Your Value To God

You can never be good enough. You can never be kind enough. You can try as hard as you can, but you’ll never be humble enough or generous enough or merciful enough. You can strive every day to be patient and long-suffering, but it won’t work. You’ll never make it, no matter how virtuous and “good” you are and how hard and tirelessly you try.

You see, there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more.

Unlike all other religions, from Islam to Buddhism to animism, Christianity teaches its followers that God loves them totally and completely, just as they are. His love for you and for me is dependent on NOTHING that we can ever do or say. His love is His Nature and is contingent on nothing else.

Accepting this fact is life-changing. This is pure, unconditional love and most of us find it a radically-new experience. Only the love of parents can mirror in a human way the perfect love of God for His children. Far too many of us believe that we’re not worthy of this kind of overwhelming love. Somewhere deep inside of us is a list of stuff we think we have to do in order to MAKE God love us. I have to read the Bible more often. I have to tithe. I have to volunteer for more ministry work. Nope. To repeat: there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more. He already loves you perfectly. All you have to do is to accept that love.

There’s more good news, too. God is not impressed when you think you aren’t worthy of His love. In fact, there’s NOTHING you can do that will make God love you any less. Think about that for a minute. Probably you’ve always believed that when you do bad things, what we call “sin,” it makes God love you less. But it doesn’t. God IS love—–it’s His very Nature. He can’t not love you, no matter what you do or what you think of yourself.

Does your sin disappoint the Lord? Sure it does. It offends Him and it distances you from Him when you choose to sin. If it’s a serious sin, it can cut you off from a relationship with Him and endanger your immortal soul. It’s serious. But even in the middle of your worst possible sin—–God loves you just the same. One of my favorite Scripture verses promises us this: “…while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”(Romans 5:8). Before we even knew Him, He suffered and died for us on the Cross. That’s incredible love. It’s beyond our human imagination. And I think that’s part of why we can’t consider ourselves worthy of His love.

We please God when we take Him up on that love. When we turn away from our sin (repent) we find Him already there, already and always there, waiting to welcome us into His friendship. He’s never been anywhere else.

His love calls us into loving each other. This means loving even most the unlovable among us. That means loving sinners. Just like you and me. And it means forgiving people who have wronged us, even if they don’t apologize and even if we’re still angry or hurting. Forgiving others is being like Jesus, and when we love and forgive one another, it pleases Him.

Sometimes it’s tempting to make our faith really complicated. But the heart of it is pretty simple: to love and forgive others as Christ loves and forgives us. He wants to have an intimate relationship with us. We believe that Jesus rose from the grave on Easter morning. He wants to raise you from the dead, too. He wants you to know that you ARE good enough and kind enough—that none of your sins have changed how much He loves you. He wants you to know that you belong to Him, and you always will.

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

—-St. Augustine (354-430 AD)

When You’re Angry At God


Most of us have been angry with God.  We can all recall circumstances in our lives when we’ve been overcome with emotion and directed our wrath to the Lord.  We lose a loved one and in our grief we lash out, demanding to know why God would do such a horrible thing to such a wonderful person. We’re caught up in the emotion of our grief and we demand an explanation.  We have to find a logical or at least an understandable reason for why this happened.  Sometimes, when we’ve calmed down a bit, we look back at our anger with God and we’re shocked and ashamed.  We feel guilty for being angry with the Lord.  We see our anger as a sin.  But, is it really?

Anger is an emotion.  It flows out of our humanity and isn’t consciously willed.  You don’t get cut off in traffic and “decide” to get angry with that thoughtless driver—your anger is upon you without you thinking about it.  If you read some of the Psalms, you’ll soon realize that David was often angry at God. Read Psalm 22. David has an intimate relationship with the Lord and in intimate relationships, you don’t try to hide your feelings from the other person.  Honestly sharing your emotions is a key to the bond you share.  David couldn’t have hidden his feelings from God if he’d tried.  So David owned up to his feelings.  He cried out to God in his anger and despair. You don’t encourage trust and intimacy by shrouding your heart. But after David expressed his anger to God, the Psalm show that he didn’t just stay in that wrathful place.

After David genuinely rails at God, he gets it out of his system.  He moves on.  In Psalm 22, David moves through his anger, to praise. He gets back to his right relationship with God.  And isn’t this what happens in our healthy relationships?  We get angry with our spouse, we express it, get over it, reconcile, and move on.  A friend wrongs us, we hash it out, we work through it, make up and go on with our friendship.  The relationship we enjoy with God is like this, too.  Sharing our genuine emotions with our Creator and Savior is a great gift and reveals our “family” relationship with Him.  Yes, our anger also reveals our own brokenness and it shows how little we truly understand His love for us. But God knows our hearts and loves us anyway.

In some ways, our anger reveals how much we love God.  After all, we reserve our strongest emotions for the ones we love the most.  But we can’t allow ourselves to remain in that anger.  Emotions like anger, are involuntary.  But allowing ourselves to continue in anger is a choice we make.  And choices can be wrong.  There comes a time when our anger at God does become sinful. David reveals a way for us to move beyond anger and that way is through repentance and gratitude.

The moment we turn our thoughts to all the many blessings of God, our anger turns to sorrow and from sorrow, to praise.  Gratitude takes all the air out of our wrath.  For me, I move from anger, to tears, to praise.  My tears are the sorrow I feel for being mad at the One Who has given me everything.  I offer them to Him and He accepts them, over and over again.  We’ve been through this before and, sinner that I am, we’ll probably go through it again.  That’s how true love works.  Its’a journey that is so much deeper than fleeting emotions.  I know that God understands my anger and I know as well that He wants more for me than that.  Only His grace can heal me.  Your anger with God doesn’t surprise Him.  He knows you loved your friend who died unexpectedly.  He understands the anger you feel at your broken marriage.  Don’t feel guilty over that genuine anger.  But, like David, don’t make your home in it, either.  Let it out and move on.  Thank God for all the love you still have in your life and trust Him to give you even more.


“For He has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch. He did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out. I will offer praise…”
—Psalm 22:25-26

Finding Your Purpose

They knew one another well. They had lived together, studied together, traveled together, and prayed together. They knew each other’s families. They read the same texts and they debated together over what they meant. They passionately loved their God and they dedicated their lives to His glory and service. They were a band of brothers who changed the world. And they died for their beliefs.

Were these men the twelve Apostles of Christ? Or were they the hijackers of 9/11?

What are you willing to die for?

Cyrus the Great was the Emperor of Persia in the 5th century B.C. and was constantly at war with Cagular, a powerful tribal chieftain who lived along his southern border.  Finally exasperated after years of war, Cyrus sent his entire Persian army to capture Cagular and his family and to bring them to his palace for judgment.  Cyrus was impressed by their dignity and bearing under the circumstances.  Thoughtfully, the Emperor asked Cagular what he would do if his life was spared.  Cagular replied, “Your majesty, if you spared my life, I would return to my home and remain your obedient servant as long as I live.”  “What would you do if I spared the lives of your children?” asked Cyrus.  Cagular answered, “Your majesty, if you spared the lives of my children, I would gather them all under your banner and lead them to victory for you on every battlefield.”  Then Cyrus asked, “What would you do if I spared the life of your wife?”  Cagular answered, “Your majesty, if you spared the life of my wife, I would die for you.”  The Emperor was so moved by Cagular’s responses that he freed them all, returned them to their home and made Cagular the governor of that province.  When they were safely home and alone, Cagular reflected on the experience to his wife.  He had been awed by the marble of the palace, the rich tapestries, the Emperor’s golden throne.  His wife didn’t recall any of those things.  “Well,” Cagular said in surprise, “What did you see as we stood before the Emperor on the day of judgment?”  She replied, “I saw only the face of the man who said he would die for me.”

When you know what you’d be willing to die for, you’ve discovered what you should live for.  As Christians, we know that Jesus Christ loved us so much that He gave His life to save us from sin.  His love for us is our salvation.  And Christ calls us to be that same love for one another, as we are all members of His Body.  Throughout the history of His Church, God has raised up for us examples of holy men and women whose lives have mirrored the love of Christ.  From the twelve Apostles, to St. Benedict, St. Francis of Assissi, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Teresa of Avila, and so many others, we see the love of Christ in action.  In our own time, St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. John Paul II both opened their hearts to God and allowed the life, teachings, and person of Jesus Christ to transform their lives.

Each of our lives is the sum of the choices we make each day.  It’s as if every day is one tiny piece of mosaic we’re creating and the picture we’re working on can only be seen and recognized at the end, from the perspective of a life fully-lived, finally realized.  But God isn’t calling you to be another St. Francis or another Mother Teresa.  The Church doesn’t need another St. Benedict.  The Church needs you, with all your unique gifts and graces.  There’s certainly very little in common with Christ’s Apostles and the 9/11 hijackers.  And yet, it was their individual and shared choices that led both groups to their ultimate end.  The Apostles, living in Christ, spread the Good News of His Gospel to the world and were martyred for their faith.  The hijackers murdered thousands of innocent victims in order to further a political cause.

And so we return to our opening question: What are you willing to die for? And we reflect on these words of St. John Newman (1801-1890): “God  has created me to do Him some definite service.  He has commited some work to me which He has not commited to another.  I have my mission.  I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the end.”

What (or Whom) are you willing to live for?

Hope

The beginning of every year is a time of hope. Hope looks forward, to the future and to our true home in heaven, living in the presence of Christ, Who never changes and Who never fails us. These days we seem divided and adrift as a country. But we needn’t be if we live in hope. And, if we chose to see it, hope springs up all around us. The empty tomb is lived out in the simple choices that each one of us makes every day. Seeing these choices for what they reveal about our hearts is one of the joys of the Christian life.

We see hope when a teacher takes the time to comfort a crying child whose home life is hunger, loneliness, and harsh words. We see hope when a young man in prison receives a letter filled with kind words and encouragement, tucked inside a new Bible. We see hope when a young mother, despite pressure from her boyfriend, decides to keep her unborn child. We see hope when a man who has been away from the Church for decades is welcomed and consoled in the confessional by a kind and patient priest. Oh yes. Hope is surely here, if we see it.

“Hope is the life of the soul,” writes Dr. Peter Kreeft. Hope isn’t wishful thinking, or a merely optimistic outlook on life. Real hope, Christian hope, is the solid conviction that God has a plan for my life. Hope is knowing that He is in charge of everything and that He will see me through every trial—even the trial of my death. Hope is the risen Christ, the empty tomb, and life everlasting. Hope gives us strength to trust in God and not in ourselves. “Our God is thus a God of promises. And He keeps every one to the letter,” says Dr. Kreeft. We see that hope when an elderly couple, homebound and frail, share a meal and hospitality with the family that lives next door. We see hope when a businessman spends his Saturdays working with homeless men, helping them to fill out job applications and develop interview skills. We see hope when a parish welcomes two refugee families and provides them with housing and settlement support. We see hope when a husband and wife choose to adopt a child.

Hope connects us with one another and helps us to realize that we are all on this earthly journey together. “Hope builds bridges between faith and love, between conservatives and liberals, between present and future, between earth and heaven,” writes Dr. Kreeft. Hope asks of us to care for the needy among us, to reach out beyond our prejudices and to see the face of Christ in our neighbor. Hope gives us the courage to leave our fears in God’s hands. Hope calls us forth to love. We see hope when a teenaged girl is rescued from sex-trafficking by a group of dedicated nuns. We see hope when a small boy witnesses his mother love and care for his dying father in their home, day after day, for months on end. We see hope when a brother and a sister reconcile with one another after years of resentment over a now-forgotten slight. We see hope in the life of a woman battling breast cancer, who faces each day with courage and joy, inspiring those around her to do the same.  

We show hope to others when we live a life of gratitude, no matter our circumstances. Because we know that our God is always in charge, caring for us and drawing us to Himself. We know that today and tomorrow and all eternity are in His loving grasp. Hope is not an abstraction or a concept. Hope isn’t an intellectual exercise or a naive belief in some make-believe Candyland of our own design. Hope is as real as the nails in His sacred hands, as solid as the rock rolled away from His grave, as everlasting as God Himself. Hope isn’t some “thing”—as Pope Francis has said: “You have asked me for a word of hope–what I have to offer you has a name–Jesus Christ.”

“I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find til after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to the other country and to help others do the same.” —-C.S.Lewis

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 seem to be growing worse. There’s an ongoing wave of sexual harassment in politics, media, and entertainment with no end in sight.  Our government doesn’t seem to be able to get anything done these days.  Our military men and women are suicidal at an alarming rate, 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 more than 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 increasing our debt rather than addressing the causes of family breakdown.

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)

Why Advent Matters

During this season of Advent, we’re called to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ, both at Christmas and at the end of time. We should examine our lives and ask ourselves—“Am I ready for Him?” Many of us will go to confession and many parishes will offer Advent penance services to make this more convenient for us at such a busy time of year. Advent is always a hopeful season because our hope is in Christ, Who never disappoints. We wait and we watch for Him and we remember and celebrate the great gift of His Incarnation. God chose to leave His heavenly throne to be born as one of us, to live and to live, to work and to suffer as one of us. He came to save us from our sins and to die in our place so that we can know heaven for all eternity.

This is all true, of course.  But until you allow Christ to transform these facts into a deep and true relationship with Him your life is incomplete and unredeemed.  You may have a religion, but not a living faith.  There’s a time in all our lives when we have to know in our hearts:  Christ died for ME.  No theory or historical review will work.  Christ suffered and died on the cross for me.  For my sins.  And no sinner deserved that less than me.  You hear Him say to you:  “I love you so much t I want nothing more than to suffer and die for you, to set you free, to give you full life.”  I think our Evangelical brothers and sisters get this right, and we can learn from them.  Before Jesus, there was an abyss between man and God, larger, wider, darker and deeper than the depths of the sea.  No amount of our own efforts could span it.  No matter how many burnt offering we sacrificed, it remained.  Steadfast.  Immense.  Heartbreaking.  We longed for the Light, yet we stumbled on in the darkness of our sins.  Only a baby born in a Palestinian stable could reach from heaven and into our hearts.

God could have saved us in another way.  It didn’t have to involve the cruel death of His only Son.  But God always heals us personally, never at a distance, and never without involving us in the healing.  Think of all the miraculous healings that Jesus accomplished.  All the times He spoke with the afflicted person, touched them, comforted them and asked them what they wanted Him to do for them.  It’s just the same with you and with me.  He wants to know us, to know who we are and we need.  Of course, He already knows, but His heart’s desire is to be in a relationship with us.  He’s asking you, “What do you want Me to do for you?”  We have to play an active part in building the Kingdom of God, first in our hearts and lives, and also in the world.

Life is short.  Eternity isn’t.  We only get one chance to get it right.  You can’t go through life as a spectator of your own redemption.  You have to be an active player and the context of our redemptive work in in His Church.  He never meant for us to work out this life (or the next one) on our own.  He gave us a Church and through this Church, His holy Scripture (Matthew 16:18).  The story of Scripture is God’s unfolding love for us.  Christmas is the promise of that love made known to us in the flesh.  Jesus loved you as He lay in Bethlehem’s manger, surrounded by the warmth and smell of the animals.  He loved you as He taught in His Father’s house, as Mary and Joseph searched for Him.  He loved you for thirty years as He worked with Joseph in Nazareth and grew to manhood in Mary’s holy and loving home.  He loved you when the devil tempted Him in the desert, and when His cousin John baptized Him in the river.  As He called each of His disciples to follow Him, He called you to do the same.  Every time He healed a leper, forgave a sinner, or made a blind man see, He was healing and forgiving you, too.  That night in the Garden, while you and the others were sleeping, He felt the weight of your sins crushing Him, and He loved you more.  When they led Him away in the chains of your slavery to sin, He was thinking of you and loving you.  Every blow of the whip on His scourged back cried out, “Love! Love!,” as He bore the pain that you and I deserved.  Jesus created the shrub that grew the thorns that tore His scalp when the soldiers (that He created and loved and died for) crowned Him.  He caused the seed to grow into the tree that made the wood of His Cross.  He created the ore that made the iron for the nails and the spear that pierced His side.  As He hung there, pouring out His life for you and me, He held those nails and that wood in existence as they pierced His Body and drained away His human life.  His eternal joy was in giving Himself away for you, so that you could be saved.

Salvation isn’t a theory or a study course.  Salvation is a Person—Jesus, the Christ.  During this season of Advent, consider if your relationship with Him is the center of your life.  If it isn’t, this is the time to make it so.  Today is the day to make yourself ready for His coming.  There’s a beautiful message in every Mass where we affirm that we are waiting for God “in joyful hope.”  That’s what Advent is:  a time of joyful hope.  Don’t waste this opportunity to say “yes” to the love of Christ.  Not a theory.  Not an idea—but the love of the Person Who made you and Who died for your sins, in your place.  Make no mistake:  it’s personal. 

“What good does it do me if Christ was born in Bethlehem once if He is not born again in my heart through faith?”

—-Origen (184 – 253 A.D.)

The Cross at Bethlehem

We love the manger scene at Christmas, don’t we?  Ever since St. Francis of Assisi made the first one in 1223, Christians of all sorts have loved seeing the tender scene of the stable at Bethlehem.  Tiny Nativity sets on our coffee tables.  Carved wooden family heirlooms under our Christmas trees.  Large realistic statuary in front of the altar of our church.  We love the sight of all the animals gathered into the stable around the manger.  We see the shepherds there, running in from their flocks to worship the newborn baby.  The angels who proclaimed His birth hover nearby, trumpets in hand, trailing banners that read, “Gloria In Excelsis Deo.” The sweet old man leaning on his staff must be St. Joseph.  A misreading of Scripture sometimes places the three wise men in the Nativity scene too, though it was probably at least a couple of years later that they made their appearance.  Every manger scene features the Blessed Virgin Mary looking down lovingly at her newborn son.  Even the most spartan Christian denominations trot out a Nativity scene at Christmas.  No one could object to these warm and fuzzy images.  And then, there’s the baby—tiny and perfect and cooing up at His mother and foster father.  Just looking at Him gives us a warm glow, a feeling that all is right with the world once more.  We look at this idyllic scene and smile.

And yet to view His birth as only a kind of Disney cartoon filled with little lambs and singing cherubs is at least a misunderstanding and maybe even a heresy.  This is not just the miracle of another birth to another poor couple in desperate circumstances.  This is the Creator God Whose birth is cleaving creation in two.  By being born as a baby, He is dividing time itself.  We measure time as either before or after the Incarnation.  This cooing infant has all the power and knowledge of the great “I AM” in Him from the moment of His conception.  Fully human and fully divine, this newborn is the Word made flesh.  Look closely at Him and you’ll see much more than just a babe in swaddling clothes.

Nestled in His mother’s lap in the stable, does He also imagine the last time she’ll hold Him, as He is taken down from the Cross? Looking around Him there in the manger, does He notice the donkey patiently chewing some hay nearby and does he see that other one that He’ll ride into Jerusalem for that last Passover? Does His borrowed stable remind Him of the borrowed tomb yet-to-be? Does He wonder why so many want to see Him in the crib, but so few will want to walk with Him to Golgotha? Crowds come to pray at His birth, but He knows that in Gethsemane, He’ll pray alone. The stable filled with love and homage will one day be a lonely hill, rocky and barren and full of suffering. Does the baby know this? Surely. And yet He chooses to come to us anyway. He comes to be one of us so that we can know how to be more like Him. He comes because He knows we have nowhere else to go and no one else who can save us. He comes because it is His Father’s will and He and the Father are One. He comes out of love because He IS Love. The baby in the manger is already sacrificing Himself for you and for me. The star shining so brightly overhead throws a shadow on His face, the shadow of a Cross. We can never truly know the joy of that Bethlehem night unless we also embrace with Him that long afternoon on Good Friday. Our beloved manger scenes at Christmas hold the promise of Easter morning within them, if we only choose to make the journey with our Savior. It begins here in Bethlehem as we kneel by the baby. Mary’s little lamb is already the Lamb of God “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8).

The Mystical 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.”

—St. John Newman

Being Thankful

It was one of those days when nothing seemed to go right. I got up late and the more I hurried, the less I seemed to get done. Traffic was awful with every stoplight turning red just as I approached it. Trains even timed their journeys to cross my path, too. I dropped things, forgot stuff and wasted time looking for keys and paperwork and schedules. By lunchtime, I was exhausted. I thought I could see the end of the rope that people always talk about. Just then I looked down to see that the “check engine” light on my dashboard was glowing brightly. I broke down and cried. I thought, “Lord, what have I done?” Surely I must had done something bad to be having so many trials in just one day. It seemed as if I was being punished and I wanted to know my offense. My answer came pretty quickly. I had planned my day carefully and had made a lot of assumptions about how it needed to unfold. I had my timetable ready to go. The more I sat there in my funk, the more I realized that my plans hadn’t included God.

I hadn’t started my day with gratitude. In a hurry, I’d skipped those precious waking moments spent lifting my heart to the Lord and giving Him thanks for the precious gift of another day. I was too busy thinking of all I needed to get done and adding items to my to-do list. I didn’t take the time to remember the Author of my life. After all, God has given me all that I have, including the work I was absorbed with just then. Without Him, what is there? Yet on that misbegotten day of problems and tangles and frustrations, I’d been trying to do it all myself. I hadn’t included God in my plans. Also, I was living in the future and not in the now. Gratitude is being thankful for the moment, not living in the “what’s next.”

And that’s why the day was such a mess. I hadn’t turned to Him, given thanks and offered all my works and sufferings of the day for His good use. I hadn’t asked Jesus what His plans were for my day. The Savior I daily claim to follow might just as well have been a forgotten bit of pocket lint. That may sound harsh, but any Christian whose life isn’t founded on, centered in, and consumed by Jesus Christ is just plain lost. St. Paul tells us that “He is before all things and in Him all things hold together”(Colossians 1:17). Things were definitely NOT holding together for me that day because of my own pridefulness. It’s a lesson I have to learn fairly frequently.

Some people teach a kind of Christianity that says God will give you earthly riches if you are following Him “in the right way.” I don’t remember reading that anywhere in the Bible. I believe that suffering is a part of living in this world and that being a Christian doesn’t mean you’re magically protected from hard times. Remember that 11 of the 12 Apostles were martyred for their faith. Most of the saints suffered all sorts of difficulties in their lives and they claimed their suffering as joy because it united them to His Cross. Their lives make my silly little frustrations disappear.

So at the end of my tiresome, trying day, I heard Him call to me. “Let me into your day, Judy. Share your plans and fears and frustrations with me. Let me carry the burdens in your heart and when you’re tired, I’ll carry you, too. Don’t try to do it all yourself. I love you. Let’s walk this road together.” He quietens my restless heart and gives me peace in the midst of my troubles. He restores my soul. Problems and heartaches don’t disappear if you follow Jesus—but they take on eternal meaning and joy. I pray that He’ll keep reminding me of that and that His grace will conform my will to His own, in thanksgiving and gratitude.

“When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”
—-G. K. Chesterton

Keeping It Simple

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?”

—-St. Teresa of Calcutta

Previous Older Entries