Thursday, June 29, 2017

Live in Truth; Live in Love

Today is the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul in the Catholic Church.  Statues of the two great saints stand above either side of the entrance to the church I visited this morning, as if they were guardians of what was inside.  I believe they helped me understand what they were guarding a bit better this day.
A little book I read each morning contains the New Testament and Psalms, and I open its two bookmarks, sequentially reading a NT chapter and a psalm each morning.  Today I read:
“What sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God … (2Pt 3:11)
“So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters.  There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”  (2Pt 3:15-16)
“O house of Israel, bless the Lord!
O house of Aaron, bless the Lord!
O house of Levi, bless the Lord!
You that fear the Lord, bless the Lord!”  (Ps 135:19-20)
On his feast day of the two great saints, I “happened” to read words of St. Peter, where he praises Paul?  By chance, I read the only place in the Bible where he does so? And the Psalm I read happened to call for unity of teachers, even as Peter was talking of unity with Paul?  I don’t believe in coincidences regarding matters of faith. 
And I also read this morning the words of St. Paul:
“Then after fourteen years, I went up to Jerusalem … prompted by a revelation, and I laid out for their scrutiny the gospel as I present it to the Gentiles … all this in private conference with the leaders, to make sure the course I was pursuing, or had pursued, was not useless … They made me add nothing.”  (Gal 2:1-6)
St. Paul never spoke with the apostles for fourteen years and “coincidently” he was preaching the same gospel?  Again, I don’t believe in coincidence.
One of the other things I read this morning was from a sermon by St. Augustine, in about 400AD, talking about the importance of this feast day honoring the two saints.  This feast has obviously been celebrated since the beginnings of the Church.
And so, for me, what do I think God was telling me with my readings and these coincidences?  I am a man who seeks the facts, truth.  I question; I study; I pray, --- to understand.  Even as He did for St. Paul, God has opened my heart to understand many things which once I did not.  Yet even I have things which “are hard” to understand, yet I will accept them in faith, that perhaps one day I will be given understanding.
The Catholic Church has great emphasis on St. Peter.  The popes are said to have been handed his keys, in leading the Church.  Many Protestant churches have a great emphasis on St. Paul, whose words and letters are more often quoted in the Bible.  And all varying churches, Catholic and Protestant, place emphasis on these teachings or those, as they seek to live and evangelize the Christian message.  And even individuals take it in their heart to emphasize some portion of the message, and minimize some other, and often change churches to find one suiting their emphasis --- thinking they know the Gospel more than most, and seeking like-minded others.
This morning my heart was opened to see that all these people are right in seeking the truth, but that many of them are wrong in not living it.  Jesus said: “I am The Way and The Truth.”  Sadly, how often we think that we are.
This morning my heart was lead to see that none of that, the seekings and searchings to understand the truth, are as important as living it.  There was another thing which Jesus He is: He is Love.
In our culture, there is much proclaiming that: “I know the truth,” and others are wrong.  Congress people argue: “Here is the welfare program people need,” or “here is the insurance program they need.”  “I know the truth of the matter.”  And similar words are echoed in many Christian churches.
The truth is that what this country needs, what its people need, is love.  Love is not a truth; it is something you do.
I’ll spend time this afternoon working with a Protestant minister and his wife helping the poor, loving our neighbors.  I don’t need to understand the truths justifying their actions or mine, for in my heart I know what love is, what love does, and how that is the key message of the Gospel so often forgotten.  And as for those other matters of what is truth, I will trust in God and love my neighbors.  Saints Peter and Paul showed us how to do that together.
-          - - - - - - - - -
As I was writing these words, the lights in the chapel went out.  Later, driving home, the local traffic signals were dark.  Seeing that, I had an initial inclination to search the radio channels to find the truth on how widespread the outage was, but I didn’t.  I merely waited in line at the intersection, politely letting others go until I took my turn.  A darkness had entered the light of my fellow commuters, and by my politeness I was being a little light to them.
I think that’s what we are all called to be.
-          - - - - - - - -
But I saw more this morning.
As I had pulled out of the Church parking lot, I could not but notice the young woman speaking there with our pastor.  She had two young boys at her side, and an even younger one in her backpack.  And she was totally bald.  And I realized that Fr. Ed was, in his way, also being called upon to bring light this morning.
Some of us face a deeper darkness than others, but we can all get past our own concerns and be a light to those in need around us.

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.