Forgiveness & Freedom

Several years ago when I was going through a difficult period in my life, I let my heart be filled with bitterness and resentment. I had been hurt by people I had thought were my friends. I became consumed with feelings of betrayal and anger. I spent (wasted) my time nurturing those feelings. I was going nowhere, except into a hardened and sinful place. I was more concerned with holding onto my grievances than I was with allowing God to heal me of my pain. Until I was ready to forgive, how could Jesus forgive me? So one night I wrote down the names of all the people who had wronged me. I held the list in my hands and began to pray for each one of them by name. It was tough. At first I’ll admit that only a tiny piece of my heart was involved when I prayed. But as I continued with it day after day I felt myself letting go of the anger and hurt. I didn’t forget what had been done, but I was able to lay my hurts and resentments at the foot of the Cross. In return, God gave me His mercy and peace. For the first time in a long time, I was free.

Looking back, I can only wonder at the weeks and months I had invested in all that anger. I let it take over my life and rob me of my joy. I gave it permission to be in control, instead of welcoming Christ’s mercy into my heart. This is something nearly all of us deal with at one time or another. One famous family experienced the pain of separation and estrangement over a lack of forgiveness and the price they paid for it was enormous.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning is one of the most well-known Victorian poets. Growing up in England, she was the oldest of twelve children. Elizabeth began writing poems in childhood and despite a lifelong battle with poor health, she continued to be a prolific poet. Her courtship with Robert Browning produced a multitude of letters famously detailing their love for one another. But Elizabeth’s father was completely opposed to their relationship. After they married, she was disinherited and her father never forgave her and never spoke with her again. The newlyweds moved to Italy and she never saw her dad again. Despite his hard feelings towards her, Elizabeth continued to faithfully write to him for many, many years. Towards the end of her life, she received a large box filled with the letters she’d written to her father—all of them unopened and unread. Because he couldn’t forgive her for loving Robert Browning, her father had missed out on knowing his daughter.

When you get right down to it, not forgiving someone who has wronged you is a sin of pride. You and your grudges become more important than anything else—family relationships included. You think you know best. You believe that your hurt feelings have priority over anything else. They almost take on a life of their own and you nourish and encourage them by remembering how you were wronged and treated unfairly. It’s all me, me, me. Your memories build a prison around your heart and that’s the definition of pride.

Who do you need to forgive today? Are you estranged from someone in your family? Forgiveness and reconciliation are a gift you can give to yourself. Even if the other person never admits how they hurt you. It’s not about them. It doesn’t mean that you weren’t hurt or betrayed, it just means that you no longer choose to hold onto that hurt anymore. Ask The Lord to help you do this. It might take a while, but that’s okay, too. Little by little you’ll feel a burden being lifted and grace will lead you through it. Don’t waste time losing out on love.

When you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.”
—Mark 11:25

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Trying To Make God Small

It’s a pretty common thing these days. Lots of people do it. Even some churches are into it, actually. So I though I’d put together some pointers for you, if you’re interested in trying it.

How To Domesticate God

1) Try to ignore Him, if you can. When He calls to your heart in that voice you know, don’t seek Him out. This approach worked pretty well for St. Augustine for many years.

2) Don’t read His book. It’s full of His promises and describes His plan of salvation. It has lots of small words like “love” and “faith” and “cross.” Pretty boring.

3) If you do come across some of what’s in His book, it can be fairly easy to ignore it. Especially things like the 10 Commandments and the parts of it where He describes Who He is (John Chapter 6), His Church (Matthew 16:18) and how to live (Matthew 16:24-26).

4) Forget about “sin.” So long as no one gets hurt, who are we to judge? While you’re at it, don’t believe in hell or the devil either. That’s so 14th century.

5) When someone dies, imagine them in a lovely, mist-filled landscape with no cares or worries. Or even better, imagine nothing at all. Like when a candle flame burns out. It’s over.

6) Think of Jesus as a really cool teacher who was everybody’s BFF and who never said anything that would offend anyone or bring anybody down.

7) If you do somehow find yourself thinking of God, imagine Him as your personal concierge. He’s on-call 24/7,always smiling and never makes any demands on you.

8) Be fearful and afraid. Of everything. Be afraid to fail, be afraid of rejection and disapproval. Be fearful of not being loved and of being alone. Let your fears be your guide.

9) Worry. Try to be strong and confident and do it all yourself. Read lots of self-help books. But in the end—just worry.

10) For goodness sake, don’t pray. Or if you do, let your prayers be quick and superficial. Maybe it’s best to wait until bedtime and limit your prayer life to telling God what you want and when you want it. Pray small.

11) Believe that any sins you have are so bad, so heinous, and so “special” that God could never forgive you. His mercy is no match for your sinfulness. You are a lost cause.

12) Don’t go near the confessional, naturally. Let your sins pile up and do everything you can to keep your heart guarded and far away from Him. Mercy and forgiveness can reveal His face to you and you don’t want that.

13) Believe that you are too old or too young, too busy or too uneducated, too shy or too (fill-in-the-blank) for God to use your for His purpose. A small god has even smaller children.

These are just a few starters for making sure you keep God small and tame. The most common way Christians domesticate God is by keeping Him in a box that they only open for an hour on Sunday mornings. Don’t invite Him to share in any other parts of your life. Keep it shallow, simple, and time-limited. Don’t allow Him to change you. Don’t believe in miracles like the saving grace of Baptism, the forgiveness of Confession, or the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Refuse God’s healing of your body, mind, and spirit. Belittle the promises of God at Fatima or Lourdes or through devotion to His Divine Mercy. And completely ignore His Blessed Mother. After all, no good Jewish son ever honors his mother, right? You never know what might happen if you give your whole heart to Jesus and abandon yourself completely to His Holy Will.

“…Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
—C.S. Lewis

Tenderhearted

I’m a weeper. I thought about using the word “crier” but that implies something rather dignified and demure. Picture a tight shot of a beautiful Ingrid Bergman as a perfect tear slides slowly down her flawless cheek. This does NOT describe me. I weep. I bawl. Great gasping gulps of air in between baleful bellows and bursts of waterworks. Imagine a Bigfoot howling underwater and you’ll have a pretty good idea. And I weep at lots of stuff. Sad songs, of course. The National Anthem, certainly. Puppies. Kittens. To be honest, almost anything, given the right mood. It’s been this way all my life and I blame it on my grandfather. He was what we in the South call “tender-hearted.” Every summer my family would make the long drive to Texas to spend a week or two with him and my grandmother. At the end of our time with them, we’d pile into the car for our drive back to Georgia as my grandfather stood weeping and waving to us in his driveway. He was my kindred spirit.

Someone with this personality trait, like me, has come by it naturally. It’s part of our makeup, of how we relate to the world. It’s probably part genetics and part how we were raised and the examples set for us by the people in our lives. Knowing that my grandfather and I were both teary types always made me feel closer to him. It also made me feel a little bit better about the waterworks. But there’s a different kind of tender-heartedness that’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. In this way, our hearts are conformed to the heart of Jesus.

Jesus was definitely tender-hearted. But not the merely weepy type like me and my grandfather. Jesus cried for his friend, Lazarus. And then He raised him from the dead. He wept over Jerusalem. And then He suffered and died for her salvation. He tenderly poured out His life in the Holy Eucharist the very night that the men with whom He’d shared it would abandon and betray Him. Yet “having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (John 13:1). Jesus’ tender heart is courageous and strong. Throughout His public ministry, both His heart and His mission proclaimed love, mercy, and holy purpose. “I have set my face like flint” (Isaiah 50:7). His tender heart led Him to the Cross.

To have a heart that is tender and open like Jesus’ Sacred Heart, is also to conform our will to His will. His tender love was a love that called a sin by its name and with the clarity of His light and justice. Jesus was tender to the sinner but never soft on sin. We’re called to follow Him. Our hearts must be just as eager to root out and name our own sins. A tender heart is one that is frequently tilled and weeded by our examination and repentance. Frequent confession is a great “tenderizer” as the Church knows and teaches. Tender hearts seek Jesus in prayer, which is our lifeline to a relationship with Him. We learn to deny ourselves so that we can become more like our Lord, who poured out His heart in love for us. And so we are also charged with service and giving of ourselves. Among the primary acts of our service is to forgive. Tender hearts reach out to those who have wronged us and offer them mercy, like our Lord does. We give our hearts away despite knowing that sometime they’ll be trod upon. We look at Christ’s courage in loving and trusting others and we imitate Him. Tender hearts don’t carry grudges. We are vulnerable to the pain caused by other people and we love them anyway. Even when we’re hurt, we remain sensitive to the pain of others. We comfort, we console. We mourn with those who grieve. Tears shed out of love for another’s pain are precious to Jesus. We shed them freely.

I’m thankful for those early memories of my sweet grandfather who cried for me as I left him each summer. He showed me I wasn’t alone in being quick to cry out of love. When someone called me “tender-hearted” I felt close to him and it made me feel less different. My life is richer for it and my faith is nourished by my tears. You’ll know when you see me at Mass—I’m the one at the end of the pew, always looking for a tissue.

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”
—Ephesians 4:32

Her Face In The Pew

She’s sitting just in front of you at Sunday Mass.  You see her at church occasionally, but you don’t know anything about her, even her name.  When Mass is over, she quickly makes her way out and is gone.  Until the next time.  Maybe next week.  Maybe next month or even six months from now.  She drifts into your parish life and then evaporates out of it.  It’s really a miracle that she connects with the Catholic Church at all.  She comes, not because of your parish’s lukewarm hospitality to her or to hear your pastor’s seven-minute homilies.  Mass for her is both grace and torture.  She craves what the Mass offers and yet she feels a great barrier between her heart and the life of the Church.  My friends, that barrier is us.  You and me, with our own sins and secrets, our private judgments and hidden (and not-so-hidden) prejudices.  You’ve never said an unkind word to this woman.  You’ve probably warmly taken her hand at the Sign of Peace.  You’ve exchanged polite smiles and nods of greeting.  But there’s something that keeps her at a distance, something in her heart and something in your heart and in my heart.  And that something is abortion.

I’m thankful our Catholic faith supports life.  Standing up for the unborn marks us as stewards of God’s greatest gift.  For the most part, we do good corporate pro-life work in the public arena.  We have strong leadership in this from most of our bishops.  Many of our priests and pastors preach about life issues on Sunday.  Some of our parishes have pro-life ministries and a few offer retreats like Rachel’s Vineyard for women healing from the emotional and spiritual consequences of abortion.  At at the level of our hearts and our hands, we do a pretty poor job of offering the love and mercy of Christ to all the women, men and families wounded by abortion.

Imagine you’re that woman in the pew in front of you.  Hear what she hears us say about abortion and imagine what she might feel.  “It’s the greatest evil, the most horrific sin.  Killing an innocent baby.  Destroying God’s most precious gift.”  And what we say is true.  We must put an end to abortion.  We need to hold prayer vigils and marches for life.  We have to support candidates for political office who will help end abortion in America.  But for every condemnation of the sin of abortion, we have to remember that woman in the pew.  We have to be mercy and love for her.  Not as a theory.  Not as part of our parish mission statement.  But as the heart of Christ.  We have to imitate Him.  And how does Jesus love?  How does He offer mercy?

He meets people where they are.  At a well at noontime.  On their sickbed.  As they are about to be stoned.  As they are hung on their own cross.  As they lie dead in their tomb.  Or in their pew at Sunday Mass.  He meets them where they are in their pain and sin; in their despair and their need.  When they are with Him, He is there for them.  And we must be there for these hurting women.  The only Church they have is us.  They may feel accused and forgotten by us.  They may be ashamed and hate themselves for what they’ve done.  They may expect that we hate them too.  They may feel that their abortion is unforgivable.  Many of them may never set foot in a Church again.  But you can bet that at any given Mass there are several post-abortion women in the pews with you.  The statistics of abortion support this.

Every unknown face at Mass is a child of God drawn to His Church by hope and by the working of the Holy Spirit.  And every time we fail to welcome them, we fail Christ.  Every time we overlook the person behind that unknown face, we fail to do His will.  When that woman in the pew feels unwelcome, she may not come back.  When she feels that her sin, any of her sins, is too great or too dark for God’s mercy, we have failed her as His Church.  As we stand against abortion, we must also stand beside  and reach out in love to its many victims.  For every word she hears condemning the sin, she must hear seventy-times-seven words of His love and forgiveness.  And not just words, but our actions must reach out to her.  A few moments meeting her after Mass.  A conversation over coffee in the social hall.  It can start out so small, but our hospitality can lead to great healing for her, and also for us.  Don’t forget the old saying that each one of us is fighting a great battle here in this life.  As His Church we are called to take care of our own.

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

—St. Teresa of Calcutta

A Garden of Faith

Springtime gives me hope. Every year as the earth blossoms into new life, I’m filled with gratitude for the beauty of creation. Spring affirms change and growth and renewal. It reminds me in a million different ways that I have been made “a new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). So many of the familiar flowers and shrubs in our home landscapes have long traditions as living reminders of our faith. I’m sure most of us have at least a couple of these examples in our gardens, but we might not know their histories.

Probably the most beloved flower of all is the rose. St. Ambrose tells us that the rose grew as the greatest and most beautiful of all the flowers in paradise. It flourished there without thorns until sin entered the world. The rose then grew thorns to remind man of his sins but it retained its beauty and fragrance to remind us of the splendor of heaven. A red rose is the symbol of martyrdom, of giving our life for our faith. A white rose symbolizes purity. Roses are often associated with the Virgin Mary. A rosary is a series of prayers which we present to Our Lady like a garland of these most beautiful flowers.

Most of us know the story of St. Patrick and the shamrock. As a missionary to the pagan people of Ireland, Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to illustrate how the three Persons of the Holy Trinity exist as One. Americans often confuse shamrocks with clover, but the shamrock is a lovely green plant that is much larger than the tiny clover and makes an excellent bedding plant.

Holly is a staple of most American home gardens. The waxy green leaves and bright red berries make it a favorite at Christmastime. Legend has it that the holly was used to make Christ’s Crown of Thorns and the bright berries reflect the drops of His Precious Blood which the painful Crown produced. Its evergreen beauty reminds us of the promise of eternal life in Christ and His promise to be with us in our darkest trials. The old poem, “The Holly and the Ivy” contrasts the two plants and their symbolism.

Laurel is another beautiful shrub that comes in many varieties. In ancient times, the winner of a race or other athletic competition was rewarded with a crown made of laurel leaves. It reminds me of having run the race of faith that St. Paul mentions. Laurel symbolizes triumph as well as chastity. Several orders of nuns wear wreaths of laurel on the day they make their final profession of vows and many sisters choose to be laid to rest wearing a laurel crown, as well.

One of my favorite flowers is the columbine. Brilliant blue, it’s a real show-stopper. Another name for columbine is “Our Lady’s Shoes” which comes from a legend about the origin of this flower. After the angel Gabriel had come to Mary at the Annunciation, she left to share this good news with her cousin, Elizabeth. As her feet touched the earth on her journey, columbines sprang up in bloom at each footstep. What a wonderful story! Columbines remind us of the joy that Mary felt knowing the Savior of the world was on His way.

Lilies are hardy perennials that multiply rapidly and bloom their hearts out. They have been seen as symbols of purity and chastity for centuries. You’ll frequently see lilies in paintings of Saints who died as virgins. St. Joseph, the husband of Our Lady, is often depicted holding a lily—both as a symbol of his own chastity and in his role as the protector of Mary’s virginity. The fleur-de-lis is a variety of lily that was adopted by King Clovis of France when he was baptized. This familiar 3-petaled bloom went on to become the symbol of French royalty and of France itself. An early bloomer, the fleur-de-lis is a sweet, fragrant addition to any garden.

So many flowers and shrubs have been linked to events in the life of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Do a little research for stories about daffodils, bleeding hearts, Passion flowers, and marigolds to find more about your “faith garden,” These are just a few of the many reminders of the love of Christ and the faith of His followers. Plant a corner of your garden with some flowers or shrubs that will pull you closer to our Creator. He made a Garden for us all, once. And the beauty of springtime is a reflection of that first, perfect garden.

The soul cannot thrive in the absence of a garden.”
—–St. Thomas More

Being Angry With 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

Keep 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?”

       —-Mother Teresa of Calcutta

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