow in Christ, we’re called to share the Gospel with others. Start with loving and caring for your family and ask The Lord to show you where He needs you most. Your mission has just begun.

“In simply humility, let our gardener God landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.”
—James 1:21

Looking Home

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The older I become, the more time I spend thinking of my past. I guess middle age has that effect on some of us. My grandparents did it and my parents did it and now it’s my turn. I can be driving down the highway reviewing my plans for the day when a song comes on the radio and instantly, I’m seventeen again without a care in the world. Or I smell a distinctive aftershave and I’m immediately a little girl, sitting in my daddy’s lap as he works on the newspaper crossword puzzle. Memories. The veil that separates today from all those yesterdays seems to be getting thinner and thinner. I think a lot about my childhood home. I hear the cows mooing in the backyard pasture. I taste a salted tomato, still warm from the sun. I see my mom cooking our supper or my brother tossing his football.

These kinds of memories are often called “nostalgia.” This is a Greek word that means “longing for home.” That rings true for me, as I was blessed to come from a loving home. Maybe for others, that nostalgia may be for whatever time or place in their lives that represents a safe and accepting place to them. Memories like this are often most aching when we experience the death of someone we love. Standing at my mother’s graveside the past, the present and the future are all together in that one spot. I remember her from the past. I miss her now. And I anticipate seeing her again in heaven. I am nostalgic for that moment. God has designed us to have that homesickness for heaven because that’s why we were created. I suppose I’m thinking of heaven more these days because as I age, more and more of my family and friends have already made the journey. Sorting through my mother’s things after she died, I came across her address book. Most of the names in it were crossed out. As we lose the ones we’ve loved in this life, our eyes and our hearts turn ever more often to those distant hills that shelter our forever home.

I think the saints are consumed with that yearning for heaven. Their lives are extraordinarily fixed on the eternal presence of The Lord. Like St. Paul, they feel that powerful pull to the home they’ve never seen. He wrote about the Jewish saints like Sarah and Abraham and Noah saying, “…they were longing for a better country, a heavenly one”(Hebrews 11:16). But so many of us have an impoverished idea of the reality of paradise. Who among us longs for an eternity of playing harps on fluffy clouds? Surely the earliest Christians did not die as martyrs for this boring reward. No, we can see what they imagined heaven to be from the paintings they left for us on the walls of the catacombs. Their heaven was a beautiful garden, filled with children and animals playing together, with parties and banquets and feasting and singing. It was a real, living Garden of Eden. Heaven was their home and they were willing to lay down their lives to go there. In St. John’s Revelation, we can see what The Lord showed to His beloved disciple. “I saw an angel standing in the sun. He cried out in a loud voice to all the birds flying overhead, ‘Come! Gather for the great banquet of God’ “(Rev. 19:17). It’s a party alright. One filled beyond our knowing with an over-abundance of joy and love: with our Lord. We’ll be with our loved ones and with new friends, with the angels and the choirs. And there’ll be surprises, because our God is a god of surprises, after all. We’ll be free of sin, which is everything that has limited us on earth. As Dr. Peter Kreeft has said, “Jesus is our best indicator of Heaven.” What a wonderful place to live! No wonder we long for it so deeply. He is our beginning and our end, our Alpha and our Omega. “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together”(Colossians 1:17). That includes you and me. As we journey through Lent this year, let’s focus less on giving something up and more on loving and serving Jesus and the people in our lives. Let’s keep our hearts moving to our heavenly home, with joy and gratitude.

“Oh my delight, Lord of all created things and my God! How long must I wait to see You?”
—St. Teresa of Avila
(1515-1582)

A Stubborn Old Heresy

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Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that our loving God would let any of His children suffer an eternity in hell. Just the idea of it seems to go against the merciful Creator Who healed the blind man and cured the leper. We remember how Jesus cried over the death of His friend and Whose love called Lazarus back to life and out of the grave. This God surely wouldn’t allow anyone, especially a “good person” to end up in hell. It’s hard for us to imagine that and so we don’t think about it very much. We surely don’t want to hear it preached to us on Sunday morning. On Sundays we want to hear music and sermons that make us feel good. We want to leave church in a good mood. Many churches go to great lengths to never speak about hell or the judgment of God. When someone dies, there is never any consideration of the state of their soul. You never hear hell mentioned at a funeral. Everyone goes to heaven, right?

But this is not what God has told us. The Bible is the story of how much God loves us and desires that we be saved from our sins. If we didn’t need to be saved, then the Lord would not have left heaven to become one of us, to suffer, and to die on a Cross. The entire story of Jesus would be reduced to a fairy tale about a nice guy. Yet many people who claim to be Christians believe that good people who are kind and merciful will enjoy God’s eternal presence. You may hear them say, “I’m a spiritual person, but I’m not religious.” Translated, this means, “I think I can get to heaven on my own. I don’t need the Church that Jesus founded.” This kind of thinking is especially attractive to us modern folk because concepts like independence and hard work are dear to us. We think we can do just about anything if we set our minds to it. I can save myself by being kind to others, by worshiping God in the beautiful outdoors, and by leading a “moral” life.”

Sound familiar? It should. All this “do it yourself” Christianity has been around since the 4th century. A medieval thinker named Pelagius started it all. He denied original sin. That is, Adam and Eve sinned against God, but the rest of us didn’t inherit that wound. We’re born good and we can stay in that good state so long as we are moral people. Pelagianism denies our need for God’s saving grace. That’s why the Catholic Church condemned it as a heresy around 1500 years ago. Catholicism teaches that the only path to heaven is by the unmerited grace of God through the sacrifice of Christ. We can do nothing to save ourselves. We’re born with original sin which is our natural state. The grace of God in Baptism cleanses us of this sin. Faith is a gift God freely gives us, but we can’t earn faith through good works. Without God’s grace, we are headed for hell. It’s that simple. And that gloriously beautiful.

Unfortunately, this old heresy is still with us today in varying degrees. Churches that believe that Baptism is a symbol of spiritual rebirth or that don’t believe Baptism is necessary for salvation are Pelagian. If your pastor isn’t teaching you about original sin, you’re in big trouble. If you believe that you can “self-help” your way to God, that you needn’t rely on God’s grace—you’re in big trouble. Faith isn’t a choice, it’s a gift. You can’t be a good ol’ self-reliant American when it comes to your salvation. That’s why this heresy is so rampant. It agrees with our politics. But grace isn’t political. God calls us, we don’t call Him. There are 613 rules under the Jewish law and obeying each one of them perfectly won’t get you one step closer to paradise. Just ask St. Paul. We don’t come to Christ unless we’re first called by Him. We don’t “make a decision for Christ.” Christ makes a decision for us. Love is beyond our choice or decision. We are “in Christ” just like we are in love—head over heels and beyond our control. So un-American. And so perfectly Catholic. Take that, Mr. Pelagius.

“You did not choose Me, but I chose you.”
—John 15:16

Do You Know Jesus?

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It’s 2015 and I’m still surprised at how many people misunderstand what the Catholic Church teaches and believes. Just last week someone told me that those 6 million people who gathered in Manila to see Pope Francis viewed him to be God. She went on to say that she hoped “they know Jesus.” I was stunned. This lady is a Christian and yet she knows almost nothing about the oldest and largest Christian Church in the history of the world. Is this her fault? Nope. It’s mine. Since Martin Luther, we Catholics have allowed others to tell our story, instead of telling it ourselves. It’s no wonder that in this part of the South especially, where there are relatively few Catholics, what others know about us can be so frightfully wrong. We need to change that.

To begin with, you can’t explain your Catholic faith to someone else if you don’t know what the Church teaches and why we teach it. Read your Bible, especially the Gospels. Read the Catechism and know how to use its Index so you can find answers to your questions. Be able to answer the most common questions you’ll hear from many Protestants. Like: Are you saved? Do you worship Mary? Why do you pray to statues? Why do you call priests “Father?” What is a Rosary? Do you believe that the Pope is God? There are dozens of other questions and misunderstandings about the Catholic faith. But start with these and you’ll be ahead of most. Whenever we are asked a question and we don’t know the answer, just tell that person: “I don’t know but I’ll find out and get back to you.” The worst thing you can do in this situation is to fail to contact that person with the answer to their question. When you do that, you’ve missed an opportunity to share the truth of our Catholic faith.

If this sounds a bit overwhelming, relax, it isn’t. Don’t try to learn everything all at once. Pray that the Holy Spirit will help to enlighten you and give you the courage to share our faith boldly and joyfully. Remember that our Protestant brothers and sisters have heard a lot of misinformation about Catholics and that we share many beliefs with most of them. We love and worship Jesus Christ. We believe that the grace of His Holy Cross is our salvation. Our hope is in Him. Of course, we do have our differences and they’re important ones.

The most important difference is that we believe the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Most Protestants teach that their communion (or “Lord’s Supper”) represents Christ in a spiritual or symbolic way. We believe Holy Communion IS Jesus. Why? Because this is what Jesus tells us in the Gospels. We hear His words at every Mass—“This is My Body…this is My Blood.” I often recommend that anyone who wants to know what it means to be a Catholic needs to read the sixth Chapter of John’s Gospel. It’s called the “Bread of Life Discourse” and it’s a rich treasure of Jesus’ own words on the Eucharist. It is the heart of what it means to be a Catholic because the Eucharist is the heart of Catholicism. He is the Bread of Life, the Living Bread come down from heaven. We must eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to have eternal life (John 6:55). Many who had followed Him could not believe this and they left Jesus. And He let them go. He could have said, “No, don’t go. I meant that communion is a symbol or a kind of spiritual remembrance of Me.” But he didn’t say that and He didn’t stop the ones that wanted to leave. It must have hurt Him to see them go because they couldn’t accept the truth of the Eucharist.

Clinging to the truth of the Eucharist is clinging to the heart of Jesus. This is why I became a Catholic and why I remain in His Church today. The Eucharist is Jesus Christ. So yes, Catholics certainly do know Jesus—intimately and lovingly. He is our Savior and Lord, our Redeemer and our King. This is our Catholic faith.

“From the Eucharist comes the strength to live the Christian life and the zeal to share that life with others.”
—Pope St. John Paul II

The Grace of Gratitude

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It was one of those days when nothing seemed to go right. I got up late and the more I hurried, the less I seemed to get done. Traffic was awful with every stoplight turning red just as I approached it. Trains even timed their journeys to cross my path, too. I dropped things, forgot stuff and wasted time looking for keys and paperwork and schedules. By lunchtime, I was exhausted. I thought I could see the end of the rope that people always talk about. Just then I looked down to see that the “check engine” light on my dashboard was glowing brightly. I broke down and cried. I thought, “Lord, what have I done?” Surely I must had done something bad to be having so many trials in just one day. It seemed as if I was being punished and I wanted to know my offense. My answer came pretty quickly. I had planned my day carefully and had made a lot of assumptions about how it needed to unfold. I had my timetable ready to go. The more I sat there in my funk, the more I realized that my plans hadn’t included God.

I hadn’t started my day with gratitude. In a hurry, I’d skipped those precious waking moments spent lifting my heart to The Lord and giving Him thanks for the precious gift of another day. I was too busy thinking of all I needed to get done and adding items to my to-do list. I didn’t take the time to remember the Author of my life. After all, God has given me all that I have, including the work I was absorbed with just then. Without Him, what is there? Yet on that misbegotten day of problems and tangles and frustrations, I’d been trying to do it all myself. I hadn’t included God in my plans. Also, I was living in the future and not in the now. Gratitude is being thankful for the moment, not living in the “what’s next.”

And that’s why the day was such a mess. I hadn’t turned to Him, given thanks and offered all my works and sufferings of the day for His good use. I hadn’t asked Jesus what His plans were for my day. The Savior I daily claim to follow might just as well have been a forgotten bit of pocket lint. That may sound harsh, but any Christian whose life isn’t founded on, centered in, and consumed by Jesus Christ is just plain lost. St. Paul tells us that “He is before all things and in Him all things hold together”(Colossians 1:17). Things were definitely NOT holding together for me that day because of my own pridefulness. It’s a lesson I have to learn fairly frequently.

Some people teach a kind of Christianity that says God will give you earthly riches if you are following Him “in the right way.” I don’t remember reading that anywhere in the Bible. I believe that suffering is a part of living in this world and that being a Christian doesn’t mean you’re magically protected from hard times. Remember that 11 of the 12 Apostles were martyred for their faith. Most of the saints suffered all sorts of difficulties in their lives and they claimed their suffering as joy because it united them to His Cross. Their lives make my silly little frustrations disappear.

So at the end of my tiresome, trying day, I heard Him call to me. “Let me into your day, Judy. Share your plans and fears and frustrations with me. Let me carry the burdens in your heart and when you’re tired, I’ll carry you, too. Don’t try to do it all yourself. I love you. Let’s walk this road together.” He quietens my restless heart and gives me peace in the midst of my troubles. He restores my soul. Problems and heartaches don’t disappear if you follow Jesus—but they take on eternal meaning and joy. I pray that He’ll keep reminding me of that and that His grace will conform my will to His own, in thanksgiving and gratitude.

“When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”
—-G. K. Chesterton

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