A Summer Afternoon

When the days grow longer and the temperatures rise, there’s something inside many of us that begs us to relax, to put our feet up…and do absolutely nothing. Maybe it’s the heat or maybe it’s just that every moment of our busy days makes us long for some relief from it, for just a few minutes of down time. Whatever the cause of it, we need to pay attention to that call of our built-in laziness.

What??? Lazy is never a good thing, right? Well, maybe and maybe not. I’m not suggesting that we shirk all our responsibilities forever but just that we “unschedule” ourselves on a regular basis. We need to create some time where no one is expecting us to be anywhere or do anything for a bit. The only expectation is that we’ll open our hearts and minds to whatever the Lord may want to lead us. We’re going to waste some time with Jesus.

This is something that we can see the followers of Jesus doing with Him as they enjoyed listening and asking questions. We can imagine how HIs words would have stirred them, making them question their decisions and evaluate how they were living their lives. Some were drawn closer to Jesus and committed their lives to Him. Their faith was always rewarded. Their time with Christ became the treasure in their lives. This is what He offers each one of us. But we’ll never know that closeness if we don’t spend time with Him, listening.  

First, get your Bible and read one chapter in one of the Gospels. Any chapter of any Gospel. Pick your favorite or find one that has always challenged your understanding. Read it. Now read it again, more slowly. Focus on Jesus’ words. Now imagine yourself being there, in the moment with Jesus. Imagine Him talking directly to you, looking you in the eyes. How does His gaze make you feel? What people in your own life come into your thoughts as He’s looking at you? How are His words inviting you to live?

Make a list of all the people that you are praying for. Now add to that list all the people who have hurt you, betrayed you, lied about you, abandoned you, or have been a stumbling block for you. These people will become the treasures of your prayer life. Offering prayers on behalf of those who have hurt you is a sure source of grace. Nothing pleases our Lord more than seeing His children live out His teachings of love and forgiveness. By our prayers, we reveal our wounded hearts to Him and He never fails to heal us, forgive us, and draw us back to Him.  

Once you’ve prayed for all the folks on your list, you’re ready to spend time with God “in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:18). This is how our first parents came to know God in the Garden. They opened their hearts and listened. They enjoyed each other’s company. How wonderful that time with God was and how beautiful that He offers that same sort of time to each one of us. He not only offers that experience to us, He craves it. God wants to spend time with each of us. He longs for us to invite Him in to every moment of our lives. So set aside a lazy afternoon to “waste” some time with the Lord. You’ll never regret giving those hours to Him. You’ll be revived and refreshed and hopefully you’ll want to schedule more “unscheduled” hours for prayer and reflection. 

“Faith is that profound conviction that God is with us and for us.” 

                     —Unkn

Don’t Be Fooled

It feels good at first. When you’ve been feeling bad about yourself or a bit depressed about how your life is going, it feels good to hear someone tell you that there’s a different way to live. When your hear that you’re a good person, an amazing person and that you can have anything in the world that your heart desires—well, that’s heady stuff. It’s like coming in from a freezing cold blizzard and being wrapped up in a great big warm, fuzzy blanket. It feels SO good.

And that’s a problem. It’s all about making you feel better, and nothing about making you a saint. This brand of Christianity is popular in America these days. You can find it on your tv any time day or night. It goes by different names, but it’s generally called some version of the “prosperity gospel.” It bears little resemblance to the Gospel of Jesus Christ laid out in Holy Scripture. Most Christians profess that Jesus came to save us from our sins through His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. We believe that His love and mercy was poured out for us on the Cross and we look to that same Cross as the source of our hope, And we know that Jesus tells us “…whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).  

One of the tenets of this prosperity movement (and how it got its name) is that your faith will bring you worldly wealth and happiness. You are told to speak to God about your wants and to claim them as your own.This “naming and claiming” is a very modern twist on God’s benevolence. Throughout the history of Christianity, believers who did as Jesus tells us and took up their crosses, found sanctity through His example. Jesus was poor, homeless, humble, despised, tortured and brutally killed. All but one (St. John) of His Apostles were tortured and killed for their faith in Christ. Over the centuries thousands of Christians have been put to death for believing in Jesus Christ. It is happening this very day.  

The lives of these martyrs make no sense if you look through the lens of earthly prosperity preachers. Try to imagine applying “name it and claim it” as you face torture and death. You can’t do it because it isn’t part of God’s plan. If we pick up that cross and follow Him, we must expect to walk the path He walked. We must expect to suffer and to embrace suffering as a key to our sanctification . St. Paul tells us that suffering goes hand in hand with following Christ. “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in Him, but also suffer for His sake”(Phil 1:29). Are we to believe that St. Paul got it all wrong? And not only Paul, but the other Gospel writers and Apostles as well.

This is why you’ll rarely hear the prosperity preachers talk about the Cross, the Crucifixion, suffering, sin, pain, repentance, or sacrifice. None of this fits with their vision of God, whom they have reduced to a kindly uncle with an unlimited bank account. This is a small god and not the God of Calvary, Who requires nothing less of us than everything. But in that Cross IS everything—eternal life in Christ. The Gospel isn’t about making you feel good about yourself. The Gospel is a call to lay our lives at the foot of the Cross and to enter into the life of Christ. The Gospel is meant to transform our lives in this world so that we may share God’s eternal life in the next world. That transformation, if we believe the Gospel, is going to be painful. Sanctification, becoming like Christ, is worth walking that broken road with Him. It’s what the Apostles and the Saints have done. And their reward? So much more than a big house and earthly wealth. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. Don’t allow them to try and make God over in their own image, into some kind of personal shopper. Turn off the tv and read the Gospels. Discover the love of the great I AM and His plan for your life. Do not be afraid! 

“They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the Cross.”

      ——Flannery O’Connor

What’s Getting In Your Way?

It’s the longest dialogue Jesus has with anyone in any of the Gospels.  We’ve all heard the story many times, and for good reason—this lovely encounter between Christ and a sinner cuts to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian.  In the fourth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus comes to a well at noontime and there he meets a Samaritan woman who is about to fill her water jar.  The conversation they share at the well reveals how mercy and sin meet in the heart of the woman.  She is an outcast, a Samaritan, with whom no “respectable” Jewish man would speak.  Yet she and Jesus speak deeply together about social protocol, religious history, Jewish prophecy and, in a real stunner for the woman, her own broken marriages and sin.  She is transformed by her conversation with Jesus.  In the middle of this ordinary day, her life was totally changed.  She has met the Messiah at the well.  Since we know her shame and her sins, we know that her noonday trip to the well was something she’d planned.  It was no accident for her to be there when she was.  The other women of the town would have visited the well early in the morning.  So she’d avoided the stares and comments of these “respectable” women by timing her trip for the hottest time of the day, when no one else would be there.  Or so she thought.

 

But God had other plans for her life.  In the middle of an ordinary day, in the middle of her sinful life, the Creator of the universe asked her for a drink of water.  As they spoke together, Jesus revealed Who He was and gave her the promise of eternal life.  She was drawn to Him.  Jesus didn’t condemn her, which she was probably expecting.  Neither did He minimize her situation:  “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband (John 4:17-18).”  Jesus named her sin there in the light of the noonday sun.  And her eyes and heart were opened to see Him and hear Him.  He accepted her in her sin without condemnation or judgment.  His truthful words allowed her to imagine a new beginning.  His mercy was a healing balm for her broken and abused heart.  As she felt the impact of His acceptance and love grow within her, she did something remarkable—“…she left her water jar…”(John 4:28).  The very thing that was the reason she’d come to the well in the first place was now unimportant to her.  She left the jar to tell the people of the town about Jesus.  “Come and see a man who told me everything I have done”(Johne 4:29).  Perhaps the burden of that heavy clay water jar was like the other burdens she’d left at the well.  Her sinfulness, her emptiness, her shame and her guilt, these were gone, too.  She’d visited the well for ordinary water and found living water instead.  All her burdens were now laid at the feet of the Lord. 

 

We can see ourselves in her unfolding story.  What burdens, what sins, what shame are each of us being called to lay at Jesus’ feet?  What is it in my life that I keep in my own water jar?  And if we don’t give our sinfulness over to Him, how can we hope to be a witness to others of His life-giving water?  What am I carrying around that gets in the way of my sharing the good news of God’s mercy and love? 

 

“…whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst…”(John 4:14)

A Stubborn Old Heresy

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

Be A Saint!

Friends are one of God’s great blessings to us.  They give us love, support, helpful advice and the dearest ones challenge us to become the best versions of ourselves.  It’s long been said that you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep.  For Catholics, our best friends can be the saints.  We believe that these heroic men and women lived lives full of Christ’s love and mercy and are great examples to us of virtue and perseverance.  Their lives and writings light the way for us, showing us how real people can fully live out the Gospel.

 

If your life’s goal is to love and serve God in this life and spend eternity with Him in the next one, then study the lives of the saints.  Becoming holy is the calling of every Christian believer because to become holy is to become like Jesus.  The path to holiness is well-known and well-traveled.  Contrary to Hollywood, it’s not a secret that only a few can know or understand.  The problem is that most people are looking in the wrong places.  If you want to follow Jesus, read the Gospels and the lives of His greatest followers.  The saints are no different from you and me in all things but one:  they never gave up.  Virtuous and sinful, faithful and doubting, they gave their lives to Christ, messed it up, and turned to Him again and again and again.  Sainthood doesn’t happen in an instantaneous thunderclap of holiness.  It’s a journey with Jesus and a path well-trodden by the saints who have gone before us.

 

Saints come from every walk of life, in every age and culture and every social class.  From noblemen and warriors to peasants, teachers, kings or little children…and everything in between.  The saints are our guides to heaven because they’ve already made the journey.  They’ve navigated the pitfalls of sin and doubt and we can learn from their successes and failures.  They’re practical examples of how your life can be transformed through a relationship with Jesus Christ.  Their stories challenge us to radically embrace our faith–not just to “slip by” doing the minimum.  Sometimes I think we subconsciously ask ourselves, “What’s the least I can do and still get to heaven?”  What a selfish response to the One Who gave everything to save me! The saints are demanding and many of us don’t like that.  When we look at their lives we become uncomfortable with our own.  And isn’t that the first step in a real conversion of the heart?  It’s when you realize your aren’t making it on your own and you need to change.  I’ll go a step further and say that if the lives of the saints make you uncomfortable, you’re probably just as uncomfortable with Jesus.  Because the holiness, the goodness and the virtue you’ll find in a saint’s life ALL belongs to Christ.  God doesn’t have favorites—He’s calling you to be a saint, too.  It’s what you were made for.  If you need a place to start, read about St. Francis of Assisi or St. Teresa of Calcutta.  Both these remarkable people are wonderful partners for our journey to heaven.  Put your hand in their hands and let them lead you to Jesus.

 

“If God can work through me, He can work through anyone.”  —St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)

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 

A Good Read

I love to read. I guess that’s not much of a surprise since I also love to write. I can’t remember NOT knowing how to read. Some of my earliest memories are sitting on my daddy’s lap when he’d come in at the end of his workday. We’d read the newspaper together. When I started school, I remember my first grade teacher announcing that we were going to learn to read. I walked to her desk, convinced there’d been some kind of grave mistake and I asked if I could go on home, since I already knew how to read. That didn’t quite work out as I’d hoped. Thankfully the world of books has never let me down. And the more I read, the more I know what I like.

Two of my favorite authors reward me with characters and stories that engage me on many levels, challenge what I think and believe and make me take a new look at myself. Dean Koontz is known as a writer of suspense thrillers. I love his stories because he’s so adept at describing our suffering in this broken world and the grace that we’re offered to get us through and transcend it. His characters are sometimes weird and strange but then, so am I. There’s always hope and redemption in a Koontz book. Plus, he creates great dog characters which is always the mark of a good writer, in my opinion. I mean if you can understand dogs, you must have a great world-view.

My other favorite writer is Flannery O’Connor. As far as I’m concerned, she’s in a class of her own. So much has been written already about the characters and themes in her stories. I relate to her on a very personal level. She’s a fellow Georgian, a fellow Catholic (as is Dean Koontz) and a fellow odd-duck. Or maybe I should say “peacock” since she raised those birds on her family farm in Milledgeville. She suffered from lupus for many years before eventually dying from it. I watched my own mother battle the same disease for the last decade of her life. So Flannery and I share some things in common.

Every time I read her stories or letters she surprises me. She never fails to make me laugh, too. I love her understanding of human nature and how even in our most sinful moments, the possibility of supernatural grace never leaves us. The presence of Christ permeates us and the world and nothing can separate us from that. And there’s the real rub, isn’t it? If Christ really is the Son of God and He really did die on the Cross and rise from the dead to save us, then EVERYTHING is changed by Him. O’Connor seizes on that “supposition” and shocks us with her crazy Southern (is that redundant?) characters. No sinner is beyond God’s redemptive love, not even the most lost of us. And if Christ isn’t God and He didn’t suffer and die to save us from getting what we all deserve—-then nothing matters. Go and do what you want and live as hard and as fast as you can because your only goal is pleasure before it’s lights out.

Koontz and O’Connor are just two examples of Catholic writers who reveal God to me. Through using their gifts and talents, I can see the actions of grace in unexpected people and situations. Both writers use the grotesque and bizarre, the misbegotten and the twisted to shock us out of our everydayness. They don’t tapdance around sin or redemption: they shout it out loud and point with grand gestures just to make sure we don’t miss it. They highlight the worst in us so that the Light of Christ shines all the brighter. And that’s what we’re all called to do in our lives. We can’t all be gifted writers like these two, but we can use our own talents and vocations to let Christ shine through us.

If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw everything away and follow Him.”
–from “A Good Man Is Hard To
Find” by Flannery O’Connor

“Evil is no faceless stranger, living in a distant neighborhood. Evil has a wholesome, hometown face with merry eyes and an open smile. Evil walks among us, wearing a mask which looks like all our faces.”
–from “The Mask” by Dean
Koontz

“She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.”
–from “A Temple of the Holy
Spirit” by Flannery O’Connor

The Darkness Around Us

The mother slaps her child in anger. She locks him in his room at night and lets him cry, unfed and unloved. The mother sees the child as a problem, perhaps even as a punishment. She feels trapped and she takes her anger and fear and sadness out on the boy. He is a reminder to her of all she has lost and all she will never have. We see her and her child. She is accused and despised. The system we have built rescues the child from her. He is the victim and we use the system to try and make him whole. His future is now our future.  

Another mother also feels trapped. She sees the child within her as a problem, perhaps even as a punishment. She is sad and fearful. She goes to her room at night and cries, unfed and unloved. She thinks of a solution to her problem and goes to a clinic, which is not a clinic at all but a slaughterhouse. Inside the clinic, and inside the woman, the child’s head is crushed with forceps. What was once a baby is now sold for parts in the marketplace the system props up. We see the woman but do not want to know her. We do not want to know what happens inside the “clinic” or inside the woman. It is, after all, her choice. Her choice is our choice and that choice is our future.  

We like to believe that our lives are our own. We like to believe that because the alternative to believing is too horrible to bear. What if my choices ripple out to affect the world? What if we really are part of the family of man, living here for a time, and bound to one another in ways beyond our knowing? That binding together makes us responsible for one another. What I choose to do isn’t merely my choice because every action creates the world in which we live today.

The world. Created in the beginning in love and perfection, it was our first parents whose actions brought death into being. Death, and decay, and pain, and sin. What they did, in that garden long ago, is with us every moment. The ripples of that sin infect every living soul on earth today. We carry within our hearts the seed of that turning away from Love. And sin begat sin, from Adam and Eve down to you and me.  

And so it goes. The mother kills the child in her womb. The baby is sold for scrap. Home invaders kill a sleeping couple in Seattle. A teenaged girl is beaten to death by a mob in Kansas City. In Chicago, a young man shoots a gun from his car, killing a toddler playing in her front yard. A couple in Delaware electrocutes the handicapped man for whom they’re paid to care. A boy in Boston sets fire to a dog. A woman in Miami poisons her grandmother. In Chattanooga, a terrorist guns down 5 military men at a service center. In Louisiana, a man shoots two innocent people in a movie theater before killing himself. Is all this violence connected? Does violence breed more violence? Or does living in a violent world make us so numb to murder that taking an innocent life no longer seems unusual? In the end, it doesn’t matter which is true.  

What remains true is that we have no right to be outraged by the violence. We forfeited that self-righteousness when we embraced and funded the killing of babies in the womb. Since Roe vs. Wade in 1973, we have killed more than 50 million children. The killing fields are not in some far-off land, but in our neighborhoods, in our homes. In our hearts. Every day that this murder of innocents continues, is another day of our accountability. And another day of our building a more violent world. Until we protect and defend human life from conception until natural death, we lose any credibility as a culture. We can’t fund abortions and at the same time be appalled and outraged by the violence around us. If we continue to believe that the murder and violence in our world isn’t connected to the murder of abortion, we’re lying to ourselves. We’re lying in the Face of the very Truth Who created the world and sustains our every breath. He offers us His life that ours might be saved for eternity. We can accept that grace and create a more peaceful world, or we can continue on the murderous path we’ve chosen into the wilderness, in the valley of the shadow of death.

“Beneath the bleeding Hands we feel

The sharp compassion of the 

  Healer’s art.”

           —T.S. Eliot, “East Coker” 

Kindness

She’s out there almost every day of the year. Now in her nineties, 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 exercises the muscles of our arms, our legs, and our core.

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 ever 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

Love Doesn’t Have To Be Complicated

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 others 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, 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?”

       —-St. Teresa of Calcutta 

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