Sunday, November 22, 2015

Ring-Ring, God Calling

I know I’ve written a few posts in recent months (including that last one) about listening for God’s call, and making a difference in this world with our lives.  I mentioned how (of course) He calls in that small, still voice, and how He sometimes uses the written word (Scripture or otherwise) to speak to us, and sometimes He even calls us through the people we meet.  But I guess, as I was reminded last night, that perhaps if you aren’t getting it from all these other sources, He may just pick up the phone and call….
It was a dreary day, yesterday, the first snow of the season, and after my usual Saturday breakfast with a friend, I just hung around the house all day, watching the snow fall.  So I guess I wasn’t surprised when the phone rang at about 7PM and I was told that, with the weather, people were having difficulty getting to the adoration chapel, so it was being closed for the night.  My usual midnight adoration hours were cancelled.  (I took this picture out my back door, of the snow-laden branches almost touching the ground around my deck.)
I sat down on the living room couch and said my usual night prayers, and read some meditations, but even as I looked up at the crucifix on the wall, well, I felt we just weren’t connecting.  And as I took out my binder to write my end-of-day thoughts on what I had accomplished this day, I found myself looking at a blank page.  What a wasted day.  And so I arose and considered my plans for the rest of this quiet evening.  …. Um, did I say the rest of MY plans?
At about 8PM the phone rang again:  “Tom, this is Kaye.  I’m up north and I just spoke with Deb.  Her dad’s been rushed to the hospital, dying; she’s a wreck, and she’s afraid to drive in this weather in her condition.”  (You may remember Deb from my post last Christmas, titled: Christmas Dinner at McDonalds.  That day Deb could reach no one else that Christmas morning as her mother was rushed to the hospital, dying, and so she called me, and I spent Christmas day with her mom and family until the end.)  
And so it was that I called Deb: “I’m just printing out directions to your house, and then to the hospital.  I’ll be over in about a half hour to take you there.”  Between her sobs Deb insisted the weather was too bad, and I shouldn’t come.  “Wait a minute,” I responded.  “God cancelled my visit with Him at His house this evening for a reason.  Obviously it must be because He had something more important for me to do.  Are you going to argue with God?”  She laughed at that.  I think that was a good sign.
The roads were pretty bad, driving through the 7 or 8 inches of snow we had, and the plow trucks rushing to their jobs threw up huge gobs of slush onto the windshield.  And so of course my wipers decided to go into one of those brrk-brrk-brrk, screeeech; brrk-brrk-brrk, screech modes, just pushing the slop around in my line of sight.  Looking for the street to turn on to reach Deb’s house, I realized that all the signs were covered in snow --- you could read none of them.  This was going to be fun.
Deb was still a wreck when I reached her house; she was on the phone with her sister, who had reached the hospital.  Things were very bad.  I made her put her coat on and led her to my car, even as she continued to talk to her sister, and tell her we were on the way.  We traveled the highways, expressways, major roads, and then dark two-lane roads through the countryside, where well over a foot of snow had fallen.  We passed many cars in the ditch, but squinted on, trying to see our way through the twisting winding roads, in the middle of nowhere.  We finally reached the remote hospital over an hour later, surprising the Emergency Entrance security guards: “No one’s out tonight; why are you here?”  They gave us passes and we rushed to her dad’s room.  He had died five minutes before we arrived.
Deb’s sister and brother and their spouses were there, and you can guess the scene.  It was a difficult time.  The hospital had called a priest, who arrived about a half hour after us, and he administered the last rites, and led us in prayer.  He and the hospital staff were most caring people, even as they were that day Deb’s mom had died nearly a year ago.  We waited for their brother to arrive; he lived in Grand Rapids, across the state, and normally a 3-hour drive away.  But not tonight.  We prayed, talked about dad and mom, and the good times and memories.  And we knew Deb’s mom was once again yelling: “Paul, get over here!”  And he was!
After a couple of hours, the normal shut-down events of a body began occurring, and the room became uncomfortable to stay in, and so the family called the still-distant brother and all agreed to call it a night.  We said one final good-by, and headed home.
While Deb was on the phone with the funeral parlor, I turned out of the parking lot and began the long drive home; the snow still fell heavily.  And it took all of about 3 minutes for me to peer into the total darkness ahead of me and say:  “This isn’t right.   I’m lost,” and so I stopped in the middle of the road --- the only car and only lights in any direction.  After about 5 minutes Deb finished her conversation with the funeral home, and asked her phone for directions to take us home.  It directed me to make an immediate u-turn.  I guess I wasn’t surprised.  The voice from the phone kept directing us to turn this way or that way at some street up ahead --- as if we could read any of the snow-covered street signs.  But an hour or so later, we finally reached Deb’s house again, even as her brother was arriving from his trek across the state.  It was a good ending to the night.  (And those previous snarky comments I may have made on a post or two in the past, about how “I don’t need no stinking iphone apps”--- I may go back and erase them.  If not for those directions to get us home I probably would have wandered around until I ran out of gas, or into some farmer’s field.  It was a most useful device.)
It was after 2AM when I finally approached my home street, about the normal time for my coming home from adoration.  Yes, God had a better plan for me.  And as I looked ahead, the clouds parted in the sky in right front of me, and I could clearly see the full moon, smiling down.  Now THAT was a good ending to this night.
            - - - - - - - - - -  - -
As I drove to mass this morning, the sun was shining brightly, and all the trees and every single branch were covered with a heavy coating of snow.  It was like looking at heaven.  I thought to take a picture of the beautiful scenery, but I figured there are plenty of those pictures around today.  Instead I thought I’d include this picture, to remind me that today is just another day:
I went to the closet this morning and grabbed a handful of gloves --- it’s time, I guess, and putting them on the counter, this is what I saw:  six left-handed gloves.  Not a single right-handed one.  Sheesh!  Yep, this was going to be just another one of those days.
But as I write this, I have 40 hours until I take off to Phoenix and Thanksgiving with my nieces.  And I realize how I have so very much to be thankful for. 
I think I’ll leave the gloves at home.  

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Can I Make a Difference?

The modestly-dressed grey-haired woman sat in the pew two rows in front of me, as she did most mornings before mass.  This day, however, she stood up and walked back to me.  “Hello.  My name is Naomi , and I will not be here next week.  Would you please pray for the safety of my travels, and the safety of my mother whom I care for?”  I replied, “Of course,” but then felt a compulsion to ask: “Where are you traveling to?”  “To Africa,” she replied.  “I am going to visit the children I care for there, through the little charity that God asked me to start a couple of years ago.”  And she wrote down the website of the charity for me, so I could read more about it.  And then mass began.
Later, looking at the website, I read how this simple woman --- like any of us, really --- felt called by God to love his children in need in Africa.  And (somewhat like me, I confess) she felt she that she had to verify that need herself: she had to see it, and so she traveled to Africa.  As a result of that first trip she has gone on to help many individuals, including recently a little boy needing surgery to remove a huge tumor on his neck.  She convinced the University of Michigan hospital to donate the surgery, and so she brought him here, found him shelter while he recovered, and is taking him back to his mother.  Neither she nor any of the few others who help her take any salary or cost re-imbursements; they donate their time and money for any administrative or travel costs.  They raise a relatively small amount of money each year, and then ensure it is used to help those in need, that it is put to the most good use --- in Africa.
Naomi had no brochures or business cards to pass out promoting her charity, just her simple website.  I have seen her come to church each morning for years now, and never knew her.  I support many charities, some of which are very far away and remote from me, while here my parish neighbor was working and praying and could really use my help in helping others --- and she was sitting right in front of me.
I’ll drop my monthly support for one of those remote worldwide charities in favor of the one run by this little woman who I see at daily mass.  I WILL love my neighbor, as I am called to do.
This is Naomi’s charity website:
People often ask me what charities I routinely support.  There are many local ones I support with periodic donations, but if you are interested, these are the ones I feel worthwhile enough to support monthly:
All of these charities have one thing in common:  they were started by a single individual (who I know) who thought he/she heard God’s call, and answered --- and through them He has done marvelous deeds (well, in one case it is just a guy starting out; but I expect he will accomplish marvelous deeds).  And through these people many thousands of God’s children have been and are beingloved.  No one in any of these charities makes big salaries; most work very long hours, and they love and are loved.
Who do they help?  They help the unborn (whose lives were saved), unwed mothers, the poor, people who are searching for God, orphans, students on a college campus, people in despair, and people who would like to dedicate their lives to God by entering religious life, but they couldn’t --- but now they can. 
And who are these miracle-workers who have started such wonderful charities?  Well, one was a college student whose boyfriend dumped her; another was an executive vice-president of a global corporation, another was an atheist, alcoholic drug abuser, another was a poor Franciscan friar, another is a recent college grad dissatisfied with the God-bashing college atmosphere, and yet another is a top grad of an Ivy-League college who was quickly earning a large six-figure salary --- and who gave it all up.  Who are they?  They’re young; they’re old; they’re rich; they’re poor; they’re married; they’re religious.  Some have families and work jobs, and some are dedicating their lives to their charity.
And of course, there’s Naomi, caring for her mom --- even as I did mine.
And I can’t forget the organization which I recently volunteered to become involved in, which is just a group of people making modest salaries, working long hours, and being loving people who care for lovable people.  This is their website:
Is God calling you to use your talents for His work?  Can you make a difference?  How many might you help; how many lives --- and souls --- might you save?  How many people are waiting to hug you?  None of these people whose charities I support felt especially religious or important --- or had any idea that God might have some plan for them.  A few DID ask: “Lord, what would you have me do?”  But most just one day found themselves in a strange situation: they saw someone who needed help, and then they began. 
God did the rest.  They are beautiful people, and I feel blessed to know them, and support their work in some small way.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Review: Finding True Happiness

The subtitle of this book, “Satisfying Our Restless Hearts” is a concise summary of how and why we find true happiness.  The dedication page says something similar in the words of Augustine: For Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.
This is the first in a series of four books aimed at “those who feel themselves to be at an impasse -- not knowing whether to take their faith seriously or to let it slip away.”  Spitzer intends to provide logical and scientific proofs for our yearnings:  for happiness, for meaning in life, and for a relationship with God.  These books are written to help all to deepen their faith.  He begins the series with this book on happiness, since it is the key to most major decisions made in our lives.
Spitzer points out that our desire for happiness is a natural yearning, but it is also a choice.  He identifies four levels of happiness, the first two (material and ego-comparative desires) are our self-seeking happiness desires: “I’ll make myself happy.”  The latter two higher levels of happiness (contributive-empathetic and transcendental-spiritual desires) are a form of reflective happiness: “I’ll find happiness in making others and God happy.”
The first third of this book is focused on explaining these levels of happiness, how they are achieved, and problems which are often encountered in achieving them --- one of the key being our inability to move beyond the second level of happiness because so much in our culture supports the supposition that we must focus on our own happiness, and not that of others.  To the degree that we DO focus on other’s happiness, it is often over our concerns about their “rights” to pursue their own happiness --- and no one better get in the way of anyone’s rights.  Spitzer, with supportive studies, shows how distorted is that perception of life’s priorities.
The latter two-thirds of this book is focused on how we measure and achieve that transcendental level of happiness: having a relationship with God.  This section starts with a chapter titled: “Is Level Three Enough?”  Spitzer makes it clear, just achieving level three of happiness is NOT enough.  But he also gives guidance on how someone wanting to grow in his friendship with God can do that.  He gives you actions, steps, and ways to measure your progress toward the book’s final chapter: “The Assurance of Eternal Life with God.”
And along the way, Spitzer is reminding you: “These are steps to even higher levels of happiness; you will be glad you took them.”  And I’m sure he’s right.
I liked this book, and the many scientific, philosophical, and theological studies he quotes and analyzes.  The next book in this series has even more references to studies, proving the points he raises.  

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Sin of the Lamb

The Gospel this morning (Luke 15) concerned the Good Shepherd, who on seeing one of His lambs missing, leaves the 99 and searches for the missing one, and rejoices over finding it: even as “there will be  … rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner.”  How many times had I heard that Gospel, and found comfort in recalling that God is always there for me; that He fiercely loves me, and He rejoices even as (in another parable) the father of the Prodigal Son did upon his return.
But then, this morning, I thought about and saw a difference between those two parables:  the Prodigal Son chose to return and to ask forgiveness, but the lamb didn’t.  The Prodigal Son’s sin seems obvious, but what was the (innocent??) lamb’s sin?
It occurs to me that the Prodigal Son’s sin was very overt; he chose to reject and leave his father.  He may have realized it was a sin, but he chose to strike out and leave his father anyway.  He may have known how hurt his father would be --- and yet still he left.  I’d like to think that I know The Father and would never choose to leave Him, and am always trying not to disappoint Him.  In many ways I’d like to believe I am not at all like that Prodigal Son, and never will be ---- or at least not any more.  But what of that lamb:  Am I like him?
From one point of view I’d like to think the lamb was innocent, like a young babe in the woods, if you will.  It wouldn’t choose to sin (and neither would I, of course).  But elsewhere it was written about how the lamb knew the voice of the Shepherd, and came when He called --- but yet this lamb didn’t.
I perceive that the lamb in the story in Luke exhibits what we call concupiscence, a tendency to sin which came upon man as a result of the Fall of Adam.  Adam very deliberately chose sin, kind of like the Prodigal Son, and so he was cast out of the Garden of Eden, lost eternal life and further, he was given to concupiscence.  In effect God said to Adam: “Since you deliberately chose sin, I will now give you a ready openness to sin --- you wanted these things, these earthly things, so now you can readily have them, but if you really want Me and eternal life, in the future you will have to deliberately choose Me.  The choice will be yours.
And so we were left knowing the Good Shepherd, knowing His voice, His love for us, yet still having a tendency to wander away, kind of like the lamb.  Is it a sin, this tendency?  No, but it is a sin to act on it, to not choose the God who wants to love and care for us, to wander, thinking we can care for ourselves.
But is this really a serious sin, this naivety?  Certainly we’d like to think not, but if we’ve been exposed to the Shepherd’s voice and know it, the innocence of our wandering is gone.  Our choice to leave is no different than that made by the Prodigal Son.
But this sin seems so subtle, like our curiosity about things --- we almost can’t help it.  How do we avoid it?  I’m reminded of St. Ignatius’ Rules for Discernment of Spirits (I wrote about them in the past).  One of the rules talks about what we should do when we are in times of consolation --- when we know that God is with us and our actions --- kind of like when the lamb is in the presence of the Good Shepherd.  Then, when all is well, we need to spend some time thinking about what could go wrong:  what are our weaknesses; what temptations might we be prone to give in to: concupiscence temptations that easily appeal to us.  Then, Ignatius states, we should be developing defenses to fight these temptations when we first feel them.  (Perhaps like the lamb, looking for the Shepherd’s words or His face for confidence; these might be part of a long term plan.)
And then Ignatius had another rule:  what should we do when we realize we are given in to sin and are lost?  Ignatius rule:  Don’t change anything!  When you feel you are in the sway of an evil spirit, continue to do all you were doing; like the lamb was near the Shepherd, seeking His face or words.  For us, that might mean continuing to pray as before, and then trust that the Shepherd is looking for us --- and so don’t wander further astray.
I think that many of my sins these days are not deliberate, but that does not mean they do not exist.  It does mean, however, they are more subtle, more natural to me, like the lamb wandering off.  They are sins that arise without my even thinking or desiring them.
Like St. Paul, I know right from wrong and I choose right --- but sometimes still do wrong.  And sometimes I forget:  There are wolves out there! 
And so at times when we are tempted to “try something new,” it is wise to remember this parable of the lamb which wandered off to try someplace new, and ask ourselves: “Where is this temptation coming from?”   And as we go, are we listening for the Shepherd’s voice nearby?