I’ll Be Happy When….

I chuckled this week when a podcaster described a “new” problem referred to as the “I’ll be Happy When…” syndrome. The podcaster must not realize that it’s the human condition that has been with us from the beginning: always striving after the world’s empty promises only to be left empty and wanting more. What began with Adam and Eve’s deceived assumption that they would be happy when they tasted the forbidden fruit continues to this day with our preoccupation with what we can acquire through our efforts. Just like our ancestors we discover that happiness eludes us because it is always moving according to the measure of our dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction with the present drives our striving after new ideas, new concepts, new things, new remedies. Granted it is within us to discover and innovate but when it is disordered it can consume us and suck the life out of us.

Consider today’s reading from Psalm 13 which begins with a question we may often find ourselves asking if we suffer from the “I’ll Be Happy When” syndrome. The psalmist pleads, “How long, O LORD?” and then proceeds to reveal his heart to the LORD, eventually concluding by remembering:

…I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me.

The psalmist offers us a remedy for our discontent; when we recollect the LORD’s sufficiency, our minds shift our attention to our generous LORD. I, like the psalmist, sometimes find myself thinking about all the ifs and buts we are prone to place upon the LORD, ourselves, and those around us; it can take a lifetime to release our will to God. I grew up in an environment that inadvertently fostered a discontent with the present moment. The drive for the next thing to look forward to was consuming in those who influenced my life; it was an ill-fit for me. Happiness seemed to need to be scheduled with a whole lot of contingencies that drove contentment and peace into the future. The result was the restlessness that discontent fosters. Over the years I’ve witnessed up close the side-effects of the “I’ll Be Happy When” syndrome. Have you? Perhaps you even suffer from it yourself? Let’s consider today’s Gospel reading from Matthew and the other readings from Sacred Scripture and look for the remedy the LORD offers for this human condition we fight against.

The account of an altercation the temple tax collectors had with Christ’s disciples recorded in St. Matthew 17 is almost humorous to me. I kindle to the way Jesus flippantly instructs Peter to “go to the sea, drop in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up. Open its mouth and you will find a coin worth twice the temple tax. Give that to them for me and you.” There was a duty that needed attention, instead of Christ allowing the disciples to fret about it, he gave an off-handed instruction as if to say “Meh, it’s not a problem, I got this.” Those twelve men suffered in varying degrees from the “I’ll be happy when…” syndrome just like we do.

What about you, friend? Do you wring your hands and murmur, “I will be happy when” I can get my taxes paid? I’ll be happy when life goes how I’ve scheduled it? I’ll be happy when this pandemic is over? I’ll be happy when all my social media friends press “like” on my posts? I’ll be happy when I make more money? Ohhh….there are so many ways that we undermine our peace in Christ by our thoughts and motivations, isn’t there? Mine is unique to me, yours are unique to you, but we both have the same problem. We do not trust God’s word to us just like Adam and Eve did not trust God’s word to them. We like to say we do, but when it comes down to it, do we? Can we release the death grip we have on our expectations? More often than not, I think we entrust ourselves to ourselves, pursuing ways to satisfy our own fearful and prideful pursuit of happiness.

Despite our disordered thinking, Jesus still says to us, “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink.” (John 7:37) He is the definition of true happiness. As the Psalms declare in varying ways, God is the fulfillment of all our longings. He is what the prophets refer to when they say, “On that day….” Now, there’s the only contingency we should focus on because that day the prophets refer to is the beautiful realization that God is present here and now, in the only moment we are promised. How he must laugh at our striving! How he must grieve over our useless pursuits. Isaiah prophesies, I am paraphrasing a bit:

“I will lead those who are blinded by pride, fear, anger in a way that they do not know, in paths they have not known. I will guide them. I will turn the darkness of their “I’ll Be Happy When” thinking into light, I will make their rough paths that they think leads to happiness into level ground. These are the things I do and I do not forsake them.”

–Isaiah 42

As for me, I find it helpful to prayerfully my disordered “I’ll be happy when…” drives. Sitting with the LORD and allowing him to light my darkened thinking always brings light. I ask our Blessed Mother to intercede for me as I unpack the motivations behind each statement. She is the perfect example of contentment. I ask the Holy Spirit to fill me with His wisdom and discernment.

Making a habit of reading through the anthologies of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, and Ben Sira in the Old Testament exposes us to all the human struggle to relinquish control to the LORD. What we discover are treasures that satisfy every longing of our hearts. They do not fade or become stale; in fact, they increase in satisfaction the more we pursue them. To get a foretaste of the books, I encourage you to read Proverbs 2.

LORD Jesus, You are our Alpha and Omega. You are our Sufficiency. You are our Happiness. Holy Spirit, help us to order our thoughts and actions as we pursue the treasures that give abundant life. Holy God, may we live and move and have our being in You!

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen

In A Word….”Selah”

Today’s readings from the psalms and oracles of the prophets serve as a soundtrack, as it were, for us as we have been considering the beginnings of God’s chosen people, the Israelites, recorded in Genesis. It’s not hard to recognize the same soundtrack plays as a backdrop for our own lives as we grow into our identity as God’s child. In fact, I believe that is why the psalms and oracles are so prevalent in The Liturgy of the Church, the words unite our spirit with the Spirit of God’s voice throughout the ages.

There is a certain word that is often sung or implied as a theme and by heeding it I may receive the LORD’s help as I walk the path of salvation. The word acts as a pop-up reminder to us to remember who we are and to whom we belong as we tread our own way through the high and low places of our journey of salvation. Consider this paraphrase of Psalm 46.

God is [my] refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.  Therefore [I] will not fear …… Selah

…God is in [my] midst; [I] shall not be moved;
God will help ….
 Selah

….“Be still, and know that I am God.
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth!”….
 Selah

The words of the psalmist convey the ever-present help of the LORD to us as the way to mindfulness of the LORD’s quiet presence to us. The psalmist ends each phrase with the word “Selah”, which means “forever” or “to lift up; exalt”, its presence in the psalm is a cue for us to pause or to take a breath allowing our minds to take in what the psalmist has proclaimed. It serves as a sacred and silent interlude for us to receive the LORD’s truth. Within this particular psalm, there is the implication of the “if/then” of the fullness of God’s Covenant with us. He calls the people to “Be still and know that I am God,” to consider what the LORD in his mercy is trying to teach us as we live out our salvation: If you will remain silent, listen and linger with me, then you will know I am your fortress; I will be your salvation! Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Yet in practice, it can take a colossal effort to remain silent. I am sometimes tempted to rely on my own judgment to quickly plow through the interruptions of life or become so enamored by the shiny parts of life that I’m distracted from the reality of the LORD’s Covenant with me.

We see this evidenced in what we’ve been reading about the history of God’s people; how fear and pride dogged their path, how they allowed the so-called gods of the culture around them to lose sight of the LORD’s Covenant. Eventually, fatigue from their striving to fit in with the culture wears them down. What I have observed in my own life is that if fear and pride don’t drive me to my knees before the LORD, fatigue certainly will. I need “Selah” for I weary of the tug of war between my own will and the LORD’s will…..that’s just like him, isn’t it? He allows us to come to the end of ourselves where we finally cease striving. It’s as if the LORD says, “Lois, I finally have you where I need you…..now, let’s consider how you are striving to achieve and acquire what comes from Me alone.”

Two other passages from the psalms and the prophet are included in the Liturgy today that draws our spirit into a “Selah”. From Isaiah 30:15, “By waiting and by calm you shall be saved. In quiet and in trust your strength lies.” And again in Psalm 124 we can imagine the psalmist seated on a mountainside of the rugged terrain of Israel. As he sits there, he is pondering all the “what ifs” of life and remembers the faithfulness of the LORD as his rock and refuge. In that “Selah” a song formulates in his mind and he begins to sing,

If it had not been the Lord who was on my side
    when people rose up against me,
then they would have swallowed me up alive,
    when their anger was kindled against me;
then the flood would have swept me away,
    the torrent would have gone over me;
then over me would have gone
    the raging waters.”

Friend, are there “what ifs” in your life? Do you sit still before the LORD as you ponder them?…. Selah

Have you come through a time of celebration and are left with a sense of satisfaction and gratitude?… Selah

Were you following a path set before you when circumstances went sideways for you? …Selah

Has someone you trusted betrayed you? ….Selah

Has the pandemic brought about a financial reversal in your life?… Selah

Do you tend to focus on what the LORD hasn’t done for you?… Selah

When you scurry after pleasures that are passing, do you…Selah?

The joy of our salvation comes through our own willingness to Selah; to be still and know that the LORD is forever faithful and true. Only He can truly satisfy.

LORD God, remind us that nothing is new under the sun. You never change and your responses to our own choices are the same as they were to our ancestors in the faith. LORD, you are faithful and true even when we are not. Slow us down, train us to embrace “Selah” in our posture before you.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

God or God and…..

Awhile back I was actively involved with mentoring refugees who had been resettled here in Sioux Falls by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. It was a privilege to walk alongside an individual or a family as they negotiated the very hard transition from a war-torn nation where genocide was destroying tribes because of long-held resentments that reached back hundreds of years. In my training for the ministry I learned that even though a refugee is freed from the impending threat to their life with their refugee status, they were now in a new kind of refugee status: a stranger who had lost everything–land, culture, family–they held dear to them to live in a new land with a culture and language that is vastly different from what they had escaped. I could spend much more time addressing what I observed over those years, but I would like to share what came back to mind as I read today’s Office of Readings.

In reality we are all refugees to some degree because we are not at home in this world’s culture, or at least we should not feel at home. The language and the mind-set of the culture should feel foreign to us. The values of the culture should feel odd when we try to fully embrace them. We should feel like sojourners rather than denizens. The LORD Jesus Christ emphasized this in so many ways as he taught His disciples and the wanna-be followers who tagged along during his earthly ministry. Today’s passage from Matthew 8 is just one exchange he had that reveals to us how we should then live:

“Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”
Another of his disciples said to him,
“Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”
But Jesus answered him, “Follow me,
and let the dead bury their dead.”

Jesus wasn’t conveying to his followers that a home or a dead relative wasn’t important, he knew the heart of the men who were asking the questions and could see the reasons for not following him were excuses to stay in their comfort zone. As I read the passaged I recalled a conversation I had with one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who I was helping tutor in order to get his GED. During that conversation, I asked him how had he and the other Lost Boys had survived as orphans during the years of wandering further and further away from their destroyed villages. He replied with words that are forever etched in my memory. We had God. The gaze of his eyes were set on the horizon and I imagined all the moments of despair and hopelessness he must have felt as he literally ran for his life and how God revealed himself to him. After a few moments of silence I asked Deng if he still held to that truth now as a refugee in America, his answer stunned me. “In Sudan we knew God was all we had and all we needed. Here in America I notice that people have ‘God and…,’ I am afraid I will forget God when I get what you American’s have.” We talked about that for quite a bit because I was the one who needed to learn to live as a refugee in this world and Deng was my sage. I am a better person because of Deng’s influence on my life.

Like the men in today’s gospel I was prone to be more concerned about where I lay my head rather than Who I can rest in. I was prone to allow earthly obligations and societal norms to cloud my eyes and detract me from the values of God’s Kingdom. My “God and….” included loop-holes and self-justification. My “God and….” had the disturbingly familiar image of my SELF. My “God and….” was a trinity of me, myself, and I. I would spend hours fretting over what people thought of me or all the ifs and buts that I used to qualify my faith in God.

I am sure that it is not an accident that The Church offers up an example from Abraham’s life in today’s reading. We do well to remember what the God of the Old Testament required of the great heroes of our Faith. Abraham lived much of his life as a refugee, the LORD intended it so. “Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you…I will bless you…All the families of the earth will find blessing in you.” We will never know how Salvation History would have looked if all God’s people put their faith in what God said and obeyed accordingly. Because of Abraham’s obedience to the LORD we can see how the Story of Salvation did unfold to reveal what LORD intended through His people: Abraham and his descendants. Like us, the people of God got into a lot of trouble when they chose to worship “God and….” and over and over the LORD drew them back by reminding them of their ultimate purpose. Prophets would regularly hand down a message from God to His people that usually began with, “On that day…..” A vision of the “promised land” would then be told where justice and mercy ruled the day. And then God’s people would forget Him because the distractions of what the culture offered up was seemingly more attractive.

It’s the human condition, we forget to remember who we are, where our true home is and what we are to be about. The LORD, ever-patient, allows history to unfold but He is always calling us back to where we belong. The book of Hebrews in the New Testament is the handbook for refugees! The exhortation to remain faithful to what we have seen and heard about our identity as citizens of the Kingdom of God is strong. Abraham is recalled as the example for us as we sojourn in the kingdom of this world: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents…for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and maker is God….” Abraham had struggled with trying to serve “God and….” It didn’t go well for him, but in the end he lived his life worshipping God, life improved! The key to the map of faith was this: “…he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country,…”

How about you, friend? Do you see this world as a foreign country? Does your faith in God include an “and”? What does your “God and….” look like? Perhaps you worship God and…political party or position or reputation or family obligations, or stuff. “God and….” has many faces!

Heavenly Father, remind us again that your Kingdom is not of this world. In you alone we are truly at home, draw us back to You.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jacob, Part I

“Truly, the LORD is in this place and I did not know it…How awesome is this place! This in nothing else than the house of God, the gateway to heaven.”

Genesis 28:16-17

The Church offers up a template for transformation that the LORD desires for all his creation in today’s reading from the Old Testament. In Genesis 28: 11-22, we find Jacob in a place that the LORD will use to initiate His transformation. What is behind him is an angry brother and a disappointed father whom he had deceived. What is before him is a path that will includes pitfalls and pratfalls and the formation of a dysfunctional family that eclipses any reality television. The journey will include deception handed back to him many times over, but in the end Jacob will deserve the title “Patriarch of the Faith” that he is remembered for. The first place of his transformation is at Bethel, a sacred place for his grandfather Abraham. Apparently this knowledge had not been passed down to Jacob. This is a clue about his upbringing and it’s a cautionary tale for us. Moses later records the LORD’s instruction to the people of Israel that was woven into the culture of family life.

 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

The culture relied on oral tradition and the passing on of the truth depended upon the parents fidelity to this understanding. Perhaps Jacob was forgetful about his family history and the stories that conveyed their faith in God or Isaac had neglected the passing of the baton of faith which included the stories of Abraham’s exemplar trust in the LORD. What we can learn from this is how foundational to a child’s life is the example of faith in the LORD that can be observed in our own lives and in giving examples of the LORD’s faithfulness through the twists and turns of life.

“… And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep.  And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!  And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.  Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”  And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.

So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.  He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear,  so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God,  and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”

Genesis 28:11-22

The encounter that ensues between Jacob and the LORD begins with that “certain place” where decades earlier his grandfather, Abraham encountered the LORD (see Genesis 12) and though Jacob seemed to be unaware of that fact, the LORD chose that place to initiate Jacob into the reality of the LORD’S presence. Jacob was between a rock and a hard place, pun intended, and the sooner he recognized the omnipresent God, the sooner his spirit would be reordered into the man God desired him to be. I believe it is the same for us. The LORD is hounding our tracks as the psalmist puts it, the “greyhound of heaven” who is waiting for us to stop ignoring him and see life as it is, not what we delude our minds into believing.

A stone becomes his pillow and then a memorial. Here is another clue for our own transformation–the needed the rest that we often plow past in our striving as human-doings. The prophet Isaiah puts this truth like this, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” Jacob was on his way toward the humility required for transformation, and rest is what ushered him into the awareness of God’s presence, a dream follows.

The dream that fills his sleep is a magnificent theophany where the divine touches the temporal; where the veil between earth and heaven is pulled back and Jacob’s eyes are opened to the presence of the tremendous Lover of his soul. His response, “Truly the LORD is in this place and I did not know it!” What the LORD did to remind Jacob of who he was, where he was going, and what he was to be about is exactly what our transformational moments are like when we recognize the presence of the LORD; when we are humbled by the reminder that God is God and we are not! Jacob exclaimed that that place was the house of God (Bethel); “the gateway to heaven“. I wonder how many gateways to heaven are never opened by us because we are too busy running away from something or running to something or because our fear and pride saturate our life with busy-ness or self-delusion.

Jacob’s response upon waking from that dream brings to mind the experience of getting my first pair of glasses when I was about 11 years old. I was having trouble in school because of the nearsightedness we soon found out that I had. The optometrist’s office was on the 5th floor of the tallest building on our town square. When the time came for me to put on my new glasses, the wise optometrist led me to the window and instructed me to look down on a very familiar street. He placed my glasses on my head, and my 11 year-old brain was blown away by what I could now see that I could not see before It was the autumn of the year and the maple trees were displaying their brilliance, I had always enjoyed observing the change of seasons but now my joy had been increased because of the detail I could see. What before were watercolor images to me became pristine in their texture and detail!

Jacob’s eye-opening encounter with God at Bethel blew his mind. Jacob, who had seen his world with the distortion of greed and deception, had been taken to the window of reality where God corrected his sight to the beatific vision that is forever at play before the eyes of those who trust in the LORD and by faith realize that “Surely, the LORD is in this place“.

How’s it with you, friend? Are you running from something you regret or running to something you dread? Perhaps running isn’t even involved and it’s more like sloth; the insipid spiritual laziness that mires us in the rut of self-preservation. Either way, the LORD is purposefully hounding our tracks desiring to lead us into the divine life that is ours when we are completely abandoned to His sovereignty in our lives.

Do you rest in the LORD? Do you allow yourself to receive His peace by simply stopping in a cease-fire from the striving and dis-ease that pervades our culture. I’m a strong advocate for purposeful silence where we refuse the distractions of what is happening around us so that we may be fully present to the LORD.

Father, teach us to trust in you by choosing to rest in you. Help us to close our ears and eyes to the clamor of the culture. Lead us through our pitfalls and pratfalls into the confidence of knowing who we are and what we are about as a child of God.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

“You Act Just Like your Father!”

Saints Philip and James, Martyrs

Have you ever been told that you act just like your father? What’s it like to hear that? I imagine it is a good thing to hear if you value the attributes passed on to you. A grateful child will often strive to reflect their father values as a way to honor their lives. This thought came to me today as I contemplated the Scripture passages in today’s readings (May 3, 2021) as The Church remembers and celebrates the lives of Saints Philip and James (The Lesser). These early Saints not only acted like Jesus, the Incarnate Father, they gave their lives in honor of Him. They stand with the other 12 pillars of the early Church as inspiration and encouragement for us as we, too, endeavor to act just like our Father in heaven.

Saint Paul writes to the believers in Corinth an admonition to remember that they have received the Gospel because there were men and women willing to reflect the image of Christ to the world and proclaim His Good News. He writes a mini-lesson on the Passion and Resurrection of Christ emphasizing that the resurrected Christ appeared to the faithful before his ascension into heaven. The passage ends, “After that he appeared to James, then to all the Apostles. Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me.” I wonder why St. Paul makes a point of mentioning the appearance to the apostle St. James. Perhaps St. James had an impact on St. Paul in his early days as a Christian, who knows!

Saint John records in his gospel an encounter St. Philip had with Jesus, “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father...” We see here that St. Philip is remembered for his desire to SEE the Father. There’s a theme in these two apostles lives that we can learn from as we live in what we know now as the Apostolic Mission of the Church. The age of Christendom that the apostles gave their lives to establish has eroded under the tide of societal ideologies where the Truth of Christ’s Gospel has “died the death of a thousand qualifications” as Antony Flew once concluded. And now, you and I are called to be the saints-in-the-making for such a time as this, this Apostolic Age version 2 so to speak? How can we, as Saints James and Philip impact society with the Truth of the Gospel?

Recently I came across something what Pope Francis said about the the necessity of “white martyrdom” of those living in countries where freedom of religion is restricted. As we consider our own country and the growing restrictions on religious expression and freedom of speech, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that if we just keep our head down and continue to be a good neighbor, it will be enough to turn the tide against the escalating hatred of The Faith and the freedom to express that Faith here in the United States. Our white martyrdom is upon us, some of us on the frontline of public debate endure the “cancel culture” mindset every time they speak up for the Truth of Christ. They join the martyrs in this Apostolic Mission we are in now in the 21st century. The bloody martyrdom of Saints James and Philip came about because they did not waver in bearing witness to the Truth of the Gospel. Currently white martyrs are being marginalized, slandered and maligned, even imprisoned. Are they losing relationships because of their stand for the Truth of the Gospel? Probably. Does everyone around them cheer them on in their faithfulness to Christ and His Church? Certainly not! Will their lives end in a bloody death? I hope not!

I believe what Pope Francis was getting at in his reference to white martyrdom is a clarion call for you and me. We may not be a well-known apologists or public figure; however, we live our lives alongside neighbors, fellow employees, even family members that would allow the Truth of the Gospel to “die through a thousand qualifications.” If we are going to “look just like our Father” by being transformed into the image of Christ we are going to be confronted with choices every day that require a dying to our sense of self-protection. Do those around us know us for our faithfulness to the social teachings of Christ’s Church? Do we have the moral backbone to honor Christ’s image in us if we are threatened by their rejection or marginalization?

The white martyrdom of believers who face repeated trials in bearing witness to Christ, can be terrifying. When we are tempted to despair over the isolation we may have to endure, we need to remember that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of The Church, and now we must stand up for the Truth they died to protect. We join the company of believers around the world as we stand for this Truth, in doing so we can water The Church with our faithfulness and courage.

Father, grant us the courage of Saints Philip and James. May we make our own white martyrdom as a total offering to You where we not only die to ourselves, the world, and its allurements, but we stand against the tide of our culture’s denial of You.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen

“Lord Jesus, Receive my Spirit.”

The seventh chapter of the Book of Acts is a nail biter–the first recorded martyrdom of the early Church. St. Stephen was chosen to be the go-to-apostle for that moment in the Church’s history. Why St. Stephen? We understand from the chapter proceeding today’s reading that St. Stephen was a deacon of the infant Church and he was known for being wise, full of faith and the Holy Spirit. It was written of him that he was full of grace and power, doing great wonders and signs among the people. In short, a holy man who knew who he was, to Whom he belonged and what he was about. St. Stephen inspires me!

As I considered the reading for today there were some take-aways that I help to increase my own faith as I strive for fidelity to my Saviour. Here are just a few. The interchange between the unbelieving countrymen and Stephen begins with some harsh words:

Stephen said to the people, the elders, and the scribes:
“You stiff-necked people
….”

Not the best way to make friends and influence enemies, right? The problem for the people was what he was declaring about them was not new to their ears, throughout the Old Testament the LORD often referred to Israel as stiff-necked because of their constant forgetting to remember who they were–the Chosen People of God. No wonder these first century Jews were infuriated with St. Stephen’s summation of their actions.

As I think of my life, regretfully, I’m uncomfortably aware of some of my own stiff-necked leanings. There have been times when I’ve been seized by rigid stiff-necked stubbornness; convinced of my own perspective or by hard-heartedness against someone who didn’t align with my way of thinking. I’m not proud of those moments. More bothersome is when I am more often seized by my own posture; when I spend too much effort on looking to the right and to the left, looking behind me–keeping my head down to look at what’s around me. When I choose only to see the distractions around me, I’m too easily flummoxed into inertia and doubt. And what does the LORD whisper to me when I’m stuck in that posture?

” [Lois] Guard your heart with all diligence, for from it flow springs of life…. Let your eyes look forward; fix your gaze straight ahead. Make a level path for your feet, and all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your feet away from evil.”

We also see in St. Stephen’s response to the mis-guided accusations of the crowd surrounding him an example for us all when we are locked in our regrets about the past or our fears of rejection or when we are too prideful to change our mind. What did Stephen choose to do? He looked up!

But Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit,
looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God
and Jesus standing at the right hand of God,
and Stephen said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened
and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

St. Stephen was so convinced that the LORD’s presence surrounded him that his natural response to the fray around him was to look into the eyes of his Saviour. St. Stephen’s vision beyond the perilous reality led him to where he was headed, and he stayed the course! LORD, help us all!

We know that St. Stephen’s life did not end well by man’s standards; some would even surmise that he failed. However, we know the rest of the story. He joined the many martyred saints because he stood firm on the Truth of history and refused to allow what was happening to him in his persecutions to detract him from that Truth. At the end, St. Stephen’s words live on as a response for the Church as we live in a society that grinds its teeth at Truth with a stiff-necked anti-christ assumption on how life works. In spite of the fear and anger we may feel as we, too, are surrounded by a mad crowd, we must persevere! Is courage to do what is right a challenge for you? St. Stephen’s last plea to the LORD infused him with courage to endure. He had already been filled with the spirit of LORD and he knew his destination was not determined by the crowd. No, Jesus was standing, ready, arms open to receive his spirit!

“LORD Jesus, receive my spirit.”

LORD Jesus, transform our spirits with confidence in the truth that you are waiting to receive our spirits in every moment! We only have to let go of our grip on self-preservation.

LORD Jesus, we desire the faith, wisdom, and integrity of St. Stephen, but you know how stiff-necked we can be about our own ideas, rights and privileges. Forgive us when we’d rather tune into the voices of our society than listen to your Truth, Beauty and Goodness. Would you restore a right spirit within us?

LORD Jesus, when we walk the life of Faith with a wobble from always looking back to what has happened rather than looking forward into Your eyes, help us to fix the gaze of our eyes upon you.

St. Stephen, pray for us.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen


D.T.R.: Define the Relationship

St. Peter —

“The Most Successful Failure of All Time”

Today’s, April 8, 2021, first reading in the Mass is from the book of The Acts of the Apostles, otherwise referred to as Acts. The book itself appears right after the four Gospels that proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Good news, indeed, for in reading the gospel accounts of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John we learn from Jesus, God Incarnate, God with skin on, how to act on the good life our Creator offers to all who will believe that Jesus IS the Son of God. The books that follow contain the acts of The early Church as they proclaimed Christ to the world, they are the sequel, so to speak, about how the Truth, Beauty and Goodness of Jesus Christ begins to take hold in the disciples and followers of Jesus Christ. That sequel, however, has no end; it continues through time into eternity. When we read of how The Catholic Church was established through St. Peter and his disciple, we can recognize how the death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus yielded the magnificent transformation in his disciples that he had promised. With the descending of The Triune God’s holy Spirit recorded early in Acts, everything changed for his followers. Men and women who were once washed up ne’er-do-wells were filled with the fullness of God’s spirit and emboldened by the Truth. They suddenly knew who they were and what they were about! We recognize it in the action of St. Peter in today’s readings.

Chapter 3 recalls St. Peter’s fearless zeal in declaring that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecies in the Old Testament on the coming of the Messiah, Jesus, who was sent to bless the world. St. Peter, considered the most successful failure of all time KNEW this because he had had a number of moments that defined the relationship between himself and Jesus. Peter’s transformation from his once fallible, weak, fickle, impulsive, and undependable nature BEFORE the resurrection of Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit of God. His transformation to the bold Peter we hear from in today’s reading was one filled with fits and starts, much like mine I might add. How about you? We can glimpse the beginning of Peter’s transformation with his answer to Jesus’ question on a road just outside of Caesarea Philippi. We read of that encounter in St. Matthew 16:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 

When Jesus Christ declared that apostle Peter was the “rock” (Matthew 16:18) on which he would build his Church it certainly wasn’t on what was visibly attractive about Peter’s faith in Christ at that point in his life. He declared it because of Peter’s answer in their conversation along the road; He knew that this saint-in-the-making would eventually prove his love for Him. We can observe that God’s sense of humor and his consolation settling down on a man with a nature much like ours, fulfilling a purpose much greater than himself. Does this give you hope? It does me. When I fail at representing the good news of our LORD Jesus Christ, I think of St. Peter. When I’m quick to judge, I think of St. Peter. When I fret over sins of my past, I think of St. Peter. When I’d rather hide from a conflict over theological Truth, I think of St. Peter.

Considering the questions that Jesus asks of his disciples and his detractors is intriguing for me. I find that they are questions I myself need to answer. In doing so I am able to define my relationship, to have my own D.T.R. with Christ in as much as I allow the Holy Spirit to probe my heart and mind for the answer to those questions. Try it sometime, I think you will find that as you answer those questions in prayer and meditation you will open yourself up to the transformation Jesus desires to accomplish in your life just as he did in St. Peter’s life.

Here are some of the many questions Jesus asked of Peter and the other disciples, the accounts surrounding the spoken question are a great place to begin your D.T.R. with Jesus.

“Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)

“Do you love me more than these?” (John 21:16)

“Why are you terrified?” (Matthew 8:26)

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but not do what I command?” (Luke 6:46)

“If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest?” (Luke 12:26)

Holy Father, our hearts know St. Peter’s heart all too well. Forgive us for our fumbling attempts to follow you in all ways. Fill us with your holy Spirit, exchange our waffling pride and fear with the courage to not only say, but to live out–“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen

      

Leaving Egypt

Sometimes around this fourth week of Lent, I find myself scuffling in my lenten vows leaving a limp in my stride through the Lenten Desert. What I can vow on Ash Wednesday seems doable, even noble. This year, however, has been a particular struggle for me. Rather than allowing me to go through the motions of keeping my lenten vows that I THINK are good enough, the LORD has used the scuffle in my spirit to reveal a deeper sin in my life. Do you go through that?

Generations had come and gone since Joseph led the way for the tribe of Israel to escape famine. In the meantime, God’s chosen people had lost their way and fallen into the ways and means of the Egyptian culture. In today’s reading, we find that the Israelites had just been freed of that 430-year bondage in Egypt in a stunning way because the LORD desired to get the Israelites out of Egypt–the slavery, the persecution, and the rampant idol worship of the culture. He called Moses to lead the way and one of the greatest stories of all time unfolds. The first step of the LORD’s deliverance is accomplished, and now the Israelites are in the desert around Mt. Sinai–a rag, tag tribe betwixt a rock and a hard place–trusting the idols of Egypt and trying to remember how to worship God. Nothing about the desert appealed to the Israelites, they were moaners and groaners, stiff-necked people who had a big problem. As we do, I might add. They had spent so many years immersed in a pagan culture that worshiped created things instead of the Creator. In spite of the pain they endured, they were apparently comfortable with the Egyptian way. So not only did the LORD want to get the people out of Egypt to worship Him alone, he wanted to get Egypt out of the people! Hmmm? This sounds a bit too familiar to us, doesn’t it?

This year a memory has come back to me several times as I’ve gone to prayer with the LORD about what I am struggling against during this Lent. Decades ago our youngest child was climbing around on some landscape timber when she lost her balance and fell. She is a tough one, so she didn’t complain or cry, she just got right up and continued to play. A few days passed before I noticed some redness on her knee, I didn’t think much of it because she always had bruises, cuts, and bumps on her body. A week passed and I started noticing that her gait had changed, she favored the leg with the bump. I rubbed some salve on it and sent her on her way. The bump continued to inflame, but it wasn’t until she voiced to me that she had an ouchie that I took her seriously. She laid down next to me and I began to prod at the inflammation, she winced. I noticed a light red line running down her leg from the bump; blood poisoning! She and I tried to figure out what she had done to get the ouchie, she didn’t have an answer and I couldn’t remember which of her many falls might have caused it. It wasn’t until I placed more pressure on her leg that we discovered the source of her pain. She screamed and hollered once I became serious about the pressure of my kneading her leg. I didn’t stop though it took quite a while. Eventually, a 1& 1/2″ inch splinter with the circumference of a toothpick shot free from her leg! Success! That large splinter was finally expelled from the inflamed tissue around it. Immediate relief came from the threat of the infection, but it took time for the wounded tissue to heal and for the antibiotics to conquer the infection. She eventually got her stride back and was off to find another adventure where she would no doubt be left with more bruises and cuts.

I’ve been feeling a splinter in my soul’s flesh during this season of Lent. It’s been there quite a while, years, in fact! What I am learning now, through the grace of God, is that he wants to do for me what he did for the Israelites. He desires to “get [poison] Egypt out of me.” There is an inflammation in each of our spirits that is caused by sin in us. Just like the Israelites, there’s an infection within us that if left untended, will destroy us. I am in need of liberation from the enemy of my soul–the bondage can take on the form of one of my greatest strengths and turn it in on me, infecting me with the sin of over-weaning pride. How about you? Is fear or anger or pride so deeply embedded in your life that you can’t recognize the source of that infection? Healing and transformation take a lifetime even with our willingness to cooperate with the LORD. No amount of vows or almsgiving or penance can substitute for the humility that comes when we expose the source of our limp to our loving Father.

Healing Savior, you know our deepest wounds, you know how they affect our lives? Holy Spirit, Counselor, would you help us to recall where the wound came from?

If others caused our wound, would you grant us the spirit of forgiveness so that we can be freed from the oozing resentment and bitterness in our souls?

We scamper about in this good life enjoying the good things you have given to us, forgive us when we believe the lie of the enemy that our limp is not serious enough to stop us from playing hide and seek with You.

Oh, LORD, the wounds we cause ourselves when we forget to remember that You alone are God are infinite and ugly! Give us courage to see that we are our own worst enemy when we try to hide or refuse your healing hand.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen

The Return

The word Lent derives from a Middle English word lenten, meaning springtime. I kindle to that image as I consider that the purpose of Lent is to lead us into Christ’s passion through a season of examination and growth that will renew our strength and determination to love the LORD God with all our heart, mind and strength. We take up this practice every year, sometimes with a sense of duty or dread about the fasting, almsgiving or penance, but I believe we are missing the point of this our Catholic tradition. If we are not mindful of God’s desire to renew us as springtime renews the earth, Lent can be seen as a burden. Lent is more than making resolutions or enduring a penance by taking on something we think will be extraordinarily difficult. If we consider that it was Jesus zeal for us, his beloved, that led him into temptation like our own in order to reveal that he alone is our life-giving Savior, then we come closer to understanding Lent as a gift not a burden. Jesus alone delivers us from evil. Satan the enemy of our soul is the tempter, but Jesus is the conquerer!

The Liturgy of the Word during these 40 days of Lent offers us the armor, as it were, to journey with Jesus into this higher calling beyond enduring temptation to “proving” our desire for Him alone. I learned awhile back that when the term “40 days” is used in scripture it is usually associated with a period of time that includes trouble and hardship for the purpose of “proving” someone. Proving in the sense that you proof yeast, allowing time for the enzymes to activate in its environment of water and flour. Well, the environment we live in is rife with temptations that diminish us, intended to waste us in its concoction–the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life.” St. John goes on to say that this [concoction] “is not of the Father, but is of the world.” ..

Let’s consider another purpose of the daily readings during Lent. When we read the WORD, we are reading Jesus Christ, we are hearing Him say to us all we need for our salvation. His Spirit penetrates our hearts and minds with the sharp awareness of our own sin. If we choose, this Bread of Life, the Word of God, will raise in us new life. We enter into the temptation and penance of Lent with the daily Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist in Mass as our weapon and our sustenance for endurance and transformation. In consuming the Word, Jesus himself, the LORD offers us food for this journey as we align ourselves with the truth that the LORD’s strength is sufficient. He also offers us insight into the vices that keep us from his new life!

I recognized this gift of armor and the awareness of our sin as I considered the theme of return in today’s readings. The psalmist cries out to the Lord to “remember His mercies” In every instance of God “remembering,” we see that it always includes an action. God never forgets His Covenant or His people. He doesn’t suffer from memory lapses about us, no, to “remember” means God has us on His mind and he is ready to act is we allow him to. In the lenten season He is drawing us away, up into a desert for us to recollect his mercies as we suffer our temptations.

The prophet Joel’s words are read today just before the proclamation of the Gospel: “Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart; for I am gracious and merciful” And then the Gospel reading from Matthew teaches us how to return to Him with a lesson on forgiveness that Jesus taught His disciples. Do we need to be reminded of that today? I know I need to remember that a forgiving spirit guides me in returning to the LORD in order to be renewed and to become like him!

As we consider the greatest temptation of our life is to forget how much you love us and desire us, remind us that you always have us on your mind and you are waiting for us to always have you on our mind.

LORD God, we ask that this season of Lent be a season where we allow You to penetrate our spirits through our fasting, almsgiving and penance. May we allow you to prove us so that we would grow into the life you desire for us. Bring springtime to our hearts as we walk with you during this Lenten fast. Renew a right spirit within us!

In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen

“It is Good that We are Here”


Jesus took Peter, James, and John 
and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them, 
and his clothes became
dazzling white, 
such as no fuller on earth could bleach them
. Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, 
and they were conversing with Jesus.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, 
“Rabbi, it is good that we are here!
Let us make three tents: 
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.
Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; 
from the cloud came a voice, 
“This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him.”
Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone
but Jesus alone with them.

The Gospel according to St. Mark 9

Have you noticed that climbing mountains seem to be a thing for the LORD? In today’s reading the disciples climb Mt. Tabor and suddenly some other mountain climbers appear in holy companionship with the LORD Jesus. Those mountain climbers of the Old Testament had indeed experienced what Peter, James and John were experiencing–a moment of shut-my-mouth-wide-opened stupefaction at what appeared before their eyes. The disciples saw the metamorphose of their Rabbi and they were terrified, yet enticed to keep their eyes opened. I imagine Jesus whispering to Peter, James and John before they parted from the other disciples, “Come away with me.” I kindle to the idea that Jesus draws his disciples: up mountains, into deserts, through rivers, across lakes and to places of solitude. Places where his divinity touched the ground of their humanity–transformation indeed!

Enter Moses and Elijah, great heroes of the Old Covenant. Their climbing lessons were similar to what Jesus had in mind for the three disciples that day. When Moses climbed Horeb [Sinai] and Elijah climbed Carmel and Horeb, an immense transfiguration happened before them and within them: the LORD God transforming a burning bush in order to arrest the attention of Moses, a cloud shrouding Moses as the LORD’s finger wrote his Law on a stone tablet (where did he get that?)  Elijah shattered the cult of Baal-worship on Mt. Carmel through a cloud the size of a man’s hand bearing the rain that no graven image could conjure. Elijah’s fear sent him running away and into the shade of a broom tree where the angels of God ministered to him , then on to Mt. Horeb after that rest when he was under an edict of death by the powers at be. Through the whisper of a gentle breeze he reveals himself to the battered prophet….and he asked Elijah, “What are you doing here?”

In today’s gospel the show and tell lesson of Jesus’ Transfiguration doesn’t ask any questions of the disciples, rather it reveals the answer for the unspoken questions about Jesus’ divinity. In hindsight we understand they needed this glimpse of eternity and the real purpose of life, for they would soon find themselves alternately hiding away in fear and boldly conveying the truth of the Transfiguration and the Resurrection Their own transfiguration into God’s desire for them would eventually end in their martyrdom, but I imagine they welcomed that because of what they had seen and heard on Mt. Tabor that day.

They heard the LORD’s answer about the purpose of life from within a cloud that shadowed them. The answer was simple enough for them to understand, “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him.” Just like Moses and Elijah, the disciples had challenges with listening to the LORD. We have the same hearing problem some times, don’t we? The LORD is always speaking, he waits for those who will listen!

The LORD longs for us to see him as well. Are you like me, suffering from nearsightedness? Distracted by fear or pride when all around me there is the stunning revelation of God. He is always showing himself to those who look for him, to those who will behold him! The mystery of transfiguration is revealed in us when we learn to listen to the LORD’s voice, to respond in obedience, to see that every moment is suffused with the divine waiting to touch the ground of our humanity? It is in that overshadowing of the LORD’s grace that  turns the here and now into the holy ground of our transformation into God’s likeness?

LORD, you tell us that we become what we behold. Help us to contemplate your love for us, free us of our fears and pride so that we may be transformed into your likeness. Remind us that life is not the ground we stand on in our corner of the world! Life begins and ends in you! Reveal to us in the meantime the shut-my-mouth-wide-opened wonder of the good life you have for those who choose to follow you. “It is good that we are here.”

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen