It’s Up To Us

No one’s going to save us, but us. The sooner that more of us understand this, the sooner we can begin to turn things around. We’ve got to realize that no government or president or king or pope can make it all okay for us. We can’t legislate our way out of all the problems we see around us. No presidential executive order is going to keep us from killing one another. Our Church leaders preach peace and love and mercy, but they can’t do it for us. We have to be the makers of peace and love and mercy. Us. No one else.

In the face of cultural chaos, some of us stockpile food and weapons. We expect some kind of holocaust and we want to be prepared for it when it comes. Others see our problems and place the blame for them on anyone who is not like them: the immigrant, the corporate giant, the minority or the majority, anyone who is different is seen as a threat. Some of us join gangs. Some of us join militia groups. Some of us drop out of society: we don’t vote, don’t go to church, don’t know our neighbors, don’t invest in anything outside our own immediate families. But most of us are somewhere in the middle. We obey the law, we work hard, we love our children—and when we look at the world we live in, we no longer recognize it.

The values and shared beliefs that were once the fabric of the country of our childhood seem to be gone. Family life is in shreds with absent fathers, broken homes, and widespread poverty. Our children face an economic future more tenuous and difficult than we can imagine. The rule of law seems to have eroded at every level of society. We fear the policemen that we used to run to for help. Our country, founded by immigrants, now looks for ways to lock our doors to keep immigrants out. Both in our country and in our neighborhoods, we’re battening down the hatches and pulling up the drawbridges. The fabric of our culture is unraveling, thread by thread—and we’re the ones with the scissors.

As a Catholic, my faith in Christ sustains me and gives me hope. But sustenance and hope are just the beginning of the Gospel. Jesus doesn’t call us to be sustained and hopeful in our bunkers. He calls us to follow Him. Our faith has to be lived out in the world and not just in our prayer rooms or it’s meaningless words. If we don’t transform our culture with the living faith of Christ, how can we call ourselves Christians? He went into the temple, into the streets, and into homes to engage people. He fed and healed.  He touched the lepers and comforted the sorrowful. The faith He shares with us is a living, breathing faith and not an intellectual exercise or a social commentary. He went to where the hurting people were and gave them love and mercy. And that’s what we have to do, too.

Christ didn’t die on the Cross and rise on Easter morning to save our civilization. He died and rose again to save our souls. Saving civilization is up to each one of us. We’re the salt and the light—or we’re supposed to be. We’re the ones called to share our cloaks, to walk the extra mile, to feed the hungry, and visit the sick and imprisoned. We have to throw open the doors of our hearts to the hurting and the marginalized. Catholics celebrated a “Holy Year of Mercy” in 2016. We heard it preached to us almost every Sunday and many of us engaged in missions and programs of evangelization and welcome. Many more of us heard it preached to us and then did nothing more. The mercy that God offers us has to be shared with others. It can’t be a gift that we receive but don’t pass on.

A friend of mine shared this Andy Stanley quote with me today: “We who are Christians are very good at making a point, but not making a difference.” It’s time we put our faith in action. That’s our purpose: to serve Christ by being Christ to others. This is how our culture can be brought back from the wilderness we’re now in. We have to live our lives for the One Who ransomed them from death, knowing that we “can do all things through Christ Who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).

“Lord, teach me to be generous.

Teach me to serve You as You deserve;

to give and not to count the cost,

to fight and not to heed the wounds,

to toil and not to seek for rest,

to labor and not to ask for reward,

save that by knowing that I do Your will.”

          —–St. Ignatius Loyola

                 (1491-1556) 

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Silence and Prayer

There are few things I need more than I need silence.  I think it’s because I’m not good at being quiet on the inside if there’s activity and noise going on around me.  Without that interior silence, my prayer life suffers.  When I was younger, I’d notice how hard it was to pray at times, but I didn’t really connect my struggles with a lack of silence.  When you’re young you tend to push through things, or at least I did.  My favorite problem-solving technique was full-speed ahead until I moved past obstacles by brute force.  As I grew in age and maturity, I realized this probably wasn’t always the best method to employ.  Especially in matters of faith, it helps to slow down, to listen, and to invite reflection.

But finding silence and time is a difficult thing to do.  Sometimes I’d feel like I was chasing a dry leaf across the grass as it’s blown and tumbled by the wind, always just out of my grasping hands.  Grasping.  And that’s what it feels like, trying to grab some time and some quiet as it tumbles away from me.  But silence is like happiness: the harder you run after it, the more it slips away from you.  You have to make a home for silence.  Only when you stop trying to grasp a few minutes of peace and quiet and instead actively create it in you day, will you find it.

My prayer life was transformed when I began to pray the Liturgy of the Hours.  This is the ancient prayer of the Church which marks the hours of each day.  Mainly consisting of Psalms, hymns, Scripture, and other holy writings, the Hours (along with the Mass) compose the public prayer of the Church.  Priests and deacons pray the LOTH as part of their vocation, but lay people are also encouraged to incorporate it into their daily prayers, too.

I pray them because it helps me to sanctify my time to the Lord.  I’m not going to say that I always pray each one of the seven groups of prayers through the day and night.  I don’t.  But I try to.  It teaches me to humbly put myself in adoration of God.  The LOTH connects me to the rest of the Church as we all pray the same words, around the world.  It’s been described as “the voice of the Bride to the Bridegroom” and I think that’s both an accurate and a beautiful description.  It helps me to pray at a deeper level than I’d pray “on my own.”  Sometimes my spontaneous prayers focus too much on my feelings and while feelings are important, they don’t define my relationship with God.  I pray with my intellect and my will, as well—praying when I don’t feel like it, when I can’t find the words to pray, and when I don’t think I need to pray at all.  These prayers draw me out of myself and into a place where I can forget my own words and begin to hear the voice of God.  Praying the Psalms does this especially well for me.

Jesus would have prayed the Psalms several times a day, as a Jew.  The earliest Christians, many of whom were converts from Judaism, would have also followed this practice.  So the LOTH help me follow this ancient practice of “praying without ceasing”( I Thessalonians 5:16).  When I pray the Hours, I feel a strong connection to the disciples and to Jesus Himself.  In my mouth are the same words He used when talking with the Father.  I’m reminded that my prayer life isn’t all about me, after all.  I need that reminder.

Praying the Liturgy of the Hours guarantees that I’ll include times of silence and reflection in my day.  Rather than just hoping I’ll squeeze in a few moments of prayer in the morning and at bedtime, the Hours carve out little invitations throughout the day and night.  I use an app on my mobile phone which means I won’t forget and all the readings for each day are conveniently gathered in one place for me.  I need the discipline that the Hours give me in deepening and increasing my prayer life.  I need to step off the hamster wheel a few times each day and silently pray and listen.  If this sounds like you, take a moment and explore the Liturgy of the Hours.  These are prayed by believers from many Christian traditions and may be just what you need to grow in your spiritual life.

Our greatest need is to be silent before this great God…”

               —-St. John of the Cross.

An Inconvenient Miracle

This last week before Christmas is always a hectic one.  There’s shopping to be done, cards to be sent, cookies to be baked and delivered, and the relatives to be picked up from the airport.  It’s great seeing our loved ones for this wonderful holiday.  Sharing Christmas with friends and family is one of God’s great blessings.  But anyone who has flown during Christmas week knows how frustrating it can sometimes be.  You need to pray for patience—and lots of it.  There will be long lines at the ticket counter and at the TSA checkpoint.  There could be delays in boarding and lengthy waits to take off.  And there might be other, more unexpected interruptions in our well-made plans as well.  For example, several years ago a young man was on his way home for Christmas.  Flying from Chicago to Miami, he had a layover in–where else?—Atlanta.  As he sat in a coffee shop eating a sandwich and waiting for his flight, a young woman came out of the ladies’ room carrying a tiny baby in her arms.  She walked up to him and asked, “Would you hold my baby for me?  I left my purse in the restroom.”  Surprised by her trust, he did as she asked.  But instead of retracing her steps to the bathroom, she darted out into the holiday-packed concourse and was immediately lost in the crowd.  The young man couldn’t believe his eyes.  He rushed out into the mass of people, calling after her but there was no sight of her anywhere.  Now what should he do?  Put the baby down and run?  He took a few deep breaths, looked down at the tiny face peering back at him from the blankets and went back inside the coffee shop.  The manager called the airport police and in a little while they’d found the baby’s real mother.  You see, the woman who’d left him holding the baby wasn’t the mother at all.  She’d snatched the child from the real mother less than an hour before.  Maybe it was to satisfy some motherly urge to hold a child.  Maybe it was something else.  No one really knows.  But we do know that the young man breathed a huge sigh of relief when the real mother came to claim her child.  After all, what was he going to do with a baby?

In a way, each one of us is in the same situation as the young man.  Each Christmas, God Himself walks up to us and asks, “Would you hold My baby for Me, please?”  And then He thrusts the Christ Child into our arms.  And we’re left with the question “What am I doing to do with this baby?”  How can we hold Him?  With these poor hands?  With these weak arms?  Against our own sinful heart?”  Exactly.  Just as the Child was born into the humble manger in Bethlehem, He finds His home in our own humble embrace.  That’s why He came into the world—to feel our arms around Him, to find a home in our hearts–o be with us.  We call Him “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.”  So what are we to do with this Baby?  But maybe I’ve gotten the question wrong.  Maybe it’s not about us at all.  Maybe it’s all about Him and what He will do with us, if we only allow Him.  After all, who can help but be transformed when holding a baby?  So imagine for a few moments, in the middle of this hectic week, that you are holding the Christ Child in your arms right now.  Feel His warmth against your heart.  Smell the top of His tiny head–that delicious baby smell that they all share.  Listen to His breathing, His gurgles and coos.  Now, look at Him.  Look into His face.  Small.  Perfect.  Look into His eyes.  Brown and blinking and looking back at you.  Seeing you as no one else could see you.  Loving you as no one else can love you.  The Christ Child came to save the world, but right now, at this moment, in your arms, He is saving you.  And that is the dearest Christmas gift of all.

“Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift.” 

—2 Corinthians 9:15

The King Is Coming

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  But there are so many problems that need our attention.  Our country seems more divided than ever.  Race relations are tense and don’t seem to be getting any better.  There’s a growing wave of sexual harassment in politics, media, and entertainment with no end in sight.  Our government doesn’t seem to be able to get much done these days.  We’re still sending our military men and women to wars overseas and, at home, our police officers are targets of violence.  Terrorists of all kinds seek out innocent victims in schools, churches, shopping malls, and on our public streets.  So many problems wherever you look.

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  There would be so many more of us here to greet Him, but we’ve allowed abortion to claim almost 60 million lives in America since 1973.  Our culture sees the gift of life as an inconvenience that can be “fixed” by visiting a clinic for a “procedure.”  Yet the wounds of this loss plague families for a lifetime.  Abortion deadens our hearts to all kinds of suffering and abuse.  When we don’t protect the most innocent and helpless among us, we shouldn’t be surprised by all the other abuse and violence in our country.

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  The Church that He left us for us is in need of repair.  Fewer people fill the pews and many of our young people no longer believe in faith of any kind.  There are thousands of denominations with new ones emerging and older ones dying off.  Scandals plague His holy places and disillusion the faithful.  Confusion and contradiction in teaching the Gospel sows more discontent and discouragement.

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  So many of us are imprisoned—some in jails, while many more are locked up by addictions.  Drugs and alcohol put millions behind bars and are the sentences served by their families, too.  How many children are punished by their parent’s addictions and are forced to live in poverty and uncertainty while one or both of their parents are absent?  Communities are plagued with the crime that drugs bring with them.  Our resources go to building more prisons while treatment centers disappear.

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  The elderly among us are often lonely and isolated as families move around our country.  They can struggle financially, but even more, they can struggle with feelings of being forgotten.  Many live in nursing homes and receive few visitors.  With loneliness comes depression and worsening physical health.  It’s no wonder that suicide is a growing problem among elderly people who have found loneliness too hard to bear.

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  How we speak with one another reveals a lot.  It shows our respect (or disrespect) for other people.  It reveals our prejudices.  It displays our wisdom (or ignorance).  It uncovers our ability to discuss issues and opinions that differ from our own.  Unfortunately these days, many of us are quick to disrespect others, to yell at them, or even to become violent, just because of someone else’s speech.  We seem to have lost the ability to listen, to question, and to dialogue with others.  This leaves us without a way to come together for understanding and compromise.  We’re just making noise, and becoming impoverished as a country.

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  He came to us first as a helpless baby, born in poverty, to a young couple just beginning their lives together.  He’ll come again as the King of Kings, at the end of time.  Yet He also comes to us each day, into hearts who embrace Him and seek Him out.  Advent is a time of anticipating His return, and remembering His birth.  It’s also a time in which each one of us is called to examine our lives and to ask the King what we can do to make the world ready for Him.  What can I do to prepare a way for Him?  How can I be a light in the darkness?  How can I be ready for the King?

When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace, and harmony.”

                       —–Pope Pius XI

                                (1857-1939)

Waiting

It’s the first week of Advent.  The first candle on the wreath is glowing with the hope of Christmas. Folks are busy with their shopping and decorating and baking.  It seems like it was just Halloween and now everywhere you look it’s Christmas already.  But Advent comes first, and it invites us to slow down and reflect on what Christmas means.  Advent says:  slow down, don’t rush, remember the reason for all the celebrating.  It’s hard for us to do that.  The world doesn’t want us to remember the meaning of Christmas.  It wants us to forget the salvation story.  The world craves busy-ness, not our silence, not our reflection.  And so, in her wisdom, the Church offers us Advent as a path away from the world, and deeply into the story of the Holy Family.

Our Lord could have saved us in any way that He wished, using any means, at any time in history.  He chose to make a covenant with Abraham and to foretell the Messiah through His prophets.  In the fullness of time, a little girl was born.  She grew in holiness and God chose her to bear His Son.  When she was greeted by Gabriel, she said, “Yes,” to God’s plan. Her husband Joseph joined in her faith and they began to make a home and a family for their Savior.  They waited, and they prayed, and they lived in hope.

And that’s where we find ourselves this week.  We can choose to become immersed in the story of our salvation, or we can choose to be distracted by the noise of the world around us.  Looking at Mary and Joseph as they journey through that first Advent can teach us a great deal.  From the moment the angel first appeared to Mary to announce to her the coming birth of Jesus, she knew that God was truly in control of everything.  His plan was unfolding in her life just as it had been planned and prophesied for ages.  Joseph was given a dream which revealed to the truth to Him, as well.  Both of them became willing cooperators with God.  When we give our lives to God and embrace His plan for us, we allow ourselves to be used for His great purpose.

Joseph and Mary learned how to wait.  Any expectant couple knows how this feels.  You realize you’re no longer in control of things and sometimes it’s very frustrating.  But it’s a very valuable lesson to learn — not to live in the future, but to savor each moment of the present and leave tomorrow up to God.  Waiting allows us to remember that every second is a gift from Him.  We can choose to be impatient, or we can choose to be grateful for the time we’ve been given.  Are we using our time to help others, to give glory to God, to become more like Jesus?  Or are we living only for ourselves?

Advent opens our hearts to the infinite.  The Incarnation tears the fabric of time as God enters history to become a human infant.  Our Creator becomes one of us in everything but sin.  God reveals His immense love for us by becoming a child.  He is a member of our human family, as helpless and dependent as any other infant.  God reveals to Joseph and Mary the grandeur of His nature in the tiny, grasping fingers of a baby.  The salvation of the world allows Himself to be loved as an infant is loved.

As we wait for His birth, we learn to think of time differently.  We see how eternity can become a baby.  We recall how the people of God waited for their salvation for generations.  Yet when the King arrived, He was a helpless baby, not a warrior or a political leader.  We learn again and again that we are not in control of God’s plan for our lives.  We see the unexpected at every turn.  We know that our waiting is part of that plan, no matter what will happen next.  We have the hope of hopes coming soon as the Savior of us all.  And so, in these weeks, we wait with Mary and Joseph, trusting in the unfolding plan of God and treasuring every moment as a gift.  We think about that little family, so long ago, and we pray to be more like them.  We invite the Lord to calm the noise of the world around us during this busy season and to help us remember how to wait, and to hope in Him.

“A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes…and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.”

             —–Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Rose

“Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!

Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.”

This beautiful old Advent hymn tells the story of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the pure and mystical Rose who brings forth Jesus, just as prophecy had foretold.  It was discovered in 1599 and is attributed to an unknown Carthusian monk living in the monastery of St. Alban in Trier, Germany.  There are many verses which have been added to and modified over the centuries.  Originally written to honor the Virgin, non-Catholic authors have changed some of the words to place more emphasis on Jesus, rather than His Blessed Mother.  But its original form makes it obvious that it is a hymn of great love to the Virgin Mary and her participation in God’s eternal plan for our salvation.

From the very moment of creation, the Lord knew about Mary.  He knew her parents, her grandparents and all her other ancestors back to Adam and Eve.  Eve, who said, “No” to God’s command of her, would be redeemed through Mary’s “Yes” and the death and resurrection of her Son.  In this hymn, we hear of Jesse and his prophetic role in Jesus’ life.  Jesse was David’s grandfather and, as we know, Mary (and Joseph) were members of the House of David.  Jesse’s family gave us Mary and she, in turn, gave us Jesus.

In many Catholic homes and churches, we celebrate this family history during Advent as we prepare to welcome the Child at Christmas.  Instead of decorating a Christmas tree immediately after Thanksgiving, we decorate a Jesse tree, which tells the story of Scripture from creation until the birth of Christ.  The Jesse tree probably came into being as large tapestries or stained glass windows in churches.  For people who couldn’t read, these pictures were a way of learning Scripture.  These days, you can use your Christmas tree instead.  It’s a wonderful alternative to so many secular images we seem surrounded by in our modern world..  By placing the ornaments on the tree each day during Advent, you can share the corresponding Bible store with your kids.  A small globe can represent the story of creation, and a tree with apples on it can help them learn about Adam and Eve and the Garden.  A rainbow represents Noah and the flood, while a tent reminds us of God’s covenant with Abraham.  If you choose your favorite stories, you’ll have a fully-decorated tree by the time you get to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.  There aren’t any hard and fast rules, but this is a way of engaging your family in remembering God’s plan for us.  Then, when Christmas is here, you can “re-decorate” your tree to fit the 12 days of the season.

“Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind,

With Mary we behold it, the Virgin Mother kind.

To show God’s love a-right

She bore to men a Savior

When half-spent was the night.”

This old-fashioned song with its haunting melody and unfamiliar phrasing invites us to slow down and listen more closely.  The world says “hurry-hurry” at this time of year.  But if we hurry, we miss these weeks of anticipation and wonder that lead up to Christmas.  We miss meditating on the words of Isaiah which so beautifully help us to imagine Mary as a little girl, hearing his prophecy read aloud in the temple.  His words spoke about her “…therefore, the Lord Himself shall give you a sign: a maiden is with child and she will bear a son and will call his name Immanuel”(9:11-16).  Did she wonder if what he said might have been written about her and her future child?

Over the weeks ahead, as we prepare for His birth, take the time to listen to this hymn again.  Imagine the unexpected and miraculous beauty of a Rose blooming in winter, blooming when there is so little light and warmth to call it forth—yet blooming anyway.  For that way is the Lord’s way. In the midst of darkness, He brings forth Light. Where only dead stems appear, God is working to call forth life and beauty.  He does this in our own deadened and broken hearts.  He plants the love of Christ, the saving gift, the living water.  Remember the promises of His prophets which were manifest in the Virgin, the Mystical Rose, blooming forth in winter with the Light of the World.  Savor the journey we make to Bethlehem each winter.

Holy Mary, Mystical Rose, you are the most beautiful flower created by God, in venerating you we praise God for His holiness and beauty.”

                —Blessed Cardinal Newman

Thanksgiving & Mercy

Thanksgiving is my favorite secular holiday.  It doesn’t involve much overdone commercialism and it’s free from all the consumer-driven anxiety of Christmas.  Thanksgiving is a day to remember and be thankful to God for all the graces and blessings in our lives.  We gather together with family and friends and share a meal.  Many of us may go to Church as well.  We’ll come together before the altar of God and offer our thanks to Him for the precious gift of our salvation:  His Son, Jesus Christ.  And we’ll ask God to forgive us for our sins.  We do this at the beginning of every Mass because there is such a strong connection between forgiveness and thanksgiving.  We can’t approach the thankfulness of Holy Communion until we’ve approached the Lord for mercy and forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession.  This is God’s plan for us.  And so, during this Thanksgiving week as we prepare the pies and the turkey to share with the people we love, let’s also prepare our hearts by forgiving those in our lives who have wronged us.

Forgiveness is at the heart of our salvation.  Through Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled to the Father.  Nothing we have ever done is so heinous that God’s mercy is denied us.  What a wonderful thing to know!  This alone is more than enough to fill our “things I am thankful for” list a thousand times over.  Our salvation journey starts when we acknowledge our sinfulness before God and beg His forgiveness.  But we grow in our faith when we extend that forgiveness to the people in our lives.  This is so important that Jesus included it in the perfect prayer He shared with His friends:  “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”(Luke 11:4).  As we receive God’s mercy we’re called to extend it to other people.  We must be conduits of forgiveness.  But we also know how difficult it can be to forgive someone, don’t we?  Everyone reading this has been hurt by someone and found forgiving them hard, or even impossible to do.  We’ve held onto the pain they caused us and maybe we’ve let it simmer like a poison inside us for months, or even years.  In fact, the root meaning of the word “grudge” is “to murmur”—isn’t that what unforgiven hurts do in our hearts?  They murmur and echo in the small dark closet in our soul where we harbor our secret pains.  And it saps the joy out of what God means for us to have.  We need to forgive to fully live our redeemed lives.

So, suck it up and forgive somebody.  Especially this week.  How can we gather in thankfulness if we have those murmuring hurts and angers?  Christ says, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins”(Mark 11:26).  That’s how important it is for us to let go–we have to forgive so that God can forgive us.  In fact, God has only one solution to the problem of our sin and that is forgiveness.  “To forgive” means “to be gracious.”  We are called to give grace to one another as God has given His grace to us.  But what if that other person has been so mean, so hurtful, so awful that you just don’t believe they deserve to be forgiven?  Newsflash:  none us should hope to get what we really deserve.  Mercy is NOT getting what you and I deserve for our sins (i.e. punishment) and grace is getting what we DON”T deserve (i.e. mercy).  As Christians we live in the sweet grace of knowing that we NEVER get what we deserve, thanks be to God!  None of us deserves forgiveness so it’s mercy when we extend that to someone who has hurt us.  Forgiveness isn’t about fairness, it’s about grace.  And here’s something else to consider:  forgiveness isn’t a feeling, it’s a decision.  If you wait until you feel like doing it, you never will.  God doesn’t tell us to forgive them if we feel like it.  We read in Hebrews how God forgives:  “Their sins and their lawless acts I will remember no more”(10:17).  God chooses not to remember our sins.  We should imitate Him.  We make the choice to forgive and then we pray for God to help us live out that decision.

As you gather to share Thanksgiving, remember to give thanks for God’s great love and mercy in your life.  In the end, what we have in this life is each other.  The Lord has forgiven your sins and offered you eternal life in Jesus Christ.  At the center of that love and grace is the Cross.  This Thanksgiving, lay the burden of your un-forgiveness at the foot of that Cross.  And be thankful.

“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of His grace.”

                                                                               

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