Friday, April 29, 2016

Sometimes It's Good to Laugh

I was reading a novel yesterday (“Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca?”, by G.M. Ford ---- yes, that IS the title, and yes, that IS the author) when I read a few well-put lines which made me smile; perhaps they’ll brighten your day also.
The main character was borrowing an old clunker from the backyard of a friend.  When he finally got it started after 5 or 6 tries, eventually it began to run smooth, and then he said: “I gunned it, looking in the mirror.  It looked like I was crop dusting.  Thick blue smoke billowed into the air.”  A bit later he drives off.  “All in all, the Buick drove pretty well, a bit spongy in the turns perhaps, and the squealing of the brakes would probably open garage doors within a three mile radius, but overall not too bad.”
Yeh, I guess I’ve got too much time on my hands, but sometimes you gotta laugh.  :- )

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Re-Learning To Love

It seems strange for a retired person to have spent as much time in meetings as I have this month, both large and small gatherings of people seeking to use their talents to advance the lives of those in need or of their church community.  Often after a meeting this month I found myself speaking with one or two people about how the meeting went, but looking back now, I notice that much more time was spent discussing the people than the meeting topic.  And, unfortunately, often the focus of our discussion was our perceptions of the failures of the people attending the meeting --- we gossiped.
In thinking of those conversations, I realized that our criticisms of others were far from the agape love we are called to imitate, the unconditional love that Jesus taught us (and which I’ve been thinking and writing about a lot of late). And then in my thoughts I forgave us gossipers --- we obviously still have much to learn about how to love --- and I forgave too those whose weaknesses we were gossiping about: surely by even taking the time to attend those meetings they were trying to love as God would will them to.  We were ALL trying to love as God loves, unconditionally, seeing none of the weaknesses or faults of others, but as witnessed by our gossip, this is a hard love to learn.  And, perhaps, some of us were never taught the importance of this love, and so we have to learn it on our own, to pray, to study, to learn more about this Jesus Who IS love.
But as often happens, I was suddenly blessed to see how stupid these musings were. We don’t need to learn HOW to love, we need to RE-LEARN how to love!
A mom instinctively loves her baby, and a baby instinctively loves its mom, and this instinct is hard to deny.  But even further, the newborn baby also loves all life. It trusts.  It loves the beggar, the rich man, the robber, the wife-beater, the pervert, and the priest. To the baby, all their lives are equally good. It doesn’t judge how well a life is being led, or what a person says or does, it values all life.  It offers unconditional love. But, you may say, the baby has not yet learned the lessons of life, which all babies must learn.  You might say the baby is innocent, or you might say, as we see it relative to ourselves, the baby is an idiot.
That word reminds me that I recently read Dostoevsky’s classic novel: The Idiot. There, the lead character didn’t assume bad thoughts about a person, but good.  And if a person’s perceived failings were pointed out or “explained” to him, often he would be quiet, and think that perhaps the person spoken about may have acted poorly, but out of good intentions. And so those around this man spoke of him as naïve, simple and, even often to his face, as being an idiot.  One of the interesting things of the story, however, is how those same people gradually came to realize how much they could trust this unique “idiot” among them, and to even love him.  They came to realize that innocent love, unconditional love, is something they craved, although they didn’t know it.
If we started our lives with the innocence of a baby, how did we learn to hate, or at least distrust others? In our society it is almost a maxim that you MUST teach your children to distrust others. But Jesus teaches us and wants us to live with unconditional love.  Where are we going wrong?
Perhaps it started in the Garden of Eden.  Our first parents were tossed out of the garden for their sin and told “to till the earth.” They’d have to work.  No more were they given all their needs; they would have to do things for themselves.  And from then on, although children were born in innocence they were taught they cannot expect unconditional love in the future.  If they wanted things, even love, they would have to earn it.  And so, now that we are no longer all the same in giving and receiving unconditional love, we compare ourselves to one another:  how well did they learn the lessons of how to work, of how to live.
As I prayed The Litany of Humility prayer, which I pray each evening, I noticed something about my petition prayers:  I prayed to be delivered from certain desires, and I noticed that all the listed desires are those egocentric yearnings I’ve learned in life, the ones keeping me from unconditional love, the ones keeping me focused on me-getting-for-me.  And some of the other petitions ask for the grace TO desire certain things --- but all these things to be desired are things not for me, but for others.  They are prayers that I might wish others well, no matter what they say or do --- that I might give them unconditional love. This prayer for humility, I now see, is a prayer that I might learn how to love!
In our lives we’ve learned pride, egoism, and narcissism, and our society seems to constantly reinforce these lessons. We’ve learned to cherish our freedom to act on our own behalf, and we’ve learned we can’t trust others. We’ve learned “we deserve” love, but we’ve forgotten that we once had it, and “learned” to let it go.
Jesus came to earth as a man to teach us how to love --- again!  Behold! I make all things new!  He came to open the gates to heaven, to show us God’s unconditional love, and how to live it as men, even if we have forgotten how.
Today’s Gospel is John 15:9-17. Take some time today to read it, and meditate on the message. Most Scripture scholars say this passage is the heart of John’s Gospel, and the heart of Jesus’ teaching.
And what it’s saying is that it’s never too late for us to learn.  

Thursday, April 21, 2016

He Is With Me

If you asked me to pick one person in my life who I didn’t ever want to disappoint, my instinctive answer would be my dad.  He laid down rules for me, with love, and I tried to obey those rules --- especially if he were right by my side. If I were alone, with my friends and they suggested we do something “wrong”, I’d almost always consider their request: I mean, they were my friends.  However, if they made that same request while I was out and about with my dad, I’d almost always NOT consider it.  I’d not consider it because he was my dad, and in my mind I’d much rather please my dad than my friends ---- especially if he were right next to me.  The reason, in thinking on it, was because I respected my dad more, and I didn’t want to disappoint him.
I think, in our youth, almost everyone can point to someone like that, a dad or mom, sibling, grandma or grandpa, and if those weren’t big in our lives perhaps even a friend, who we looked up to and did not want to disappoint.  In growing up we all needed someone to look up to; at one point we were little, and we HAD to trust someone, and God, in His love and mercy, usually put someone there. 
As we matured we all grew in independence. We were blessed with freedom of will, a scary thing sometimes.  It’s kind of like first riding a bike I guess; we’d tell mom or dad:”Don’t let go,” but at some point they’d have to --- and we were glad.  We are the leaders of our lives, but, as I said, most of us still have that one person who continues to be “the one,” our rock, our foundation.  We still look up to them; we still don’t want to disappoint them; we still know they’ll still be there, even if we fall.  And if we’re in their presence, we don’t want to disappoint them --- but we are in their presence less and less.  We are independent; we have freedom, and at some point those anchors of our growing up die.
At the Bible Study group meeting today we talked about how sometimes we sin:  we know the will of God; we respect Him and don’t want to sin, but sometimes we instinctively choose to do so.  In talking about it, we realized that this reactive choice often comes about in protection of our will, our self-interest, and our---in that moment --- forgetting God’s will.  Someone may disagree with our opinion (and we know it is right), and so we instinctively defend it.  Many of us (like me, for example) will forget our manners and interrupt:”Wait a minute, …” and we’ll “politely” explain to the other person why they are stupid.  And we’ll feel good about it --- after all, they were wrong.
In our now fully-adult mind, we have grown up and assumed the role of that person we admired growing up, and likely we think we are acting as he/she would--- and perhaps we are right.  The thing is, however, that this wisdom we are expressing is “earthly wisdom,” and in the small Bible Study group we recognized that there is a greater wisdom ---and Will --- than ours.  We recognized that we now have in our lives a God, a Person we sorely don’t want to disappoint.  And that presented us with a problem:  while with the person we grew up with, in their presence, we’d never choose to disappoint them, but God IS in our presence at all times, so how can we so readily choose to disappoint Him?  Do we really not respect Him as much as we think we do?
I started out this post thinking about my answer to a question posed about “who in my life did I not want to disappoint?”  My answer reflected someone who I looked up to, who taught me right from wrong, who loved me, and I never wanted to lose that love.  I feel that way now about God, but it wasn’t always so. While my parents (or perhaps someone else) were there when I absolutely needed them--- they were just “there”--- but somewhere along my life I CHOSE God to be my best friend, my most important person whom I don’t want to disappoint.
I was greatly blessed in that as my childhood foundations drifted into my past and it was up to me to build on them, I found Jesus and discovered His was a different type of foundation for my life. While dad did the heavy work of putting down a concrete foundation for my life, Jesus is there to complete my life, to put on the “finishing touches.”  He is the skilled builder of mansions of great and everlasting glory.  And I’ve chosen His plans for my life.  All my studies, all my reading, have shown me there is no better builder, and so I choose to follow His plans.  And, like dad as I was growing up, I didn’t want to deviate from the plans Jesus drew.  And I have found something wonderful about Jesus’ plans and my trying to follow them: I sometimes screw up, but He always seems to be able to fix things, and perhaps even make them better!  “Hmmm, you did a sloppy paint job over there, but no problem, we can wallpaper over it. Or, hmmmm, you put in a door where there was supposed to be a window, but no problem, I think we can add on a porch there and it will look great.” And, in a way, His plans for me become OUR plans.  And that is why I have freedom in my adulthood to lead my life as I wish, yes, but in my freedom I choose to follow His will--- at least as best I can.
But that comes back to the Bible Study question:  So why don’t I?  It’s St. Paul’s question again:”Why do I do the things I don’t want to do?”
Perhaps, sitting in the chapel and thinking on that, the answer for today lies in the answer of my youth.  While my friends (the world) may have tempted me in some ways, and sometimes I fell to that temptation, still, when I was in the presence of dad it was much easier to resist their temptations.  I so didn’t want to disappoint my dad, and never to his face; I didn’t want him to be ashamed of me.  I knew he’d never stop loving me, and I never wanted to disappoint him.  I think that is the key to my living the life God has for me, doing His will.  It is so easy to be tempted by the world --- to be tempted by me (!) misusing my freedom ---but if I REALLY don’t want to disappoint God, I will remember that HE IS WITH ME, standing by my side, right now.  How can I do something that will disappoint Him?
That’s the key to my growing in faith, I think, it’s always remembering He is with me, right now.  So when something happens that irritates me, that I want to “explain” to that stupid person next to me, I need to recall that Dad is next to me, and I’ll have to look up to Him after I open my big mouth --- and see His disappointment.  Oh, how I don’t want to see that look in His eyes.
I think the time I spend in the chapel each day has a benefit towards achieving something like that. Perhaps I forget God is with me during the day, and I sin.  But each night I end my day in prayer and recount my day for Him, kind of like those evenings at the dinner table as I grew up, when dad asked:”So how was your day?”  And if I screwed up during the day, often I could get away with a little white lie of omission to dad; I didn’t want to tell him the truth. But here, in the chapel, I have to own up to the truth:  I mean, Jesus was there with me!  No use lying!
And that’s a good thing, my owning up to what He saw me do.  And then perhaps next time I’ll remember that He is next to me, before I have to look up and see that disappointment in His face.
O Lord, you search me and you know me.
See that I follow not the wrong path
and lead me in the path of life eternal
-- Psalm 139

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Do You Study A Lot?

The man came up to me in the church, as I sat there reading before mass.  “Tom, do you study a lot?  I assume you’re taking lots of classes because I always see you studying books.”  I laughed and explained that I have always been a reader, reading hundreds of books a year.  And he went away, his curiosity satisfied.
But as I sat there I realized I had expressed my situation wrongly.
To say that I read, or even study, implies that I am acting that way because I perceive a benefit from doing so.  When I read fiction I admit it is always for entertainment, and I find a novel’s complexity much more entertaining than a television show or movie that summarizes the story or only presents the “interesting” parts.  No, I enjoy the whole story.  Books of faith, however, I read differently.
Now I certainly admit that I used to study books of faith, to learn more about what Jesus said and did, to learn more about the people who followed Him, and sometimes to seek specific answers to problems in my life.  Yes, I used to study books of faith, but somewhere along the way, that changed.
I now read more faith books than ever --- I have more free time than ever --- but I have noticed a change in my reading habits. It came about gradually; I didn’t seek it.  Somewhere I gradually stopped seeking to learn, and let Jesus begin to teach me. I stopped looking for things of interest to me, and let my heart be opened to things of interest to Him --- and it seems they largely center about how I am to live my life.  I grew up and learned rules on how to live a good life, and I read books which gave me new rules.  I guess I thought there are rules which applied to everyone, but I never thought there were unique rules for each one. I found, however, that there ARE unique rules for me, on how I am to live my life, with the unique talents and opportunities God placed before me.
Gradually I started seeing things in the books I read, words which seemed to apply uniquely to me, now.  And perhaps most importantly, WHY they applied to me --- that was important because of my analytical mind: I always want to know “why’.  And often in reading, gradually I began to understand things in my heart.  As a problem in my life became a concern, suddenly it was very common for me to pick up a book and lo and behold on the first page was an answer to that concern.  I found God speaking to me in the words I read, whether those of Scripture or of the saints.
So now I read, in the chapel or church, so God can teach me.  I don’t seek to learn anything; I let Him pick the topic.  And in the quiet He answers my prayer to “Make me an instrument of Thy peace.” And I see how I can, and the opportunities He gives to me.  And certainly of late I see Him getting to the heart of His life and mine: He is teaching me how to love.
And as He continues to teach me, at least on some occasions, I think (I hope) He gives me a passing grade!