Each one, as a good manager of God's different gifts, must use for the good of others the special gift he has received from God. (1 Peter 4:10)

Archive for February, 2019

Too Close

It seems that in much of life, it doesn’t pay to be too close. We don’t like a close call; when we narrowly escape disaster we call it “too close for comfort”; when we get too close to a situation and lose perspective we say we can’t see the forest for the trees. This whole line of thinking was set in motion the other day when I was working on a big project restoring a stairway in my house. The stairway is wood, with lovely wide steps and good moldings at the top of each riser. I removed the old carpet and even older linoleum tile, then dissolved and scraped and sanded to get rid of old glue. I washed and then sanded some more, and installed lengths of shoe at the bottom of each riser where it meets the tread. Finally, I began to stain; and after two coats of stain I was ready for the clear-coat. Last but not least, I had to repaint the stringers and moldings on both sides as stawell as the handrail.

At a point in the process of applying the clear-coat, I became depressed about the project. There I was, nose to board with each step that I had carefully sanded and stained, and all I could see was imperfections! Flaws! Tiny mistakes!

And I realized that I could either let the realization of these flaws and imperfections ruin the project for me, or I could take a step back and enjoy the beauty of the big picture. If I looked at it as a whole, I had created something very beautiful — dark walnut stain gleaming under a carefully applied triple coat of satin-finish clear-coat, ascending (or descending, depending on your viewpoint) majestically and beautifully in the middle of my home. For the rest of my days, God willing, I’m going to be walking up and down those lovely steps — not kneeling on each one peering at it to find flaws.

The feeling of relief and release that came over me was a lot like the feeling I get after the Sacrament of Reconciliation — a kind of intense lightening of the spirit that opens me to joy.

I thought, then, about my recent blog post pondering what God thinks of me. The thought of God peering closely at me with an intent of finding every last single flaw and imperfection in me was a little daunting. But it needn’t be. He comes close to us, especially in the human nature of Jesus, not to inspect and judge but to enjoy the fruit of His creation. He sees us as the whole of His work, I think, and rejoices within His Trinity in the beauty of it.

And for myself, for my spiritual life, I think that it is important to get some distance from myself, instead of getting so close to my “work.” Of course it is important to remain aware of my sinfulness and to know my faults and imperfections; but I don’t think God wants me to dwell on that. Rather, He wants me to bring those to Him, along with my whole self, and then to step back from myself and focus my energy on using myself to serve and help His people, the people He puts in my path. He calls me not to be so self-centered that all I can see are my flaws; He calls me to be so centered in Him that all I can see is His love.

What Does God Think of Me?

That question — “What does God think of me?” — crossed my mind as my watch chimed the 10:00 a.m. prayer reminder this morning. To your Father, you are worth many sparrows. Cf. Luke 12:7. Yes, Father, I know…I am worth more than many sparrows, but what do You think of me?

The thing is, just lately I have found myself in a place where I’m more or less constantly wallowing in regret for my old sins. I’ve been quite open, here in my “spiritual garden,” about the fact that for a significant number of years I did not live a good Christian life — in fact, got about as far from it as I could, given who I am.

Life is good these days. I have what I need to care for myself physically, and I have the love and support of family and friends and church to sustain me. My needs are simple, and I feel that I am where God wants me to be, doing what He wants me to do. These days, I live a spiritual life that I never would have thought possibly even a few years back.

And yet I will find myself looking back on the “bad years” with a sense of shame and regret. How dare I walk around pretending to be this good and spiritual person when I have these awful sins in my past? In the worst and darkest moments of this funk, the question even becomes “How dare I put myself in front of God in prayer when I am obviously so unworthy?”

It does not take a spiritual rocket scientist to figure out where such thoughts come from. I know where they come from, I know who authors them and hangs them out there to tempt me, and because I know that, I reject them….only to see them reformulate themselves into doubts and questions about the nature of God’s mercy and forgiveness and love. And so another round of rejecting such thoughts and turning myself once more to God….

That’s why the question that came to me when that prayer reminder chimed is so huge and so important. The answer to that question is central to my ability to overcome such ugly temptations to doubt and despair.

What does God think of me? 

For starters, He created me because He loves me. He created humans in His own image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27). After he created humans and finished all the work of creation, He “saw that it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). And when his first human creations, exercising the free will He had given them, separated themselves from Him by sin, there began His great quest for a means of redeeming His sinful creatures.

The entire Old Testament tells the story of a God Who, having created us in His own image and likeness, thus thought so highly of us that He searched constantly to bring us back to His heart. Time after time, He draws His people into a covenant relationship with Him; time after time, His people break the covenant; and God yet again reaches out to His people again.

What does God think of me? God loved His people so much, and so greatly desired them to return to Him and love Him back, that He became one of us in order to finally create a new covenant that would be unbreakable. His love is so great that it could only be fully expressed in His birth, His miracles, His teaching, His passion and death, His resurrection, and His return to heaven to make a place for us.

Those doubts, those fears, those temptations to turn away — all of those are nothing in the face of such love. All of those are merely another reminder to turn to my Father constantly, again and again and again, throughout each day; all of them are powerless in the path of the love He has for me and the love He calls forth from me.

What does God think of me? He kept loving me even when I sinned my biggest sins; He kept waiting for me to return to Him; He rejoiced when I finally started listening for His voice again, and He leans down to care for me ever so tenderly while I make my way through this world. He thinks so highly of me that He sends His angels to watch over me. He has already forgiven those long-ago sins, and He wants me to remember the forgiveness and mercy more than He wants my regret and guilt and shame.

We have that love around us and in us every hour and minute of every day. All He asks is that we open ourselves to receive it and listen for His voice.

What does God think of me?  Suddenly I realize — He loves me even more than I can love myself. He’s not going to stop loving me. And with that kind of love, I can overcome all.


Hiding From God

The Old Testament readings this 5th week in Ordinary Time are drawn from Genesis. I’m reminded of what a very short journey it was for Adam and Eve from the pure joy of being God’s beloved creation to the confusion and darkness wrought by the Evil One as he dangled the double temptations of personal power and equality with God before them — and they bit, if you’ll pardon a small pun.

The first response of the first man and woman, once they had separated themselves from God by disobeying His will, was the realization of their sin, reflected in the understanding that they were naked and in their attempt to cover their nakedness. And their second response was to try to hide from God. Knowing that their sin had separated them from Him, they tried to go even further away from Him. Because there had never before been sin, Adam and Eve did not yet know about God’s justice, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. They knew, thanks to Satan’s work, only to fear God’s punishment. And so they hid.

The writer(s) of Genesis do not tell us how Satan reacted to this byplay; we can only imagine it. The homily I heard this morning sheds some light on it, though. Father G. was talking about St. Teresa of Avila’s vision of Hell, with the place that Satan had reserved for her, and these words jumped out at me: “Satan does not like you.” The Devil does not want us in a state of sin because he likes us and wants us to be with him; he wants us that way as a way of separating us from God, not because he likes us but because he hates God.

God, on the other hand, the all-powerful Creator of all things — including us, and including the fallen angels — God is full of love for us and constantly wants good for us. He also has a place reserved for us in Heaven, and it is a very different place from the little pit full of slime and vermin and slithery things that St. Teresa of Avila was shown. Rather than eternal confinement in a small space of ugliness and darkness and filth, God has for us a place of eternal freedom, light, joy, and bliss in His presence. And fortunately for us, He wants us to enjoy that place far more than the Devil wants us in his own horrid place.

And yet we humans, still possessed of our sinful natures, we still sin, and when we find ourselves standing thus separated from God, we seek to hide from Him. We hide in shame; we hide in defiance; we hide in our failure to understand that He is not only ready to forgive us, He wants to forgive us and to bring us back into His presence.

What if I could live a life so grounded in faith that if — when — I sin, I am instantly aware of my Father’s desire to forgive me so that instead of hiding from Him in darkness, I turn toward His Light? What if my days, right down to the hours and minutes of them, were so filled with His grace that even as my foot slips, I know I can reach for His hand and return to the safety of His love?

Sin is the disease of our souls from which we all desire healing. We can’t heal ourselves, and we can’t avail ourselves of the healing that comes from our Lord if we are hiding from Him. I am thinking, at this moment, of those stories in the Gospels where those in need of healing sought to touch just the hem of His garment or the tassels of His cloak — and in doing so, they were healed!

Father God, let me not hide from You in my sin. Rather let me instantly see my sin in Your light, and grant me grace to seek Jesus and through Him forgiveness. Let me reach for the hem of His garment, the tassel of His cloak — let me, in grace, always be reaching for Him and never hiding from Him. Please, Father, keep me always mindful of Your everlasting love, the love that seeks and desires to forgive me and keep me close to You even in my worst moments. And through the intercession of our Blessed Mother, please keep my heart and soul on the path You have laid out for me to lead me to the place You have reserved for me in Heaven. In Jesus’ name I ask these things of my loving Father. Amen.

No Escape

The Gospel reading for this Tuesday of the 4th week in ordinary time (Mark 5:21-43) presents us with an unmistakable and inescapable message from Jesus: Have faith. Really. It’s all about faith.

As Mark tells the story of Jairus, the synagogue official whose daughter is ill and dying, wrapped around the story of a widow whose hemorrhages have resisted all attempts at treatment for 12 years, we hear Jesus say it twice: First, he tells the widow, “Daughter, your faith has saved you….” and then, he tells Jairus, upon hearing that Jairus’ daughter has died, “Do not be afraid; just have faith.” St. Paul, in the first reading for the day (Heb 12:1-4), reminds us likewise to keep the faith, “running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.”

That seems simple enough. Just have faith.

Well, all of these things are simple when we are sitting quietly, reading the Scriptures and reflecting and praying on them. When it comes to dealing with real life, our human nature with all its distractions and worries and plans and expectations has a tendency to get in the way of the simplicity. And not the least of the issues our human nature creates is this tendency to think that the more complex a thing is, the more worthy it is of our attention and focus and energy to figure it out and understand it. By extension, the simpler something is, the less it engages us and requires our focus and energy. We just don’t regard “simple” things as being all that worthy of our time and attention.

I’ve said it before, though: Life in this world is complex and complicated. Faith, on the other hand, is very, very simple. Apply a very simple thing to solve a very complex and complicated problem? Now there’s a novel concept….

….And it’s the only concept that really works.

Let me reflect a bit deeper on Jesus’ invitation to us to “just have faith” and on His promise to the widow that “your faith has saved you.”

What is faith, anyway? Dictionary definitions range from general references to “complete trust or confidence in something” to a more specific “strong belief in God or the doctrines of a religion” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/faith). Scriptural references are summarized by St. Paul in Heb. 11:1: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. And it is in this definition from St. Paul that we start to see how faith intersects and interacts with the way we experience the world and the way we experience God.

We’re trapped here, you see — the only place we have to live in is the world. It’s a tough place, because its inhabitants, like all of us, are sinful beings, many of whom seem to be singularly uninterested in letting God into their lives, much less walking the path that Jesus laid out for us. If all there was for us to know was that the world is inhabited by sinful people who do evil, rotten things, we really could have no hope for anything good in the present, much less the future. And without that hope, there’s really no way to go on, is there?

That’s where faith comes in. And when I write about faith, I recognize fully that theological experts with minds much greater than mine have done so, and that atheists and others with equally great minds on the other side have refuted these notions in their way. I’m writing about faith merely from my own small human experience of it. And here’s what I think:

First, it’s a gift. I received it in baptism, and it was later confirmed in me through the other Sacraments. I did nothing to deserve this gift; I could not earn it, but it was freely bestowed by God Who created me out of His great love for me. That’s personal.

Sometimes this gift is given later in life; people come to recognize both something missing in their lives and something like a seed planted that waits to grow, and that’s the seed of faith, and they come looking for baptism and the other sacraments so that the seed can grow.

Second, faith is both a need and a choice — and not necessarily in that order. It’s part of the human condition that we have a need to believe in something (Someone) greater and stronger than ourselves. The choice comes in when we realize that the need is for Someone, and we choose to adopt and exercise the gift that He first gave us. The choice is necessary for two reasons, I think: first, He never forces His gifts on us, but simply offers them; and second, if we do not choose to live in faith, then by default we are choosing to reject that gift.

Third, faith is a living, growing thing. Given that God plants the seed, given that we have a deep need for it and given that we (hopefully) choose to live in faith, we are called and compelled to nurture it and give it room to grow. We are called and compelled to express it, and we are called and compelled to share it.

The fourth and most wonderful thing about faith, I think, is how the Holy Spirit works in us. The Holy Spirit rejoices along with the Father and the Son at each step of our journey in faith: When the seed is planted in us, when we acknowledge our need (which truly never goes away!), when we choose to welcome this gift, and when we seek and nurture its life and growth in us — all along the way, the Holy Spirit rejoices. As with the gift of faith in the first place, He never forces Himself into our lives — but, oh, how good He is at whispers and nudges and suggestions! The more aware we become of how our faith impacts our daily lives, the more He whispers and nudges and suggests.

And that brings me to the active part of faith: Faith is an active listener. When we are listening for those whispers and nudges and suggestions, when we become aware of them and respond to them, then our lives become faith in action.

Faith is the foundation of our spiritual and prayer lives. It is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” — the absolute confidence that the same God Who promised us His love and care and salvation is the God Who will keep that promise.

I absolutely cannot explain faith from the perspective of a life lived only in this world. I need one foot firmly planted in the next world for faith to make any sense at all. And when I have myself so situated that I live fully the life God has given me in this world, while recognizing that my real home is in the next, with Him — then I’ve given the gift and the seed of faith a place to fully live and grow.

Finally, seeing faith as complete trust and confidence in God leads me to the best place I can be in this life He has given me. When I pray about faith, I pray to always have the grace to meet each obstacle, each difficulty, each unexpected or painful experience, each joy, each gift, each moment of wonder that life brings me, with the strong confidence that God is with me in it — with me in all His creative, redemptive, and sanctifying power; with me to show me His presence in the people He calls me to serve; with me to keep my faith alive and growing, with its roots both here where I live now, and in heaven where I will one day see Him for eternity.

When I look back over what I have just written, I feel like I’ve poured out my heart, and yet that my words are woefully inadequate to express the deep joy and abiding peace that come with the knowledge and certainty of my faith. I think I need to conclude in this way: Just take a few seconds, if you will, to recognize God’s gift of faith in your own life; tell Him you are grateful for it, and ask Him to grow it in you.

I have complete faith that He will. You see, there is no escape. God’s love is everywhere, and it is expressed most wonderfully in the gift of faith.

The Chase

Several times over the past week, both in readings and in homilies at Mass, the beautiful and mystifying truth has presented itself that God loves us, each individually and personally, in the most passionate way, that He longs for us to turn to Him, and that He pursues us avidly in His desire for us.

When something comes at me that way, especially in the realm of my spiritual life, it’s a pretty definite signal that it’s something I should be thinking about. It becomes one of those things that my mind turns over and over, even when I’m not actively thinking about it. It becomes one of those things that has me, finally, asking God what it is I’m supposed to learn from or do with this “spiritual earworm.”

And then, if I’m listening, the response comes.

This morning, at Mass, I was thinking first about how grateful I was to be there — my attendance at daily Mass was interrupted last week because I was virus-y and again for a couple of days this week because of extremely cold and windy weather. As I began my prayer in preparation for Holy Communion, I thought about how circular this experience is: Jesus wants to come to us, and in our preparation we invite Him. He’ll never force His way in, but His grace is still compelling if we are open to it. He is the only one who can come to us in this way, and He so wants to be with us, but only at our invitation — and yet He is exactly what we need and all that we need.

And an old, somewhat whimsical phrase  popped into my head. “I only chased him until he caught me.” I found myself smiling as I moved forward to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. I need to pursue Him until He catches me. That little twist of thought is both humorous and very profoundly true. He will not force me to be His own — but He so wants to catch me, if only I will pursue Him.

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