Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Mere Children

Matt 11:25-30
I read reflections on today’s Gospel in the book, The Better Part (Meditation 37).  Often, I read others’ words and insights come to me and I write them here, but I can’t conceive of words better than the ones I read today, which burned, and so for those who don’t read that book (and as a reminder to myself), I quote them here:

Christ The Teacher
To encounter God requires only one thing.  Not intellectual prowess, worldly excellence, or sophisticated achievements, but simplicity.  God gives himself to those who are “mere children” --- to those who are childlike.  The mark of children is not innocence, most often they are quite mischievous.  It is not ignorance, for they often surprise us with their insights and thoughtful questions.  Nor is it helplessness, for many of them are streetwise survivors, as often seen in situations of poverty and war.
The mark of the child is trust.  Children readily put their trust in those given charge over them (until that trust is violated).  It is natural for children to depend on their parents, to follow unquestioningly their older siblings.  They have not yet developed the average adult’s haughty air of self-sufficiency.  By word and example (as for example in the Garden of Gethsemane) Jesus teaches us that intimacy with God requires trust above all.  Faith is trusting that what God reveals is true; hope is trusting that what he promises will come about; love is trusting that what he asks us to do is what we should do.  If we put our trust in God, and not in ourselves, we will find God.
Christ in My Life
I want to know you, Lord.  I want to know what you care about, what’s on your mind and in your heart.  I want to know what makes you smile.
Lord, I know you don’t judge me, because you promise that you are meek and lowly of heart.  How hard it is for me not to judge!  How much grief I cause myself and others by my outbursts of vanity, arrogance, and anger!  I want to learn from you, Lord, and I know you want to teach me.  Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart more like yours.
Lord, why do I think I can do everything by myself?  You designed me to need other people, to help other people, and to depend upon God for everything.  This is the law of your universe.  Like a little child in its mother’s arms, so I keep myself in you, O Lord.  Teach me to trust you and to obey your will.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Bearing Fruit



I am the vine; you are the branches.
Whoever remains in me and I in him,
will bear much fruit.
– Jn 15:5
I was reading the Sunday gospel meditation in The Better Part (Meditation 42) where I read the above line.  And something new struck me.
I had a focus of late on helping others, and in my mind, I was thinking that I was bearing some fruit.  I was hearing His word, taking it to heart, and doing good things --- bearing fruit.  But, … read the above Scripture words again.  I “will bear much fruit.”  Think on that.  What is good fruit good for?  Fruit is good for two purposes.  One, it falls to the ground and seeds within the fruit sprout, take root and a new plant is generated.  In effect, the plant that generated the fruit has made a difference in the world; what it started will continue on.  Making a difference in this world, for the better from our good fruits, is a good thing.  Parents are a good example of that.
The second thing good fruit is for is eating.  It is taken by someone and eaten, to give that person sustenance, to help him grow.  Now the person eating the fruit won’t grow into the plant that produced the fruit --- I eat oranges but I will not turn into an orange tree --- but, oranges do have some influence on my life, if only to enable it to continue on.
The key point I noticed about the two benefits of the good fruit was that: That is not my initial perception of the benefits of MY good fruit.  I wrote that I was thinking that “I was hearing His words, taking it to heart, and doing good things --- bearing fruit.”  My initial perception was that my bearing good fruit was a benefit to me, but that’s not the two benefits of good fruit I subsequently described:  My good fruits are directly to benefit others, not me!  God’s telling us to do good things for others, not to selfishly do them to benefit ourselves.
And in The Better Part’s final prayer I read these words (and took them to heart):
Jesus, you compare my soul to a garden.  Your word has taken root there, but that
doesn’t mean that I can coast along.  Gardens need tending … Jesus, help me to know myself better.  Show me what is choking your grace.  Give me the strength to root it out … I want to bear fruit that will last.
Never let me give up on the souls you have entrusted to my care.  Reach out through me to save many souls.
Amen!
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Henri Nouwen’s The Genesee Diary is about the time he spent living with monks, and learning from them.  He wrote:
“When people are kind and friendly toward me, I feel happy because I think that they are
attracted to me.  (But I noticed) the monk who is nice and good to me proves to be just as nice
and good to everyone else.  (So) I am obviously not more or less attractive than others.  I tended to react by thinking: ‘Well, if he is just as friendly to everyone else as he is me, his friendliness cannot be real.  His is friendly because he is supposed to be friendly.  His love is only the result of obedience.  It is not natural. Underneath his friendly surface he probably couldn’t care less about me as an individual.
There was something very important I was missing.  I knew it simply because the story I told myself was not true.  The monks who show me love, show love to me not as an abstraction but as a real individual with his own strengths and weaknesses.  The love they show me is based on the real me.  So, although their love for me is not exclusive, particular, or unique, it is certainly not general, abstract, impersonal, or just an act of obedience to the rule.
It is important for me to realize how limited, imperfect, and weak my understanding of love has been.  My idea of love proves to be (1) exclusive: ‘You only love me truly if you love others less;’ and (2) possessive: ‘If you really love me, I want you to pay special attention to me;’ and (3) manipulative: ‘When you love me, you will do extra things for me.’  And my ideas of love lead to (4) vanity: “You must see something very special in me,’ to (5) jealously: ‘Why are you now suddenly so interested in someone else and not in me?’ and to (6) anger: ‘I am going to let you know that you have let me down and rejected me.’  But …
Love is always patient and kind; it is never jealous; love is never boastful or conceited; it is never rude or selfish; it does not take offense, and is not resentful. – 1Cor 13:4-5
It is this understanding of love that I must slowly learn.  (Earlier in this book, Nouwen had noted how the monks live under the Rules of Benedict, to put rigid order into their lives so that they could not be concerned with earthly distractions --- the rules cover everything they do --- but can focus, undistractedly, on God.  ‘We are called to a radical break away from ourselves and a total surrender to God.’ With that in mind, he continues here:) I am beginning to experience that an unconditional, total love of God makes a very articulate, alert, and attentive love for the neighbor possible.  What I often call ‘love of neighbor too often proves to be a tentative, partial, or momentary attraction, … but when love of God is indeed my first concern, a deep love for my neighbor can grow.’
Thomas Merton commenting on this says: ‘This is the high point of Bernard’s Christian humanism.  It shows that the fulfillment of our destiny is not merely to be lost in God, … but above all in the fact that we see his will done in us.’”
What Nouwen has learned is that love for God cannot but be acted out in love for others, who are made in His image.  We love Him, so that we can love others. So, when God’s grace is in us it flows out in good fruit, causing others to be uniquely attracted to us, then we, seeing their unique aspect of God’s love, His loveliness, His fruit, will be attracted to them.
Everyone, from the richest to the poorest, the comeliest to the ugliest, the meanest to the meekest has some attractive aspect of God shining out of them, even if it is only through the ugliness, the anger and the meanness, and the glitzy outer shell that we can see God softly saying: “Please!  Love me!”
And if we love God, we will love Him in those we meet, and be in some way drawn to taste His fruit there.
And (in conclusion) this morning I read these words of a Psalm-prayer: “Lord, extolled in the heights by angelic powers, you are also praised by all earth’s creatures, each in its own way.  With all the splendor of heavenly worship, you still delight in such tokens of love as earth can offer.  May heaven and earth together acclaim you as King; may the praise that is sung in heaven resound in the heart of every creature on earth.”
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Each Sunday morning before mass I light a small vigil candle before mass and pray: “Lord, let me be a small light to those I meet, not that they see me, but You, shining through me.”  THAT is great fruit that I seek to share.  And perhaps often unsaid (but needed) is another prayer: “And may I see Your light, shining through them.”
My parish, Christ The King in Ann Arbor Michigan, is about to start the Alpha Program.  Its purpose is to help people to better see the Light of Jesus, and then themselves to be a brighter light in this world, His light shining through them, AND so they can then better see His light in others.  In a way, The Alpha Program is like what Nouwen did, a getting away from the distractions of the world for a while so that he could focus on what love of God, and of neighbor, really means for him.  Alpha is ten nights; Nouwen dropped everything and spent 7 months with the monks.  He knew he was missing something important in his life, and it was important he find it.
Loving God, loving neighbor, bearing fruit.  It takes some focused time to really, REALLY understand something that makes all the difference in the world --- and in the next.    

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Yes Lord, But ...



To another (Jesus) said: “Follow me,” but he said: “Lord,
let me first go and bury my father.” 
- Lk 9:59
It was a very hot afternoon at the food distribution warehouse last week.  I was packing items when a friend told me that a frail elderly woman had walked a mile in the day’s heat to pick up some food.  Her neighbors refused to give her a ride because she and her trailer were known to be infested with bedbugs and lice.  “Would you give her a ride back home?” I was asked.  I hesitated, and said: “Let me check something,” as I called a friend whose charity had dealt with bug problems in the past.  I wanted to know how contagious the bugs likely were.  My friend didn’t answer, and shortly I was told: “That’s okay; we got someone else to give her a ride home.”
That night I read that gospel of Luke (above), where when the Lord called, the man answered: “Yes Lord, but …”  And I realized that was the answer I too had given to the Lord’s call.  And so, I conceived a gesture to alleviate my guilt: I would suggest to the food distribution ministry that in the future they offer a delivery service, for people who couldn’t pick up needed food for one reason or another, and I would volunteer to be a deliverer of that food.
I felt still a bit guilty, but my conscience seemed satisfied.
A couple of days later, I picked up a friend and while driving related the story of the bug-infested woman to her.  I was about to get into my delivery plan for the future when my friend put her hand on my arm to stop my talking:
“You need to help her,” she said.
I was stunned for a moment.  Duh!  Of course, I needed to help her, but why wasn’t that my initial reaction?  Why was my immediate reaction one of concern over how this woman’s plight would affect me, and my plans, my safety, and my comfort?  My solution was like the actions of a lifeguard, who seeing a drowning person going down for the third time, races out with his boat, and then hands the drowning person a life vest: “Here, this’ll help.”  It’s a convenient solution but not one which solves the heart of the problem.
“You need to help her.”
Neither the lifeguard nor I forgot the commitments we had made, but it seems we had made those commitments with our head, not our heart.
I am blessed with an analytical mind.  I develop solutions to problems.  When earlier in my life I made a commitment to Ford Motor Company, I solved problems to the Company’s betterment.  So, when I make a commitment to God, I need to solve problems to His benefit --- His love of His children.  In neither case, should my own betterment be my first consideration.
When I was asked about the bug-infested woman needing a ride, my analytical mind should have felt my heart and said: “The real problem isn’t the woman needing a ride, but WHY she needed the ride.”  Finding a solution to eliminating her infestation problem should have quickly risen as a priority in my mind, not the stopgap delivery solution I conceived (btw, I later found out that the food distribution ministry already offered a food delivery service).  The situation I faced was no different than the parable of the rich man, who was also asked to follow Jesus, but he couldn’t give away his money.  I too hesitated to give away my riches, which for me are my comfort, and my satisfaction that I have things figured out: This is how they should be; this is how I should live.  And it appears I am reluctant to change, even when challenged by God: “You must help her.”
It's so easy to say “Yes, but …,” as I was reminded again this week.