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The Scholarship: A Parable

Imagine a young orphan, living in destitute poverty.  This infant is taken in, loved with great tenderness and when old enough, is enrolled into an elite  boarding school.  This school is home to the brightest minds in the known world, most of whom are also extremely kind and wise.  Every opportunity is provided this child, completely free of charge. 

At first the child loves the school, reveling in learning the ABC’s and soon fascinated by his own ability to read words, and then sentences.  He loves the lessons on nature and science, math and music.  As he grows older, however, the child becomes a teenager, then a young adult.  In this process of high school and college, the young man develops some boredom with the school which soon develops into complete apathy.  Perhaps there were some difficulties with lessons for which he did not seek adequate help.  Perhaps he resented having to sit in the classroom on a nice day.  Maybe he grew weary of the effort good education exacted from him.  Whatever the reason, he begins to routinely skip class. When he does occupy the chair, has not done his homework, and therefore cannot participate or contribute to the discussion.  This feeds his indifference and contempt. 

Slowly he has convinced himself that the school is not all he thought it was as a naive child, and part of the way through college, he drops out completely.  Since he has rejected the education offered him, he returns to the kind of depraved existence he was rescued from as a baby.  He still considers himself an alumni of the school, but often refers to it with sarcasm.  The school which offered him every opportunity has become the butt of his most vicious jokes.

A sad story to be sure.  Not only for the young man, but for the benefactor who paid his tuition all those years.  Even if you figure on the low side of $10,000 per year for 12 years, you are looking at a $120,000 pricetag.  That is a lot of money spend gratuititously by a stranger, rejected and scorned.

In this parable, the young man is all of us, in varying degrees.  And the school is the Church.  Let me explain.

The Church is the means by which Jesus desires to save all men.  It is not an add-on, a place to come “do” Christianity or a set of artificial beaurocracy set in place by white-bearded old celebates.  She is a living, growing organism.  So much so that we call her the Body of Christ.  This is a metaphor in a certain sense, but is more literal than we give it credit for.  We are all part of Jesus himself when we are in the Church.  That whole thing Jesus told Peter about the gates of Hell not prevailing against the Church and sin being bound and loosed? As Catholics, we believe it.  The Church is a gratuititously free gift from Jesus to us, an ark which brings us aboard out of our sin and depravity through our Baptism. 

So, like the young man, we are saved through Baptism, snatched from poverty and nurtured with Sanctifying grace.  But she does not stop there.  The Church is the meeting place, over two millenia, of the best and brightest minds of civilization.  The saints nurture us in our understanding of Truth, and through their holiness invite us to delve deeper into the mysteries of God.  It must not be forgotten that all these brilliant folk are not moved on their own power, but by the Holy Spirit who guides and  inspires their thought and virtue.  Perhaps most importantly, what they teach us is not primarily academic.  They teach us about what it means to be human, how to live in right relationships and most importantly, what is our final end.  They lived the drama of human existence with heroic virtue and offer to tangibly help us along our own path.

These same saints paid for this education of ours with their suffering.  “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”.  This is not exactly the same reality as would be seen by a country’s military, however.  We owe our existence as a free nation Washington’s men, and our continued unity to Lincoln’s, and our freedom from Nazi’s to the brave men of World War II.  Christian martyrs, on the other hand conquered only themselves.  They do not seem to be doing anything, really.  The Romans were not immediately overthrown from the grace released by the Christians they burned as torches to light the outskirts of the city.  Evil appeared to have triumphed.  And so it is in every day and age that the workings of Christian martyrdom, bloody and unbloody, costs so much but pays out invisibly.  This is precisely because it is offered in communion with the hidden sacrifice on Calvary. 

This is the saddest part of our analogy.  It could perhaps be conceivable to reject gifts and treasures of many faceless thousands of people (how easy is it to take advantage of the “government” or a “big corporation”?).  But the primary donor that we reject when we treat the Church with contempt or indifference is Jesus Christ.  A totally free gift, of tremendous magnitude, for our own salvation rejected, scorned, or perhaps just taken for granted.

So, how are we like the young man? Often as children we are open and excited about our faith.  Perhaps that is what Jesus is getting at when he tells us we should all be like children!  Often, though, when things get harder to understand we do not seek the answers to our doubts and questions as we should.  Or perhaps we get “grass is always greener” syndrome, preferring to be more like our secularized peers who get to sleep in on Sunday mornings.  Maybe we look as what is asked of us as Christians and find it too hard.  Whatever the reason, our indifference begins to feed itself.  If we are not continuing our religious education after Confirmation classes, we will not understand what is going on at Mass or why the Church teaches what she does on tough topics.  Armed with misunderstandings and diminshed actual graces, it gets easier to “tune out” the faith.  Some of us stay in this place, knowing there is good yet in the Church, but frozen against growing in virtue and love for God.  Others will, like the young man, completely check out.

So what to do?  First, we need to take stock, looking at ourselves in light of this story.  What is it that gets you “stuck”?  Sin? Confusion? Boredom? Those are fairly easily remedied through Confession, Eucharist and study.  I can’t speak for everyone in parish ministry, but I know that I would much rather spend all day in dialogue with someone having difficulty with Church teaching than one minute handling registration forms!  Seek out help in your parish if it is your questions that are keeping you away!  Some of us are in the ark, in good standing with the Church, but just need an extra dose of gratitude for the great gift she is.  In my theological study, I have found that every time I delve deeper into the mysteries of our faith, I marvel at it more deeply. 

As we enter the back-to-school season, preparing our new clothes and supply lists and writing seemingly endless numbers of checks, let us step back and remember the great School we were enrolled in from our Baptism, and give thanks for that great gift.

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Lessons Learned From Yardwork, pt 2

Okay, so yesterday I talked about my helper in the landscaping rock removal project.  Today I am going to talk about my neighbor.  Those four years when our yard was not in optimal shape, I would look at my retired neighbor’s lawn and cringe.  I started to call it Disneyland, because it was always so nicely manicured.  And I would wade through my own weedbeds and feel like the folks next door were secretly glaring at me through their windows thinking, “I can’t believe we have to look out our windows at that yard.  Maybe we should put up a fence!”

I should clarify right away that the couple next door could be most genuinely kind people that God ever made.  It is clearly my pride that 1.) thought enough of myself to think that the whole neighborhood gave a hoot about my yard, and 2.) didn’t think enough of my neighbors, who probably just thought, “wow, they have a lot going on over there”.  I am getting better.  I am going easier on myself and actually trying to tap into their expertise for advice, which they are always happy to give, but never offer.

Anyway, back to the rock bed.  After my helper abandoned ship, I remembered that my wonderful neighbor had offered to loan us his wheelbarrow if we ever needed it.  Seeing as my Home Depot bucket could only hold about two shovels full of rocks before it got to heavy for me to carry, I jumped when I saw him in his driveway.  We went back to his shed where he not only had a wheelbarrow, but offered me a very solid metal rake and a shovel.  Holy cow, those tools made a HUGE difference!  Earlier, my first attempts at shoveling had proved fruitless because the rocks were so ground in.  But after raking them, they came up easy.  And having the wheelbarrow meant I could actually get a decent amount of rocks loaded before having to dump them on the side of the house.  The project that moments before had seemed eternal now was moving along at a workable pace.

The right tools.  Are you using them in your difficult situation? Of course, for us Christians, the primary one is prayer.  There is a funny correlation in my life between my deepest moments of self pity and my lack of prayer.  How do we expect to keep our eternal perspective, to experience God’s love or the peace that passes all understanding if we are cut off from its source?? And we Catholics have the amazing privilege of the grace of the sacraments.  Reconciliation to free us from the bondage of sin and Eucharist to fortify us in grace.  And don’t forget about Baptism and Confirmation which fill us with the Holy Spirit’s gifts, or the needed vocational grace of Holy Orders or Marriage.  Also, there is study, where we go deeper into our faith so we can come to love God better by knowing him better, and the support of Christian friendships.  Without these tools, at best we plug along patiently picking one handful of rocks at a time, making record-slow progress.  At worst, we simply give up, faced with the impossibility of completing something way beyond our capabilities.

If these tools make our burdens so much lighter, why don’t we always avail ourselves to them? Back to my neighbor situation.  One huge one is pride.  I can do this myself, I don’t need your stinking help.  Another can be a form of pride which is that we assume things about God that aren’t true.  Like me with my yard, we assume God is wagging his head at what a failure we are, and we are afraid that our requests to him will be met with an “I told you so”.  We don’t realize he understands exactly why our yard is such a mess, and is waiting to lend a hand to get it cleaned up.  Or maybe we had just never considered that there was a better way than a pair of gloves and a four-year-old’s dump truck.  Whatever reason, when we recognize that we are off track, we need to equip ourselves.  As I mentioned yesterday, uniformity with God’s will is not just something we “muster up”.  It is a work of grace that comes as a result of using these tools on a regular basis.

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Lessons Learned From Yardwork, pt 1

Last summer my daughter died.  The summer before that, I was in my first trimester of pregnancy.  The summer before that I was in my third trimester of pregnancy.  The summer before that I had a child attached to my hip that would eat all the grass he could get his hands on.  All this to say that this is the first summer when none of those things apply, and as a result I find myself somewhat available to actually do some projects around the yard that I’ve wanted to get to for, oh, four years.  Mind you, when I say “projects” I am not one of these people who builds retaining walls or puts in their own patio or something.  My current endeavor is removing landscaping rocks (aka “weed holders”) and replacing them with transplanted hostas from other parts of the yard. I think I might get crazy and buy and plant a shrub or two as well.

Today was a perfect day to work on the task at hand.  Cool, dry and I was home alone with Isaac anyway, and heck, kids need fresh air, right?  I was pretty proud of myself, too, for devising a way for my eager preschooler to help.  I had him get his rather large dump truck, and showed him where to dump the rocks.  Then I would load it up, and he could drive the truck over and dump actual rocks onto a pile.  Genius!

For about fifteen minutes.  Considering this was about three times longer than he usually stays on a task I desire him to complete, it was pretty good.  But there are a ton of stinking rocks in that rock bed, and to be honest, he was actually helping at the time he quit!  After that, he piddled around, clipping things with the garden scissors (though not my highest priority weeds), throwing the rocks into a nearby bush, requesting my participation in a stick fight, and generally just being kind of whiny.  My helper was not super helpful to say the least.

I couldn’t help but think that this is often how we are with God.  Or, at least how I am.  I begin with a burst of excitement to “help him” somehow further the Kingdom, and when it starts getting mundane or even slightly uninteresting or frustrating, I start to whine.  Or I get a better idea, to go do something else.  Nevermind if it is actually something God wanted me to do.

If you haven’t read Uniformity With God’s Will by St. Alphonsus Liguori, skip your Starbucks tomorrow and buy it (it costs about as much as a grande coffee of the day. Or better yet, buy it and read it at Starbucks. It’s not long).  He talks about just this thing.  To be really effective in living out our Baptismal call, we need to be doing what God wants us to be doing, not just some nice stuff that strikes our fancy.  St. Alphonsus goes so far as to say that we shouldn’t just accept God’s will, but want what God wants.  I’ve read this little book many, many times and fall short every time.  It is a tall order, because uniformity is not something we “muster up”, it is the action of grace at work in our lives.

On the retreat I was on in February, at the height of my pity party and despair over the effectiveness of my ministry, a fellow retreatant received a word from the Lord for me.  She said, “God wants you to be his useless instrument”.  She explained that this did not mean that I was useless, of course, but that I only needed to do what was asked of me and not worry about the rest.  In theory, I can imagine how freeing it would be to really live that kind life.  That life of uniformity.  Like John XXIII I could say every night, “It’s your Church, Lord, I am going to bed!”  So, as we continue on this path of uncertainty about jobs and family and whether I can keep a transplanted shrub alive, I am praying for grace to align my wants more closely with God’s.

PS: Going back to Isaac for a minute… it would take a lot of trust and discipline for him to keep loading rocks for a few hours.  He’s a kid who is uninterested in our house’s curb appeal.  If he were to keep at a task he found brain-numbingly boring, it would have to be because he trusted my vision for the project and loved me enough to know that I was keeping him on task to complete something great, even if at the end of his little part, he didn’t see any results.  (Okay, theoretically. Stay with me.)  How much more so with God.  It helps to see the big picture of what we are doing for him.  For instance, a volunteer who bakes cookies for a youth ministry event realizes she is “sweetening” the kids up so they might be more open to hearing about God.   But even in times when we can’t possibly imagine how what we are going through helps anything, we need to trust the One who can see the whole project, and understands exactly what our part is in that project.  And in order to trust this One, we must believe that he loves us and has our best interest at heart.  Let’s all pray to be convinced of that love in a deeper and deeper way.  It makes all the difference in the world.

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“When God closes one door, He opens another”

Here’s a look at another common phrase we often use.  As I said in the last post, I think it’s worthwhile looking at what we are really meaning when we say things.  Plus, I like to overanalyze everything. Sometimes you get a twofer.

This phrase has been used on us a lot lately as resumes and interviews have amounted to a growing stack of rejection letters.  It’s meant to be encouraging, a way of reminding us that God has a plan and that He will take care of us.  And for the most part, it is true.  But is God’s will and providence as simple as him opening and closing doors and us stepping through them? Yes and no.

I have stressed in previous posts that suffering does not come from God, and it doesn’t.  It’s a result of sin.  Then why did the saints all see every event, good and bad, as coming from the hand of God?  Because in allowing sin, suffering and evil, God does not just throw up his hands and watch the free-for-all run amok.  He allows bad things in a measured way.  Even the worst sicknesses, losses or injustices can be seen as God’s will because he allows them for our greater good.  He wills not the evil, but the good that can be accomplished in and through us as a result. 

So we can take comfort in the fact that, no matter whether cutting our job was a good or bad decision, it was allowed by God, and is therefore his will for us. It is God who has closed the doors of jobs we may have wanted.   Fr. Walter Ciszek, in his book, He Leadeth Me, has come to rescue me again from self pity on this point.  I’m at the end of the book, and he’s just been thrown out of a town for finally getting to minister in an effective way to God’s people (after 23 years in prison and work camps in Soviet Russia.) Fr. Ciszek says:

 “It was humility I needed: the grace to realize my position before God- not just in times when things were going well, … but more so in times of doubt and disappointment, like today when things were not going the way I would have planned them or wished them.  That’s what humility means- learning to accept disappointments and even defeat as God-sent, learning to carry on… secure in the knowledge that something worthwile is being accomplished precisely because God’s will is at work in our life and we are doing our best to accept and follow it.” (p. 178)

So closed doors are definitively God’s will for us and our peace comes from accepting them as such.  What about open doors?  These are trickier.  When we are given the luxury of many wonderful options, such as in choosing a vocation, many look for a “definite” from God.  A lightning bolt that will signal it is time to ask the cute girl from Calculus out on a date.  But in the face of open doors, I think God respects our free will more than we sometimes think.

When given more than one option, we are free to choose any that is morally licit, that fits our needs and obligations, and that appeal to our natural talents and preferences.  When we wait around for God’s explicit command to do something, it is often an indicator of our fear of choosing the wrong thing, or a conception of God as an evil judge who will smite us if we choose the option he didn’t want.  God doesn’t play games like that, though.  If he gives us more than one good option, we should pray (which is really important!), weigh the outcomes and then simply choose.  He will be happy with the outcome!

So, as we continue to wait for doors to open around here, we are most at peace when we realize that we are not “waiting for God’s will to unfold in our lives” (as I’ve said many a time!).  His will is right here, right now.  In the hallway of humility. 

Happy Pentecost! Holy Spirit, let me know only your will.

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Sometimes He Says Yes

The day after Easter my son asked me if he could have lunch.  At 10am.  It wasn’t because he was particularly hungry, just that he knew he couldn’t have any candy until he had eaten lunch.  In Isaac’s case, this behavior is amusing.  With grown-ups much less so.  I would much rather someone come out with their actual question or request rather than dancing around it, hoping I will offer or somehow psychically mind-read the real issue. 

And yet, like many things that drive us crazy about others, it is something I am tempted to myself, and especially with God. It is hard for me to go to Him and ask for something tangible and specific.  Instead, like a preschooler thinking he’ll out-think Him into early candy consumption, I often play spiritual games with Him.  Sometimes I think I hide behind wanting Him to do His will, so that if He chooses not to grant my request I will not be disappointed.  Now, of course it is a good thing to want God’s will in all things.  The saints were people who got to the point where they were as thrilled with rain as sunshine, sickness as health, hunger as plenty, because they knew all things came from the hand of God, and they wanted what He wanted for them.  So, in one sense, it’s good to not put in specific requests.  If we’re doing it for the right reasons.

If we avoid doing so, is it because we are in true uniformity with His will, or because we don’t believe He has time for us, or that we are important enough, or that He is good enough to grant such a request?  These are not good reasons!  God is our Father, and He wants us to ask Him for the stuff we need and want.  Just as I recognize that Isaac biting his finger for the umpteenth time is not the biggest trial he’ll face in life, I empathize that that hurts, so does God see our trials in perspective, but with empathy.  The little things of our lives matter to Him.  And sometimes He needs us to just come out and ask before He will provide something, in order to build up our faith.

This week I had been watching the weather like a hawk.  We had four groups of teens planning to go out to do yard work for parishioners, and it was supposed to be cold and raining.  It occured to me after flippantly asking others to “pray for sun”, that perhaps I should take my own advice.  Very specifically, I asked, “Lord, please let it be sunny enough that we can go do chores tomorrow”.  Saturday morning, I sat down for prayer and read from Matthew about the star of Bethlehem and it occurred to me: God orchestrated a huge, burning ball of gas millions of lightyears from earth to show the location of a tiny baby in a stable.  He can hold off some rain for a few hours.  As I finished praying, the clouds cleared and the whole day was dry enough to work. 

Could God have been glorified through a weather cancellation? Absolutely.  But I think He chose to answer my little prayer to build up my faith.  To show me that I can trust Him with the small things as well as the big.  I have started getting specific with Him in bigger things.  It is good to remember that even though sometimes He says no for our own good, sometimes He does say “yes”!

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On Palm Sunday and Hypocrisy

palm_crosses

What do you do with your palms? You know, the souvenir you get from making it through the longest Gospel reading of the year? They used to do a palm-braiding workshop at our church, and people ended up with the most beautiful creations. When I was little, I took advantage of the extra time in the pew to mold a less-than-spectacular cross. Now we generally take them home and put them beneath the corner of our various religious wall hangings.

The palm branches are, of course, a symbol of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. His disciples, according to Luke, “began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen” (19:37). The striking irony at every Palm Sunday Mass is that the centerpiece of it is the narrative of the Passion of Our Lord, the fact that the crowd who shouted “hosanna” on a Sunday shouted “crucify him!” on Friday. Those palms, no matter how brilliantly braided, remind us that we are hypocrites.

Hypocrisy is a glaring issue for Christians: we aspire to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, but fall short every time. This problem causes many to scoff at us, and others to just give up with faith completely, assuming it is better to not try to live up to the Christian ideal than to “be a hypocrite”. But let’s go back to Mt. Olivet for a minute. There is Jesus, riding on a donkey, his disciples waving palms and praising Him. The Pharisees are outraged, and tell Jesus to silence His disciples, who are praising Him as God. Jesus tells them that if His disciples stop praising Him, the very rocks will cry out. In other words, Jesus, who knew the betrayal that was around the corner from these palm-wavers, forbade them to stop praising Him. It is not our attempts at holiness that are the problem. It is the lack of follow through when the going gets tough.

So, Jesus seems to prefer hypocrisy to total disengagement. Then what is to be done? We follow this Holy Week to its end. What is Jesus’ answer to hypocrisy? The Cross. The whole Old Testament, and even the Gospels, are a story of good intentions that fall totally short. We can’t do it on our own!! Jesus knew that, and that is why He willingly died on the Cross: to release the Holy Spirit that can plant the inner Law within us and through grace, actually make us into who we are called to be.

Obviously, we are not to revel in the fact that we are sinners. The palms themselves give us a clue to our reaction: they are burned next year and placed on our heads as ashes reminding us of our need for repentance. A penitent heart is the only heart that can be open to the life-changing Spirit Jesus came to win for us. So, if you haven’t been to the sacrament of Reconciliation yet this Lent, run! The Lord has a lot prepared for each of us this Holy Week. Let’s wave our palms and rend our hearts and get ready to receive the grace!

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Getting Something Free

Everybody likes free stuff.  I make every effort to get to Chipotle when they are giving out burritos.  Brad and I both stop religiously at the fancy lotion stores in the mall for a free squirt.  I have even regretfully partaken in the free stuff promised at time share presentations.  When faced with the odd fact that Catholics who rarely darken the doorstep of their Church on Holy Days or even Sundays come on Ash Wednesday in droves, some I know joke that it’s because we’re giving something away for free.  (This line of thinking also explains Palm Sunday.)  Though it’s good for a chuckle,  this obviously cannot be the answer.  Getting ashes is not like getting a free trial-sized latte at McDonald’s.  Nor can the ashes be considered some kind of statusgirl-ashes-3 symbol for folks.  It’s not exactly cool to be Catholic these days.  And I would even argue that simple “Catholic guilt” doesn’t explain it, given the array of other teachings people freely reject.

I think they come because there is something within us that longs to hear the words of the imposition: “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” or “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel”.  We live in a culture that continually tells us that we need to strive for the here and now: to look good, make money, have fun, and do whatever seems right to us.  We are told that all paths eventually lead to God, and that as long as we follow our hearts, no one will go to hell.  I think Ash Wednesday reminds us that there is a place deep inside even those farthest from God that just doesn’t buy it.

CS Lewis makes a great case for this natural law in our hearts in the beginning of Mere Christianity.  No one holds up laziness or selfishness or greed as a virtue.  We all want to be seen by others as dilligent, caring and generous, and when we are caught doing otherwise, we make arguments not that laziness is actually a good thing, but for all the ways that we were not actually being lazy in the given situation.  Lewis points out that we will get mad at a man who means to trip us and fails, but not at one who does so by accident.  Also, even the pickpocket gets angry when his own goods are stolen.  Our culture can feed us all the relativistic garbage it wants.  It just does not pan out.

The other side of the natural law inside us is that we all recognize that though we want to do what is right, we rarely do it.  We cut corners, take the easy way out. In a word, we sin.  This is what Lent is all about.  It reminds us that yes, there is more to life than this world.  We are sinners who will one day die and face our maker.  Luckily, the other part of Lent is the great mercy of God.  We cannot be the people we long to be without supernatural help.  Lent is about emptying ourselves enough to allow that merciful savior in to give us that aid that we desperately need, and aid He gives totally free.

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