I Choose Love

I was talking with a friend the other day and he was reciting an endless litany of all of the bad things going on in the world right now: terrorism, horrible refugee situations, the plunging stock market, eroding race relations, the selling of baby body parts, unstable international affairs, etc. He concluded, “Things just aren’t looking good.”

I had to disagree. Yes, there absolutely are a lot of horrible situations in the world right now – situations that we cannot ignore and that we are called to address. We must respect the dignity of human life in every way we possible and this includes helping those experiencing poverty and those without home or nation. We must be living witnesses of respect for people everywhere of all races, nationalities, and creeds, young and old, born and unborn. We must see the reflection of the God who made us in the face of each of our brothers and sisters. We must recognize that we are all one human family and do all we can to alleviate the suffering of our brothers and sisters.

Sometimes, however, we are far away and we don’t feel we have the power to change such situations. We can fall into hopelessness.  We can despair that “the world is falling apart.”

The problem is that hopelessness and despair deny the reality of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection.  Jesus said, “I have told you this so that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” John 16:33

Jesus offers Hope when everything around us seems to be falling apart. Jesus offers the warmth of his Love when the world seems barren and destitute.

In his August 16, 1967 speech, “Where Do We Go From Here,” the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of Love in elegant words of timeless import:

“And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. And I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces …to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love.”

Love is the way.

An ocean away, at nearly the same time in history, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina said, “Don’t spend your energies on things that generate worry, anxiety and anguish. Only one thing is necessary: Lift up your spirit and love God.” Likewise, St. Mary McKillop said, “Do what you can with the means at your disposal and leave all the rest calmly to God.”

Suffering in life is inevitable. There have always been and will always be atrocities and strife. How we react to these difficulties is our choice. We can turn away from our suffering brothers and sisters or we can live in love, encountering, respecting, and serving others compassionately. We can be crippled by fear and worry or we can lift up our hearts in prayer and trust that the God of Love hears us.

Myself?  I choose Hope. I choose Love.

“Set A Fire” – Will Regan & United Pursuit Band

God and the VIP Treatment

So I went to my local coffee shop to get a coffee this morning. I paid and my number was immediately called. The funny thing was, there was a line of ten people in front of me waiting for their coffee too. As I came from the back of the line and was handed my coffee, those still waiting looked at me as if wondering how I “cut the line” and got such VIP service.

I kind of wondered too, given that I don’t have a VIP coffee card.

I do know though, that every time I walk into this place, they look happy to see me. Even when I’m in a pre-caffeinated, bleary-eyed, unbrushed-hair kind of state. It’s kind of like Norm on “Cheers.” They are always so animated in their greetings as I enter.

I thought about this as I walked out clutching my warm cup. It brought to mind the word “mercy” – God’s mercy. A timely thought, I suppose, given that Pope Francis just declared the coming year to be a “Year of Mercy.”

It has taken me a long time to figure out what the word “mercy” means. For a long time, it was a kind of obtuse term that I just couldn’t wrap my head around. I could only understand it in the sense of a king pardoning a subject.

I remember actually researching what the word meant. I read that you can exchange the word “mercy” with “God’s love” and it means about the same thing. As I read this definition though, I thought, well then why don’t we just write “God’s love”? Why do we still have a word “mercy”? There’s got to be more to it.

I think there is more to it. I’m slowly starting to understand what mercy means but I think understanding comes from experience of it. Mercy has to do with God’s action towards us because of His love for us. With God, every single one of us receives VIP treatment – whether we are in fact a VIP or a person that the world would view as a most unimportant person. St. Augustine said, “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” We are all loved completely by God – all desired completely by Him. We are all VIP’s to God.

Mercy is like that excited greeting, that VIP treatment, that gets us to the front of the line for no reason.  We don’t need to have done everything exactly right, we don’t even need to have waited our turn. We can go to God as we are, a complete mess, and He’s just as excited to see us as if every hair were perfectly in place. When he sees us coming he is overjoyed to see us – he rushes to greet us at the end of the line. Pope Francis says, “God does not wait for us to go toward Him but it is He who moves toward us.”

Pope Francis also said, “God always thinks mercifully.” That’s because God operates out of love. We operate out of our own sense of what we think the order ought to be – but God’s ways are above our ways. We might be standing at the back of the line saying, “I have to wait my turn,” but God may pick us out and say “I choose you now.” It is we that need to open our minds to God and allow Him to work in the ways that He works – which always surpasses our own human sense of reason.

Pope Francis, who can talk endlessly about God’s love and mercy, also said,  “The Lord is always there waiting to give us His love; it is an amazing thing, one which never ceases to amaze me!…He is indeed waiting for you; He asks of you only the courage to go to Him.”

Go to Him.

Let Him give you the VIP treatment.

 

“God always forgives us.  He never tires of this.  It’s we who get tired of asking for forgiveness.  But He does not tire of pardoning us.” – Pope Francis

Impermeable Love and the Call to Relationship

Have you ever seen two young people who are in love? It sometimes appears that they are in their own little world. Absorbed in their love for each other, they seem unaware of what is happening around them. Their focus is solely on one another. They seem, in this state, to be floating through life.

God’s love for each one of us is like this. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “The soul is like an uninhabited world that comes to life only when God lays His head against us.”

God loves each one of us and focuses on each one of us as if there were only one of us in the world. By human standards of comprehension, this amount of love is completely incomprehensible – especially considering He loves everyone He has created, down through the ages, in this same way.

And, like young lovers in their own little worlds, God’s love is impermeable. Like this love, His love, makes us lighter, burdens fall away.

Unlike the love of young lovers though, His love never waivers. Neither floods, nor war, nor even death can take us from His love.

If we accept it, His love is the only constant – through life or death – for all eternity. When one accepts His love and surrenders in trust to God, His love is impermeable. His love encircles us and guards us.

But we must accept it. St. Augustine said, “Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst and ours.” It is a two-way relationship. God waits expectantly for us to accept Him and His love.

There really is no better offer – but we must trust Him – and accept the offer.

“God is indeed waiting for you; He asks of you only the courage to go to Him.” – Pope Francis

Jesus' love

New Year, New Beginnings

Everywhere I turn, I see articles about cleaning-out and organizing.  It’s “out with the old, in with the new,” as the old adage goes.

I recently read a great article by Joshua Becker, an author who promotes “minimalist living” by getting rid of all the “stuff” we don’t really need. In it, he said, “You don’t feel the weight of something you’ve been carrying until you feel the weight of its release.” What truth!

The same process of purging that he promotes for the home, can be effective for the mind and spirit too. How many things do we hold onto that clutter the mind and spirit? How often do we hold onto things spiritually that that hold us back and weigh us down? What would it feel like to live without all this “stuff” – to live freely and unencumbered?

I remember hearing a news story last year about a man in New York who, before Christmas, would open his answering machine to people to anonymously confess things that were bothering them. He said, “People sometimes really just need to get things off their chest and they feel good when they do.”  I remember thinking it somewhat odd that a fraction of what the Catholic Church has offered for centuries in the Sacrament of Reconciliation was being featured as a national news story.

Although most people don’t enjoy that “moment of truth” as they step into the confessional, the exit is always a great moment, marked by a complete freeing and unencumbering of the spirit. The beauty of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is that not only can one “get everything off ones’ chest” though, but one can also be assured that God has heard this confession and has given forgiveness. What a beautiful and profound offer!

Yet, even saints, who went to confession frequently, have sometimes forgotten just how much God offers us. Take, for example, St. Faustina. Having believed she had already offered everything to God though her vow of consecration to Christ, she asked in prayer what more she could offer. She was confounded by the response, “My daughter, you have not offered Me that which is really yours.” She continues,I probed deeply into myself and found that I love God with all the faculties of my soul and, unable to see what it was that I had not yet given to the Lord, I asked, ‘Jesus, tell me what it is, and I will give it to you at once with a generous heart.’ Jesus said to me with kindness, “Daughter, give Me your misery, because it is your exclusive property” (Diary, 1318).

God offers to take not only our sins, but even our misery. He offers to take everything that holds us back and pulls us down. It’s up to us to accept His offer though. “New Year’s” happens only once a year, but every day God offers us a life unencumbered by regrets. He constantly offers us new fullness of life, abundant in grace and blessings. It’s up to us to accept this gift though.

It’s up to us, like St. Faustina, to let go of misery and give it to God. We can place it in His hands or put it at the foot of the cross – either way, now’s the time to clean out. Go to confession. Give Him your sins. Give Him your misery. Give it to God…and let it go.

“Few souls understand what God would effect in them if they should give themselves entirely into His hands and allow his grace to act.” – St. Ignatius of Loyola

Commandments for the New Year

Discipline. Most New Year’s resolutions are all about discipline. We resolve to start working out, to start eating better, to get organized. We are determined to do better, be better.

New Year’s resolutions are widely considered to be good, socially-respected forms of self-determination.

Contrast the word “resolution” with the word “commandment,” however, and you will get a completely different reaction. Many, if not most, people bristle at the word “commandment.” Connotations of the word “commandment” include a lack of self-determination, a passive voice, and a “lording over” – unattractive connotations to most in modern society.  Many people today would probably even consider a “commandment” to be something “inflicted upon.”

Indeed, the Latin commandare in the imperative does mean “to command” and does involve an action on a passive subject. Yet, we often miss the finer connotations of the word “command” which also involves an “accountability for.” If you have ever known a military commander, you know that a commander is accountable for those he/she commands. And, not only is the commander accountable for his charges, but he also usually cares deeply for them. Talk to any veteran who has lost a comrade under his charge in war and you will understand the depth of this love, the depth of loss that he feels when he loses the one under his charge.

In the same manner as the loving commander, the Ten Commandments, are commanded by a God who loves His children deeply. If one views them from the perspective of a set of commands “imposed upon,” one might easily consider them to be an unattractive set of rules against which to rebel. Yet, if one considers them from the standpoint of love, the whole picture changes.

Consider any one of the commandments and take the alternative. Take for instance, “Thall shalt not steal.” Consider the possible consequences of stealing – one may go to prison and lose one’s freedom, cause great hardship to another, suffer great guilt, or cause strife. Or, take “Thall shalt not kill” – again, the consequences are hardship, pain, tumult, strife, loss of freedom, and retaliation that leads to strife – all negatives. Nothing good. In fact, the alternative to every single commandment contains hardship and suffering. If we choose not to follow any of these commandments, things become more difficult, less clear, and the end result, is pain.

Through the Ten Commandments, we are invited to freedom from messy and painful consequences. While the Commandments may challenge us and require great discipline, if we follow these rules, we can live in freedom. They liberate us from pain, guilt, hardship, and strife.

The Ten Commandments are an expression of love, expressed by a loving Father who does not want His children to suffer.  And, they are the active promise of relationship, a promise of belonging – “I am the Lord your God” – I am your God and you are mine. I, your God, will always love and protect you.

“You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.” Why? Because our loving Father hears our every word, if we call Him, He is there to help us. We should only call His name when we need His loving care. The Ten Commandments are the loving instructions of Our Father who loves us deeply.

It’s all in one’s perspective – and we are free to decide this perspective. We can consider the Ten Commandments a stifling list of prohibitions or we can embrace the gifts we are offered through them: the offer of love, of belonging, of justice, of peace, of harmony, of respect for human dignity, of protection from pain.

Myself? I will embrace the gifts. This New Year, I resolve to actively and freely trust that my God loves me more than I can fathom. I trust His commands to me because I belong to Him and want to live freely, unencumbered by the pain of the alternatives. And, I pray that He will give me the discipline and grace to keep His commands so that I can live in a state of love for Him and my neighbor. I trust His love and want to live in this love.

“What greater happiness is there than to live entirely in God, since He loves His own, He protects them, guides them, and leads them to eternity.” – Saint Padre Pio

Sun-baked thoughts of Mermaids and The Magdalen

As I sat by the shore, warm sand underfoot, cool waves misting before me, my mind started to wander to the blue horizon.  Perhaps it was a recent game of pirate-themed, mini-golf that led to thoughts of mermaids in the sea…mermaids with long and beautiful hair.  Thoughts of long and beautiful hair led to thoughts of Mary Magdalene – who’s feast day was celebrated last month.

The story of Mary Magdalene has always disturbed me a little.  I have always gotten hung-up on the fact that she dried Jesus’ feet with her hair.  It seems so impractical.  Why not take a nice, clean, linen cloth? Much more absorbent.  Why the hair?

So, as I sat on the beach, I resolved to sit with the story of Mary Magdalene and try to get beyond the hair.  I decided to employ the Ignatian practice of imagining myself in the Gospel scene so as to try to understand more about what it really is that we are to learn from this story.

I imagined myself there with the apostles who had just eaten dinner with Jesus.  They were wary of this woman who had come into the home. She was known, after all, as having been completely sinful (having seven sins – seven representing completeness in Judaic tradition).  They did not want Jesus’ name to be tarnished by any association with this sinful woman.

So, as she approached Jesus, the apostles tried to stop her.  Jesus, however, held them back and allowed her to approach.  How interesting it must have been to be with Jesus, and maybe a little frustrating for his disciples too – he was always breaking with tradition and doing the unexpected!

She was a beautiful woman with a shapely figure and long, dark locks of hair.  She approached Jesus and brought before him the two things that she may have put treasure in – her beautiful hair and her perfume. Overcome by emotion, her tears fell onto his feet.  She dried his feet with that very part of herself that may have brought her pride and may have also caused temptation. And he allowed her to bring those two things that may have caused her to sin, to his feet, and he allowed her to give them to him.

When she entered the home, he already knew everything about her.  He knew her struggles. He didn’t shy away. Instead, he allowed this woman, who had previously been forced to live on the periphery, this woman who dared to approach him, to touch his Holy feet.

When Judas berated her for “wasting” her expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, Jesus came to her defense.  Why?  Because he knew that her intention was pure.  Judas’ was not.  He wanted to steal the money from the sale of the perfume.  She wanted to give Jesus all that she had.  She was operating out of love, Judas was not.

So we see in Mary of Magdalene an offering of the whole self – the good, bad, and the ugly- a suspice offering.  The required precondition of this offering being that she overcome her own feelings of shame and abandon her pride and sinfulness and trust completely and confidently in Christ.

And Jesus loved her for this.  He did not judge – as did the disciples around him – who were still learning. He accepted her offering and offered her His love and a new life without stigma in return. A life without fear.  A life of peace.

The story of Mary Magdalene is a story of love and of relationship.  Mary’s is a brave love – a love brave enough to approach Christ himself, painfully aware of her own sinful state. And, hers is a confident love – a love confident in the redeeming love of her savior.

And, it is a story of a God who desires to live in relationship with each individual person – not a nebulous relationship – but a real, life-giving relationship.  Ours is an approachable God who cares to receive our offerings of self and reciprocates with a love greater than we could imagine. A God who offers a redeeming love that restores dignity to the brokenness of each individual person.  A God who offers a beautiful relationship that makes those who enter into it, like Mary Magdalene, become – healthy, strong, and truly free. And, it is a love that brings unspeakable joy and peace.

Pope Francis speaks eloquently to this relationship in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, “No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness that never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and start anew (Evangelii Gaudium 3).”

The story of Mary Magdalene does not end here though.  At the resurrection, it was not the apostles, but Mary Magdalene who first saw the Risen Christ. It was she, who was entrusted with the duty of going out and telling the apostles that Christ had risen. Healed by Jesus – brought to wholeness – and perhaps chosen because she had known great brokenness herself, it was this woman, that Christ first chose to spread the good news to broken humankind.

Pope Francis reminds us that when we accept the gift of Christ’s transforming love, we too will be called to go out and share this love. “Every authentic experience of truth and goodness seeks by its very nature to grow within us, and any person who has experienced a profound liberation becomes more sensitive to the needs of others.  As it expands, goodness takes root and develops.  If we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good (Evangelii Gaudium 9).”

Through the person of Mary Magdalene, we are invited to relationship with Christ. And through her example, we are called to announce the Good News to every periphery, to approach those liminal situations and to draw upon our healed-woundedness to connect with the Mary Magdalene’s of today. We are called to connect with those in situations that make us uncomfortable –  to let go of fear and to approach in love. We are called to extend that hand, to offer the ear, the touch, the love, that heals.

(Click hyperlink below to listen)

https://www.google.com/#q=youtube+beautiful+beautiful+francesca+battistelli

“Beautiful, Beautiful” – Francesca Battistelli

“They will know you by your love”

The other day, I was driving to work when I came upon an accident. One car had rear-ended another car. It’s a common occurrence in our region – too many cars, too little space, too many distractions. What was unique about this accident though was the response of the police officer at the scene. He gently touched the arm of the woman who had rear-ended the other car and asked, “Are you okay?” His eyes were full of compassion for this woman. It was an unusually gentle and caring and response.

It reminded me of the parable of the rich young man in the Gospel. The young man tells Jesus that he has followed all of his commandments and wants to know what else he has to do to get into heaven. Jesus, being able to see into his heart, knows the man’s fatal flaw – his attachment to money. So what does Jesus do? Before instructing him about the action he needs to take (go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor), Jesus “looked steadily at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21, JB). Or, in another translation, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (NAB).

There is so much to be learned from this one line.

Instead of looking at him and judging him or berating him, Jesus looked at the man and loved him. He didn’t glance down his glasses at him with a disapproving look.  He didn’t wag his finger at him.  He just “looked steadily at him and loved him.”

How beautiful is this? God knows everything about us – whether we tell Him or not. He knows the secrets we hold in the depths of our hearts and he loves us steadily – despite all of our flaws.

Every person has flaws, imperfections. He knew it, we know it. But in this one passage he shows us how to react to the flaws of our brothers and sisters. Love them. Be compassionate with them. Let go of snap judgments. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, says “When we stand before Christ crucified, we see the depth of his love which exalts and sustains us, but at the same time, unless we are blind, we begin to realize that Jesus’ gaze, burning with love, expands to embrace all people. We realize once more that he wants to make use of us to draw closer to his beloved people. He takes us from the midst of his people and send us out to his people… How good it is for us to contemplate the closeness he shows to everyone! If he speaks to someone he looks into their eyes with deep love and concern… (268-269).

I was in a meeting recently where the topic of discussion was “evangelization.” There were many heady and academic responses to the question of how one can introduce others to Jesus. The most profound response, however, came from an Afghan refugee who had converted to Christianity from Islam – the price for this conversion being a sentence of death. He rose from his seat and said, “The answer is simple. They will know you by your love.”

Yes, the answer is simple.  Let them know us by our love.