Little Church, Big Mission

It’s just a little country church on a hill. One brick building with a dozen or so parking spots, way out in the boondocks. But that lot is very often full to overflowing with cars while kids are playing basketball and families are gathering under the picnic pavilion. The church has a prayer box near the parking entrance where anyone who wants to can drop in a prayer request to share with their congregation. This time each year, they sell pumpkins to raise funds for their various programs. It’s beautiful to see that grassy hill covered with hundreds of orange pumpkins. And they have one outreach program that always catches my eye—their church sign.

You know those messages that many churches post on their signs? Sometimes it’s a BIble verse, or maybe a faith-based pun (Know Jesus. Know peace. No Jesus. No peace). The messages are often forgettable and all-too-frequently misspelled. But this little church gets them right. They’re thought-provoking and original and they never fail to get my attention. Their messages make me think of Jesus. That’s a pretty effective ministry for a tiny country church. This week, the sign reads: “Everything God says is an expression of love.”

Sure. As Christians, we know that God loves us. He sent His only Son to save us from our sins. His grace is sufficient (II Corinthians 12:9). The Bible is a love story of how our God created a universe for us, made us His children through Christ and will meet us face-to-face in a heaven that will surpass all our ideas of beauty and love.

But wait a minute. The Bible is also full of heartache and suffering. There are plagues and wars and famine. Families (including the very first one) are torn apart by sin and murder. Whole cities are destroyed by God’s wrath. How can we read about these horrors and believe the church sign, that everything God says is an expression of love? It’s easy to believe in love when we read about the birth of Jesus and the feeding of the multitude and see Jesus healing the sick and raising the dead. It’s more difficult to believe in that love when we read about lakes of fire and awful diseases and the deaths of all those firstborn sons.

This is because God’s plan for us is like the plans of any good parent for their children. Sometimes the things we want are bad for us, so God says, “no.” Anything that distracts us from our “best” is a sin and we know that sin leads to death (Romans 6:23). When the Lord says “no” to our plans, it isn’t to make us feel bad or to frustrate us, but to help us conform our will to His will. You see, His plans for us are so infinitely better than anything we could ever imagine. We’re like little children who chafe and whine when mom or dad won’t give us all the candy we want, all day long, every day of the week. All we can know, with our child’s mind, is that life is cruel and unfair and our parents must hate us for keeping the candy hidden away from us.

The truth is, God loves us in everything, in all circumstances, in every trial and in all our sufferings. He looks on us with longing to know us better and a desire to spend an eternity in our presence. This is the love of our Lord Who is Love Himself. How much He loves us is there on the Crucifix, is there in the cup of His Blood and in the Bread that is His Body in Holy Communion. It is in the marriage feast of the Lamb that He is preparing for you and for me at this very moment in heaven (Revelation 19:6-9). From Eden to Armageddon, God’s every word and action and plan is one of unfolding and unfailing love. I need reminding of this. And the little church in the country did that for me this week. Your sign and your messages bless me and I know they bless others as well. Thank you for reminding me of the good news of His love.

“Everything comes from love, all is ordained for the salvation of man; God does nothing without this goal in mind.”

—–St. Catherine of Siena (1347 – 1380)

Your Gift To Him

A newborn baby.  Is there anything in the world more beautiful and more innocent?  In a tiny baby, we can see ourselves when we were new to the world.  In their little grasping fingers that reach out to touch and explore to their wide, seeking eyes that drink in the light and colors of the world around them—babies find everything worthy of their attention.  The world to them is a place of beauty, adventure and goodness.  We see in them the beauty, adventure and goodness of a soul created in love by God and made in His likeness.  We see the innocent purity of a freshly-minted soul, unstained by sinful thoughts or actions.  Before the age of reason, about seven years of age or so, only original sin mars the beauty of the soul in any way.  This inherited sin of Adam and Eve is washed clean at baptism.  After we receive this Sacrament, our newborn soul truly reflects our Maker’s love and divine goodness.  We are His sinless child.

The Lord made us to be like Him.  He created you and me “in His image” (Genesis 1:27).  It is in our souls that we mirror God, not in the flesh and bones of our mortal bodies, good as they are. Our spirit or soul is what makes us human and is a reflection of the living God.  Catholics believe that we are created by God at the moment of our conception, fully whole and fully human.  We aren’t just tissue that becomes a human at the time of birth.  No. From that first moment of life, we are a human being.  God’s greatest gift to each of us is the precious gift of our own lives, which He planned from the beginning of time.

In our journey through life, our choices affect the state of our souls.  When we sin against our neighbor, that sin wounds our relationship with God.  Sin also sounds our souls. This wound can be large and deep, or small and shallow, but there are consequences to every sin.  When we confess our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation that wound is healed.  But a scar remains.  That scar is any attachment to the sin that remains within us.  Over a lifetime, the marks of our sinful choices leave a map on our eternal souls.  What will your map reveal at the end of your life?  Just as God gave you the gift of life and an eternal soul, the gift of your soul is what you’ll give back to Him upon your death.  Jesus shares with us the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) which illustrates what we are to do with the gifts He gives to us.  He calls us to be Christ to one another, to care for one another, to love one another and to offer ourselves to help Him build the Kingdom of God.  In short, we’re called to live like Jesus so that when we meet the Master, we can hear Him say to us:  “Well done my good and faithful servant….Come share your Master’s joy”(Matthew 25:21).

We’re entrusted at birth with an eternal soul.  At the end of our lives, we’ll present this soul back to the Lord.  Our offering to Him will be the summation of all the choices we’ve made in our lives and all the mercy and forgiveness we’ve begged of Him.  Jesus established a Church to shepherd and guide us through our earthly lives (Matthew 16:18).  He didn’t want us to try and figure things out on our own.  Through His Church we can receive the grace of His Sacraments and the mercy of His forgiveness.  He will make an accounting of our lives, like the Master evaluated the servants in the parable.  In our case, the riches God gave to us our are very souls.  Like the newborn, we were once pure and innocent of sin or scar.  Have we loved as He loved?  Have we shown mercy to those around us?  Have we forgiven others, not once or twice, but seventy times seven?  Have we given of our gifts and treasure without counting the cost?  Life is our journey to become more like Jesus so that at the end of our time on earth we can be with Him forever.  What will your gift to God be like?

“Go forth, O Christian soul, out of this world in the name of God the Father Almighty Who created you; in the name of Jesus Christ Who suffered for you; in the name of the Holy Spirit Who sanctified you.”

—From “Commending the Soul to God,” the                             traditional Catholic prayer for a dying person

Her Smile

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

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

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

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

What’s Your Price?

My first job after graduate school was as a psychotherapist in a small town in west Texas.  I worked for a public mental health agency and we were missioned to serve all the psychological needs of the community.  We saw anyone and everyone that walked through our doors.  It was a great learning experience for me.  One of the aspects of our clinic was that our fees were based on our client’s income.  The more they earned, the more they paid.  But no one left without paying something.  The idea was that people tend not to place value on things they receive for free.  So even our poorest clients would pay something for their therapy sessions, even if it was just a dollar.  And if they didn’t keep their appointments, they would still be charged.  Very few would no-show their sessions this way.  This arrangement didn’t come close to meeting our operating expenses, but that wasn’t the point anyway.

After all these years, I think our assumptions about value and worth were right.  Life has taught me that people tend to not value things that come to them without a price.  When something is valuable to us, we take better care of it.  We make sure it doesn’t get damaged and, if it does, we have it repaired.  We use it for the purpose for which it was made.  We don’t let others misuse it.  Last Sunday’s Mass readings included one from the first letter of St. Paul to the church at Corinth that really brought these truths home to me:  “You were purchased at a price” (I Cor 6:19-20).

Thank about that for a moment.  “You were purchased at a price.”  You are so valuable that God bought you with the life of His only Son.  What would you purchase with the life of your only child? Can you even imagine that kind of love?  And yet that’s how much God loves you.  In the midst of your sinful life (in the midst of my sinful life), that’s how much God values and loves you.  He loves you more than you can understand, and with a love that is beyond your human comprehension.  Knowing this should call each of us to have a conversion in our hearts and in our lives.  We belong to the Lord.  He has claimed us as His children though the sinless blood of Christ.  All that we have, all that we are is His and His alone.  Every breath we take is a gift of His generous love.  This knowledge has big and practical consequences for us:

1.  All human life is precious and must be treated with dignity and respect from the moment of conception until natural death.
2.  Parents have a duty to raise their children in His Church, teaching them about God’s great love for them and guiding them in the way of that love.
3.  We must love one another as God loves each of us.
4.  Our bodies belong to God.  They are the temple of His love for us and should be treated with holy respect.’
5.  Every day is a gift from God and so we must spend it doing good and working for the benefit of others.
6.  No one is outside the love of God.  Even if we don’t like them, God loves them ferociously.
7.  No one is unable to be redeemed.  No matter the sin, no matter the sinner.  We are ALL the prodigal children of the Father.  By His mercy, we seek His forgiveness.  Through His grace, we are saved.
8.  God has never been closer to you than He is at this very moment.  If you’re still reading this, it’s only because God is calling to you.  He longs for your friendship because “you were purchased at a price.”  He has valued you above and beyond anything else in the universe. You are the treasure of His Sacred Heart.

What’s your response to this sort of overwhelming love?  How do you begin to be grateful?

“God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.”   —St. Augustine

That Time of Year

It’s been a long, hot summer here in north Georgia. And it was another stifling afternoon a couple of years 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 more than 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 16 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