Following Jesus–even when times are hard

Cast yourself into the arms of God and be very sure that if He wants anything of you, He will fit you for the work and give you strength.    –St. Philip Neri *

Sometimes we feel the nudge of the Spirit asking us to do things we think cannot possibly do. Perhaps we have been hurt in the past by rejection or loss, and are afraid to take up loving someone again. Maybe we feel we don’t have enough education, good looks, or poise for a task. We may feel too young to qualify, or too old to try something new.

But following Christ (or any spiritual path) involves remaining open to new things, to go wherever the Spirit leads us. Sometimes this is easy to do, especially in the first flush of spiritual enthusiasm. However, when times get hard, when we are tempted, or when others around us ridicule us, it can be very difficult to live as Jesus lived. 

St. Philip Neri reminds us that God does not ask us to do the impossible, at least not what it truly impossible. Even in the rough places in the road, God is there with us, to guide us, to comfort us, and to challenge us to grow.

Is there something in your life that God is asking you to do, but you are shrinking from out of fear?

If that “something” really is God’s desire for your life, then we can be sure that somehow, some way, God will bring it about, sooner or later—if only we open ourselves to receiving divine guidance, divine strength. It’s worth reading Philip Neri’s words again; write them on your heart (as I will strive to do as well):

Cast yourself into the arms of God and be very sure that if He wants anything of you, He will fit you for the work and give you strength.

Until next time, Amen!

 

*Philip Neri quote from The Wisdom of the Saints: An Anthology by Jill Haak Adels (Oxford University Press), p. 58.

Would Jesus Allow Open Discussion on Controversial Topics?

This past Sunday, the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a front page article entitled Priests told not to voice dissent,” the gist of which is contained in this quote:

Archbishop John Nienstedt is warning Catholic clergy across Minnesota that there should be no “open dissension” of the church’s strong backing of a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would define marriage as a union only between a man and woman. 

The Roman Catholic archbishop is not merely asking clergy to remain neutral on public issues while speaking in the pulpit. Instead, he is pressuring pastors and parishioners to be proactive on the issue even if it is against their conscience, by  pushing “marriage prayers” smack dab in the middle of Sunday Mass, creating parish “marriage committees” to support the amendment, and inviting “marriage teams” to come speak to high school students.

Of course, church leaders certainly have the right–and the duty–to speak publicly about issues of faith and morals, and about anything that might make the world or church a better place. However, based on my past experiences, I rather doubt any of these marriage speakers will offer any genuine, mutual discussion (this vote, after all, applies to all of society, not just Catholics, so all angles ought to be openly discussed, even at a church meeting).

Catholics today are facing the same kind of repressive environment that exists under dictatorships. It is becoming dangerous to disagree on controversial topics. One cannot write or speak publicly if one disagrees with church teachings on such topics as women’s ordination, married clergy, gay rights, birth control, abortion, liberation theology, or even how one views Mary (as in the case of Tissa Balasuriya). 

Regarding the case of the proposed marriage amendment, the archbishop is so determined that in a recent speech/letter to priestshe reminded them of their vows of obedience. In addition, the archbishop wrote a letter to one priest threatening to remove him from active ministry if he spoke publicly against church teaching (the marriage amendment being one example in the letter). Some people would call that spiritual bullying.

Conservative Catholics spout the slogan “error has no rights,” but “error” is not a person. People do have rights. People are God’s beloved sons and daughters–and Christ often listened carefully to others, even asked about what they thought: How do you interpret the law? What do you want? Who do you say I am? What are you discussing as you go your way?

Since Sunday’s Star Tribune article, I have been trying to think of a single instance in which Jesus silenced a conversation, or bullied people into thinking his way.

Hmmmm… In Mark’s gospel, Jesus does ask the disciples to keep quiet now and then, but the secret is all the good works he’s doing, that he’s the Messiah, not the squelching of his opposition. Today’s equivalent would be a bishop working a miracle and then telling the priests to keep it secret, because, after all, he’s a very humble guy.

Maybe we might think the time Jesus turned over all those money tables in the temple was a little like silencing someone with opposing views. Today’s equivalent would be a bishop blasting American corportations for their greed on a nationally televised event, or publicly destroying the number balls used to select lottery winners. Or maybe selling the bishop’s mansion to build a place for the homeless.

The only time I can remember Jesus ever coming close to silencing someone is when Peter–whom Catholic call the first pope–tells Jesus he ought not to go to Jerusalem because of the danger. To this, Jesus replies:

Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do. (Matthew 16:23)

Those are pretty strong words–even harsher than “shut up.” Jesus knew that God wanted him to go to Jerusalem even if it meant risking death on a cross. When pushed between following the advice of the first pope or what his Father in heaven wanted, Jesus chose to obey his Father, trusting that God would bring about something good (through his cross and resurrection, the salvation of the world!).

In our own times, those of us who follow Jesus must listen carefully not only to religious leaders, but also to those whose voices are not easily heard: the poor, the abandoned, the lonely, the sick, and those who are most ill-treated and misunderstood. We must ponder our sacred scriptures and pray to God, asking the Holy Spirit to guide each one of us to make good choices.

Even if it means disagreeing with “Peter.”

Happy Thanksgiving

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever!
–Psalm 118:1 (NRSV)

Wild turkeys in a nearby suburb--photo by Julie McCarty 2011

When I am feeling a little blue or worried in the middle of the night, I sometimes stop the negative thoughts by attempting to list 25 things for which I am grateful. The list can be wild or seemingly insignificant–whatever occurs to me at the time. I am thankful for a lush tomato from the garden, the color lavender, the scent of bread baking; for specific people/relationships in my life; for time alone with God and time together with others to celebrate. By the time I list 25 things, whatever was bothering me seems a less significant.

The above verse from Psalm 118 reminds me that one thing to be grateful for is the way God loves us no matter what. We sin, we hurt ourselves or others, we make mistakes–and yet, God’s love is ever-present, ever-faithful, ever-merciful.

In the original Hebrew of Psalm 118, the word for “steadfast love” is checed (pronounced  kheh’ – sed ). Checed or hesed, as it is sometimes written in English, is translated various ways depending upon the bible translation and the particular context of the bible verse. Sometimes it reads like this:

O give thanks to the Lord;  for [he is] good:
because his mercy [endureth] for ever.
–Psalm 118:1 (KJV–my underline)

Or, this:

Give thanks to the Lord,  for He is good:
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
–Psalm 118:1 (NASB–my underline)

Checed can be translated all of these ways. God is good, and God’s faithful love, kindness, and mercy are all everlasting.*

Thanksgiving is a time of offering prayers of thanks for  many things. Most often, we thank God for the food on the table, a roof over our heads, our family and friends, our health, our jobs. These are all good prayers of thanks.

But the bible verse above makes me wonder: when have I ever thanked God for his love? Have I told God I appreciate his presence in my life? Have I expressed thanksgiving for the good Lord’s compassion, his kindness, his mercy and forgiveness?

Thank you, God, for your blessings this Thanksgiving–and thank you even more for the gift of Yourself, given to us through the sacraments, the Word of Scripture, the beauty of nature and other people, and your Spirit deep within our hearts.

Until next time, Blessed Thanksgiving!

* Note: Information on checed was found in the Blue Letter Bible online using the bible verse and Hebrew lexicon.

Also note: You can now print off these reflections, email them to others, Facebook or Twitter, using new features of WordPress at the Spiritual Drawing Board shown at the end of each post. (If you have trouble with printing using your server–as I did–try using Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox servers.)

 

Jesus said, “Peace be with you.”

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews [the leaders who handed Jesus over to the Romans] , Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:19)

After Jesus was crucified, his disciples were in hiding, afraid of what might happen next. If Jesus, their beloved rabbi and leader, the one with all those miraculous spiritual powers, had been tortured and killed, it could happen to them.  

I imagine they were confused, crushed with disappointment, and experiencing the intense emotions of grieving. How could this happen? All those miracles, their belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Anointed one of God–all that goodness destroyed by the Romans who put him to death! And their own religious leaders, who had also condemned Jesus of blasphemy. Would they also turn on Jesus’ disciples?

Surely they had feelings of remorse and guilt. After all, they had run away when their friend needed them most. They had given in to fear, even though their Lord had told them repeatedly, “Do not be afraid.” What kind of followers were they, insisting to Jesus’ face that they would stand by him, even to the death, and then, instead, immediately fleeing when the going got tough? Peter, “first among equals” or the “prime” apostle, even lied when questioned about his association with Jesus.

When the Risen Lord appears to this disloyal group for the first time after his death, what does he say? If he were a married person, talking to his or her spouse, he might have said, “Told you so! I knew you would leave me when things got rough.”

If Jesus were a politician, he might have fired the disciples from their managerial posts. If Jesus were like certain religious leaders, he might have assigned the apostles a penance, banned them from teaching, or withheld communion. After all, most the apostles abandoned Jesus after he was arrested. (We only hear of John, Jesus’ mother, and other women followers standing by Jesus as he suffered on the cross.)

But the Lord Jesus is not like us sinners. He is not self-centered or self-righteous. In relationships, Jesus does not grab at power over others. He has no need to be a superstar, dictator, or spiritual bully.

When he reappears to them after his death, the first words Jesus says to them are “Peace be with you.” This peace is the inner peace that only God can give. It is not a peace based on owning a lot of material possessions, being wealthy, having a sexy appearance, belonging to the winning political group, or even forming the perfect liturgical translation. Christ’s peace is a gift of the Spirit, given freely with love.

The peace that Christ is offered them–and offers us–is not only peace within each soul, but also peace among people, creating spiritual networks of loving relationships. The Greek word in this passage of John’s gospel is not merely about the absence of disturbance or conflict. It is a word that probably is from the root word that means “to join.” Christ desires that we be joined together in relationships of love. The peace Christ wants is one of harmony among people, which is what he prayed for just prior to his death, that all may be one, not one in physical appearance, worship style, culture, or dogma, but one in the Spirit, one in the Lord.

When Christ wishes the disciples peace, he is offering it to them without strings  attached. The Risen Lord loves all people, sinners or so-called religious. If we would be his followers, we must do the same.

Until next time, Amen!

 

Note: Many thanks to my hubby, Terry McCarty, for the photographs in this post. He took them this past month at the Como Park Conservatory in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Copyright 2011, Terry McCarty. All rights reserved.

Dealing with Fear

“And you kill what you fear
And you fear what you  don’t understand”
                        –Lyrics from “Duke’s Travels” by Genesis
 
Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid!”
                        –Words of Jesus in Mark 6:50

Sparrow photo by Marek Kosmal –Dreamstime.com

Have you ever noticed how fear permeates our society like a kind of illness? Although it is part of the human condition to have to deal with a certain amount of tension, it seems to me that the overall anxiety level of our culture has escalated in the past decade.

 While humans have always had to deal with fear, Americans are bombarded with negative, anxiety-producing messages every day, thanks to the many forms of modern communication. Advertisers play on our underlying nervousness about becoming old, infirm, weak, or ugly. Politicians stoke our fears in order to gain votes. Religious preachers speak of a terrifying time they call Armageddon (Is this supposed to make me want to join their church?), while environmentalists warn about catastrophe caused by global warming.

It’s not that we shouldn’t be concerned about issues of our day or things that touch our lives in big and small ways. However, I am concerned that too many decisions are made out of raw fear and too many of us are stuck in a fear-based lifestyle. 

I’m not immune to the effects of all the negative messages that surround us and infect us with anxiety. In fact, it is because of my own fears that I am exploring this problem here on the Spiritual Drawing Board. 

As part of the human condition, fear has its place. When you see a runaway semi-trailer headed your way, fear can make you swerve to avoid collision. “Fear of God” (healthy respect) can motivate a person to change his or her life for the better. Feeling an intuitive fear in an unusual situation sometimes warns us of real danger.  

But—and here’s the big question—how does one reconcile all this anxiety, fear-centeredness, and fear-mongering with the words Jesus said repeatedly, “Be not afraid”? So many people in our country say they believe in Christ, claim to follow his teachings, and even want to call America a “Christian nation” (something that makes me uncomfortable), while at the same time acting fearful about all sorts of dangers, real and imagined, creating scary scenarios, and spreading ideas that only serve to increase fear.  

However, is this how the real Jesus of Nazareth would want us to live? As slaves to fear? Jesus himself experienced a kind of fear or agony in the garden just prior to his arrest and death on the cross, but he did not let that anxiety stop him from accomplishing God’s plan for his life. Jesus trusted God, his Abba (Father/Daddy) completely. This trust was not the belief that nothing bad would ever happen, but rather that God was always with him, through both the good times and the bad times. 

In the gospels, Jesus tells people again and again not to be afraid—and these people he spoke with had a good deal more to be afraid of than the average American of today. Most of his listeners did not have the abundance of possessions that most of us have, they did not have credit cards, life insurance, or the advanced health care we have today. Most of Jesus’ friends would not have been considered full-fledged citizens (his early followers were Middle Eastern Jews living under Roman rule). In fact, in the years that followed Jesus’ death, some of them would give their own lives for following Christ—and yet, Jesus told them don’t be afraid. 

As the year 2011 continues to unfold, there are many challenges ahead. Jesus did not promise us we would never suffer, but rather that he would be with us in our suffering. The Divine Spirit is with us in the depths of our hearts. Christ is with us when we gather together for worship, Word, and Sacrament. When we are attentive to God’s presence, we hear not the voice of fear and darkness, but rather the still, tender voice of the Holy Spirit. 

Sparrow--by Marek Kosmal --Dreamstime

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs on your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”     –Jesus in Matthew 10:28-31.

Note: The sparrow images in this post are segments of an image by photographer Marek Kosmal (Pixelman) from Knurów, Poland and obtained through a free-use agreement with Dreamstime. To view the original photo, follow this link: http://www.dreamstime.com/free-stock-photo-sparrows-rimagefree1279766-resi1238037    .  Many thanks, Pixelman!