Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Jesus and the Forklift

One of the most wonderful notions about Cursillo and the teachings of our church is to look for Jesus in every person.  You know that biblical verse where Jesus said "Whatever you do for the least of these"? As a Catholic we take that literally, that we can 'entertain angels unaware' and that Jesus presence can come in front of us as in anyone.

Well, today I met Jesus. I was at the church this morning, attending daily mass, doing the divine office, then watching as the new carpet was being put down for the music area and talking to Butch about other maintenance issues we need to get to, and upcoming school etc.  While I was wandering around doing some 'busy work' (small chores here and there) a latino gentleman approached asking to see Father.  After being told that Father was at lunch and would be back in a while, this man sat down and said I'll wait.

I walked past him a few times, saying hi and being kind but not really paying attention to who he was or giving him the real dignity he deserved.   Then when I finished my chores I walked down the Hall and introduced myself and started up a conversation.  He told me about his family, about his wife, and about the company he worked for; how they had just let him go from his job as a forklift operator because work was too 'slow'.  He talked excitedly about his fork lift certification and in broken English told me about his fears.  He told me he was scared that on his wife's minimum wage he'd never be able to make it, she works at a fast food place and like so many others that do so, is only 'part time.'

I told him I'd pray for him, not even realizing that I had never even asked his name.  I started to shake his hand to leave and he stopped me.  His eyes met mine and there was that twinkle, that 'there is more going on here than you think' look, and there he was.   Jesus was in front of me.

"You will pray for me?"

"Yes, I will pray for you."

I meant it, I never say that unless I truly mean it.  But everyone reading this knows that when someone says that they will 'pray for you' they often mean, I'm gonna say a prayer as I walk away for whatever your needs are, but then I may not think of you for a while.

He stood up and Jesus looked at me and said, "Ok".  Then he bowed his head.   I knew right then that Jesus was taking me up on my offer to pray for this child of his, my brother.  I placed my hand on his shoulder, and I bowed my head.  I prayed for him out loud.  I prayed for his family. I prayed for his children. I prayed for his job situation. I prayed for his soul.  I prayed for God's guidance.  I called him my friend, I called him my brother. I made the sign of the cross and said Amen.

Jesus was still there in the room with us, but he was no longer in the man in front of me.  The man with trembling voice thanked me, and sat back down I think almost shaken.  I was a bit shaken too.  Thank you Jesus for helping both of us.  The man looked up and he held out his hand one more time.  He said "My name's Fancisco." I shook his hand and told him, "I am Brian."

In Christ,

Friday, May 9, 2014

Will you let me be your servant?

This morning I had the wonderful privilege of leading a communion service for our parish.  About 6:30 as the kids were getting ready for school, I was in the living room preparing for my role.   Between helping find hair brushes and signing papers for school I read vocally and re-read the readings for the day.   I prayed that God would provide me with a lector for the day (since our normal lector for Friday's was on a mission of mercy, and of course God provided.)   Around 6:45 I began to pick out the hymn we would sing (which is also normally done by the same gentleman and brother who is the lector on Fridays.)

So much to the joy of my children just before 7:00 they were serenaded (notice how that word reminds you of a grenade?) with my wondrous rendition of "will you let me be your servant."    Now I'm one of those guys  that gets music lyrics completely wrong. From Like a Cheestick (like a g6) to Rock the Catbox (casbah), I've gotten them wrong for years.   So I wasn't surprised at all this morning when I sang the wrong lyrics to this song, to which my eldest of course corrected me.

"Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you, pray that I may have the strength to..."

From behind a closed door in the back of the house a disembodied voice bellowed "It's grace!"  "What?"  "I said it's grace!"   "What!?"  The door opens and she says "I said it's grace, not strength.. the lyrics are 'pray that I may have the grace'.  The door closes.

Isn't it funny how sometimes God corrects us through others?  How that something so simple as her just being herself was a moment of 'ah ha' to me?   There is such a huge difference in me having the strength, and me asking for the grace to let you be my servant too.  It reminded me immediately of the scene where Jesus says he's going to wash Peters feet and impetuous Peter declares Lord no!  You will never wash MY feet. Jesus then tells him If I do not wash your feet, you will have no part of me.   Then here I was this morning crying out with Peter, Lord then wash not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!

All too often we forget to humble ourselves enough to accept God's grace.  He offers to do something for us and we turn our back on it, lifting ourselves up and saying I don't need that!   Our pride gets in the way.  It's when we try to do things on our own strength that we find ourselves falling back into those same old sins.  You know when you say "I've got this beat, I haven't done XXXXX in weeks, I have finally mastered myself."  that we fall.   When we rather turn to God and say "I'm not strong enough to do this on my own.   I need you.  Please heavenly Father, send me strength, send me grace, send me help;"  that is when we find ourselves able to resist and live a Christ like life.

We often hear that saying that God will not give us more than we can handle.  I'm not sure I agree with that.  Sometimes I think God allows us just a bit more so that we can break, so that we can say "God I'm not strong enough for this.. help me carry my Cross.."  So today I ask, and pray;  will you let me be your servant?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

An Encounter with Christ

As many of you know, I've taken some time away from the computer for Lent; only recently returning to Facebook and blogging.  During that time I've tried to add some other pursuits that would help me grow closer to God.   One of the things I decided to do was get back to 'pleasure reading.'  With classes for ministry formation, bible studies, prayer groups, etc... a great deal of my reading has been 'assignments' or things I needed to research to plan a prayer retreat, or even the Facebook posts.  So I picked out a few books to read, to help me grow closer, but also books that are just for me.  Books I wanted to read.

One of those books is The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything by Reverend James Martin, SJ.  This book interested me because of our new Holy Father, Pope Francis, and his Jesuit background.  I don't know a lot about Jesuits so trying to understand their spirituality is very interesting and enlightening to me.   I've also been reading the wonderful book, Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads given to me as a gift by my dear friend Laci.   One of the interesting things I have found about Father Martin, is that he consistently looks for Gods presence in everything.  In every person. In every action. In every thought. In every 'desire'.   He looks to find God, if not in the moment, at least in retrospect to the end of his day when he does his daily Examen.  There is such a wonderful anecdote in the book by Father Martin about a man working in an administrative position who, when the door bell rings, would say "I am coming Lord!" in preparation for trying to see God in whoever had come to visit or to do business.

Such a simple concept, to look at your day and try to find God in each person you talk to.  In each task you are doing. In every blessing and even in every problem.  Father Tim Seigel  used to say much the same thing, when he would talk about the beauty of our round church.   He would tell us that in each person in the room, there is Jesus waiting.  I even remember a story about a grumpy old man that someone was trying to serve or at least talk with in a shelter, and the story ended with "Jesus wasn't in a very good mood that day."

It all boils down to "whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done for me" and in the same token "whatever you have not done for the least of these, you have not done for me."  This long introduction leads me to such a simple moment, but one that really opened my eyes and blessed me this morning.   On Thursdays we say a chaplet of Divine Mercy in our Sanctuary after Mass.  Today as we were praying for Mercy for the world and all of us in it, I was drawn to contemplating Mary Magdalene and the gospel from a few days previous.  In that Gospel Mary arrives at the tomb and finds it empty.  She is devastated.  Jesus walks up but she doesn't recognize him in his glorified state, and I'm sure her grief stricken heart and tears helped make it even more difficult to recognize anyone at all.  She, thinking he was the caretaker, begged him to just tell her where Jesus body was and she'd come get it.  She turned back to the tomb, turning her back on God... and a moment later, Jesus said her name.   Something so simple, but immediately she recognized him.  As we were praying for Divine Mercy, I was thinking of the beauty and mercy of that tender moment... being called by God, by name.
There I sat thinking looking around at the faces of the beautiful people praying with me, and asking myself do I see Jesus in this room? In Richard and Gene I always find love, in Mary I find patience and fortitude, in Paul I find the kindness to go out of his way to help everyone.  Yes, in these people I see Jesus every day.  My heart was content for I thought, "Yes, I have seen Jesus today in his body!"

Then as we were leaving, I was talking to Rita about the prayer basket we had set up in the entrance and she, as always, was kind and generous.  Then as she was leaving she gave me a hug and a kiss on the check, and she said "You tell your children and wife," then she paused for a moment as if taking time to get every word just right and said, "Haley.  Hannah. Sarah.  Moira. and Julie."  Pausing between each name as if they were precious and beautiful, and then "that I love them."   Then she walked away.  There He was.   When I was least expecting him, when I thought I had already seen through my own effort what he had to offer me for today, the God of Surprises blessed me with a beautiful moment in which he reminded me "I have called you by name.  You are mine." (Isaiah 43:1) Thank you Lord for reminding me that you love and watch over my family, and that they belong to you.  May I try to live up to that honor of having them in my life; and thank you Lord for Rita, for being your instrument today to bring me such a beautiful present.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

How can church Doctrine help me grow closer to God?

How Can Accepting the Doctrine of the Church help you come closer to God?

As a convert to the Catholic faith, the organic nature of the development of doctrine is something that I have experienced first hand.  During my formative years I began to do what is most common in the Protestant denominations; that is I began to church shop.  Many protestants are taught that the bible is the sole authority of their faith, and that they should continue looking for a church until they find one that teaches the bible and only the bible.  The problem then becomes whose version of interpretation is the correct one? Who is the authority who has the final say in interpretation? The Holy Spirit of course is the answer, but in the physical world we also have to have someone speaking via the Holy Spirit to make decisions in matters of  faith.

One of my first memorable experiences of this sort of process in action was in a church in rural southwest Virginia.  As the preacher began his sermon for the day, he began talking about another preacher from a different church and condemned him for smoking tobacco.  He talked about how it was bad for the body and that scripture had clearly shown that our body was a temple, and that smoking was desecrating that temple.  He kept preaching into a fevered pitch and paused just long enough to spit his ambeer into the cup.  This man of God had just been preaching about the sinful use of smoking tobacco while clearly chewing tobacco himself. I began to look for another church.

My next experience of this sort of doctrinal formation was in a Pentecostal style church where they were very animated and vibrant. They began to argue though shortly after I arrived about the necessity of one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, glossolalia. One of the more prominent ministers argued that one must indeed speak tongues in order to be saved.  The pastor began to refute that argument with scripture and indicated that while it was indeed a sign of being saved, there were other gifts of the spirit and that speaking in tongues was not required of every single person. A few weeks of arguing back and forth, during church service mind you, and they decided to go their separate ways. So one minister who disagreed with the preacher, along with all those who agreed with him, formed his own church just a few miles away.   Now we had two separate churches just a few miles apart that agreed in every issue but one, but both would point to the other and say that they were going to hell. I again began to look for another church.

After a while I settled down in a small church of the non-denominational variety, where they preached 'the bible' and studied it quite often together. The Pastor seemed to be a very nice fellow who gave a very good sermon, and they often had visiting singers and preachers who would get the congregation 'stirred'.  Everything here seemed to be right on the mark, they talked about hell, gave altar calls, shared scripture in snippets just like always.  In Sunday school they had us memorize the 23rd Psalm and various bible verses that we should be able to speak at a moments notice. Then one day before Christmas, the pastor began to preach against Santa, and instead of sharing the Christmas story and God's love for us.. it became a tirade about how Santa was truly from Satan.  Each holiday became just the same, the Easter Bunny next, then Halloween. Eventually it was that time again, I began to look for another church.

One day, shortly after I began to really research the Catholic church at the insistence of my wife, I stumbled upon a verse that I had read many, many times in the past. “Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, 'The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;  practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.'”  Here in Jesus own words was a verse telling me not to simply walk away and search for another church every time they did not agree with me. So I began to ask myself, which church is it that Jesus established? How can I know? What do they teach?

After many years of study and fighting the call of the Holy Spirit to become Catholic, I knew that it was here that I needed to be. It was only here that we had the seat of St. Peter, from whose authority the bishops and priests receive their anointing. It was here that we have the church with the power to bind and loosen.  It was here that we have the sacraments as Jesus himself initiated them. It was only in the Catholic church that I would find the fullness of faith, the teachings of the Apostles and of the Holy Spirit himself.

So how do those teachings help me to grow closer to God? For the last two thousands years men much smarter than myself have been studying, philosophizing, agreeing and disagreeing about various questions that I myself have seen others speaking about and arguing about.   Many of these have been put into documents, encyclicals, and into the Catechism of the church. By the guidance of the Holy Spirit many of those very questions that I have seen protestant churches splitting over, have already been answered and cemented as Dogma. Not only can I find the answers when there is a disagreement, but I can find the documents and biblical verses that back up those teachings as well. By following Catholic doctrine I have freed myself from a world where two men can split an entire congregation into two separate bodies; and joined myself to a church, that guided by the Holy Spirit, instead tries to keep the body of Christ as One Body.

The doctrines, teachings, and dogmas of the church also help me to find aspects of God that help me to further understand the mystery of his incarnation, of the trinity, and of the Sacraments. Through each of these wonderful teachings and writings on those teachings, I can further understand who God is, what God did for me, and how I can live to better please God.  I also have access to the treasure of the doctors of the church who have expounded in words much more eloquent than my own matters that sometimes seem very difficult to understand. As St. Peter said, “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.”  By finding the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, lead by the seat of Peter himself, I have found the key to understanding those scriptures.  I have found the source which will allow me to further understand and further grow closer to God, to find answers to those questions and find hope and grace in the Sacraments. That hope and grace draws me closer and closer to God himself.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Sermon on the Mount

I will attempt to write a theological reflection on the Beatitudes from Matthews portrayal of the Sermon on the mount(Matthew 5:1-12).  I have chosen this particular passage from the list of options as I find it to be the one that is most unfamiliar to me.  As a convert, I rarely if ever heard anyone discuss the beatitudes and if they did it was in a passing quote here or there.  After converting to the Roman Catholic faith I found myself fascinated with this entire discourse, more especially since I had found some of them to be very difficult to comprehend from a human stand point.

First I always find it important for my own understanding to address the particular situation in which the author portrays this event. At the beginning of this section of scripture Mathew indicates that “he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him.”  The first major thing that I notice of this passage is that Jesus began by sitting down, assuming a position of authority, the position of the teacher. Then we see that the disciples climbed the mountain to receive his teaching. This leads also an interesting correspondence to the event that occurs when Moses receives the commandments directly from God.   As God spoke from the top of the mountain, Moses climbed up to meet him. Our Pope Emeritus in one of his writings indicated that we should also look at scripture through a Christological lens, a hermeneutic of faith. When we examine this event from that understanding, we begin to see a very similar pattern in that the disciples climbed the mountain to receive a litany of commandments dealing with life with God and with mankind.

The beatitudes themselves almost seem to have an intricate dichotomy of meanings. On the one hand we have these positives, and with the others we seem to have almost a negative promise.  It puts me in mind of the ten commandments themselves in which we find 'thou shalts' and 'thou shalt nots.'  We find that we get a condition “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)  These seem almost to make a direct correlation, an understanding that easily presents itself.   When we take the word blessed and examine it's root of makarios we find the word means in a sense happy.  Happy are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Sons of God.   That we are truly only happy when we are like God.  This I think gives me the key to my personal understanding of the Sermon, that to be happy we must be like God, to be more like Christ himself.

The second affirmation seems to me to be “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” Another aspect that we clearly see, as maybe the most important aspect of our relationship with God, is that of His mercy. Scripture affirms consistently that God is a just and merciful God, “for the Lord your God is a merciful God” (Deuteronomy 4) reminds us that this all important attribute of God is also one that we must remember.  Jesus himself reaffirms it again in another saying where he says “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:2)  That true happiness comes from being merciful in our lives. In our relationships with others and with God; when we extend mercy to others they too will extend it back to us.

The third affirmative beatitude I'd like to address is “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”    Jesus reminds us that nothing impure can enter into the kingdom of heaven, that our heart must free of any attachment to sin. The gospel of Matthew repeats this theme again when he tells us that our “righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees” or we will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  This sort of thought prompts me to exclaim with the disciples, “who then can be saved”? Jesus seems to be saying we must be as righteous as He (as God himself) in order to be happy.

The fourth thou shalt of the favorable proclamation from the mount is “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:6)  Again we see the pattern of those who seek earnestly the will of God, righteousness, will be given happiness.  That true happiness comes from being more like God and seeking to be morally upright in all of our actions.  This  will provide us with a filling satisfaction of not only achieving that justification, but also a supernatural happiness.

That brings us to the other end of the scale, where we seem to have a more perturbing nature of promises or proclamations.  Where as Jesus has been promising happiness for things that seemingly make sense to be happy about, now we find a different nature to the secondary half of the formulation.  Jesus speaks of suffering and pain being the happiness. Things that we might perceive as negative, yet then follows with a reward for them. From my protestant background this almost seemed at odds with the God of the ATM, the God who gave you what you asked for and if you suffered it was simply because you did not have enough faith or had in some way sinned.

I had a great deal of difficulty understanding these four pronouncements for many years, until I heard Father Robert Baron speak of them in his Catholicism series.  I cannot pretend to do justice to what he gave in that series but I'd like to attempt my own understanding of it and hopefully in a clear enough manner to convey my thoughts. He speaks of Thomas Aquinas and the spheres of influence that typically get in the way of our trust in God. Those spheres are wealth, power, pleasure, and honor.  Father Barron compares these to the four remaining beatitudes.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3)  This beatitude seems to suggest that we must be detached from worldly possessions.  That having or owning something is not as important as not being attached to wealth.  Here we have a simple reminder that  indeed for a 'rich' man to enter into the kingdom of heaven is nearly impossible, but with God all things are possible.  It also reminds us that a poor man can have negative attachments to his wealth just as a rich man can be completely unattached to it.  The widow who placed her two pennies in the offering was generous, but she also could have been stingy hanging on to everything she had left.  That it is our spirit, our heart that determines where our hearts are.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  (Matt 5:4)  In the same scheme of things it's important not to be attached or addicted to feeling good.  In our society we often look for good feelings at all times.  Our children shows flood us with the concept that love is feeling good and sex is relegated not to procreation but to what feels right. Feeling good is of course a good thing, and when ordered to God's will is indeed beautiful, but we also know that addictions can occur when we put this first into our lives. Only when we are unattached to those feelings can we truly follow the will of God and do even that which seems difficult or painful at the time to do that which is right.  It also reaffirms that our hearts call out to God, and that the only place we find rest is in Him. We often try to cram anything we can into that God shaped hole in our heart, but the only thing that will fit permanently and comfortably is God himself.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt 5:5) I can only imagine how this must have seemed to those who believed Jesus to be the political and kingly Messiah that would overthrow the Roman government.  Here he clearly sets a course that would not lead to any sort of world domination or overthrowing of any political regime. “Happy are those” who are not attached to political (worldly) power and fame.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”(Matt 5:10)   Again we see a call to detachment from another sphere, that of honor. Jesus seems to indicate that by freeing yourself from the need to be seen in a position of honor that we can inherit the kingdom of Heaven and be the children of God.

I think that those four amazing statements can only be understood rightly when looked at while also gazing at the cross of Calvary. As Jesus hung on the cross he embodied all of these, more especially the four negative, in a fullness and a fulfillment of the words themselves. How much more poor in spirit can one get than to have nothing left, worldly at all? As he hung there with no clothing, no possessions, just a crown of shame and his own flesh ripped and torn in the wind.  How much less honor can one have than to be the King of the Universe, but to be crucified alone. Matthew portrays Jesus as having no friends, no family, no disciples at his feet. Even the 'good thief' isn't present, only those who deride and mock him. How far from feeling pleasure can one be than to be suffocating under their own weight, their skin flailed to the point of falling off, their hands and feet pierced by nails and driven to a cross?  The driving winds of the dry desert air parching and cracking your tongue and lips and the heat of the day blistering.  How meek and humble did he appear when he allowed himself to be crucified for our sake? The master of legions of angels and king of the entire universe, placing himself into the hand of men to go to his own death.  Yet, here is truly a happy man who lived for God, and did God's will in all things.

As I examine those thoughts and I image Jesus hanging on the cross in my place, I am struck by how the very sermon on the mount cried out to those disciples on the mount in a way that almost says “Blessed are they who are like Me.” I find that each of this statements directly corresponds to behaving in the way that Jesus behaved.  His life itself lived out the beatitudes to a fullness that I am not sure any other human can or has lived them. A holiness so much more difficult to follow, but so much more practical and easy to understand.  A call for each of us as disciples of Christ to emulate Jesus, who is our Sabbath and our rest.

I feel that this amazing understanding of the need for detachment calls me as a Christian in my own personal walk to begin to further analyze my life.  I also find it particularly pertinent on this the feast of Christ our King, to again approach every aspect of my existence and ask myself, Who is my king? The old cliché “WWJD (What would Jesus Do)” seems even more relevant as we ask ourselves: Are we detached from those spheres of influence? Does the need for honor rule my life? Political, social,  or economic power? Is it a need for things and money? Or a need for things that 'feel' good regardless of their spiritual significance? Should not my needs and wants be centered around Christ himself? To live this way, means reorganizing and restructuring every second and every breath, until I too can look down from own cross and say “It is not about me.”  It reminds us that the things that are unpleasant in life are in a way, our cross.. and we are to look down from our cross and say "Its' not about me, it's about you." Jesus died on his cross for us, so we too must die on our cross for others. We often make it all about ourselves.  The beatitudes, yes Christ himself, reminds us that the goal in life is to live for God first, and our neighbor as well.  That we must be completely detached from everything, including our own ego, and say fully thy will be done.