Thursday, February 16, 2017

How Can I Change?

Each morning my opening prayer is one to St. Paul (see the sidebar).  I admire St. Paul for all he did, and pray I can do some small measure of his great work.  Paul worked very hard to follow the Lord, but in one way he had it much easier than the rest of us:  when it came time for him to change, God threw him from his horse and blinded him ---- he HAD to notice that something was up, and that his life was about to change, whether he wanted it to or not.  I’ve meditated on change in a recent blog posting, but it was on unsought change, the gradual changes that happen in all our lives --- illness, old age, and even changes in relationships.  But Paul was forced to change suddenly.  What if we too made a sudden decision to change, for whatever reason, and we decided to change our life’s course, and in particular to change our relationship with Jesus?
I suppose some of us do feel a subtle nagging desire for a closer relationship with Jesus, but we are too lazy to do anything about it --- or, to be polite, perhaps we don’t know what to do about it.  How can I change?  Some of us might think about that question for a second or two and not give it too much thought.  So the two-second answer to that question is:  Start out in a different direction .  Paul’s change was the exception to the rule; since most change is gradual.  You want to get closer to Jesus, change your direction so you start walking towards Him --- and then be honest in admitting how far apart you are.  This might be a long journey before you get close enough to where you can even think you might begin a conversation with Him.  But a long journey starts with one step, and takes perseverance.
Jesus said He came to call sinners; His words and actions were for them.  And so He taught us how to live, while on the long journey to Him.  I always like to consider the Parable of the Sower when I think about my journey.  I’d like to believe I am sowing His word, through my words and actions, as Paul did.  I’d like to think I am making a difference --- as He would wish me to --- in the lives of those whose paths cross mine.  Perhaps some of my seeds fall on good soil, and produce much fruit, I think.  But I guess I don’t think too much about MY soil.  How prepared am I to take in His words and graces, whether tossed in my heart by Him, or someone He sends into my life?  And how far away am I from Him?
The question is:  When I finally get around to deciding that I want to change my life, to get closer to Him, what if I discover I am the “rocky ground” that the Sower is hitting with his seeds, and so that can’t take root, they don’t resonate with me?  How do I dig out those rocks, the hardness of my heart, and replace it with fertile soil so His life can grow in me, so I can understand His words and actions?  Now we’re getting down to the basics of the question.  Just turning to a different radio station in the car won’t change the music if you have on some headphones playing tunes from your I-phone.  Real change isn’t a superficial thing done to please your friends or parents or God.  Even they can recognize superficial change.  Real change is not just starting in a new way; it’s also stopping in an old way.  It’s not just taking off the headphones, it’s throwing them away.   That’s commitment to change, trying to hear new music.  And, like trying to turn rocky ground into a flourishing garden, it takes hard work.
How can I change?  Where do I begin?  The very first step you must take is the hardest:  it’s to drop the “I” word.  Despite what our culture whispers in your ear, teaches in the classroom, reports in the news, and even riots in the streets to proclaim, you are not free to live your life any way you choose --- because you are not alone.  “You don’t live in a world all your own.  Your brothers are here too” --  (Albert Schweitzer).
If you’ve reached the point where “I think” I want to change, you need to be honest with yourself on why you want to change.  You need to be humble enough to admit that in some way you’ve recognized that you are drowning.  And when drowning you don’t say “I think I’ll change my direction;” you say:  “Help!!”
If you want to change, talk to a friend, a minister or priest, or someone who seems to be on the path you want to take, and ask for their help:  “How can I get there?  Will you help me?  Can I walk with you?”  And you will be surprised how ready they are to help you toss those big rocks from your someday beautiful-to-be garden.
Change begins with one step.
St Paul, please pray for us.
For to those who love God,
Who are called in His plan,
Everything works out for good.
Who is able to condemn?
Only Christ who died for us;
Christ who rose for us,
Christ who prays for us.

-- Hymn by Enrico Garzilli, 1970

Monday, February 13, 2017

Where Is Your Light?

I lit a small vigil candle at the foot of the statue of Mary.  I do that every Sunday morning, and always offer a prayer for those the Lord brings into my life, and sometimes a special prayer for a person or matter that has been brought to my attention.  I’m sure some would ask:  Why light a candle?  The reason is that the candle is a visible sign of invisible events --- my prayers, grace, love --- that are happening.  It’s not hocus-pocus or paganism; it’s so that I won’t forget:  I need to, I want to be a small light in this world, and I want to never forget that Jesus’ light forever burns in my heart.  I light the candle with nothing but good intentions in my heart.
This morning I was again reminded, however, that though my intentions may be good, God’s are better, and I need to trust in that fact.
As I sat during mass I glanced over at the rack of vigil candles, and I saw my small solitary light there, and it suddenly hit me that I WAS seeing that light.  Between me and that solitary candle sat perhaps 15 or 20 people, some large, some with puffy hairdos, and even one teenager who was wearing a cap in church (sheesh!).  Looking to the left of that candle’s light I saw only heads, and the same sight-blockage was on the right.  Only one tiny spot on that rack of perhaps 100 vigil candle lights was visible to my eye, and it was where my little light burned.  Two thoughts came to me:  First, how unlikely that this one spot is the one I should be able to see, and second, how I had expected to see that light --- since I had glanced over in so many past weeks and almost always seemed to see the light.  When I needed to see it, the reminder was always there.
A key point to note about the little candle I lit is that while I lit it with my intentions in mind, I never really prayed for God’s specific actions to accomplish my intentions --- God’s actions and ways were His business, not mine.  Perhaps someone else needed to see that candle and gain hope, so God used it for them.  Perhaps seeing it, someone else was reminded that they need to be a better light in the world.  Perhaps someone saw the light and was reminded:  God is there for her.  All those things are possible and maybe even likely, after I did my little good thing.
Every person, EVERY person, has that light of God within her, but like grace or prayers or love, you can’t see it.  If, like my little candle, our light is going to shine so others can be influenced by it, --- or even WE can appreciate that it is truly there --- we need to do something which CAN be seen.  Go to church, smile, help a poor or ill person, or even stop getting mad so often.  All these things can be seen by others, and then they can see the God who is within us.  God’s presence within us, His grace, His love, is not a private thing.  It is meant to be shared.  You do not put a basket over a candle to hide it; you put it on a lamp stand so it can be seen.  God’s love, which He has given you, IS within you, and it is meant to be shared with all those you meet.
Do something for your neighbor, and perhaps even you will see, in a passing window or mirror, a light you did not realize was there.  Because sometimes others can see what we ourselves can’t:  we truly are beautiful, made in His image.  And we are a light in this world.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Who Is God?

Genesis 2:4-9, 15-17
Mark 7:14-23
I noticed today that the readings at mass seemed at odds, and I pondered what they truly meant.
In Genesis, “God formed man of dust” and “planted a garden in Eden,” and “the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”  And then He told the man (Adam):  “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,” or if you do “you shall die”.
In Mark we heard Jesus say: “There is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him, but the things which come out of a man are what defile him.”  And “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man.  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, … pride…”
So in Genesis we heard “don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil --- or you’ll die (the eternal death),” yet in Mark we heard that we are not defiled by what goes into us.  Genesis says “don’t eat” and Mark says “it doesn’t matter what you eat.”  Huh?
And what about the tree of life, which was also mentioned as being in the center of the Garden?
Laws were laid down in the Old Testament and Jesus came to fulfill them.  We were treated as God’s children in the Old Testament, but with Jesus we are treated as adults:  things are explained to us, and we assume responsibilities.  In Genesis Adam and Eve were treated as children when they were told “you can do this, but don’t do that.”  No reasons were given.  In the New Testament Jesus explains the “why” of the rules.
Applying Jesus’ explanation to the Garden situation, you can see that God wasn’t concerned about man’s eating certain fruits in the Garden, but what man believes he gains from eating them:  a knowledge of good and evil.  That knowledge is God’s alone, for sin offends God and only He can say what offends Him.  We can’t say He is or He isn’t offended by something, unless we think we know the mind of God.  And that would make us God.  That’s the root of the first commandment God issued to man:  I am God; you are not; you must not think or act as if you are God --- “or you will die the eternal death.”
Jesus later explains that if in our heart we believe something wrong and do it anyway, that is when sin originates.
Jesus said the first and greatest commandment was to love God with all your heart.  Jesus’ life then gives so many examples of what love means and what love does, how we are to understand and live that commandment.  In the Old Testament Adam and Eve, as yet, have no idea what love is or means, so God’s rule is put a different way:  Don’t eat of that tree.  Despite the lure of the devil’s temptations, God’s rule said (in effect): “Don’t think you can be Me; don’t think you can define good and evil.”
So that’s the lessons from today’s readings, and the question they ask of us:  What is in your heart?  Do you trust in God’s rules, or must you understand them --- meaning you understand God.  Do you think you can define the way to live a good life, ignoring that Jesus said: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life?”  Must every single thing make sense to you before you can believe? 
By definition, if you only believe what you know, you have no faith.
There’s an interesting example of these readings being played out in Congress right now.  A law (the ACA) was passed by some in Congress who readily admitted they hadn’t even read it, but they said: “Trust us, this is a good law.”  Now there are changes to be made in that law and those same people who hadn’t read the law are asking: “What changes?  Which words?  Why?”  And then they conclude their thoughts on the matter with: “Whatever you change will only make it worse.”  What they are saying is:  “If I wanted it in the first place, it was good (I define good and evil), but if you want to change it I must understand the changes in detail, and approve (I’m God).  That’s the implied words of Adam and Eve, in their sin: “I want that fruit so it must be good; tell me in detail why I shouldn’t have it.”
It’s so basic.  Jesus said love God first; man said he loves himself first.  The joke question is: “Who’s on first?”  The serious question is: “What is in your heart?”  God wants our hearts. 
“True religion has exterior manifestations, certainly, but it flows from the heart. (The Better Part, Meditation 115)”

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Stubborn Old People

The topic at the coffee shop was the stubbornness of old people.  The owner’s father, just home from his hip surgery, stubbornly refused help in walking from his children.  Last night, getting up alone to use the bathroom his father fell, and is in the hospital --- again.  “I told him to let us help him, but he’s just a stubborn old man.”
My contributions to the conversation were tales of my mom’s stubbornness, and her refusal to use a walker to help with her unsteady steps, until she too fell --- and never walked again.  And in the period afterward she gave up eating for a period of time, willing to give up life rather than accept that she could no longer walk.  Stubborn!!
As I drove to church and sipped my morning coffee, my heart was opened to a wider view of our conversations: it’s not just walking we are afraid to lose --- and it’s not just old people.  If you’ve never had the hard conversation of having to ask mom or dad to give up their driver’s license because they had become a danger on the road, well, you are blessed.  And how many of us have heard (perhaps often) these words: “What?  What did you say? … No, I don’t need a hearing aid.  If you’d just speak up and stop mumbling I could hear perfectly well.”?  It’s a conversation conducted by many in a yelling tone of voice, to be heard over the booming noise coming from the television set in the background. 
And what of younger people, even children?  How many of us have noticed that our kid’s school grades began dropping and thought it a strange thing, because we were sure they knew their lessons.  Sometimes it took a note from the teacher to get over OUR stubbornness: “I don’t think (Johnnie or Suzie) can see the blackboard.”  And so then we tell the children we think it’s time for glasses --- and then THEY resist; they don’t want to be different from the other children. 
The fact is none of us want to be different, even as we all ARE becoming different.
We resist change.  Why is that?  Losing our sight, or our hearing, or our ability to walk causes most people anxiety.  They are not acting stubborn in resisting the change; truly they are acting normal.  Often change is hard to confront and accept, and in part that is because change is most often gradual.  It’s the   “-ing” part of changing that is the problem.  Change often sneaks up on us, until someone points out that we HAVE changed, and then we resist what they see as obvious.  “Dad, I love you, but you need help walking.”  And then we get angry --- both of us do --- because we think the other person can’t see reality.
But it’s not just changes in our body we resist.  How many winters did you resist getting out those winter gloves?  And how many summers did you resist that first cutting of grass?  And what happened when “the obvious” candidate for president didn’t get elected and we resist others’ saying: “that’s how things are in our country.”  “No,” we respond, “they’re not!  You’re just biased or -phobic, or stubborn.”  But change HAS happened in our country, gradually, and we didn’t notice it until others pointed it out.  And we’re all angry--- over what is.
And what of you the reader and I the writer of these thoughts about reactions to change?  Perhaps we might look at them as some story book tale: “Yes, that happens to some people, but not to me.”  And so we look in the mirror, and we can’t see ourselves as we really are.  We are ALL changing, as our body ages and as our mind takes in new things around us, all of which are changing.  Most of the changes around us are gradual, and we find it hard to see them.  And one of the things that changes gradually and is most hard to see, to accept, and is most hurtful when finally noticed, is a change in relationships.    
Sometimes there is a trigger to make us see ourselves as we really are:  I am alone.  My marriage has fallen apart.  My children don’t love me.  This job sucks.  I don’t know God, and if He exists He doesn’t know me.  As good a person (as we know we are), we find it hard to see and say those things about ourselves, because they’re bad things.  Oh, and if confronted suddenly by someone else, we instinctively resist “their opinion”:  “I am NOT alone; I have lots of friends.  My marriage is okay; we’re just busy sometimes.  My children love me but they’ve got lives to live.  My job is good; it pays well.  And of course:  I’m a good Christian, I go to church each Sunday --- except when something really important comes up.”  (Something more important than God?!)
And especially on that last item, the most important of relationships we SO can’t see ourselves.  But God can.
Do you think He looks at us with an angry face:  “You’re so stubborn; why can’t you see that?”  Or does He look at us as a loving father:  “Those things I want for are for your own good, and because I love you.”  And why do we so often respond, if not verbally then in our heart: “You don’t know me.”
Look more closely in the mirror:  Who doesn’t know who?  Who can’t see the change that has gradually happened in their life, and in their relationship with God --- and not for the better.  And who, in their anger, and frustration, and loneliness, won’t confront something as obvious as the image in the mirror, and won’t talk about it?  And won’t pray about it? 
I’ll tell you who:  just stubborn people.  Period.  The ones who are suffering the most are those who don’t know they are suffering --- or won’t admit it. 
-  - - - - - - - - -
And as these thoughts gelled in my head, I heard Ann Murray’s soft voice begin singing on the radio:
O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works Thy hand hath made.
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee:
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee:
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!