Your Clear Conscience

  
There’s so much going on in the world today and it’s a lot to keep up with. Between television news on a 24-hour cycle and all that’s available online and in social media, it’s a real effort to stay on top of the latest. But you do your best, because you care what happens to people and you want to stay informed.  

You tuned in on September 11 just in time to see the plane hit the second tower. You still remember the horror and shock of that awful day. So many innocent people killed in just a few hours. Over the following months and years you watched us go to war and you saw many more Americans killed. You wondered if our country was on the right path. You hated seeing so many deaths. Because you care about people.  

When the recession hit America in 2008, you watched many people lose their jobs. Some people you knew even lost their homes. Qualified folks went so long without being able to find work. Even college graduates couldn’t find a job. Construction everywhere ground to a halt. And this went on for years, until it almost seemed like this was normal in our country. You felt so awful seeing friends and family struggle to make ends meet. Because you care about people.  

You’re worried about the environment, too. Maybe at first you weren’t too convinced when you heard folks talk about global warming. But now it seems pretty clear that things are heating up. Is it caused by people or is it another natural period of warming temperatures? Is there anything we can do to stop it? You worry. You recycle. You conserve. You’ve thought about buying a Prius. You see our weather changing with more heat, more drought and more extreme events. It’s enough to make you anxious for the generations to come. Because you care about people.  

You see friends and family struggling with understanding and accepting folks who are gay, lesbian, or transgender. You watched when the Supreme Court made gay marriage legal across our country. You’re trying to be supportive with those folks who are hurting or angry because of that ruling. But you also see the happiness unfolding in the lives of your LGBTQ friends as they marry and make families together. Sometimes you feel you’re caught in the middle of the whole thing. Because you care about people.  

You’ve watched our country debate immigration. Those pictures of babies and children suffering in Syria break your heart. You know that many families there just want to come here and be safe and have a normal life. But you’ve also seen terrorists attack innocent people here and in Paris and Brussels, and so many other places. You always put a flag on your Facebook profile when that happens. Part of you worries that immigrants might be a threat here if we aren’t carefully screening who we let come in. You think about it a lot. Because you care about people.  

And now the election is almost here and there’s so much to consider before voting. Jobs and security and education. There’s school loans and fracking and trade. What about the Supreme Court vacancy and the quality of our drinking water? We have to address Putin and his aggression don’t we? And somehow we need to get Congress out of the doldrums to focus on things like healthcare and tax reform. And there’s crime and violence in our streets like never before, right? It can be overwhelming when you think about it all. But you don’t have to think about abortion. That’s the law of the land, so you need not worry about it going away. It’s here to stay. You’ll spend your time working for other causes. Because you care about people. Well, people that are already born, anyway.

If we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?”

       —-St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta 

Ketchup and Butterflies

  
It’s been a long, hot summer here in north Georgia. And it was another stifling afternoon a couple of weeks ago as I waited for my older brother at our local cemetery. It was our late mother’s birthday and we were meeting at her gravesite to leave some flowers and do a bit of remembering. I sat in my car, grateful for the air conditioning and looked around. This is one of those old-fashioned places with lovely headstones and family memorials. I looked round at the familiar stones marking each person’s resting place. So many of them were names that I recognized. And on this September afternoon, the air was filled with butterflies.  

Little yellow butterflies are everywhere you look in our area every late summer day. They’re called “cloudless sulphur” butterflies and they migrate down the eastern U.S. this time of year. When you start seeing them, you know that summer is on the way out—even though, like this year, it may not feel like it. I sat in my cool car, watching dozens of them fluttering among the marble and the flowers, always heading south. Though it was a bittersweet day for me, I couldn’t help but smile at them, and remember. 

It was thirty years ago, on another hot summer afternoon. Mother and I were making homemade ketchup with some of her abundant homegrown tomatoes. This is a long process of cooking and stirring, cooking and stirring. Each batch takes several hours to make. The kitchen was like a furnace and every few hours, we’d take some iced tea and sit outside on the shady deck at the back of the house for a break. I just wanted the day to be over so I could take a cool shower and be done with all those tomatoes. But Mother was in her element, enjoying every minute of the process and so proud of the end product. It was she who pointed out the little yellow butterflies flying around in the shade around us. “Summer’s almost over when those little things show up,” she said, raising her tea glass to the butterflies. She told me how they migrated through our part of the world each year, something I’d never noticed before.  

But in the 14 years since her death, not a September has gone by that I don’t look for them. When they show up, I remember that “ketchup day” with her and I’m so very grateful for it, and for her. Now that I’m a lot older, I appreciate her love of the homegrown and the homemade. I value the work that goes into making something of quality, no matter the effort it might take. And I’d give anything in the world to have another day like that with her again. 

I’d come to the cemetery that afternoon feeling blue and a little weepy, trying to keep it together on another sad anniversary. But there I was, smiling at butterflies and remembering a wonderful day in my mom’s company. It’s amazing how deeply we can be touched by something as small as a butterfly’s wing.  

God made our world beautiful for us. He made colors and smells and sounds and tastes for our pleasure, not for Himself. And all that beauty draws our hearts and minds to the beauty of the One Who made it for us. Whenever we need a reminder of all the wonders around us, He gives it to us. His timing is always perfect. Whether it’s a sunset or a bluebird or a snowflake, or a little yellow butterfly—we can know that He holds us in the palm of His hand. He knows what we need before we do and He knew I needed to feel my Mother’s love again that day in the cemetery. And so, at her grave, He sent me little yellow butterflies.  

Declare His glory among the heathen, His wonders among all people.”

              —Psalm 96:3 

A Touch of Evil

  
There were 3 of us in the college chapel that night. It was close to midnight but the chapel was always open and we’d often meet together there after the library closed to pray a Rosary. That night we were the only ones in the chapel and the low lighting and flickering candles made it a prayerful and quiet place. My friends and I had been praying for about 10 minutes when the double doors at the back of the small chapel slammed open loudly, startling us badly. We all turned around to see who had come in with such noise. It was 2 men dressed in black and standing side by side, staring down the aisle, not at us, but at the altar and the Tabernacle behind it. They weren’t students. In a small college like ours, we knew our classmates. It felt wrong, in a way I couldn’t really define. My friends and I kept praying softly and the two men stood without moving just inside the doorway. After a minute or so, my friends and I stood up and stepping into the aisle, turned to face them while we prayed. To this day, almost 40 years later, I don’t know how the 3 of us decided to do this, but we did. I just knew that I had to put myself between these people and the Eucharist. The moment we turned toward them, they left the chapel. We finished our Rosary and then one of my friends left to tell the chaplain what had happened. The priest came and locked the chapel doors that night. My friends and I talked often about that night and the men dressed all in black who seemed so interested in the Blessed Sacrament.  

Over the years since then, I’ve had several experiences that I’d consider a brush with an evil presence. There was the lady who had applied for a secretarial position. When she walked into my office for her interview I felt as if all the oxygen had been sucked from the room. I felt nauseous and couldn’t bear to look at her directly. Then there was the hotel room filled with a darkness that every light in the room couldn’t eliminate. When I lay down on the bed, I felt a heavy, unpleasant pressure on my legs and arms, as if the darkness itself was pinning me down. Needless to say, I didn’t spend more than a couple of minutes in both the interview and the hotel room.

Evil isn’t something we need to let terrify us though, since we are members of the family of God. But neither should we ignore it or tolerate its presence in our lives. Too often, people actually invite evil into their lives through the use of psychics or “innocent” things like ouija boards, tarot cards or seances. The Church teaches us that we should guard our souls against the power of evil, since it seeks our destruction. The grace of Baptism, Confirmation, and Confession is a powerful protection. Frequent Holy Communion is the most bountiful source of grace and goodness. And yet even the Saints often hand encounters with demons, despite their holiness. St. Teresa of Avila and St. Padre Pio wrote at length of these attacks on them. Neither of them ignored the evil sent to persecute them, but neither were they terrified. We should follow their examples. 

Recognize evil for what it is and call it by its true name. It’s not “new age” or “new world” or “seeking” or “channeling.” It’s evil. And it wants to destroy you. But evil’s power over us is limited. The devil isn’t the equal of God in any way, shape or form. He is a creature, made by God, who answers to the name and power of our Lord. And the grace and power of God shields and protects us from him. The Lord gave us a Church and the Sacraments to draw us to Him and enfold us in His love. If you think something or someone is evil, you’re probably right. Listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit and pray for the Lord’s protection. Pray. Fast. Do good for others. Go to Confession and receive the Lord in Holy Communion. Let the devil know he has no place in your heart, your home, or your family.

“…greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world.”

        —- I John 4:4 

Everyday Hope

  
After so many hours of terrible waiting and pain in the darkness and rubble, the little girl was pulled alive from the wreck of her Italian home. Saving her gave the rescue workers hope that others still needed them, and so they went on digging and listening, searching for other survivors. In the convent, the sisters were injured and bleeding. Only two of them had survived, scared and trapped and unsure if anyone was around to hear their cries for help. They were afraid. Using her cellphone, one of the sisters sent goodbye messages to her family, believing she was about to die. But she didn’t die. A worker from their convent rescued them. 

In Louisiana, neighbors with boats went around saving neighbors without boats in the recent floods. They pulled them through windows and off of roofs and lifted them out of the dark water. They took their dogs and cats along, too. They wrapped them in blankets and gave them coffee and sandwiches. It wasn’t their job to rescue people, but they did it anyway. Because that’s what neighbors do for one another.  

The firefighters have been battling in the hills and canyons for months now. The heat and drought and winds make it hard to get ahead of the flames. So many fires in so many places. This part of California, with all its homes and ranches and horse farms is a tinder keg of desert scrub. In the 120 degree heat, the firefighters cut brush, build fire breaks and help people and animals evacuate. They’re nearly always in danger themselves and they’ll work until the last fire is out and the ashes are cold.  

Every day across the world people are reaching out to help one another. Some in big ways—like in an earthquake or a flood or a wildfire. But many, many more are in a million other small ways that never make the headlines. And it’s in those million small connections that love and mercy live. That’s where and how the Kingdom of God is built. J.R.R. Tolkien and I agree on that. He writes that where some folks believe “only great power can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found that it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folks that keeps the darkness at bay.” Oh, yes, Mr. Tolkien, once again, you’ve got things right. 

Because for every headline rescue, there are a million of those “small acts” of kindness and love. And they save lives, and spirits, too. They give hope and joy to countless people every day, all over the world. And I believe it is in these person-to-person non-headline kindnesses that the mercy of God is most fully revealed in our world. And every day, each one of us is called to participate. Called by the King of Kings, no less. This is how we share in the Hope of Christ.  

I know the world looks like a mess. On the face of things, it seems broken beyond repair. So it can be easy to hide behind all sorts of masks and excuses and we can choose to stay on the sidelines. But not if we follow Christ. Being a Christian means jumping in with both feet and engaging the chaos and darkness of the world. And our armor is the armor of God (Ephesians 6:11). It’s not by taking a pass, but by meeting life head-on, in the trenches, and reflecting the light of Christ to others. You might not see your name in the headlines, but you’ll be building the Kingdom of Heaven—person to person, moment to moment, heart to heart. Choose hope!

“Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage: anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”

             —St. Augustine  

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.

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