A Simple Kind of Love

  
We can take something as simple as “love your neighbor” and make it incredibly complicated. Those of us who follow Jesus Christ know that love is the heart of His message and He went about showing us how to live that love during His ministry here. We see Him healing sick people, bringing dead people back to life, comforting folks who are grieving and befriending folks most people avoided, like tax collectors and lepers and adulterers. And He ate and drank a lot, with anyone He could find. Loving other like Jesus loves seems pretty simple when we read the Gospels, but when we look around today, sometimes it feels like Christianity is more of a business than a love affair.  

And that’s understandable since any time a group of people come together for a common purpose, an organization will grow up to provide oversight. Girl Scouts have troops, baseball players have teams, churches have pastors and bishops. But I’m not talking about churches or denominations. This is about how we Christians, as individuals, have made our faith overly-complex. I’m pretty sure none of the twelve Apostles had advanced degrees in theology. And yet they took what Jesus had taught them and the grace He shared with them—-and changed the world.  

Love your neighbor. That’s what Jesus did. His neighbors were the people He came across in His daily life. They were His family, the folks at the synagogue, the fishermen and farmers and shepherds that He encountered each day. They were the sick people who came to Him to be cured and the Pharisees who came to Him to condemn Him. He met them in the moment, where they were, with an openness of heart. He listened to what they had to say. When they were in the wrong, He corrected them. Remember, “go and sin no more”(John 8:11). How about “you serpents, generation of vipers, how will you flee from the judgment of hell?”(Matthew 22:33). He cut through all pretense and social convention to meet their needs.  

How do we love like He loves? This is one of the great questions we should be asking ourselves every day. It never gets old to ask it. And it never feels as if we know the full answer. Maybe the answer is one of the things St. Paul was writing about when he said, “For now, we see through a glass darkly…”(I Corinthians 13:12). While that may be true, right now, we’re here on earth, trying to love, trying to get it right. So I have a challenge for all of us this week. This week, we’re going to love like Jesus.  

Let’s talk less and listen more. When we’re tempted to judge, let’s remember our own sins and lay that rock back down. When we see a problem that we can solve, let’s solve it. Pick up the trash, hold open the door, meet up for lunch, visit the nursing home, and make that overdue phone call. Connect with the friends and family and neighbors that we’ve been neglecting. Mend the fence. Right the wrong. Forgive the slight. Help someone else when it isn’t convenient or easy. And then keep that helping to yourself. Be a pushover this week and see how it makes you feel. As St. Ignatius prays, “Lord, teach me to give and not to count the cost.” Just for this week, let’s try not counting the cost of our love—either in time or in energy or effort. Just for this week, let God keep score of how well we’re doing.  

I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, He will NOT ask, “How many good things have you done in your life?” Rather, he will ask, “How much LOVE did you put into what you did?”

       —-Mother Teresa of Calcutta 

Passover and the Holy Mass

 

A loaf of bread and a cup of wine shared among friends. What made this meal different from all other meals was that God Himself had instructed His people to eat it. Along with the bread and wine, a lamb was roasted and eaten, with its’ blood marking the doors and windows of each home. This meal, eaten by the Jews exiled in Egypt, was the Passover meal (Exodus 12:1-28). The blood of the slain lamb saved the Jews from the death which God sent to the unbelievers. The Passover lamb and the meal the Jewish families shared prefigures the Last Supper shared by Christ and His chosen. In His Sacrifice on the Cross, He becomes the Paschal Lamb, saving His children from the death of sin. (Matthew 26:17-30). The Church and the Sacraments emerge from Jewish history and Scripture. Understanding the Passover Lamb helps us to fully appreciate the Holy Mass of His Church. 

Catholics read the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper and take Jesus’ words literally: “This is My Body”(Matthew 26:14-15). When He tells us to “do this in memory of Me”(Luke 22:7), we do it. Just as the blood of the Passover lamb meant life for the Jews, the Body and Blood of Christ means life for His Church. Jesus, as the Paschal Lamb, fulfills all the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament:”…I come not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it”(Matthew: 5:17). Our worship of Christ is expressed in the celebration and sacrifice of the Holy Mass. The Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is “the source and summit of the Christian life”(Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1324). The Mass is the public prayer of the Church in which we offer God praise and thanksgiving, ask forgiveness for our sins, intercede for the needs of others and share in His Body and Blood, as He has instructed us. Just as the ancient Jews ate the meal God prescribed for them, Catholics share in the Eucharist as Jesus has instructed us. The celebration of the Eucharist is the prayer of, by, and for the Church.

The Catholic Mass is not only based on the last meal shared by Jesus with his disciples, but also reflects a long history of special meals described in Scripture and celebrated by both the ancient Jews and the early Christians. From that original Passover meal and all its’ annual re-presentations, to Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes (Matthew 14:13-21; 15:32-39), the meal shared at Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) and His breakfast at the sea of Galilee (John 21:1-14). In the early Church, worship included the Eucharist as well as readings from Sacred Scripture (I Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:17-34). In the year 150 A.D., a Christian convert named St. Justin Martyr describes how the Church celebrated the Eucharist when he wrote a famous letter explaining his faith. He describes a Sunday assembly where Scriptures are read and the priest gives a homily or sermon explaining them to the faithful. Shared prayer follows and then an offering of bread and wine is consecrated by the priest. The Body and Blood of Christ is then shared by the faithful, with some reserved to take to those not present. A collection is taken to support the Church and to help the needy. Some things never change! If St. Justin were to come to a Catholic Mass today, he would feel very much at home. With few changes, the order of our worship remains essentially the same. If you’ve ever wondered how the early Church worshiped together, come to Mass sometime and see what you’ve been missing. 

“He that eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has everlasting life: and I will raise him up on the last day”(The Gospel of St. John, 6:55). 

The Pleasure of God

  
One day last week I had one of those unpleasant 24-hour bugs. All I wanted to do was lay very still and sip on 7-Up. I turned on the TV and the movie “Chariots of Fire” was just starting. I hadn’t seen it in many years and honestly didn’t remember much of the plot. I kind of hoped it would put me to sleep for a couple of hours and when I woke up I’d feel better. But I didn’t sleep. I was drawn into the movie and the characters, especially the story of the Scottish minister and runner, Eric Liddell. He’s most known for his refusal to compete on Sundays, throwing his, and his country’s 1924 Olympic dreams into doubt. I won’t spoil the story for you if you’ve never seen the movie. It’s a great film and during these Olympic weeks would make for wonderful family viewing.  

There’s a moment when Eric Liddell is talking with his sister about why he runs. She feels that her brother lets his running distract him from his more important missionary work. He tells her, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” How incredible to imagine that we can feel God’s joy! Maybe you’ve experienced a moment like that yourself. I think it’s pretty easy to think of God’s pleasure when we hear a great piece of music like the “Ode To Joy” or the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Or to imagine God smiling as He gazes on a beautiful sculpture or a painting masterpiece. The gifts of of art and music and even world-class running seem to easily showcase the exuberance of God’s joy when He created these gifts in us. We stand, we cheer, we shed a tear—because that same joy overflows within us during those moments and we recognize it. In a way, those transcendent moments let us glimpse the pleasure of God that Mr. Liddell describes.  

But, as I lay there on the couch last week, trying not to throw up, I seemed light years away from any kind of transcendent moment of creative joy. I wonder how many of us might have a hard time imagining how we can please God in our own “ordinary” lives. And yet, that’s exactly what we’re each called to do. When we please God, we are most fully ourselves—most fully the person He created us to be. And vice versa. When we’re the best version of ourselves, it pleases the Lord. Even if you’re not an artist or a poet or an Olympic runner. Even when I’m sick on the couch, I can please God.  

Many saints have written about how to do this. My favorite, perhaps because she speaks in ordinary, everyday language, is St. Therese of Lisieux. She lived in the latter part of the 1800’s in France and died of tuberculosis when she was just 24. She was convinced that all of us can be saints by living every moment of our lives as a little child in the lap of God the Father. She teaches us that every small act of love and sacrifice that we offer to God can be immeasurably valuable. She said, “To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul.” Hey, even I can do that. If something so small and ordinary can be offered to God as a sacrifice for others, then everything we do in our lives can be an act of love. It’s how we can “pray without ceasing” as St. Paul tells us (I Thessalonians 5:16-18). And mostly, it’s a way of holiness that even a sinner like me can follow. St. Therese’s “Little Way” offers us sainthood in whatever our role in life. Mothers, fathers, teachers, clerks, bus drivers—whenever we act out of love and sacrifice, we can feel God’s pleasure. That’s a good thing to remember as we begin each day. In a prayer written by St. Therese, she says in part: 

I desire to sanctify every beat of my heart, my every thought, my simplest works, by uniting them to Its infinite merits; and I wish to make reparation for my sins by casting them into the furnace of Its Merciful Love.

The Drought Inside

  
Our little corner of Georgia is in the middle of an extreme drought according to the weather folks. This is unusual for us since we usually average more than 53 inches of rain each year. By comparison, Seattle only gets 38 inches of rain. Yeah, it rains a lot here. In fact, it’s a temperate rainforest. But not this summer. Grass crunches when you walk on it. Trees look tired and are dropping their leaves. Gardens are parched and the ground is hard and cracked. And it’s pretty much what everyone is talking about, even in this wild election year.

Between the drought and the politics, it feels like a desert on the inside, as well. Our reservoirs of hope are in a drought too. We’ve been assaulted with terror attacks, both at home and around the world. We’ve seen our police targeted and murdered. Everyone seems on edge and even minor conflicts quickly escalate to violence. Our words are sharpened and accusatory and we aren’t listening to one another. Like the desert, every step we take is dangerous. You have to be on guard against rocks and holes and even snakes. What used to be comfortable and lush and full of life and nourishment is a dry, thorny, unfamiliar landscape.  

Some of us don’t let these rough times change their lives very much. They go about their routine as if they live inside a protective bubble. Others let what’s going on around them turn them inward. They withdraw and go quiet, rarely reaching out. It’s almost as if they’re hibernating until it passes. On the other end of the spectrum, bad times make some people lash out. Their tempers are short and anger becomes their go-to response. Don’t venture too close or you might find out just how angry they are.

I’m usually one of those bubble people. When the stress of bad times surrounds me, I typically let it bounce off. This isn’t to say that I’m not affected by it, but I don’t let it turn my world upside down. I’m the encourager, the glass-half-full one, the one-day-at-a-timer. But this summer has been hard. This hot, dry summer with all its shootings and murders and carnage both here and abroad—it’s been too much to bear. And then last week, an elderly French priest had his throat slit at the altar while he was celebrating Mass. Two young Muslim men who knew him, who lived in the neighborhood, murdered him in cold blood. The shock of this slaughter of an innocent old man was the last straw for me.  

I know that Christ calls me to mercy and forgiveness. I believe that with all my heart. But right now, I just can’t do it. Not yet. Today everything feels dry and lifeless. God’s life-giving mercy, His ever-flowing stream of love seems like only a trickle in my heart. I feel like the parched, dry earth outside my window. I pray for the grace to forgive the terrorists, to comfort the cop-killer, to pray for those who are working for our destruction. But today, this day, Im struggling to accept that gift. 

I know what our world has always been a hostile place. I know that evil always seeks to destroy the good and true. I know innocent people have always lost their lives at the hands of others. But right now I’m letting it get to me in ways that it usually doesn’t. I have faith that “this too shall pass”(surprisingly not from Scripture). I know that this broken world, and my own broken heart, are held lovingly in God’s hands and that His love will conquer. Right now, I’m in the desert, though. Our Lord and many of His saints saw value in time spent in the desert and I will, too. Prayer, fasting, and penance often transform drought into life-giving waters. That’s my prayer on this hot, dry afternoon. Dear Lord, send us Your peace. Amen.

“Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am faint; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony.”

         —–Psalm 6:2  

Women and the Priesthood 

  
Tim Kaine, the presumptive VP-nominee for the Democratic Party has stated more than once that he believes women should be ordained as Catholic priests. This issue comes up from time to time in the Church. It was 8 years ago that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a Decree of Excommunication here in the US because some folks attempted to ordain a woman to the priesthood Being excommunicated isn’t something that happens every day. Excommunication is a serious action, which impedes the reception of the Church’s Sacraments in cases of particularly grave or serious sin (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1463). 

God loves women. He chose a woman to bring Salvation to the world through Mary, the mother of God. Women have played important roles in the Church since the early days of Christ’s public ministry. Jesus went against the Jewish norms of His day by involving women publicly in His life on earth, as His cherished friends. It was Mary of Magdala who was chosen by God to be the first person to see the risen Christ and to spread that good news to His loved ones. Nearly all of the non-Jewish religions of Christ’s day had female priestesses, so choosing women for this role in His Church would have been socially-acceptable, especially in ministering to the Gentiles. But He didn’t choose women to be priests. He chose only men. Through these 12 men, a direct line of Apostolic succession has remained in the Catholic Church until today.

God doesn’t make mistakes. He came to save us through Christ at a precise moment in history and through the exact people He had chosen as His own. The priestly tradition of the Jews, a male tradition, was part of His salvation plan from the beginning of time. The passover lamb of the Jews, always a male, prefigured the role of Christ as the Paschal Lamb and perfect Sacrifice. Jesus is the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world. The argument is sometimes made that, if Christ were alive today, He would choose women for the priesthood. Here’s a news flash, Christ IS alive today. He comes to us at every Mass when He becomes for us, the Bread of Life. He lives and acts in His Church who has taught from the time of the Apostles that the priesthood is a Sacrament reserved only for baptized men (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1577).

Each Sacrament established by Christ has two elements, form and matter. The form of the Sacrament is the way in which it is enacted. For Baptism, the “form” is the words used to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The “matter” of Baptism is water. In the Holy Eucharist, the “form” is the words of consecration spoken by the priest when he echoes the words used by Jesus at the Last Supper in the breaking of the bread and the offering of the cup. The “matter” of the Eucharist is the wheat bread and the grape wine. When someone is ordained to the priesthood, the “form” of the Sacrament is the bishop’s laying on of his hands onto the man desiring ordination. The “matter” of the Sacrament is the man himself, who has responded to God’s call of service as a priest. Just as the Church could never substitute something else for the bread and wine used in the Holy Eucharist, or for the water used in Baptism, the Church can never allow the “ordination” of women. The “matter” of this Sacrament is, and always must be, male. The Pope himself can never allow women to be priests. “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (Saint John Paul II, 05-22-94).

This is not an issue of justice. It’s not unjust that men can’t give birth to babies. It’s a gift reserved for women. Likewise, it’s not unjust that women can’t be ordained. It’s a Sacrament reserved for men. No one has a “right” to the priesthood. Men are called by God Himself to this life. In Jesus’ humanity, He was a man. His gender was not an accident, because the Church is His bride. The priest reflects Christ whenever he celebrates any of the Sacraments that Jesus gave us. Women generously serve the Church in many important roles every day, and have done so throughout history. There are different roles within the Body of Christ, as St. Paul tells us. Men and women are equal in the eyes of God, but this equality is not synonymous with sameness. What a boring Church that would be! God blesses us in our unique roles and we are called to embrace that uniqueness and celebrate our varied gifts and graces. We give Him glory when we are most fully ourselves in His service, whatever our role may be. And we pray that those who struggle with these roles, in any way, may experience the love and guidance of the Holy Spirit in their lives and may return to full communion with His Church.

“I have separated you from other people, that you should be Mine.”

       —Leviticus 20:29 

Her Beautiful Hands

  
The first time I met her I was sick with a fever. We’d been traveling for days and I was dragging. She welcomed me into her home and nursed me back to health. Now, whenever I see her, she feels my forehead with her well-worn hands and says, “There now, no fever today,” as she smiles up at me. At five-foot-nothing, she has to look up to most everyone. Small and wiry, Gran is a bundle of energy, even now in her late eighties. And she gives that energy away, to everyone she meets.  

She lives in a stone cottage with a thatched roof that was built by her great-great-grandfather. Until 1965, it didn’t have electricity. Gran still likes to make tea and soda bread on the turf fire, although she has a modern kitchen. All 6 of her children were born in this house, just like Gran was. Her husband died here almost 30 years ago. Gran has some chickens and a milk cow, but the rest of her farm is rented out for cattle and silage. She has flowers on every windowsill and patch of ground and a few tomatoes and cucumbers growing in a tiny greenhouse. There are probably a thousand other cottages like hers in this corner of Ireland, but not one of them is more full of life and love than Gran’s house.  

I asked her once what kept her going, especially after her husband’s death, all these years ago. We were shelling peas in the sunshine behind the kitchen. Her hands flew down each pod as the peas dropped into the pan on her lap. She smiled down at her work and, not missing a beat, answered,”Because my life doesn’t belong to me. It’s meant to be given away.”  

And for more than 8 decades, that’s what she’s done. As the eldest of 5 children, she helped care for her younger brothers and sisters and worked on their large farm while going to school. When she was 17, she got married, and she and her husband made their home with her parents, caring for them both until their deaths. She helped her neighbors when childbirth came and nursed the sick and the dying. Her hands never stopped. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, milking, and holding babies. Gran’s life is told in her warm, wrinkled hands. As she sits by the fire in the evening, she embroiders altar linens for her parish church. One day several years ago, I was with her when there was a knock at her door. In this heavily-Catholic part of Ireland, two young Mormon men wanted to talk with Gran. She smiled and listened for a few minutes and then she pointed down across the fields to the small village she called home. There soared the spire of her Church. She said, “Look there. I can go there and sit with my Lord. I can receive His Body and Blood at every Holy Communion. Can your church give me more than that?” The young men thanked her and went on their way—with a loaf of her soda bread in their backpack. 

Gran has given me so many things over the years I’ve known her but what I treasure the most is her reminder to work hard at being generous and kind. Give your time to help others and listen twice as much as you talk. And a little whiskey at bedtime is a blessing. 

As I’m writing this, Gran is watching the evening news on her new flat-screen television. The lead story is about the terror attack in Nice. I notice that her eyes are nearly closed and her hands are busy in her lap, praying her Rosary. Probably for France, but also for her large family, now spread out over 4 continents. Those hands are always busy. Weaving a life lived for others, giving away love every day and never stopping to think of herself. I pray that God will make me more like her and I give thanks to Him for her example of a grateful servant of the Lord. Thank you, Gran. You’re a wonderful gift to everyone who knows you.

“Love does not measure, it just gives.”            —Blessed Mother Teresa

Farming My Soul

  
I grew up on a farm. We raised vegetables to sell and to eat and we had cows and pigs and chickens. The land provided for us, so long as my family provided the work. We had the food and money we needed to buy most everything else. My parents worked very hard for us and spent a lot of time planning for next year. Farmers do that. They live in the future: the next harvest, next year, the weather tomorrow and next week. I grew up learning about fertilizer and soil conversation and what made cows sick. I watched my dad repair broken tractors and hay balers. We’d get up at night to help birth a litter of piglets or a baby calf. I knew better than to make pets of any of them because in a few months they’d be on our dinner table, or sold to pay bills. The land was everything to us. We completely depended on it for our lives. As the writer Dr. Ferrol Sams said, “In the beginning was the land.” The Georgia soil and rains never failed us. As I learned a little history and my worldview widened, I realized how blessed we were. We didn’t have devastating droughts or hurricanes to deal with. Locusts and disease passed us by. We were never brought low by price collapses or natural disasters. We depended on our farm and it met all our needs. It never failed.  

We go through our lives looking for what we can depend on like my family depended on our farm. But we’re frequently disappointed in the things we find in this world. Relationships fall apart; we lose a job; our health fails. Even when we work hard and do all the “right” things, sometimes nothing seems to work out. It’s what we choose to do in those broken moments of our lives that reveals who we really are. Do we become bitter and blame others for our failings? Do we shake our fists at the sky, shouting at God? Do we turn to something like alcohol or pills to take away our pain? Or maybe we just give up, withdraw into ourselves and avoid giving our hearts away to anyone else or to any new pursuit or purpose. A spirit that is crushed by the world is a sad and hollow life. It becomes like barren earth that has been made lifeless through over use and lack of care and proper stewardship. Weeds have been allowed to creep in and deplete all the nutrients. Such a life bears little fruit. And a life like this rarely draws others into it.  

Jesus often used images of farming and shepherding to describe the Christian life. He talks about pruning and being pruned, about tending the flock and feeding the sheep and heeding the voice of the Shepherd. Anyone has farmed the land or tended stock knows how important humility is. You’re not really in control of very much on a farm. You’re at the mercy of the weather and wind, of plague and flood. You can’t will a crop into existence or demand the birth of a healthy animal. You do your best and live in hope. In that way, you are the co-creator of your crops and your flocks. It makes you appreciate the goodness of the earth and the bounty of her fields. When bad years come, and they inevitably will, you regroup and look with hope to next year’s harvest. You learn not to give up, but to trust and to keep trying. You help out your neighbor when he needs it and you count on him to help you out when times are rough.  

I think back often on those years on our farm. The older I get, the more I value the lessons of living life close to the earth. We were poor, but we never lacked anything important. I witnessed the value of hard work and the rewards that come from it: a fresh tomato, a squirming pink piglet, the smell of fresh hay in the field and the long, slow evening spent reliving the day’s events. The rhythm of the farm is a lot like the rhythm of our spiritual walk. Times of harvest, followed by times of drought; planting seeds in the hope of bounty and quiet times of reflection and rest. It’s no wonder to me that the image of a perfect relationship with God is revealed to us as a beautiful Garden.  

My farm is not where I must soil

My hands in endless, dreary toil.  

But where, through seed and swelling pod

I’ve learned to walk and talk with God.” 

  —from a Novena to St. Isidore

      the patron Saint of farmers 

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