Monday, January 27, 2014

I Need To Change My Life --- NOW!

This is one of those blog posts I feel compelled to write; the thoughts have poked at my mind for days, yet the subject is one I don’t see as benefiting me right now --- but it may you.
Some of us are fat; some are simply physical wrecks.  Some of us are addicted to drugs or alcohol or sex, and we know we need to change:  everyone has been telling us so, or avoiding us --- even those we love.  But then, there are some of us who know that we need to …, we need to --- we need to do what?  What do we need to do?  We don’t exactly know, but we do know that somehow we need to change our life.
It’s not easy to describe this feeling that you need to change, because it is a feeling totally within side you.  No one sees the real you: they don’t see you as fat or addicted or as anyone bad in any way.  They may even look at you and see a very good person.  Or --- they may look at you and not see you at all; you seem no more important to them than a shadow.  But you are not troubled by what others see or don’t see in you, you’re troubled by what YOU see in you.  And what you see makes you sad.
Maybe you express your sadness by saying: “No one loves me” --- I have a post with that title; it is Googled often.  Maybe you express it by saying: “Is this all that life is?”  Maybe after your spouse slams the door as he leaves, or after your kid says “I hate you” (again), or perhaps even after it snows --- yet again --- and you then express it by thinking: “Is my life worth anything?  Am I making any difference in this world?”
And perhaps after putting those feelings into some type of words, you just sit there and feel sad.  You can’t think of answers to those questions or any next steps to take.  You just sit there.
This post, I think, is one I may be meant to write for you.
A certain priest I met seems fixated on the Gospel of Mark.  He’s been telling us lately that we’ll be hearing Mark’s Gospel a lot at the masses between now and Lent.  He said Mark’s Gospel is generally agreed to have been the first one written.  Unlike the other Gospels which followed it, he says, it was not written with a particular purpose or audience in mind.  He says Mark just wanted to write down the facts about Jesus.  “This is what happened.”  Splat!  There it is.
The priest encouraged us to sit down at some point in the coming weeks and read the Gospel of Mark in one sitting.  He said it’d help us know Jesus.  And so I did.
Well, to be honest, I didn’t set out to read that Gospel; it kind of was one of those “God-happening” moments.  I went to the chapel for my usual two hour slot on Saturday night, said my rosary, prayed my Night Prayers, spoke with the Lord for a bit, and then picked up the book I had brought with me.  And opening it to the bookmarked page, I found that I only had 10 pages left to read.  And so 5 minutes later I put the book down and looked up at Jesus on the altar.  And then for some reason I asked Him: “Well, is there something else you’d like me to read?”  And “immediately” there came into my mind the words the priest had said.  And so for the next 45 minutes --- that’s all it took --- I read the Gospel of Mark.
“Immediately” --- that’s the first thing which struck me about the Gospel of Mark.  In the first chapter Mark uses the word “immediately” nine times (and in some translations you see it more than that).  After the first few it began to grate on me a bit: “Sheesh, Mark!  Can’t you come up with any synonyms for immediately?  And surely Jesus didn’t really run around doing everything “immediately,” did He?”  I didn’t pause to dwell on my irritation then, but the memory of it stuck with me.
The Gospel of Mark, as the priest said, was just the facts.  In the Gospel of Matthew there are two long chapters describing the birth and genealogy of Jesus, because that Gospel was addressed to the Jews, many of whom were concerned with: “Is He the Messiah, the One who would be a son of David?”  Yes, He is, Matthew shows through the genealogy.  But Mark addresses that same topic thusly:  “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth.”  Period!  Splat! 
In the Gospel of Luke, we see the risen Jesus appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and taking all day to explain to them how all the words of the Old Testament were fulfilled in Jesus, and then He sat down and ate with them, at which point they knew who He was, and He disappeared.  Wow!  And so how does Mark address this great event?  “He appeared to two of them as they were walking in the country.”  Splat!  Just the facts; nothing but the facts are given in Mark.  He doesn’t go into great depths to explain things, to convince the reader of Jesus’ teachings.
But …, but wait a minute.  Unlike all the rest of his gospel, why did Mark so obviously overuse the word “immediately” in that first chapter?  Everything else was just a big “splat,” but here he deliberately seems to want to emphasize something.  What?  Surely he must have thought it important.  Why?  I perceive the reason that Mark used the word “immediately” so often in that first chapter is because in the first chapter he sets the stage for the rest of his Gospel, and that setting of the stage is important, and needs some type of emphasis.
In that first chapter, John the Baptist appears, Jesus appears, the Spirit of God appears, the apostles appear, Jesus begins preaching, unclean spirits appear, Jesus’ healings appear and He becomes famous, Jesus commands demons who obey Him, and crowds come to hear and see Him.  And all this is just Chapter 1!!  Mark sets the stage here for the rest of his gospel; Chapter 1 says that a change has come into the lives of all the people involved.  Their lives have begun a change, now, immediately!  And one other thing you notice in this chapter, if you think on it, is that the people were ready for change.  It’s almost like they were waiting for a change, and they followed Jesus immediately, wondering: “Is He the One?  Is this the change I need to make in my life?”
It’s almost like that feeling you have, isn’t it?
The people in the Gospel made an immediate change in the focus of their life.  No, all weren’t immediately converted.  No, all weren’t immediately healed.  No, they all didn’t immediately make sense of it --- heck, three years later those closest to Him, the apostles, still didn’t understand it all.
But then they did, eventually.  They made that immediate change in focus in their lives, and then they could begin to see and understand the workings of God, and what He wanted them to do.  Read the sidebar on this blog about the time when I made that immediate change in my life.  It happened to me; I made a change in the focus of my life.  And in the 25+ years since, many things have gotten better in my life.  And during that time I’ve grown closer in love and understanding to that Jesus-guy, and what His life meant, and what mine means.
“No one loves me; is my life worth anything; am I making a difference in the world”--- sadness.  I’ve been there.  I know those feelings.  I know that feeling that I need to make a change in my life, but not knowing how or where to begin.  What I’m telling you with all these words, my friend, is not how to change your life, but that I’m encouraging you to start.  Immediately!  I am encouraging you to start, with a great resolve.  Mark’s first chapter set the stage; perhaps reading these words is setting the stage for you.  The people then heard great words and saw great miracles, which helped spur them on.  The words they heard are still there for you to read.  The miracles still happened, you can read about them, and perhaps your reading of these words, right here, right now, is one for you, too.
You life can be changed.  Happiness, now and eternal, is there on the horizon.  The path to focus on is there before you.  If you take this path, will you find perfect happiness tomorrow?  Of course not!  Will you still be worried about your life tomorrow?  Well there, my friend, I’ll let you in on a little secret, something it’s taken me years on my own journey to really learn:  if you read and try to understand those words and actions of Jesus, it will suddenly become clear to you that despite all the bad things that happen to Him, despite all the powerful people who hate Him, and despite the horrible death that awaits Him --- and He knows is coming --- despite all these troubles in His life, you come to realize that (unlike you) He is not worried about His life.  He is worried about the lives of others, not His.  And you come to see how much joy is in Jesus’ life, when He brings joy to others.
That’s the big secret.  It’s a great turnabout to realize that worrying about your life doesn’t change it; worrying about others’ lives does.  You don’t really become happy by actively seeking happiness, but by giving it.  I mean, who would have thought it?  No one, I guess.  That’s why we needed the Teacher.
So if we are going to learn how to make our lives better, we need to set the stage:  schedule the time, get out the books, go to school, follow the Teacher, and listen.  Really listen.  And then ponder and try to make sense of what you read and hear, and then you too will “increase in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man (Lk 2:52).  You may be troubled now, but look around:  the country is troubled; the world is troubled.  Many a man of God has said: The world needs more saints. 
The world needs you.  And you, and your life, will make a difference.
And, you can end your sadness.
It starts with a commitment to change your life’s focus, and as Mark so eloquently arranged it: If you are going to take those steps forward, you need to set the stage, to begin your story of change, and you need to do it immediately.  Just make that commitment; get it over with.  Immediately --- and then the important stuff will follow, like the rest of his Gospel.
You have that feeling that you need to change your life.  What are you waiting for?

Friday, January 24, 2014

At This Point, I'll Try Anything

Maybe if I said that I’ll begin my New Year’s diet when it gets warmer …

Maybe if I go sign up for some ice skating classes …

Maybe if I go out and buy a new winter coat to show off to friends …

Maybe if I invite the in-laws over to dinner when the weather gets better …

Maybe if I buy some new snow tires ….

Maybe if I finally take down my Christmas tree …

Heck, I’ll try anything if it’ll make it get warmer!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Review: Strange Gods

“It would be an interesting exercise, perhaps, to try to keep count of how
many times a day we say (or think) the word I or me – especially if we
put our numbers up against how many times we’d thought of God
or anyone else throughout the same day.”
Those early words of Elizabeth Scalia, in her book Strange Gods, sound like something I might have written here.  They gave me a clue that I might like this book which, quite honestly, I purchased only because of its unique cover.
Besides the early chapter on “The Idol of I,” Elizabeth has separate chapters on the idols of Ideas, Prosperity, Technology, Coolness and Sex, Plans, and what she calls super-idols --- our ideological passions.
In the chapter on The Idol of Prosperity, Ms Scalia brings in some thoughts from the Rule of Saint Benedict for the living of the monastic life.  In it Saint Benedict stresses the ideal of minimal ownership of things, but he points out that some monks have a greater need (not want) of material things than others.  “But, Benedict said, instead of this being a source of pride, it should be a source of humility, because it is better to need less.  Every worldly thing you need is something else that can come between you and God.”  Ms Scalia then goes on to put this in relational terms, noting that those who need more should be given more, and those who need less be given less, BUT: no one should judge either as better or worse for this.  “This can be a difficult way to view the world,” she notes, in our culture where “the have-nots are encouraged to resent all that excess and privilege, and yet they still desire it for themselves.  Saint Benedict tells us that people who have so much are to be pitied because excess is evidence of their need.”  I liked the way Ms Scalia used this monastic view of “stuff” to put the Idol of Prosperity in perspective.        
I thought her take on the idol of the internet also was spot on the money, and I enjoyed her word imagery in that chapter.  “The internet might well be the greatest tempter to ego gratification since the hissing serpent of Eden: --- you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad” (Gn 3:5).  Ms Scalia puts the question to us bluntly: “How can we be alive to God and to the workings of the Holy Spirit, if we are spending hour after hour alive to only ourselves, reveling in our ideas, opinions, and (our) words are reflected back at us, forever and ever, Amen!”  She likens the Internet to a house of mirrors, “a maze of me.”  I know of people who look at the internet in the ways she describes, focused on seeking self-affirmation there.  It is a great temptation.  Her words describing the temptations of the Internet flow smoothly into her next chapter on The Idols of Coolness and Sex.  
Our hungers to “be cool” are fed by the Internet.  Elizabeth explains how the feeling of coolness has to do with fitting in and being accepted.  This used to be a primary role of the family, but, she explains: “Modern parents have done something rather unprecedented: they’ve learned from their enlightened children and become like them.  Parents abdicating their roles in order to follow their children’s sensibilities had a predictably unsettling effect on society.  Suddenly everyone was cool, and no one wanted to be the old-fashioned, uptight grownup, except it seems, the Catholic Church.”  The Internet opened a door to unlimited coolness: “It’s like living in a perpetual state of Christmas anticipation.  We look forward to the day and as soon as it arrives, we rip open the gifts, break them quickly, declare ourselves bored, and look for the next cool thing to come” --- and you’ll find it somewhere on the Internet.
Elizabeth Scalia describes in each chapter how idols distract us from our proper focus on God.  They are users of our time.  In the chapter on The Super Idols, however, she describes idols which support the notion that we DO have a proper focus --- a focus on us --- and how we can act with the moral certainty of God.  “Dress up tribal identifications that accompany one’s participation in a party or a movement, determine that the opposition is not merely wrong but evil, and suddenly mere ideas become glittering certainties.”  “Our ideological passions keep us so enthralled that we begin to measure every headline, every news story, every sermon, every comment and tweet that comes our way by how it conforms to our worldview.”  We lose thoughts of our neighbors or our brothers, and instead “We can begin to think of the person as other.  We lose the willingness to bear with the imperfect, flawed, and sinful humanity of another.  We lose the willingness to ‘bear with one another,’ as St. Paul writes.”
I thought the quote from Annie Lamott printed here was most appropriate:  “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”  How aptly this describes our political arena today, whose members have placed themselves as the moral authority for the country.
Ms Scalia subtitled her book “Unmasking the Idols of Everyday Life.”  I found her turn of the word makes for an interesting read, and if you have not previously pondered the idols she unmasks, I’m sure it will give you much to think about, and perhaps lead you to make changes in your life.  But she leaves that up to you.  She clearly identifies the idols for you, but she offers few suggestions for how to turn from them.  Perhaps that will be her next book, but the omission in this one leaves askance those who read her words and suddenly see themselves naked in the mirror.  For adults, turning from satisfying idols may be a difficult task; for parents seeking to turn their children from those same idols, without further suggestions, well, it may seem a wall too high.
But I guess, as with any journey to a new place, you have to take the first step.  If you want help to honestly look at yourself and how the world may have seduced you (or your kids) from the right path, this book is a good first step.

Monday, January 20, 2014

I Just Wanted To Fix Things

No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment;
if he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old,
and a worse tear is made.  And no one puts new wine into old wineskins;
if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost,
and so are the skins; but new wine is for fresh skins.
--- Mark 2:21-2
To my ears, the gospel was an old one:  you shouldn’t put new wine in old wineskins; it’ll be safer in new.  I thought I understood these oft-repeated words, and perhaps I once did --- but I forgot.
The priest’s homily was only a minute or so this morning, but it opened my eyes anew.
We live in the world; we learn the ways of the world, and we put on ways from it that are comfortable for us, like a warm old coat.  Now in putting on the ways of the world, I don’t mean that we are evil, or that we ignore the Church or God.  They are part of our comfortable world.  There are work times; there are family times, and there are Church and God times (I mean, we’ve committed our life to Christ) --- these are all part of our world, and we grow comfortable in them.  We are “good people.”  I know of these things and these ways with great familiarity.  I once was a “good” person.
This gospel says that we often treat the ways of the world, our ways, like a warm comfortable old garment.  And if our world should be torn in some way, our comfort shattered, being “good people” we turn to our spiritual life for repairs.  We want and expect God to mend the tear in our garment, to “fix” our life, to make us comfortable again.  That’s His role, we think.  But the Gospel says that is not the way to fix our problems; that will only create a temporary fix, and the “fix” may tear and make our life even worse.  God says you don’t patch the old cloak, the ways of the world we are used to, but that we must put on a new spiritual cloak, replacing the old ways of the world that we were comfortable with.  Putting on this new spiritual cloak will not change our physical world, there is still our job, our family and our Church, but WE will change.  When things go wrong we want to fix them, but Christ did not come as a repairman so that we can live our life as we always did.
When we REALLY commit our life to Christ, we put on the spiritual life of God, and take off our old life.  We commit that the world and its ways won’t be relied upon to keep us warm, make us comfortable; God will.  The physical world we live in, our life, will still sometimes be torn, but we won’t try to patch it with God, we will see the tear as just a part of our world.  Despite tears (rips) and tears (drops falling down our face), we won’t need to try to fix things ourselves, but will feel warm and comfortable in God’s love.  Bad things won’t disrupt our life or cause us to lose focus, for we will still be focused on God.  When something rends our safety, we won’t feel cold; we’ll know God is with us.
If we are cloaked in the life of the world, our life will have constant ups and downs, rips needing mending, (and we’ll be concerned with how others see us --- will they notice the tear)?  But if we put on the life of Christ, our daily activities may largely be unchanged -- disruptions will still happen -- but we won’t be as concerned.  We’ll learn to accept that changes to OUR plan may be part of HIS plan.  We’ll still feel pain, but we’ll take comfort in knowing that it indicates that some healing is going on. 
Isn’t that what real trust is?  Don’t you see it in the movies, when the wife snuggles in her husband’s arms on the sofa in front of the fireplace?  Don’t you see it when the dog lies down on the bed next to you, and lays his head softly down on your chest?  Don’t you see it in the closed eyes of a baby, asleep in its mother’s arms?  Feeling warm and comfortable, feeling safe.  This is the spiritual cloak that we must don.  If we are taking in the true words and meanings of this Gospel, this is the new spiritual wine that warms us and makes us giddy with happiness.  It isn’t something to get drunk on and get over; it isn’t a patch for our sadness; it is the life of trusting in Christ.  This is a new thing, and the old can’t contain it.
He decided to give us and show us this new life.  And even death would not be a cause for sadness, for He showed us that life in Him does not end.
New cloaks, new wineskins, new ways of seeing our world:  “And there will be no more sadness or crying,” but only tears of joy.
                        - - - - - - - - - -
I told the men’s bible study the other day that one of the greatest gifts I received in my old age was the gift of wisdom, of seeing the importance of taking some quiet time each and every day for God.  I used to have so many “important” things that were part of my world, things I “had to do” each day.  Looking back, I can see none of them were as important as the hour, or the half hour, or even the ten minutes, I plan each day to be with God, talking to Him, listening for Him.
It enables me to put on the mind of Christ, gain a familiarity with Him, to find comfort in His arms, a comfort that no sadness, no pain, no death can ever take away.  Life with God isn’t a patch for my sadness, it is a new life.
Nothing is as important as this, replacing my old ways with new, trusting in Him.
The message of this gospel I now see anew.  Although it still concerns me, I really don’t worry as much about spilled wine any more --- I’ve taken action to prevent the spills.  And all those things I worried about and wanted to fix in my life, I now trust that He will fix them --- or else I’ll continue to wear the torn cloak for another year.  And He’ll keep me warm.