Live Forever or Die in the Attempt

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Photo credit: Karen Jekel

Photo credit: Karen Jekel

Earlier this month I was having a discussion with my sister about my fear of heights. She had little sympathy for me because she’s done crazy stuff like sky dive and told me I ought to “live” a little and try it. I replied that jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft was counterintuitive to living a long life and that I intended to “live forever or die in the attempt”.

That quote, “live forever or die in the attempt”, has lain dormant in my subconscious for over thirty years and it somehow bubbled to the surface at just the right moment. As some of you may know, it is from the classic satirical novel, Catch 22, by Joseph Heller. It is one of my all-time favorites.

The line is the sentiment of the story’s main protagonist, Captain John Yossarian, a B-25 bombardier flying missions over Italy during World War II. His motivation to “live forever or die in the attempt” came from his obsessive fear that everyone was trying to kill him: the enemy, by trying to shoot him down, and his own superiors, by sending him on more and more missions. The quote itself is representative of the self-defeating logic, the conundrum called Catch 22 which permeates the story, or as Webster’s Dictionary defines it, “a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem”.

After I rebutted my sister with that quote the thought occurred to me that Mr. Heller probably had every intention of writing it the way he did, as a logic defying statement. But, I wondered if he knew that, to us Christians, it was perfectly logical and precisely on the mark?

In the New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, there is a verse that is nearly identical in all three gospels. The version from Matthew 16:25 (NAB) goes:

“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

As Christians, we often refer to this as, “Dying to Self”.

It means that we take up our Cross and we follow Christ who died so that we may live.

It means that we do it first through our baptism, when our old self dies and our new self takes life, and then we continue to die to ourselves every day for the rest of our lives as a process of sanctification.

We do this by following Jesus’ example of loving and caring for others before ourselves. A husband dies to himself by making the needs of his wife paramount to his own (Eph 5:25). A mother sacrifices for her children.

We give up many luxuries by tithing and giving back to the Church. We sacrifice our time and talents to seek out and offer charity to the poor and needy in our society.

We forgive others when it is the last thing in the world we want to do. We subordinate our pride and replace it with humility even when it would feel so good to do otherwise.

And, we let go of our will and accept God’s will in all that we do.

It is exactly this drive to “die in the attempt” which we believe will ensure that, once we die in this life, we will “live forever” in the next.

Do you plan to live forever or die in the attempt?

“Lord Jesus, I pray for your help as I try to follow your example and do Your will. Please help me remember to: place the needs of my family, friends and neighbors ahead of my own; increase my generosity; forgive when it is difficult to do so; and, for both friends and enemies, to always ‘wish them well’. Amen.”

(The post Live Forever or Die in the Attempt was first published in Reflections of a Lay Catholic)

Opening the Door between Heaven and Earth

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I have spent most of the last six days decompressing from one of the most emotionally rewarding experiences of my life, and processing it so I can put it down on paper and relate it to you. Last Wednesday through Saturday I participated in our church’s bi-annual high school youth group Appalachian mission trip where we worked with Hand In Hand Ministries in Auxier, Kentucky.

During those four days I witnessed immense love and compassion for our fellow human beings. It wasn’t just one-way from our group to those whom we went to help. No, it also came from them to us, between the individuals within our own group, and between our group and other groups who were also there to volunteer. Having never been on a mission trip before, I will say my expectation was more along the lines of us giving “alms” to those in need with the exception that we would be giving of our talent and not just our treasure. How wrong I was! The kids and the Hand In Hand staff showed me that the love in true Christian charity, like C.S. Lewis describes in Mere Christianity, is more than just alms and more than an emotion. It is a demonstration of love for another, “A state not of the feelings but of the will.”

I am grateful to God for the experience. And I feel fortunate because the trip almost didn’t happen.

Two weeks before the group planned to depart, Mike, the group leader and parish Religious Director, experienced a personal injury that prevented him from going. As such, the entire trip was in jeopardy unless someone could be found to take his place. Since my daughter, Grace, was going, I was asked if I would go in Mike’s place. After praying about it, I agreed to go. I was excited about volunteering and participating in a new experience, about helping others, and working with our youth to provide them with a valuable life experience.

That optimism came to a screeching halt the next morning when Mike advised that two of the other adult chaperones, a married couple, had let him know they could not go. With only two chaperones left, Kelsea and I, the trip was once again in jeopardy. I saw two options: find two more people, a man and a woman, or cancel the trip. As I spoke to others about our seeming misfortune I heard warnings from them such as: “Well, there’s your sign!”, “You’re not meant to go on this trip”, and, “The good Lord’s sending you a message to not go”. As I listened to them, I began to believe they just might be right.

The next day I had an opportunity to spend an hour in prayer at Adoration. I prayed for help in discerning what to do – scuttle our plans or try to find two other chaperones to join us. As I prayed I became convinced that the setbacks were simply Satan throwing up obstacles testing our resolve to do God’s work. Deciding to move forward, I asked a friend to help me find two more people who were both qualified and willing to go. Fortunately, within a couple days we found two such people, Clay, a good friend of mine, and Becky, a veteran of several similar mission trips.

We met at the church for mass on Wednesday morning. The four of us sat with our five charges: Grace, Kathryn, Seth, Hannah and Tayla, and we received a blessing from our priest. The normal gospel reading for the day was replaced by the Judgment of the Nations passage from Matthew 25: 31-46 (NAB):

“(35) For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, (36) naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me….(40) And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

The deacon’s homily referred to Mother Theresa’s work with the poorest of the poor in Calcutta and was a fitting inspiration for us.

After mass, the kids hugged parents and we loaded up into two cars and set off on our four hour drive to Auxier. Along the way we stopped for lunch and took a goofy group picture, and detoured to Natural Bridge State Park for a hike up to its unique rock formation. Both were opportunities to have some fun and begin bonding as a group.

We arrived at the Hand In Hand Ministries Auxier Center on time and were greeted by their friendly staff: Gail, Kevin, and Andrew, and by three summer interns: Aniela, Freddie and Jeremy. We learned we would be sharing our volunteering experience with a dozen or so other adults and youths from the Louisville area and as far away as Arkansas. Gail explained to us the Center’s mission, and introduced us to the projects on which we would work over the next three days. She gave us some background on the people we would be helping. As Gail described the hardships faced by their clients, I began to see the wheels turning in the minds of our kids. They were trying to discern which cause they felt most passionate about and how they could help improve the lives of these people they had never met. Our group split between two projects and we were joined on them by some of the other volunteers.

 The whole group

The whole crew at Hand In Hand Auxier Center

Thursday morning found some of the kids being rousted from bed earlier than they had risen all summer, and we mustered for breakfast, packed lunches, said prayers, and loaded trucks with the tools and supplies we would need for the day. As we loaded up to drive to the clients’ homes, I could see the excitement in the kids’ eyes.

I joined Clay, Kelsea, Tayla, Seth, and others at a home where we would be removing walls and ceilings in a house and reinforcing deteriorated rafters for eventual roof replacement. Becky went with Grace, Kathryn and Hannah, and five others to a house to repair a porch and build a wheelchair ramp to the house. The third home, which we would not go to until Saturday, needed new exterior doors installed as the existing ones would not close. This old house, we learned, had, in the last couple weeks, just received its first electricity and water.

I don’t think anything could have prepared our kids for what they would find as they walked into each of these homes. The obvious poverty and poor living conditions were undeniably foreign to anything they had ever experienced. And, I was almost there with them. We had the opportunity to talk face-to-face with the home owners and learned they wanted nothing more than to have safe and healthy homes for their families. In those first few minutes after arriving, I began to sense a transformation taking place within all of us.

In observing the kids, and looking inward myself, I was reminded of the lyrics from a Jason Gray song, With Every Act Of Love1, wherein he sings of a man who can’t be bothered by a woman’s “heart-cry” written on a cardboard sign she is holding:

“….But when she looks him in the eye / His heart is broken open wide / And he feels the hand of God reach out through him / As heaven touches earth // Oh, we bring the Kingdom come / Oh, with every act of love / Jesus, help us carry You / Alive in us Your light shines through.”

There’s no doubt our hearts were broken open wide during those first few moments. And, over the course of the next two and a half days, I saw and felt the hand of God reach out through me and the other volunteers, bringing heaven to earth, and His Kingdom come with every act of love.

I saw high-schoolers who probably haven’t cleaned their rooms in months jump in and move the homeowner’s personal belongings out of the house so that demolition could begin and do it with care and respect. These same kids, who more than likely complain about washing dishes or mowing the yard, donned Tyvek suits, dust masks, and safety glasses, grabbed crow bars and commenced busting out ceiling drywall with enthusiasm.

 Seiler, Kelsea, & TaylaSuited up for demolition work

I saw compassion by volunteers who took the time to visit with and get to know the homeowners, and who honored the homeowner’s desire to participate in the renovation of their own residence.

Kids took pride in their work, from cutting a straight line in drywall to hammering tacks perfectly straight and spaced to fasten anti-slip treads on a wheelchair ramp.

There were some kids who were less outgoing than others but were invited into the extra-curricular activities in the evenings by the other kids. It was like there was some unwritten and unspoken morality which everyone knew and honored by ensuring nobody was left out.

I saw kids with more skill and experience watching out for those with less ability and helping them to learn and perform. Never did I see anyone suggest that “this is my job and that is yours”. I witnessed volunteers relieving sweaty and dirty workers so they could grab a bottle of water and cool off without the work stopping. I saw eager teamwork in action by people who had only known each other for a few hours.

Grace w circ saw

Learning to use a circular saw

I saw kids cleaning up their messes, shoveling sheetrock and sweeping up dust before they left at night because it was the right thing to do.

Even in the midst of living conditions to which most people would turn up their noses, our kids were always positive and encouraging, always trying to build up instead of belittling. They made me proud to be associated with them.

We went to the Thursday evening Front Porch Pickin’ at the US23 Music Highway Museum to listen and dance to some of the best Bluegrass music to be found. While there, I saw kids honor the dance requests of the elderly locals who come to this event every Thursday night to clog and two-step the night away and have fun, kids from the different volunteer groups ask each other to dance, and I saw the experienced college-student interns request the pleasure of a dance from the wallflowers in the group to ensure that nobody was left out. Even I danced!

Clogging at FPP2Grace and Andrew dancing at FPP2

Clogging and two-stepping at Front Porch Pickin’

I saw pure love in action when a young woman donated her personal spending money to purchase an electric table lamp and present it in person to the couple who had just had electricity installed in their house.

I saw “kids” from 14 to 74, most of whom were strangers when we arrived on Wednesday, engage in work and play like they were life-long family. By the time the week was over, “family” was the best way to describe us.

I saw humility that would make Jesus proud when we went around the room on Saturday morning reflecting on the highs and lows of the week. I witnessed strong men break down and cry and younger kids comfortably and perfectly articulate their emotions in front of a large group.

And, I heard our kids discussing and dreaming about returning next year and possibly being summer interns themselves.

By mid-day Saturday, when it was time to leave, nobody wanted to go. But, after tearful hugs and long goodbyes, we packed up and headed home. I know many lasting friendships were made during those four days, and each of us left transformed, fulfilled, and richer than when we arrived.

Goodbye 1

Final goodbyes

On the way home I reflected on how we almost cancelled the trip and how our group of nine almost missed these life changing experiences. I couldn’t help but think that in spite of Satan’s attempt to thwart our desire to do as Jesus would have us do, we won this game. Walking Hand In Hand with God, we shut out the Devil nine to nothing.

As I was writing this I was listening to the song, With Every Act Of Love, again. Between the second verse and the refrain there is a bridge that sums up the main take-away for me from this trip. It goes:

“God put a million, million doors in this world for His love to walk through / One of those doors is you.”

I hope this experience helped all of us see ourselves as beautifully painted and architecturally perfect portals through which the hand of God can bring heaven to earth.

(Note: Out of respect for Hand In Hand’s clients at whose homes we worked, I chose not to include any photographs of the worksites.)

1With Every Act Of Love, words and music by Jason Gray and Jason Ingram, © 2013 Centricity Music Publishing, Nothing Is Wasted Music (ASCAP) / Sony-ATV Timber Publishing, Open Hands Music (SESAC).

(The post, Opening the Door between Heaven and Earth, was first published in Reflections of a Lay Catholic)

My Time Is Not God’s Time

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It was one year ago today that I began a 2,600 mile, four day solo drive from Cincinnati, Ohio to Seattle, Washington during which I posted daily how God had shown Himself to me in one form or another. Last Saturday I set out again for another long drive for this year’s summer vacation. This trip was a 1,286 mile drive to Ingram, Texas, which is a little over an hour northwest of San Antonio, for a family reunion.

Unlike last year’s trek, I was joined this time by my daughter, Grace. My wife had gone on ahead by flying to Louisiana and then driving to Texas with another daughter. I always look forward to road trips and one of the things I was most looking forward to on this trip was being captive for twenty hours in the same space as Grace. I’m sure, at age 17, she wasn’t quite as enamored with the idea as I was. She will be leaving for college in a few short weeks and this would probably be our last chance to spend any real quality time together.

The level of conversation in the car often depends upon who has control of the stereo. Wanting to make this a pleasurable trip for both of us I relinquished control even though I was driving. This meant I had to listen to a few hours of Bruno Mars, John Mayer and Josh Groban. Pretending to like most of the songs was a small price to pay for this bonding opportunity.

Our plan upon leaving home on Saturday morning was to drive as far as Dallas via Louisville, Nashville, Memphis, and Little Rock. But, before we even arrived in Nashville, I could tell from watching my car’s GPS that our ETA in Dallas was steadily getting later and later because of the delays due to highway construction and heavy rains. By the time we were leaving Nashville I decided to make a hotel reservation in Mt. Pleasant, Texas, about two hours east of Dallas. My GPS said we could arrive at 11:30 p.m. I had already lost two hours during a six hour trip.

We came to another full stop on I-40 east of Jackson, Tennessee for more construction. We crawled along for about ten minutes when we came upon an accident. A Jeep Wrangler had collided with the rear end of a semi-trailer, and a PT Cruiser was bent in half leaning against a highway sign at the bottom of the embankment off the shoulder of the road. The driver of the Jeep was still in his vehicle and a young woman was sitting on the edge of the shoulder in front of the semi tractor. I saw one other person standing around talking on his cell phone.

Car 1

Car 2

Grace was driving so I asked her to pull over. I retrieved my first aid and blood borne pathogens kit from my car (I had just received Medic First Aid/BBP refresher training the Tuesday before and thought it would be a good idea to carry a kit on this trip) and donned the latex gloves. I walked to the girl sitting on the ground and asked about her condition. She was holding a towel to her chin in an effort to stem the bleeding from a cut she had received when her PT Cruiser had rolled down the embankment. She said she had movement of her limbs, head and torso and, other than the cut, was just shaken up. Telling her I would be back in a moment I went to see about the man in the Jeep.

On my way to check on the driver of the Jeep I met the other man who had stopped. He said he had activated EMS but otherwise didn’t know what to do. I then discovered another man who had stopped but who also didn’t know any first aid procedures. I went to the Jeep and found the young man coherent. He also said he could move his torso, neck and head but that he thought he had a broken leg because he was trapped in the vehicle. Upon inspection, he was indeed trapped and would have to be cut out of the vehicle.

As I was talking to the young man another man stopped and came up to me and asked if I was a medical professional. I replied I was not and he said he was a nurse. I asked him to take over here and I would go back to the driver of the other car.

When I walked back to the young woman, another woman walked up and said she was a nurse and, after relaying what I could tell of the injuries, I asked her to take over with this patient. I asked the young woman what had happened. She said she was stopped behind the semi and she saw that the vehicle behind her didn’t appear as if it was going to stop so she tried to move over onto the shoulder.   The Jeep slammed into the rear of her car and forced her down the embankment and caused her car to roll over. The Jeep then slammed into the rear of the semi-trailer.

It was obvious that her defensive driving tactic of looking in her rear view mirror had saved her life. Had she not made an attempt to move to the right onto the shoulder the Jeep would have pushed her car under the trailer and she could have easily been crushed and decapitated.

As she related the incident she began to cry. With medical professionals on-site and the EMS on its way, I decided there wasn’t much else for me to do. But, then I thought there might be one more thing I could do. I asked the young woman what her name was and she said it was Julia. I said to Julia that I didn’t know if she was a religious person but I would be happy to pray with her if she would like. She looked me in the eye and said, “Please do!”

As I knelt, I took her hand and I prayed for God to hold her close to Him, to heal her wounds, both physical and emotional, as well as those of the other driver, and l gave thanks for saving her from injuries worse than she actually received. When I finished praying she had stopped crying, smiled and thanked me. As I walked back to my car I heard the sirens of the emergency vehicles approaching.

Grace and I resumed our trip. We stopped in Jackson, Tennessee for reconciliation and mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. We got stuck in more severe weather and more construction delays. She conceded and we listened to some ‘70s music from Jimmy Buffet, Jerry Jeff Walker and Marshall Tucker Band. We arrived at our hotel at 2:30 a.m., three hours later than expected. What should have been a 13.5 hour drive turned into 18.5 hours.

As my head hit the pillow I remembered my prayers. I thanked God for delivering us safely but I wished we had not had so many delays. I prayed for the two injured young people from earlier in the day and I gave thanks for the opportunity to spend quality time with Grace. And then, the God-moment came to me. I believe now that the delays we had both prior to and after coming upon that accident were two-fold and were meant to be. Even though I may not have been able to do anything to help with their injuries, maybe, just maybe, I was able to be of help spiritually to Julia. Perhaps it was God’s plan for me to be there at that moment in time not to attend to injuries of the body but to strengthen a spirit. And, perhaps God knew that Grace and I needed an extra five hours of togetherness.

“Heavenly Father, I give you thanks for allowing me to be an instrument of your love and to spread your love through charity to others. Thank you for the opportunities you give me to build loving relationships with my family and friends and new acquaintances. Amen.”

(The post My Time Is Not God’s Time was first published in Reflections of a Lay Catholic)

The Rotten Tree

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This week finds me on the road for business again, specifically in Nashville, Tennessee, for two days and nights. After a long day of meetings I chose not to join my co-workers this evening at the restaurant where we usually go because I didn’t want to overindulge on their generous portions and delicious food. I am trying to minimize the opportunities for temptation to seize me. So, instead, I decided to make a trip to Kroger and purchase a healthier and more appropriately sized meal.

On the way to Kroger I happened to pass by the Holy Rosary Catholic Church. This in itself was sort of a serendipitous event because, for a city the size of Nashville, there really aren’t very many Catholic churches. The sign out front announced there was a Wednesday evening mass at 6:00 p.m., which was only 20 minutes away. My first thought was how attending mass would be a wonderful way to de-stress and refresh from a day of learning we would have to do more with already stretched resources. My second thought was how once again, through a “God-moment”, He shows up just when I need Him.

I parked, found my way to the front door, and entered the church. I was the first one in the church other than the lector, who was practicing his reading, so I knelt and got some good prayer time in. When mass started I was one of nine people in the congregation.

The first reading came from 2 Kings but, between my hard-hearing and the lector’s soft voice, I failed to grasp most of the reading. Then, the pastor of Holy Rosary, Rev. Mark Hunt, delivered the gospel for the day, loudly and clearly such that I could hear each word:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire. So by the fruits you will know them.” – Matthew 7:15-20

Well, I don’t know about you but it always takes some dedicated effort on my part, or stooping to ask someone else, to get straight in my mind what Jesus meant in some of his parables. Just after I had resigned myself to stew on this later this evening, Fr. Mark delivered his homily with a message that helped explain it for me. I feel obligated to share with you the salient part of his homily in the best rendition I can muster:

“One day a man invited his boss to his home for dinner with him and his family. The boss was the type who had worked hard for his position but held himself in very high esteem and often let his employees know just how highly he regarded himself. After a fine dinner with the man, his wife and his son, during which the boss repeatedly expounded on his many accomplishments, the boss became aware of the boy staring at him. Not used to receiving this kind of treatment, the boss asked, ‘Excuse me lad, why are you staring at me?’ The son answered, ‘My dad says you are a self-made man.’ The boss, puffing up his chest, responded, ‘Yes, I am, but what is it about my success that is causing you to stare?’ ‘Well’, the son answered again, ‘I was just wondering why you made yourself such a jerk!’”

Thank you, Fr. Mark, for the lesson on the importance of humility, for explaining the difference between the good and bad trees, and the fruit that both bear. And, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you knew the boss I had back in ’95 and ’96!

“Heavenly Father, please forgive me for those times I have been a ‘rotten tree’ and have surely put on airs to impress myself and others. I beseech You to grace me with humility and a desire to serve others that allows me to be a ‘good tree’ from which may be harvested ‘good fruit’. Amen.”

  

(The post, The Rotten Tree, was first published in Reflections of a Lay Catholic)

Beginning Again

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“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” – Romans 8:26

Photo credit: U Turn for Christ

Photo credit: U Turn for Christ

As I sit down to write I know it has been a while since my last post – a full six weeks. It feels good to be back and even better to have the craziness of the last month and a half behind me.

As much as I like to write there are many other priorities in my life, whether I like it or not, that are either more important or more urgent than sharing my thoughts with you. On the up-side, over this six week period I have attended my daughter’s high school graduation, prepared for and hosted a graduation party, had the pleasure of family from out of town stay with us for several days, and hosted a party for some dear friends who are relocating out of state. On the down-side, I’ve fought the Ohio spring weather in trying to complete the spring clean-up of my property, and made many more business trips out of town than I normally do.

About a week and a half ago, after most of these things were behind me and the pressure was off, I “woke up” one morning on my way to the office and realized I had not prayed or had my daily conversations with Jesus in too many days. Then, I looked back and I realized those days had grown into weeks.

I spent the rest of the drive to work contemplating what had happened. I realized I had simply been caught up in the urgencies of so many things pulling me in different directions that I had let Him fall off my radar screen. Once I got past the sense of shame I felt a little bit of consolation in that I still had faithfully attended mass every Sunday (even though it was at four different churches), and spent an hour with the Lord during Adoration every Friday evening. As I parked my car I thought, “I’ll take some time later this morning and pray”.

Later that morning didn’t happen. I didn’t think again about praying until the next morning as I began my drive into work. Again, I decided I had let too many other things get in the way of my daily prayer. But, this particular morning, after deciding I needed to spend some time in prayer, I thought, “Where do I start? How do I come back?” And, then, before I answered those questions for myself, I was parking my car again.

Another 24 hours passed and I resumed the conversation with myself the next morning. But, the only answer I came up with was, “I don’t know where to start”. Frustrated, I vowed to think about it later, and I opted to listen to some music the rest of the way in to work.

I had the new CD from Jason Gray, Love Will Have The Final Word, in the stereo so I turned it on. One song was just ending and the next song, Begin Again1, began playing. About two-thirds of the way into the song the following lines caught my attention:

“It’s never too late for a new start / If you give God the pieces of your broken heart / When you come to the end, you can begin again.”

“Begin Again”. That was the answer. With those words, I knew it didn’t matter where I started or how I began “coming back”, just that I do start and I do come back. God doesn’t care how I do it, just that I do it!

Shortly thereafter I pulled into my parking lot and went to my office. Being a half hour early to work, I had time to pray, to “Begin Again”. I just started praying like I was having a conversation with an old friend I hadn’t seen in, well, six weeks or so. It felt good. It felt welcoming. I felt His Grace come over me and I thanked Him for taking me back. And, before I said, “Amen”, I thanked Him again for coming to my rescue in the way I’ve come to expect – through some mysterious and unexpected sign such as a timely song lyric or other phenomenon which most people would call coincidence. I know otherwise.

Later that morning as I was basking in the comfort of His love I wondered about all the people who drift away from God. How many of them start the same way I did, slowly, surely, and freely letting the busy-ness of life get in the way of maintaining their relationship with Him? How many drift too far away before realizing it, convince themselves they are too far out to sea to turn back, or forget their faith is their life raft that will keep them afloat? Too many, I’m afraid, forget the first step to beginning again is to whisper His name.

“Dear God, I thank you for Your gift of faith, for a heart to love You and a mind to know You, and for the courage and will to come back to You when I have drifted away from You. Lord, hear my prayer for everyone who finds themselves alone, that they may accept Your gift of faith, hear Your voice or see Your signs that are calling them home to You. Let me be a disciple who leads the way. Amen”

1 Begin Again, words and music by Jason Gray and Jason Ingram. ©2014 Centricity Songs, Jason Gray Designee (BMI)/Sony ATV Timber Publishing, Open Hands Music (SESAC)

(The post, Beginning Again, was first published in Reflections of a Lay Catholic)

The Reward I Receive Now

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This morning I realized I was a full week behind with my reading from this Easter season’s Little White Book so I took some time before work to catch up. When I got to today’s reading for 16 May 2014, Friday of the Fourth Week of Easter, I couldn’t help but look upwards, smile and give thanks. Unbeknownst to me, today’s reading is based on John 6:55-56, the very passage about which I wrote and posted as The Bread of Life just last night. Believe me, folks, I had no idea I would be reading more about this today.

I think it is His way of reinforcing what He just taught me.

Because today’s entry from The Little White Book perfectly complements my reflections on receiving the Eucharist, I feel obligated to reprint the passage here.

(The following is reprinted from The Little White Book, Little Books of the Diocese of Saginaw, Inc., ®2013 Diocese of Saginaw)

“For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” (Jn 6:55-56)

This week Jesus leaves no room for hedging or metaphor. He speaks flat out, straight: “This is my flesh…This is my blood.”

He doesn’t say, “My body, my presence.” He says, “This is my flesh.” And he doesn’t just say those who “take in” his body. He says those who feed on his flesh and drink his blood.

It’s real, literal, graphic.

It seems like there are two ways of receiving Communion. One is as a child who tends to see Communion as almost a spiritual dessert.

Another way is to become part of Jesus and the way he lived. The moment of sharing Eucharist is meant to be a moment of conversion. When I receive the Lord, I’m consciously saying, “Yes, I want to live Jesus’ way. I want his way to be part of who I am.”

The Eucharist isn’t a reward I receive after I have put my life entirely in order. It is in itself a conversion experience, part of the ongoing change and reform that is involved in following the Lord.

It’s the reward I receive now.

(The post The Reward I Receive Now was first published in Reflections of a Lay Catholic)

The Bread of Life

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There is truly something special about a holy hour of Adoration! There are simply too many of my prayers answered and mysteries explained to me for the Holy Spirit not to be working during that precious hour of genuflection when it’s just me and Jesus. I’ve written about many instances where I have been graced with understanding during that weekly event, and I now have one more “God moment” to add to the list.

In my last post, Never Stop Learning, I recounted how I would pray for God to fill my heart with the Holy Spirit when I started to feel a little empty and I needed to be jazzed up. Then, through a serendipitous reading of Romans 5:5 during my holy hour of Adoration, I came to understand that the gift of God’s love had already been poured into my heart through the Holy Spirit at my baptism and that His love for me is constant and never-ending.

Also, through that discovery, I began to make sense of why I sometimes feel exhilarated in my spiritual life and why sometimes I feel less so. But, even though I know I can’t sustain the spiritual rush that goes along with “being in love with the ‘feeling’”, I still pondered how to find a more consistent, day-in/day-out feeling of “being in love with Jesus”. I needed to figure out how to level the bumps in the road.

So, last Friday afternoon during my holy hour, I prayed for understanding of how to maintain that closeness with Him from one day to the next. Then, as I often do to round out the hour after my prayers, I opened the bible to read.   That afternoon I chose to read the daily scripture instead of randomly picking a passage from the bible. The gospel for the day was John 6 : 55-58. I read it and, just like the week before when I read Romans 5 : 5, I had to immediately re-read it because I couldn’t believe what I had just read:

“(55)For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. (56)Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. (57)Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. (58)This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

Jesus the Bread of life

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” There it was – the answer for which I had prayed just two minutes before. My mind jumped back a year to the night I became Catholic and I remembered my baptism, my first Communion and Confirmation. I remembered how the best part was feeling the presence of Christ upon receiving His precious body and blood during first Communion. And, I knew that all I needed to do to level those bumps in the road was to be renewed in Him each week through taking of the Eucharist, and to remember that He is in me and I in him – that His love is constant and never ending.

I get it. And, I won’t forget it. This week, as I’ve approached those bumps in the road, I have had to stop several times, whisper His name, and remember that He is in me. Each time I have been graced with instant peace.

My next holy hour of Adoration is tomorrow afternoon. I can’t wait to discover what new insights I will receive through listening to His comforting words. If you haven’t experienced this grace that comes from spending an hour in His presence, I encourage you to give it a try.

Lord Jesus, Your presence, through receiving Your precious body and blood in the Eucharist, nourishes and sustains me daily and brings me everlasting life. May I always allow you to satisfy my spiritual appetite. You are the Bread of Life.

Amen

(The post The Bread of Life first appeared in Reflections of a Lay Catholic)

Never Stop Learning

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I have now been Catholic for a little over 13 months and I have finally realized and accepted that I will never stop learning about my faith and discovering what it means, to me, to be a Christian. There is just so much to wrap my mind around. It seems that every time I open and read passages from the bible, read my daily devotional by St. Augustine, meet and discuss my faith with my men’s group, or other such opportunities, I have a new revelation that is either a totally “Ah-ha” moment or, at least, clarifies something about which I have been unsure.

Most of the time I feel as if I’m the last Christian in the world to “get it”, but, then, I realize there are probably others out there who are in the same boat as me. And, so, I write about it to both help me better understand and with the hope that I might reach one of those folks and bring him, or her, a little closer to Christ.

A couple weeks ago I posted in Praying for Help that a recent epiphany was finally understanding that God is always there trying to help me if I will only let Him. In the instance I mentioned, where I grew into the habit of praying for God to help make me a better person, I realized that He has given me all the knowledge, skills and tools I need to become better in all the roles of my life if only I will do His will. So, now I simply pray, “Please, Lord, give me the prudence, courage and strength to do your will.”

Besides praying for God’s help, there is one other standard fixture in my daily prayers: “Please, Lord, fill my heart with Your Holy Spirit and Your love so that, as Your disciple, I may readily give it away to others.” When I think back to times when I was particularly “in the Spirit”, such as after a Christ Renews His Parish weekend, or after an especially gratifying Adoration hour, I believed I had been graced with the Holy Spirit during that particular instance. Thus, as my spirituality waned from time to time, I prayed to be “revisited” and “renewed”.

And so it was that during a recent Adoration hour I prayed my modified prayer for the wherewithal to do His will, and I prayed my regular prayer to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Then, after praying, I opened my bible to read from a random page. This time I opened it to Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 5, and began reading. When I got to verse 5, I stopped and re-read these words again:

Romans 5:5 – “and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

This was an “Ah-ha” déjà vu moment all over again. St. Paul was telling me that, just like praying for help, I don’t need to pray to be filled with His love and Holy Spirit, I already have it in me, it was a gift I received at my baptism.

But, I admit, I’ve had to think about and digest this a bit. If this is true, if I indeed have a continuous supply of high octane Spirit in my tank, why, then, do I feel I need to be refueled from time to time?

After days of contemplation, I decided the answer to that question was that the standard to which I had been comparing the amount of energy, or Spirit, I had in my tank was flawed. It was inflated. Those times when I felt farthest from Christ were not because my tank was getting close to empty, but rather that, in those moments when I felt closest to Him, my engine was turbo-charged and running like an Indy car.

Well, as much as I like the exhilaration that goes along with moments like that, I know it is not sustainable. As much as I would like to feel that rush every day, I know I can’t handle it. My life would be a wreck. I need days when I can only run at the speed limit. I accept, too, that there will be days when things beyond my control force me to slow down, and days when my engine conks.

I’ve been kicking this idea around in my head for a couple weeks, trying to be sure I had it right. In fact, everything written up to this paragraph has been written for many days. But, actually, I felt stuck.  In the back of my mind, it seemed there must be a reason why we Christians, or perhaps simply us humans, cannot sustain the continuous rush of an emotional or spiritual high, and I wasn’t sure why.

So, in the hopes of bringing closure, I brought it up two nights ago at my Men’s Bible Study meeting thinking that they might shed some light on the idea and get me beyond my impasse. And, they did, at least in a way that makes sense to me. My friend Carl told me that our mutual friend, Jim, once explained to him that folks who constantly seek that rush tend to be in love with the feeling. But, he said, we can only mature as Christians by understanding and accepting that it is Christ with whom we should fall in love instead of the experience. Only in this way can we build that personal relationship with Him.

And, believe it or not, while typing that last sentence, I had another déjà vu moment. Those words sounded familiar. I found them in my blog post Are You In the Garden or in the Desert? from back in February . With quotes from Fr. Robert Barron and Archbishop Fulton Sheen, I used that very thought to explain why we go through spiritually dry periods. I suppose at the time it didn’t occur to me it could be the anecdote for why our spiritual highs need to be limited, too.

Now, I will have to alter the second part of my standard prayer to go something like, “ Lord, please help me remember that Your love is constant, that your Spirit resides in me. Help me show my love for You by being Your disciple and spreading Your love to others.”

“Lord, help me to always seek to understand Your Word and to never stop learning how to do Your will”.

(The post Never Stop Learning first appeared in Reflections of a Lay Catholic)

Amen

Conquering Temptations

“Blessed is he who perseveres in temptation, for when he has been proven he will receive the crown of life that he promised to those who love him.  No one experiencing temptation should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God is not subject to temptation to evil, and he himself tempts no one.  Rather, each person is tempted when lured and enticed by his desire.  Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.”

James 1:12-15

At a recent men’s group, I was asked to pick the bible verse to discuss. Coincidently, at one of the daily masses that week, this passage from James was read. I imagine we all struggle with some kind of temptation in our lives. A few years ago, through prayer (both my wife’s and mine) and God’s grace, I broke free from one that was damaging our marriage.  Because of this and our commitment to live an Ephesians 5 relationship, our marriage is stronger today. However, that was only one of my many temptations.

I have struggled with my weight since I was a teenager. Going up and down in weight (mostly up), trying all the fad diets out there. In 1999-2000, I lost a bunch of weight through Weight Watchers. However, when we moved to Texas, I discovered how much I loved Texas BBQ and Mexican food. The weight quickly returned.

The other primary temptation I had succumbed to was a 30-year love affair with Diet Coke. I averaged 6-8 cans a day most days and bought them by the case full at every sales opportunity.   At just six cans a day, that works out to be 91 cases a year. That does not include the bottles I would buy out of the vending machine for my drive home from work every day. That is a lot of pop/soda for one guy.

On October 31, 2013, I turned 48. Not normally one to care about my age, this one bugged me. Probably because 48 is awfully close to 50 (with apologies to my aged friends and family who have passed the 50 mark). Consequently, I decided that I wanted to gain better control of myself. Not just for health reasons, but because I no longer wanted “things” to control me. Food controlled me. Diet Coke controlled me. I was determined that I would gain discipline over my desires. If I could do that, 50 would not seem so bad (again, apologies to you seasoned citizens).

On November 5, 2013 I committed to lose and maintain a 50-pound weight loss by the time I turned 50. I called it my 50×50 plan. Holidays seem like a crazy time to start a weight loss program but I did not want to wait. I got back on Weight Watchers and followed it strictly every day. Nothing I ate went unrecorded. As I write this, I have lost 49.4 pounds and should reach that 50-pound milestone this week or next. I have gone from a 42 waist to a comfortable 38. A 50R suit coat to a 46R coat. I have spent a bunch of money on new suits and clothes but it has been the best money I have ever spent. Weight Watchers says I should lose another 20 pounds and I am going to try to do so. Mostly, though, now that the weather is finally better, I am going to get outside and get some exercise. Physical laziness will be the next temptation I will conquer.

Now, what about that Diet Coke addiction? On the Friday after Thanksgiving, I drank my last Diet Coke. I had a week of headaches and then another week of fatigue as the caffeine got out of my system. I haven’t touched it since and I feel great. I now drink water and Crystal Light exclusively at home and work. I do miss it at times, but controlling the temptation is building up my “discipline muscles.”

“Blessed is he who perseveres in temptation, for when he has proven he will received the crown of life that he promised to those who love him.” All things are possible with God, even beating food and Diet Coke addictions.

What tempts you each day? What can you do to conquer those temptations?

 

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