Monday, January 28, 2013

Am I Important?

This past week has been one of some difficulty for me, as my mother seems to have slipped in her health, and care for her has become more difficult.  With her increased pains and discomfort, I found myself questioning my efforts: “Am I important?  Am I doing the right things?”  And in general, feeling a bit sad --- I wondered if I couldn’t or shouldn’t be doing more.  And so I have a doctor coming out to evaluate mom.  But while taking care of mom, I also need to take care of myself.  Sometimes self-evaluation is a good thing.
This past week, God was not missing in action.  It seems that when I need Him more, He is there more, in various ways.  I had been reflecting all week on the readings in the Office, from Deuteronomy.  They were the words of Moses, speaking to his people.  They were kindly words, like a father speaking to his children (or a grandfather, since Moses was around 100 at the time).  A couple of things struck me about the words.  First, that Moses had to remind them what God had done for them --- duh!  After the huge miracles they had seen, how could they forget?  But they did, or at least they seemed to as they went on to worship some strange god.  I don’t think the Jews really forgot what God had done for them; rather I think they didn’t know the God who had done these great miracles.  So, when they had the chance, they gave praise to god, a god they knew and had worshipped before --- in the image of a golden calf.  To some degree, I could understand their confusion.
A second thing I noticed was that when God got angry at the Jew’s action, Moses talked to Him and convinced Him not to destroy them.  And I guess I noticed an (A) and a (B) to this point also:  (A)Why did God listen to Moses?  He’s God, and can see the future; He knew He would or wouldn’t punish the Jews, so why this appearance of changing His mind --- and the false importance of Moses, “the man who could convince God of something.”  I know Moses didn’t convince God of anything, so why the appearance?  I think I saw a problem in this because I was looking at the verbal exchange with God from Moses point of view, and it seemed to make him too important.  But, I think, from God’s point of view, it was a different conversation.
God saw Moses and the Jews as His children, children He loved.  Like our earthly father, God had plans for Moses and the Jews, and when they freely chose to pursue other plans, God was disappointed, as our earthly father might be if he wanted us to be, say a doctor, but we chose to be a truck driver. A loving earthly father might speak to his child: “Well, I think a doctor is who I brought you up to be, but if you wish to be a truck driver, let’s talk about how we can make you the best truck driver you can be.”  A loving father respects his children’s freedom, and if he sees no harm the earthly father agrees to respect the child’s choices.  That’s the kind of conversation God was having with Moses, like a loving Father would have.  And Moses was acting like any earthly child would:  if it didn’t seem like he was convincing “dad” of his argument, he switched to Plan B.
And (B) was the other unique thing about Moses conversation with God:  He spoke to God of God’s history with the Jewish people, with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, but then he spoke to God about the Gentiles, the Egyptians.  He told God:  Don’t destroy Your people “lest the (Egyptians) say: ‘The Lord was not able to bring them into the land He promised them.’”  Moses was arguing that God should be worrying about what other people might think, worrying about His image!  That sounded like a public relations argument to God, and I don’t think Moses really understood the importance of what He had said, but God did.  Moses saw God punish the Egyptians and thought God hated them, but God didn’t.  Moses didn’t appreciate that God loves all His children, even the ones that don’t always obey Him, even the ones that don’t even know Him.  That is what a loving Father does.  It wouldn’t be until Jesus came along and imaged and explained all this to the Jews --- and the world --- that they would know this about God: He is Our Father.  We are all important to Him.
I saw those things in the readings from Deuteronomy, and I thought it fit the image I often use to describe the Creator God:  His creation is like a giant picture, and we all play a key role in the painting.  And so, like He spoke to Moses --- and listened to Him --- so He speaks to us, and listens to our prayers.  We are each important in His picture of all creation.  But then yesterday, Sunday, I was reminded of a deeper truth, as explained by Jesus.  Not only are we each important to God, but we each are important to each other.  That’s why the commandment to Love Your Neighbor is right up there with Love God; your neighbor is critically important.  The Scripture readings yesterday spoke of the Body of Christ, and how we are all part of a spiritual body, with Christ as the head.  We are all different with different purposes, but all important --- and necessary to and responsible to each other.
A body without two legs doesn’t run as well as one that has two legs.  One leg is important, but then so is the other.  And further, if one leg were exercised and strengthened (physically or spiritually) and the other leg ignored, the benefits of the one’s training will not be fully realized:  If one leg ran strongly but the other weak one had to be dragged along, the body won’t move as fast as if each were strengthened, or even if one is strengthened less, so the other can be stronger.  Therefore, our prayers should not be to “make me happy or make me holy”, they should be to “make me as happy or holy as I should be.”  It doesn’t do us good to try to run the race alone, because we are NOT alone in the Body of Christ.  We’re in the body together.  We are ALL important.   That statement is a subtle but important change from what I saw being taught in Deuteronomy, where I saw God saying we are EACH important.  It didn’t come across to me there the importance of the fact that God loves me --- we each are important, but God also loves YOU --- we are all important.  That is a key teaching of Jesus Christ:  “For God so loved man (all men) that He gave His only begotten Son…” 
I think the Scripture readings this week were a great reminder to people.  To the people who would ask: “Am I important?  Am I happy?” God responds: “Yes, you are important.  Yes, I want to help make you happy.”  But He further explains: “We’ll do this together.”  There is a big picture of creation all right, made in perfection, the perfect plan.  But within it is man, a totally unique being, made in His image, and uniquely loved --- and individually loved.  But man is so unique and so loved, he is literally painted, designed, created, to be one with God --- the ultimate in uniqueness, the ultimate in importance, the ultimate in loving and being loved.  We are meant to be as One. 
We are part of the picture of creation I often talk about alright; we are the centerpiece.   What I sometimes find sad in these times is how many people, individually, think they are the centerpiece.  We even teach kids in school how important they are, their little wishes and their little accomplishments --- or even their little bit of trying to accomplish something.  We so want to build up the self-image of kids, when that is not really the predominant problem in our culture.  As is so prominently displayed in our country, narcissism is the growing problem: a recognized illness that so many people seem to deem as something good to catch.  We confuse self-worth (we are all created in the image of God and important – together) with a distorted ego-centric, self-image (I am important).            
Am I important?  The correct question is: Are WE important?  When we can properly answer that question, then we can begin to answer the questions about abortion, about how to love the poor, and about how to look at our own importance.  And how to find true, eternal happiness.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Love Grows

The temperature was in the low thirties as I headed to the chapel late Saturday night.  Calm, clear, crisp, the night didn’t feel as cold as it was, and had an almost warm feel to it.  But that was about to change.  Gentle swirls of wind greeted me when I reached my destination and opened the car door.  Looking up as I walked, some of the stars had disappeared during the short trip.  The only light was coming from the chapel.  But that too was to change.
By the second hour the winds were howling; the strong windows and doors of the small room rattled softly.  And the lights began to flicker.  I concentrated on the wonderful book I was reading, a spiritual delight --- but I took my cell phone out, ready to call the deacon in charge of the chapel.  But God’s light continued to burn brightly, on the altar and in my heart as I read and learned more about Him, and the time passed quickly, despite the screaming wind outside.
As I walked to my car, my adoration time completed, I think I might have flown if I had spread my arms out.  Driving home the car was buffeted this way and that, and fallen branches rattled the undercarriage as I rode over them.  And it was now cold, very cold.  It indeed was a blustery, wintry, day (thanks to Poo for those fitting words).
And so it wasn’t a surprise, when I returned for morning mass that Sunday that I found a cold, dark church.  No electronic organ or guitars were to accompany the choir, rather, the sounds of piano and violins filled the air.  And for a change the congregation’s singing drowned out that of the un-amplified choir.  And the opening word of Father’s homily was: “Brrr.”
The Sunday gospel was on the first of Jesus’ miracles, at Cana.  Unlike oft-heard sermons on: “See! Listen to your mother” or “the first of many miracles,” or even explaining “why water into wine,” Father’s sermon stressed the “where” of this first miracle:  at a wedding.  The place of His first miracle showed the importance of the event --- but at my parish it seemed the good priest’s words were, as they say, “preaching to the choir,” as I looked around at the many large families present, some filling not one pew but two.  And when, at the end, the deacon asked all married couples to stand and repeat their marriage vows to one another, as he did with his wife at the altar, all the children were silent, staring at their mothers and fathers, witnessing their love --- although when the deacon said “you may now kiss the bride,” they all giggled.  Family: such a blessed thing.  In the cold and dark church, there was warmth.
I read a book Sunday afternoon at mom’s house.  Recommended by a friend, the writing was superb: the descriptions of the people and things caused you to see them in your mind.  The writer’s descriptions of emotions caused you to experience them.  And although the love scenes of the story were not in gross detail, as so many books (and television shows) seem to think mandatory these days, still, the love scenes spoiled the book for me.  Perhaps it was all the things I had witnessed in these past 24 hours, the hand of God in nature, and the hand of His people loving one another and Him, together, in public witness in words, and in physical being --- their children.  The book seemed to make love something which happens quickly, but true love is a long pathway, it moves along, it grows.  Lust is a stop in life, not the start of anything, as love is.  There is no love at first sight, only lust. 
Love grows, as one knows.  Whether a spouse or God, with the passing of time we know them more, and love grows.  Even in the strongest winds, even on the coldest nights, love grows, as one knows.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Something Is Wrong

Right now in my life, I feel as close to God as I ever have.  So often, I can feel His presence; I can sense His thoughts.  There is pain; there is suffering; there is loneliness sometimes in my life, but it all seems so right.  It all seems to make sense.  But it wasn’t that way always in my life.  There was a time when I was doing many of the same things I am doing now, but had different results.  Many friends wouldn’t notice any difference.  They might say “he’s still the same great guy he was.”  But they wouldn’t know the truth.  The truth was, that at a point in my life, a great change came.
“Something is wrong with my life.”  Those are the words that you must speak, with all honesty and with resignation, if you wish to change your life.  You’ve got to say: “Something is wrong, and I can’t fix it” --- with a heavy emphasis on the “I.”  I had to speak those words.
I’ve learned (the hard way) much about the purpose of my life since then:  it is to live it as the One Who created it made me to be.  I tried living it my way, for many years.  I had great plans; great executions; poor outcomes.
If I were to build a model train, I expect that it would run on tracks.  If I were to build a sailboat, I’d expect it to float on water.  If you were to put the train I built in the water, it would just sink, because it wasn’t made to float.  I’d tell you: “If you want it to work right, most efficiently, you’ll have to use it the way I built it to be used.”
God says those same words to us about our life.
The problem so many of us have is that we are like my model train, but a train with an independence streak.  Perhaps we might choose to be bumping along on the concrete of the driveway:  “Look!  I’m moving forward; I’m making progress,” we might say.  But silly us: we’ll never get to the station that way!  So many of us are wise and even powerful --- perhaps a huge locomotive is a better image of ourselves than a toy train.  When we move forward, things are pushed out of our way, or crushed.  What we want and where we want to go --- it seems nothing can stop us.  We don’t think of ourselves as some monster (or sinner); we’re just moving forward, trying to do what we think is right, but there reaches a point in the life of almost every sane person (when he realizes he doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere) and he says:  “Why am I doing this?”  “Why” is a most profound question.  Even the most firm atheists who believe in nothing but science --- “Prove to me that God exists” --- at some point they look around at all they’ve proved, all the facts and all the figures, and all the things they hold, and say: “All these are truths I can understand, but why?”
Why is pi equal to 3.1459?  Why are all the other numbers and facts which describe things and life so constant?  Why do they fit together so perfectly to create the earth and us?  Is it all random choice?  Why isn’t pi equal to .84 tomorrow, and 2.1 the next day?  Why?
Why do I love my children like no one else’s?  Why, if I do everything I think is right, does my life seem wrong?  Why am I not happy?
All the money, all the food, all the excitement, all the sex, none of the pain --- what if you could have it all, never to have to strive or want it again:  Would you be happy?  I think we all know hundreds of examples of people who we would consider have it all, and we see they are not happy.  So what would make them happy?  As we lead the little engine of our life down our bumpy road, or slowly in our soft sand, where do we think we are going --- and what do we expect to see when we get there?  If all the things we typically strive for won’t get us happiness, what will?
Myself, I’ve found happiness and joy in trying to do God’s will, but my discovery wasn’t easy.  Early in life I thought myself as that model train; I could go wherever I want and get anything I wanted.  As my dad said to me: “You can get anything you want, if you work for it.”  And so I worked, hard.  And all the things I wanted (and I wasn’t greedy, I didn’t want much), and all the things I thought I should have, I got.  Until I reached that point in my life, when I looked around, saw I wasn’t happy, and said:  “Something is wrong in my life, and I can’t seem to fix it.”
Finding happiness in my life started when I admitted I wasn’t happy, and I couldn’t seem to do anything about it.  That’s when I finally turned to God.  That’s when I finally said: “You lead; I’ve done a lousy job of it so far.”  And I found something which at first seemed amazing: He knew where to go!  And so I followed.
If I would have thought more about God earlier in my life I could have figured out this needed change in my direction.  But I thought I could reach a point of happiness on my own --- I thought: “Who knows what makes me happy better than me?”  If I would have REALLY thought about it though, I’d have realized there IS a guy who knows better: it is the Guy who created me; He knows what would make me happy --- even better than me.  How stupid of me to think me otherwise.
Like the toy train, I was made in a certain way, to run on certain tracks, to get to a certain destination.  I can detour off the tracks in front of me in any which way I want --- and boy, did I detour a lot in my life.  But if I wanted to get to the station, if I wanted to be as happy as He made me to be, I needed to be who He made me to be.
It is a hard lesson, a humbling one that’s hard to accept, to admit that we don’t know what is best for ourselves.  And that there is a God who loves us even more than we love ourselves; He taught us how to love.
He IS Love.
And I used to think I knew everything.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Review: St. Barbara

I thought about writing a review here about St. Barbara, so I would remember what I had seen in this movie, but I had recently read some reviews online of various books that I wanted to order.  So I proceeded over to Amazon and placed my order, and then decided to glance at any reviews there of the movie, St. Barbara.
I was underwhelmed by the couple of reviews I saw, which touched on historical slights in the movie.  None of those things mattered to me; I thought them unimportant, as I am sure the movie creators did also.  But they did create a beautiful movie, so I felt compelled to add my review to Amazon.  Rather than waste further time, I merely repeat it here:

Not to disagree with other reviewers, but I loved this movie. It made me cry, my own personal criteria of a deeply moving movie. When I first saw the subtitles, I thought: "Oh, no! Not another foreign movie with subtleties which are only understood by native speakers of the language!" I was right, but I was wrong. The subtleties are there, but they translate not in words, but in imagery. The acting and scenery of this film are beautiful. The subtitles are not distracting, but make you focus on each word --- no glancing at the clock or your I-phone or talking to your friends; you are absorbed into this movie, much like, I felt, The Passion movie. In fact, some images, like the wailing of the father over his daughter's death at the end seem taken right from The Passion.

I'd encourage you to focus not on "what REALLY happened to St. Barbara," but rather just the movie. It is a movie about love, a mother's, a friend's, and eventually, about God's love. You don't see any Christian evangelizing done, in fact you may wonder at the end why Barbara even became a Christian; no doctrine was preached to her. But it's not that kind of movie. If anything, it presents what was really happening back then, and what was a noticeable thing about Christians, during that period of wars and terror and man's abuse of his fellow man. The "strange," noticeable thing about Christians, as quoted by Roman historians, was: "See how they love one another." This movie showed how, initially, it was Christian love and sacrifice which made Barbara a convert.

In the movie's presentation of Roman citizens, I saw much of our society today. There were good people, there were laws intended to be good, and there was a state which said its laws, ANY laws, were supreme over any religion. And many good people couldn't understand why Christians wouldn't obey those laws, "made for their good." Many still don't understand today.