Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Forgotten Ones

In recent weeks, I’ve been spending my Thursday afternoons at a local food ministry where, from 4-7PM, they distribute about 10 tons of food to 400 families.  Volunteers sort the donated food so each pre-screened family will get a variety of typical food items, and then 400 cars roll through the parking lot and open their trunks, which are then loaded by volunteers --- including me.  Two cars a minute, for three hours, distributing the food is exhausting, but rewarding work.
It reminds me of the Miracle of the Loaves.  About 1000 people come to this warehouse each Thursday; Jesus provides the food, and then the apostles distribute it --- that’s the volunteers.  When we think of the Biblical Miracle of the Loaves passage, we usually think of those people on the hillside, hungry not only for food but also the Word of God, or we think of Jesus, so patiently explaining things to them, and then feeding them.  But we usually don’t think much about the apostles in this miracle.  They are the forgotten ones.  They distributed the food; they cleaned up afterward.  They really played a very critical part in the event, but got little notice.  I think that’s what God asks of people who volunteer at this particular food ministry I attend: “Will you love my children, and serve their needs --- for Me?”  And the forgotten ones get to work.
As I said, this seems a small thing to do each week, but it is most rewarding:  loving neighbors Jesus asked us to do.  Among the volunteers, I met last week, were a young husband and wife.  When they mentioned it was their first time there, I asked how they heard about the ministry.  They told me the township website had a section titled:  Volunteer Opportunities, where this ministry was listed, among others.  I’ve lived here 40 years, and I didn’t know that.  I wonder if your city or town doesn’t list similar volunteer opportunities in your area.  As Mother Teresa said: “Calcutta is around us everywhere.”
Some girls from a local Catholic girl’s high school were also there for the first time.  At dinner with them afterwards, they were enthusiastic about getting their friends to come next week:  another miracle of multiplication.  Their enthusiasm gave me joy ---as did the huge rainbow outside the restaurant as we exited from dinner.  “See, God blessed our time together doing His work,” one said.  One of the forgotten, but not unappreciated ones.
The harvest is rich, but the laborers are few …
(so) He summoned His twelve disciples.
Jn 9:37-10:1

. . . . . . . . . .
Boring Mass?
I had a strange compulsion to attend the 8AM mass on First Friday this month at a local church.  I did my usual Friday early morning men’s Bible Study, and then rushed to church.  Fr. John Riccardo said the mass.
For me, mass is often filled with distractions, from fidgeting kids (or adults) to the people who follow the words of the mass on their cell phones.  All this activity around me distracts me, and so I often listen and pray the mass with my eyes closed.
As Fr. John began mass that Friday, something immediately struck me.  As he prayed the prayers of the mass to God, Fr. John was facing the altar, with his back to the people (“ad orientem”).  This is the way priests used to say mass, which is still a valid way --- and even has been encouraged by Pope Francis --- but it is rare to see it in our country now.  I think the logic for the priest facing the people at mass is that it is as if we were all around the altar together, like Jesus and the apostles were around the table at the Last Supper.  This seems logical.  Fr. John’s facing the altar, however, threw any of my logic out the window.  I FELT something as I looked at him and heard his prayers, something powerful, and something good.
Using the logic of the mass as like being around the dinner table does sound cozy and intimate.  But thinking back on all those family dinners I had when growing up, they were often anything but intimate.  Yes, there were some occasions of sharing of our day or our problems, but most often the meal was just another meal --- to be gotten past to get to more important things.
I think many people have come to see the mass in that same light --- just another meal --- important yes, needed for life yes, but still:  just another meal.  The fact that the Body of Christ is on the menu for us is easily forgotten by many people.
Seeing Fr. John facing the altar provoked an awareness in me of several things:  1) He, and we, were facing the tabernacle, God’s presence on the altar, and the rising sun to the East. God was there in front of us, and most deserving of our attention towards Him, not each other.  2) Fr. John, with that position, was oriented as in front of us; he was leading us, as a shepherd does, exactly as Moses led his people in prayer and sacrifice to God.  And 3) We were praying together.  I had lost a most critical awareness of the priest’s words of the mass, when he so often says the word “We” --- we are not primarily there as friends for a meal, we were primarily there as God’s children, praying to Him.  When I saw Fr. John’s back I was not slighted, but humbled.  He was stepping up to lead us, and plead for us, before God.
And it felt SOOOOO right.
I didn’t close my eyes at that mass, and I had an acute awareness of the words the priest said, and they had deep meaning for me.  And I felt a great oneness with the other people in the church, uniting with them behind our prayer leader.
But it was when we rose to say the Our Father that morning that I most felt the Holy Spirit’s presence, for when I stood the rising sun shone directly into my face, and THEN I did close my eyes, yet the brightness burned past my eyelids.  And I felt God’s light and presence most acutely.  And it was good.
It was just a change in the priest’s position at the altar, but for me it was a crucial change, and I felt most strongly:  This is right; this is so right.
In my heart, I pray more priests would visibly lead their flocks in this manner.  It is so right.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

What Is Missing From The Gospels?

But there are also many other things which Jesus did;
were every one of them to be written, I suppose that
the world itself could not contain the books that
would be written.
– John 21:25
The above words are the last sentence from the Gospel of John.  They say that Jesus did many things beyond just those captured in the Bible, and so I was led to wonder on just what those other things might be, and I asked myself why were they so unimportant or less important that they didn’t merit mentioning by John?
Well, that question was in fact answered by John --- these things WERE important and WERE mentioned here; they were just not detailed.  Everything that Jesus did, especially in His public life, was important.  So, what were these important, excluded things?  The Spirit tells me that no great doctrine of Jesus was excluded from the Bible; there was no “and abortion is okay in the case of rape” or “it’s a loving act to kill old people with dementia” said by Jesus but omitted by the Gospel writers.  No, no major surprises were omitted.  So then, were the omitted things Jesus did just more of the same, as written:  more miracles, more evangelization in the temples, and more talking to his apostles?  I think it’s certain Jesus did more of all of those things --- although if there were a feeding of 20,000 or a raising of a whole graveyard of the dead it likely would have been included by the Gospel writers in their works.  So, in general then, what is missing?
John’s was the last (and many say the greatest) of the Gospels.  He does detail some events not elaborated on in the other Gospels, but the thing that stands out for me (and many others) about John’s Gospel is the section often called The Great Discourse.  This is Chapters 13-17; the lengthy talk given by Jesus at the Last Supper.  This section is unique and, as Jesus’ last words to His apostles, important.  And over and over again, in various ways and with various examples these words emphasize one thing: “You must act in love; I came to teach you how to love.”
So, what were the actions of Jesus not written of in the Gospels?  In a word, I think they were actions of love.  Words cannot adequately describe agape love in action; even seeing it, it is difficult to describe.  I think missing from the Gospels are the many, many times Jesus acted in love --- with each and every person He met.  (I remind you again the words of Roman historians, who noted the distinctiveness of the Christians: “See how they love one another.”)  I’ve read testimonies of people who caught Pope John Paul II’s eye for just a moment as he paraded by, and in that moment, they say they felt his love.  I’m sure everyone who caught Jesus’ eye felt that way also --- perhaps a strange and scary event for some who may never have felt loved before.  And I’m sure Jesus had many dinners with sinners, and many with just common folk --- nobodies like us.  He was just friends with them; He just loved them.  And I’m sure He spent many a day or night listening with empathy to the problems of people who came to Him or people He just met in passing.  He listened with love, and He undoubtedly prayed with them --- even the most obnoxious ones, whom we would probably shun.
I think that’s what Jesus did, which was so common that details were omitted from the Gospels:  He just loved those He met.  It’s what He said to do in that Final Discourse, His last and perhaps most important words.  It’s written that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus during His Baptism in the Jordan (and Thomas Aquinas wrote that the proper name of the Spirit is Love).  And so, if we wish to follow His word and example, it’s what we must do:  Pray the Holy Spirit would come to us also, so that we might love those we meet, the people God puts in our lives.
He loved them because they needed Him.  And He tells us they need us also, as we need them.
There are so many people in need of love all around us, if we would just open our eyes.  There are so many organizations you can join or help:  food distributions, soup kitchens, visit-the-sick ministries, hospice ministries, caregiver ministries, and ministries to the homebound – like Meals on Wheels.  “What can I do” is a question asked only by those not seriously looking --- or listening, or those who believe that they can fulfill the commandment to love by writing a check. 
Specific words about living a life of love may be missing from the Gospels, but they permeate every single word and action of Jesus:  Just love them, as I do.  Time well-spent now, will yield time well-spent in eternity, with LOVE.   

Saturday, June 10, 2017

What Are You Working For?

I’ve noted before that my life seems to move through phases.  I’ve seen that some phases have very definable ends, like my forced retirement or mom’s death.  And, if we are faithful Christians and we see a phase of our life approaching to an end --- or if we perceive one needs to, or an end is about to happen --- we should turn at that point to God in prayer: “What now, Lord?  What’s next for me?  Show me Your will.”.  And it’s been my experience that those prayers will be often answered in ways that we can perceive, sometimes very clearly.  We usually don’t know our future, so this praying to God to show us the next phase of our life and how we should live it is a good thing, for then we can prepare and participate in being the person who God made us to be, in this coming phase of our life.
But what if we don’t need to pray for wisdom, but already know what is a coming phase?
We sometimes think we know the coming phases of our lives, and make plans for them.  We go to college to prepare for a career or vocation.  We go to marriage prep classes.  We take classes on raising children.  We take seminars on preparing for retirement.  And yes, we attend mass and retreats, seminars and bible study groups to know better who God is and how He’d like us to live our lives.  All these things prepare us for our future, our future phases of life.  We plan for the future even the unknown, when we pray to God.
It seems to me we naturally plan for these future phases of our life because we want them to be happy phases.  We want to live life right:  good job, good marriage, nice kids, and a happy retirement.  But what are we forgetting?
There is, I believe, a future phase of our life that we know is coming, but for some reason few of us really focus on preparing for it.  That future phase is eternity, which comes upon us with a most sudden event in our life:  we die.  It seems we plan for so many other phases of our life; we spend years on some of those plans.  Why aren’t we more focused on eternity?  We will live in that phase of our life for a very long time, indeed.
In John 17, Jesus says to the Father: “I want those You have given Me to be with Me where I am, … so that the love with which You love Me may be in them.”  God wants us united in love with Him in heaven for all eternity!  How should we prepare to be united to Him?
I’ve been retired 10 years now.  It is a great blessing to have had these years.  I saw God’s purpose for me in most of those years --- caring for mom.  But what if there are another 10 or 20 years?  Unlike many who see retirement years as years for rest or travel or fun, I can now see retirement in a different light.
I worked many years so I could be free from financial worries in my retirement years, because now in those years I see I have a different work to do.  I must spend time preparing for the next big phase of my life, the eternal phase.  Now, I know that is something we should be preparing for all our life --- death can come suddenly, but in my retirement years I have time when I can really focus on that next phase.  These years are what I have been working for up to now.
So, how does one work in preparation for death?  First, let me say that all the usual things, like having a will, insurance, yadda-yadda, are NOT preparing for your death.  Those things are helping to prepare the lives of your heirs for when you have moved on.  No, the important preparation for death is realizing what eternity is:  a time of being totally with God.  So how do you prepare for that?
Well, being one with God sounds like something akin to marriage.  How do you prepare to marry someone?  Well, in short, you make sure you know that person, very well.  No difference here, only eternity is forever, a much longer time commitment than marriage, so it stands to reason that you need much more preparation. 
I’m now using my retirement years to better know God.  I read His word and study its meaning, often with the help of others.  I visit Him often in His house --- the number of hours we spend together now really aren’t much compared to eternity.  And we talk.  And I’d like to think I am getting to know Him better, and am in a kind of engagement phase where we spend a lot of time together, and focus on doing things for each other.  I try to focus on things He has told me please Him, like telling Him I love Him, and showing that I listened to and respected His words by loving my neighbors.  Loving my neighbor better is now a big focus of my life.
Those words I just wrote, really are easier written than done.  Love, unconditional love, is not an easy thing.  You grow into it.  You practice.  You come to learn loving, --- everyone.  And I’d like to think I’m making some progress, and that sometimes I perceive He tells me so.
It’s a good plan for retirement, to spend it learning how to love God.  And, I guess you know if you’ve learned it well if you sometimes find yourself yearning for that next phase to begin. 
Meanwhile, it’s definitely something worth working for, working to fit in heaven.  And it’s worth working for even before retirement.  It’s a big, and important, job.
. . . . . . . . . .
“Though this life is a mere blip amid the vastness of eternity, it has one major purpose for God:  to have us choose the fundamental identity that will follow us into eternity and determine the kind of eternity we will experience….  Assent to God requires a movement of the heart, a desire to open ourselves to a supreme Being beyond ourselves…. The necessity of a movement of the heart --- and act of the will, a leap of faith or belief --- is by God’s own design.  Recall the words of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov that God would not “enslave man with a miracle.”
                                  - The Light Shines on in The Darkness, by Robert Spitzer,
I just read those words this week, and I couldn’t have summarized my thoughts better:  God won’t force us to choose heaven; it is an act of our will to choose --- and to prepare to immerse ourselves into the full joy of our choice.  It’s worth working for our whole life, but certainly as a focus of our work in retirement.