Chips and Salsa

What are we looking for?

A young priest recently told part of his vocation story at an event I attended. It got me thinking about how we encounter Christ in our normal, everyday activities. Many times, though, we fail to recognize him in these encounters.

In relating his vocation story, the priest recalled a time when he was a young adult, headed to a party. He realized that he needed to bring some food to the party, so he ducked into a store for chips and salsa.tortilla-chips-salsa

An older African-American man was stocking shelves at the store. He asked the young man, “What are you looking for?”

“Chips and salsa,” the young man replied.

“No, what are you looking for?” the older man asked again.

The young man had been working at a well-paying job that he liked, he was driving a nice car, he had friends he enjoyed spending time with (hence, the chips and salsa). In short, he was a young professional with his share of what the world had to offer. Nevertheless, he felt there was something missing in his life.

In that moment at the store, he realized that it wasn’t just a grocery store clerk asking him about snacks. Rather, it was the Holy Spirit asking about his life. The young man began reflecting on his life in a deeper way, pondering what it was in his life that was missing. That encounter was the start of a friendship with the older man and a process that culminated in the young man becoming a priest.

Recognizing God in our lives requires sharpened senses to detect his presence. And, yes, that takes some practice. On a physical level, it means paying less attention to the noise and distractions of the world. On a spiritual level, it means frequent prayer and reception of the sacraments to sharpen our senses.

At a recent novena, the preacher summed up the way we encounter God in six words: “God comes disguised as our lives.” Essentially, God is with us in the everyday routine of our lives, not just the spectacular life events. It’s our job to see beyond the disguise.

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New Normal

“Fitting in” with the culture isn’t typical of Christianity. Persecution is.

Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you. ” Matthew 5:11-12

That quote from the Sermon on the Mount takes on new meaning in light of recent Supreme Court decisions. Some Catholics in the United States are feeling under siege, which is understandable given that, in the past 60 years, a Catholic rose to the presidency and Catholic Christians have been accepted at all levels of U.S. society.Supreme Court

Even a cursory look at history, however, shows that the past half century in the U.S. was an exception in the 2,000-year history of Christianity. In that history, persecution is the rule.

Beginning with the Romans, governments in places as diverse as Japan, Mexico, Poland, Vietnam, Russia, Uganda, Turkey, and China have sought to suppress the Church, often violently.

So have individual rulers. Nero was probably the most infamous Roman emperor to persecute Christians. In much more recent times, leaders such as Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin carried out threats against the Church.

Even in the United States, anti-Catholic bigotry, sometimes enabled by state governments, was practiced well into the 20th century. Today we think of the Ku Klux Klan as an organization mainly motivated by race, but Catholics have been a target of the KKK throughout much of its history. When my parents lived in Tennessee in the 1950s, anti-Catholic bigotry was still common.

Persecution, then, has been a constant in the history of the Catholic Church, as Jesus predicted. One difference today is that it’s more insidious, taking the form of a gradual erosion of religious freedom rather than outright violence or aggression against people of faith.

However, we are beginning to see Christian beliefs marginalized and Christians effectively silenced when they express those beliefs.

In this atmosphere, how does a Catholic respond?

  • Pray and learn the faith. Prayer needs to be the basis for all we do, because, frankly, without it, we can’t accomplish anything. Fortified with prayer, we can learn and understand what the Church teaches. If we don’t learn why the Church teaches what it does, it’s hard to explain it to anyone else. Overwhelmed with what the Church teaches, and not sure where to begin? Start with a specific teaching, but don’t stop there. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, now accessible online, provides a single, comprehensive source for Church teachings.
  • Boldly speak the truth with love. Once you know why the Church teaches what it teaches, you can proclaim that teaching. That doesn’t mean being obnoxious. Rather, watch for opportunities. If someone asks for your opinion, give it to them. If someone, especially a Catholic, expresses an opinion contrary to Church teaching, let them know what you believe and why.
  • Be consistent in your denunciation of immorality. Singling out one type of sin for condemnation is a recipe for disaster. Remember that we’re all sinners, and we’re all in need of redemption.
  • Treat individuals with respect and love. As Christians, we are called to love others, regardless of whether we agree with them. We are all children of God and deserve to be treated with the dignity and respect that status accords.
  • Pray for those with whom you disagree the most. During the unrest in Ferguson last year, I found myself regularly getting angry at people I disagreed with. When I shared my feelings with a priest I know, he suggested that I pray for them. I tried it, and not only did it dissipate the anger, it provides me and the people I’m praying for opportunities for grace.
  • Keep it in perspective. Our home is not here. We are pilgrims on a journey. Whatever difficulties we face in this life will be rewarded in the next.

Yes, Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount are as pertinent today as when he spoke them. Persecution is part of our Christian identity. But we trust that our sufferings in this life are preparing us for joys in the next.

Done

In the work Jesus brought to completion on the Cross, our work begins

Recently, my pastor, who spent much of his priesthood in rural parishes, described a moment of accomplishment and anticipation: when a farmer, after plowing and planting, looks out over the field and says, “Done,” as he watches the crop grow.

That word “done” has the same root in ancient Greek, “Tetelestai, ” as the final word of Jesus, commonly translated, “It is finished.” Although Tetelestai is often interpreted as an accounting term meaning “paid in full” – meaning that Jesus wiped out the debt of our sins – it can also mean, “I’ve completed exactly what I set out to do.Crucifixion

Like the farmer who worked hard plowing and planting, Jesus spent three years preaching and teaching, preparing his disciples to take up his work when he returned to the Father.

The Crucifixion brought all of that work to fruition and was the ultimate lesson to his disciples. They, too, must be prepared to hand over everything, including their lives, in spreading the Good News.

And so must we.

There’s great comfort in the gospel of Jesus: that we have a God who loves each of us so much that He was willing to sacrifice himself so that we might have life eternal. But that comfort comes at a cost: persecution, suffering, and our own cross to carry. Being a Christian doesn’t shield us from those things in this life. Instead, it reorients our perception so that we recognize that this life is only transitory, and that the next life is what’s really important.

Like the pearl of great price or the treasure buried in the field. eternal life is so fundamental to who we are that we must be prepared to sacrifice all.

Our job as Christians is to recognize that our life on this earth is fleeting, but to live it in such a way as to be worthy of our heavenly home in the next life. One way to remind ourselves of the shortness of our own lives is to focus on the passion of Jesus, either meditating on it in our prayer or during Mass. In order to live our call, we need to pray frequently and take advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation when we stumble.

Sometimes we don’t have to be reminded of the sufferings of Jesus. Sometimes we have our own sufferings, our own crosses to carry. In those moments, we can lift up our sufferings and work through them in solidarity with Jesus.

Another part of our call is to be witnesses, to attract as many friends and neighbors as we can to this way of life. Attracting others means genuinely and humbly living a Christian life in a way that makes others want what we have.

Peter says in his first letter, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” (1 Peter 3:15) That’s our call, as well.

Demonstrating genuine hope among a population that has grown increasingly cynical. Enduring redemptive suffering in a culture that is often focused on immediate self-gratification. Detachment from the things of this world when materialism and conspicuous consumption are the norm. These are countercultural signs. They’re not easy, but they’re what we’re called to as Christians.

Share your joy with others, patiently accept suffering when it comes, never give up hope, and you will continue to carry out the work that Jesus brought to fruition on the cross.

Every Given Friday

How are you commemorating the end of the week?

On the Friday after Easter, did you eat a steak, ribs, or a cheeseburger? If so, you’re not alone. Many Catholics celebrated the end of Lenten abstinence from meat on Friday by eating meat.steak2

Most Catholics are aware of the practice of abstaining from meat on Friday. It’s one of the more public Lenten practices. It’s given rise to phenomena such as meatless recipes in diocesan newspapers and the popularity of Friday parish fish fries that, in some cities, have become part of the popular culture.

Abstaining from meat on Friday is a small sacrifice, a denial of our desires, a penitential practice that should put us a little more in touch with the ultimate sacrifice that Christ made for us. This practice should remind us of our sinfulness, as well as our need for conversion and salvation.

Unlike other Lenten practices, which, ideally, call us to ongoing conversion and positive changes in our lives that will persist long after Lent is over, Friday abstinence has a definite end point: Good Friday.

That’s all well and good, but did you know that, as Catholics, we are called to a penitential practice every Friday of the year?

If you didn’t know that, you’re not alone.

First, a little background. Abstaining from meat on Friday was a penitential observance that Catholics had practiced for centuries. As the United States bishops’ conference put it in a 1966 pastoral statement, Christ died for us on Friday, so “Catholic peoples from time immemorial have set apart Friday for special penitential observance by which they gladly suffer with Christ that they may one day be glorified with Him.”

Changing social and dietary customs, as well as the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, led the U.S. bishops to ease obligatory Friday abstinence in 1966. The bishops recognized that meat, which had once been a luxury, was now a common part of the diet.

While the bishops relaxed the abstinence regulations for Friday’s outside of Lent, the intent was never to eliminate penitential practices on Friday. Rather, the motivation was to “give the spirit of penance greater vitality” by expanding the options beyond abstinence.

Here’s how the bishops’ statement presents it:

Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified…we urge all to…mak[e] of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, somewhere in the aftermath of Vatican II, this message got lost in translation. Be honest. When was the last time (if ever) you heard that every Friday should be a day of penance?

So if you’re really interested in improving your spiritual life (or, as the bishops put it in a phrase I really like, “seeking perfection”), consider building a penitential practice into your Friday routine.

What to do? The bishops’ initial suggestion is the most obvious, in a “back to the future” sort of way: continue to abstain from meat on Friday as a free choice rather than an obligation. Abstinence demonstrates our solidarity with generations of believers who engaged in this practice, as well as an outward sign of our inward spiritual values.

Not interested in substituting spinach for steak as a year-round penitential practice? The bishops offer several other alternatives:

It would bring great glory to God and good to souls if Fridays found our people doing volunteer work in hospitals, visiting the sick, serving the needs of the aged and the lonely, instructing the young in the Faith, participating as Christians in community affairs, and meeting our obligations to our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our community, including our parishes, with a special zeal born of the desire to add the merit of penance to the other virtues exercised in good works born of living faith.

That’s quite a list to choose from, but the bishops don’t stop there. They also recommend self-control in the use of stimulants and temperance in the use of alcohol. Abstaining from alcohol on Friday? Now, that would be sacrifice, not to mention a counter-cultural witness.

So, what are you doing this Friday?

Prevented by the Holy Spirit

Where’s your Macedonia?

[Paul and his companions] traveled through the Phrygian and Galatian territory because they had been prevented by the Holy Spirit from preaching the message in the province of Asia. When they came to Mysia, they tried to go on into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them… During the night Paul had a vision. A Macedonian stood before him and implored him with these words, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Acts 16:6-9 Call_to_Macedonia

This curious passage from the Acts of the Apostles demonstrates a little-discussed aspect of the spiritual life: before showing us what to do, sometimes God shows us what not to do.

First, a little context. On this second missionary journey (Acts 15:36–18:22), Paul builds on the success of his first journey, visiting the Christian communities that he had established earlier in central Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) and seeking to start new communities. In the passage above, Paul, along with companions that included Timothy and Silas, attempts to go further north into Asia Minor. Instead, they are redirected to Macedonia, which would be the first place the seed of Christianity is planted on European soil.

We’re not told exactly how the Holy Spirit prevented them from preaching in the province of Asia or going into Bithynia. Was it natural (a landslide, a flood, a missed connection)? Was it supernatural (a dream, a revelation, a physical presence that kept them from proceeding)? We don’t know. What we do know is that, whatever form the prompting of the Spirit took, these disciples got the message and heeded it. Sometime later, Paul received a vision inviting them to Macedonia to evangelize in Europe.

This episode has some lessons for us, as well.

First, are we doing what God has called us to do? Have we been faithful to God’s call? Have we prayerfully discerned the path that we are on? Certainly, we’ll stumble and fall along the way, but, in general, we living a life that’s pleasing to God and that models God’s love for us?

Second, are we in a position to recognize, hear, and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit? There’s a lot of noise in the world today, and that noise keeps us from hearing the Spirit. Daily prayer, time set aside each day for silence, and frequent reception of the sacraments position us to perceive and understand the call of the Spirit.

Finally, when we hear the call of the Spirit, do we obey? Hearing the call of the Spirit is one thing; obeying is another. Procrastination, willful resistance, unwillingness to change can all keep us from doing what God is calling us to do. We need to ask for the grace to act on our call. Alternatively, we need to ask for the grace to be patient when our call involves waiting or flexibility when our call moves us in a different direction.

This is a much different approach from what the world teaches. Conventional business wisdom, for example, would suggest that when a boulder is in our path, we should climb over, squeeze around, dig under, or blow up the boulder so that we can continue on the path. Instead, this passage from Acts suggests that sometimes a boulder in our path is God’s way of saying we’re on the wrong path. In those instances, we should turn around and let God lead us to another path.

None of this is easy. We have to be quiet and prayerful enough to hear the call of the Holy Spirit. We have to be selfless enough to recognize that God’s in charge. No matter how much we were counting on going down this path, God has a different, and presumably better, path for us. We have to trust that God will lead us on the right path. And we need to pray for the courage and strength to take that path.

If Paul and his companions hadn’t heard and obeyed the promptings of the Holy Spirit, they never would have brought the Good News to Europe. As we contemplate the words of Paul’s vision, “Come to Macedonia and help us,” we need to ask ourselves, “Where’s my Macedonia?”

As sparks through stubble

Let’s live the best live we can, realizing it’s only temporary

sparks

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
and their passing away was thought an affliction
and their going forth from us, utter destruction.
But they are in peace.
For if to others, indeed, they seem punished,
yet is their hope full of immortality;
Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed,
because God tried them
and found them worthy of himself.
As gold in the furnace, he proved them,
and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.
In the time of their judgment they shall shine
and dart about as sparks through stubble;
They shall judge nations and rule over peoples,
and the LORD shall be their King forever.
Those who trust in him shall understand truth,
and the faithful shall abide with him in love:
Because grace and mercy are with his holy ones,
and his care is with the elect.
Wisdom 3:1-9

I had the opportunity recently to celebrate the life of a dear friend, a consecrated religious who passed away at the age of 92 after serving 72 years in the Marianist religious order. I was honored to proclaim that reading from Wisdom at his funeral Mass.

This reading beautifully summarizes the vast difference between the way the world views mortality and the way that God views it. The world views death as an affliction that results in utter destruction. For God, death is a gateway to a new life of love, peace, grace, and mercy.

As I was preparing to proclaim the reading, a phrase jumped out at me: “as sparks through stubble.” Rather than the conventional view of the dead as rotting, decaying corpses, the author of Wisdom sees those who have gone before us as full of life and power, darting about, judging nations, ruling over peoples.

This view also challenges the popular perception of our current life as the be-all and end-all, and that the end of this life is to be dreaded, feared, and put off as long as possible.

This perception was reinforced by a recent scientific discovery that would significantly extend human lifespans, perhaps indefinitely. Around the time of my friend’s funeral, I was following an online conversation about this discovery. Most of the commenters on this thread didn’t think much of the discovery. Some Christians, in particular, reaffirmed their belief that this life is only temporary, leading to something better. Why prolong our time here? That led one gadfly to comment that it seemed as if the Christians, in professing this view, were rejecting the beauty of God’s creation here on Earth.

It’s an interesting point. In my case, I love my family, my friends, and the wonderful world that God has provided for us. But I have no delusion that these things are permanent. We’re all pilgrims on a journey, traveling to an eternal home that God has prepared for us.

That gives me great comfort, particularly as I think about my friends, family members, and teachers who have died in the past year.

At the same time, it gives me great hope that God has a place prepared for those of us still here.

But do my everyday actions reflect this hope? If I’m on a journey, how do I live my life? Do I travel lightly, live simply, and not sweat the small stuff, knowing that it’s not permanent? This reading from Wisdom reminds me that I’m called to live as a pilgrim, not as a permanent resident, in this life.

Let us pray for the grace to recognize our lives on this earth as transitory and to live our lives accordingly. Let’s also continue to pray for our beloved dead and ask their prayers for those of us still on the journey.

There’s still time

Lent’s not over yet!

As we transition from Lent into the celebrations of the Triduum on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, let’s take a few minutes to reflect on our Lenten commitments. How did we do?

Lent is a time for turning back to God. Did we use our practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to grow in our faith and draw closer to the Lord? Did we sometimes slip up in our commitments? Did we abandon them in the first week?

No matter how much we’ve stumbled, we’re in good company. The daily readings for Holy Week focus our attention on Peter and Judas. Peter denied Jesus. Judas betrayed Jesus. So what’s the difference between these two? In their crimes, not so much. The difference is in their response. Peter repented and received forgiveness. Judas despaired and died in his sin.

What’s our response when we sin or don’t live up to our commitments? Do we try to ignore it and muddle through, even though we know deep down that we’ve done wrong? Or do we own up to what we’ve done (or failed to do) and seek forgiveness?

Jesus offers forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and there’s still time to take advantage of this before Lent’s over. Most parishes offer additional opportunities for confession on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Consider going to confession as a way to finish Lent strong and begin the Easter season even stronger.