Thursday, January 30, 2014

Five Things that keep us from Following Jesus and Five Ways to Get Past Them

This is a talk I gave to a group of retreatants a few weeks back.
----------------------------------------------------------------

Christ does not offer us cheap grace. He gives us something that is worth sacrifice, but we live in a world that pulls at us and attempts to convince us otherwise.

But what is it that really attracts people to the faith? Tertullian, back in the third century, said that the blood of martyrs is seed for the Church. All over the world, people become Christians because of heroic Christian witness.

In the western world, this is not so much the case. We often forget why Christ’s offer to us differs from the promises of our material culture. Our culture promises temporary ease and comfort. Jesus doesn’t offer us that, but he does offer us an eternity in everlasting glory.

So how is it that we turn our backs on eternity and seek what is here and now? What keeps us from following the way, the truth, and the life?

The Obstructions

Attachment

What things in our life seem to own us? Attachments are those tendencies we have to cling to worldly things. It is not that these things are not good but that they are often put before God or at very least held in such a way as they prevent us from moving more toward God.

An attachment is like an anchor to the material world, so that instead of using the things of this world to elevate us and grow closer to God, the things here bind us and hold us down. Attachments are frequently related to our needs: food, love, material possessions.

Attachment can very easily slip into idolatry, where a material good is placed above the ultimate good, God.
In one way or another, all of the obstructions are attachments of one kind or another.

You probably remember this passage from Matthew 19:21–24:

And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?”17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”18 He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness,19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”20 The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?”21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.
23  And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.24        Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

What does this passage tell us? Do you think Jesus was condemning wealth, or do you think he knew where this young man’s priorities were and what attachments he possessed?

Attachments seem to be ever present in the mind. So I might think about the things that I want to own, currently possess, or used to possess.  I might also have an attachment to things I like to consume. They are those material goods with which we are obsessed.

Distractions

I’m using the term distraction here in distinction or perhaps a specialized type of attachment that is sporadic and interruptive rather than constant.

Distractions are those preoccupations we have with events and activities more than things in and of themselves. A cell phone can be an attachment if we have to own the latest and greatest because of what it is. It is a distraction when it seems to be a leash on us, interrupting us when our attention needs to be elsewhere—when it’s normally inappropriate to be distracted.

Self-centeredness, mindless entertainment, and preoccupations with other people’s affairs can all be distractions. They are things external to us as opposed to those things intrinsic or part of our nature. Whereas attachments are usually related to needs in some fashion, distractions aren’t. That’s what distinguishes the two.

However, the distraction horizon has shrunk in the last 10 years. It used to be considered obviously rude if you were to constantly answer your phone when in a conversation with someone else. A sign of respect for a visitor in business was when you would forward your phone calls while you spoke. But now people routinely check their text messages or Facebook status when they’re out with friends at dinner. We’re getting to be a culture where it is acceptable, even normative, to be distracted.

From what are we distracted? From each other. From hearing God’s voice. From any outside voice that may be trying to reach us.

Have you ever tried to study for an exam or write a paper when a friend is texting you? How far do you get?
How about when you’re watching a movie or reading a great book? How much do you enjoy the movie or book?

Yet we allow constant incursions into our lives because of this little device right here (smart phone). 

Luke 12:13-21: 
One of the multitude said to him, "Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me."[14] But he said to him, "Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?"[15] And he said to them, "Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."[16] And he told them a parable, saying, "The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully;[17] and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?'[18] And he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods.[19] And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.'[20] But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'[21] So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."
We allow ourselves to get distracted by everything going on around us and forget the most important things: our relationships with family and friends, for sure, but also our relationship with God. It’s hard to hear the still, quiet voice of the Lord when your Sir Mix-a-lot ringtone keeps going off.

Wrong Relationship

Wrong relationship is any relationship that hinders us on our way to heaven.
  • A relationship in which we place someone other than God first is a wrong relationship.
  • A relationship in which the other (excepting God) insists on being our first priority is a wrong relationship.
  • A relationship in which we are not treated with the dignity of a child of God is wrong.
    • This means any relationship where we demean ourselves or are demeaned by another.
  • A relationship that does not leave us free to make our own choices is wrong.

Here’s the thing: God should always be paramount, but He never excludes care for others, which in many times has obligations tied to it. Prioritizing Him first does not exclude others from our care, but wrong relationships often try to be exclusive, whether they attempt to diminish your concern for God’s law or diminish your access to other people or God Himself.

We can’t always get out of wrong relationships because they might, at least for a while, be obligatory. For example, a parent-child relationship is obligatory for a time—certainly when you’re the parent of a child. 
However, when we put God first, He helps us to fulfill our obligations in our other relationships.

Luke 9:62: 
To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 But he said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
This sounds rather harsh. Our how about Luke 14:26: "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple."

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. Jesus loved hyperbole. But his hyperbole always makes a point. You have to put God first. He maintains you in existence, for Pete’s sake! No other relationship is possible without God, so He must come first.

Sin

This one is obvious in some ways. Sin is, after all, an offense against God and mortal sin a deliberate turning away from God. But how do we get to this point?

Sin typically starts when we attempt to use something good in an improper way: when we indulge in a good that we should either use in moderation or should use only under particular circumstances. For example, alcohol is not evil. 

  • Wine and beer are good things, when used in moderation. When we use them to excess and intentionally get drunk, then we sin. 
  • Sex is in itself a good. When we use it outside of its intended purpose as a means of unity for spouses and procreation, it is sinful. 
  • Wealth is not sinful. Hoarding wealth, envying someone else’s wealth, or seeking wealth above all other goods is sinful.
Sin by its very nature turns us away from God: venial sins in small ways and mortal sins in a complete severing act.

It’s easy to slip into sin because our culture grooms us for it and tells us to do what we want. Many things the Church considers sinful is often considered normal behavior these days—even when everyone can see the harm that results.

I’m the right person to tell you this because it happened to me very slowly in my teen years. It started by small sins that wore away at my resolve, then worked up to more serious sins that were clear violations. And then I moved from trying to hide my sins to claiming they weren’t sins.

What is the next logical step? If you deny the law, then why do you need a lawgiver?

If you talk to most young adults who claim not to believe in God or in what the Church teaches, it is commonly because they are engaging in what the Church teaches as sin—and they know it. For me, I knew what I was doing was wrong. I could reject the Church, but I couldn’t get rid of the self-loathing that naturally accompanies sin.

Fear

It’s easy to see why sin separates us from God, but how does fear keep us away? Well, usually it’s because we don’t often know where God will take us, and we even see in scripture that we’re supposed to rejoice when we suffer persecution or deprivation.

If our culture tells us that life is only worth living if you are having fun, living the good life, and far from any physical or emotional pain, doesn’t the message of the Beatitudes sound a bit nutty?

  • Let someone take my cloak but also give them my shirt?
  • Turn the other cheek when someone strikes me? 
  • Leap for joy when someone curses me because I’m Christian?
Yeah, it sounds a bit nutty, but what it really comes down to is not being ruled by fears of deprivation. Typically that is what we fear, that our needs won’t be met, but God promises that we will get everything we need, and we can see that some of the most joyous people are those who get what they need and no more.

The Remedies

So there’s a whole lot that stands in the way of our following Jesus, and most of it is stuff that has been put there by our culture. Peer pressure doesn’t help, nor does it help that modern Christianity seems to edge closer to indifferentism all the time. Catholics are supposed to be countercultural but also evangelical, which requires engagement of culture. So you have to build yourself up properly to do it. Here are five ways that you can strengthen yourself so that you can follow Jesus.

Prayer with Silent Meditation

If you want to live a holy life and discern God’s will for it, you need to have a stable prayer life. By stable I mean that you need to engage in prayer habitually. It has to be as common to your life as your workout routine, setting the alarm clock, brushing your teeth. It needs to be intentional and regular.

Think of it as making time to check in with God daily.

When you’re married, you don’t forget to talk to your spouse several times a day. Well, while marriage is vitally important, it is not as fundamental as your relationship with the God who holds you in being. If your marriage will not survive you checking in less than once a day, then your relationship with God may not either.

Prayer is not just the empty recitation of rote verse or repetition of pious formulas. Prayer is a conversation with God. We have rote prayer to aid us in that conversation, but they do not have to be the totality of that conversation. We also have forms of prayer that are meant to join us to Christians all over the world. The Mass is such a prayer (and the highest form). Liturgy of the Hours is such a prayer. Popular devotions like the Rosary are such prayers. However, we can and should also pray extemporaneously—off the cuff, spur of the moment, natural speech.

A simple prepare that is very powerful is to offer your day to God every morning. There’s a story about an exorcist who, while trying to rid a person of possession, found himself having a conversation with Satan, and so he asked him some questions. He asked what daily failings Satan most enjoyed, and Satan responded that he was pleased when people forgot to offer their days to the Lord because then the day belonged to him.
There’s a popular story about St. Theresa of Avila, who was once traveling in a cart, which tipped and unceremoniously dumped her in a ditch. Her comment at the time was, “If this is how your treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”

That, my friends, was a prayer—a prayer of frustration, but a prayer nonetheless. You do have to look beyond the words to the emotion. But it was actually rather common. She was asking, “Why?”

Do you pray that prayer very often? Keep praying it. It will draw you closer to Jesus.

Jesus gave us a great model of prayer in the Our Father from Matthew:

  1. Praise
  2. Thanksgiving
  3. Confession of sin
  4. Petition
  5. Intercession
Not every prayer has to include every one of these, but it’s good to have these elements.

Now, that’s our side, but we can’t just wrap it up after that and go on with our day, or we’re cutting God out of the conversation. We also have to spend time listening to Him. We do that by sitting silently in meditation so that we can hear Him speaking to us.

Remember when Elijah was fleeing from King Ahab in 1 Kings 19:10? He goes to Mount Horeb to hide and wait until the Lord comes to Him. God eventually does and asks why He is there. Here’s that passage.
And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
Elijah has to wait and listen for the still, small voice. How can he do that if he is distracted by text messaging, Facebook, or someone’s filet mignon on Pinterest?

We have to make time not only to make requests to God but also to listen and wait for his guidance.

Spiritual Detachment

All people of the first world need to learn about detachment. We are taught to be wrapped up in our possessions. Perhaps this goes especially for people in the U.S., but I’ve seen it just as much in Europe and other countries. If we want to grow closer to God, we have to prefer Him to all other goods. That doesn’t mean that we have to reject all other goods, but we need to be able to set them aside.

So think of your most precious possession. Now think of whether you can let it go. It’s not easy!

That’s why it takes practice. Start by loosening your grip on those items that don’t have a strong emotional claim on you: food, a few dollars from your pocket. Next, make an attempt to give away things you like but don’t use regularly. Then start giving away things you actually do use.

Here’s an idea I heard about recently. Turn all of your clothes hangers so that they hook on the opposite side of the bar. As you use items, turn the hangers around. At the end of the year (maybe Boxing Day, although I could never understand why pugilism and charity were somehow related), take everything you haven’t touched in a year and give it away.

Think of your ownership as stewardship. If you truly have need of something, then keep it, but if it’s something to which you’re simply attached that someone else can use, give it to someone who can use it.
I tend to hold on to things for sentimental reasons. I periodically have to go through and purge these items. Is it wrong to hang on to these things? Not necessarily, but it can often be of spiritual benefit to let them go.
A great way to practice spiritual detachment is to develop the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, courage, and temperance.

Reading Scripture and Devotional Writings

If you do not read scripture regularly, you should. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI once said that ignorance of scripture is ignorance of God. You need to become familiar with scripture to the point that the contexts of scriptural quotes are mostly familiar. For example, if someone mentions the transfiguration, you need to know the story—not necessarily the chapter and verse but the story. Know where in scripture basic events occur.
Remember that scripture is the primary norm of our faith—norm normans non normata. That means the norm that norms all others. While Sacred Tradition is foundational, it can never contradict scripture, nor can the Magisterium. We measure the doctrines of the faith against what is revealed in scripture, even though the understanding of those doctrines often isn’t explicit in scripture.

If you’re new to reading the bible, try a “scripture of the day” email message, and follow up by reading the scripture in context. You might also start reading one chapter daily. I don’t recommend that you start with Genesis, since you might get mired down in the book of Numbers, which is every bit as exciting as the name suggests. I suggest you begin with the gospels, and then go back to Genesis once you’ve had a chance to bathe in the good news.

Get involved with a parish bible study. They are easy to join and easy to sponsor. The Great Bible Adventure series has bible studies running all over our diocese. Pick a parish and check it out.
Also, look to the spiritual giants who have gone before us for inspiration. Read what they wrote and seek to imitate them. For starters, I’ll suggest

  • St. Therese of the Child Jesus—The Story of a Soul
  • St. Thomas Merton—Seven Story Mountain
  • St. Augustine—The Confessions

If you haven’t checked out Magnificat magazine, it’s both a great daily missal and prayer tool and an excellent source for spiritual reflections. Your parishes will likely have subscription programs for it or similar periodicals.

You can also read books about martyrs or saints such as St. Francis of Assisi or St. Edmund Campion. Fr. James Martin has a great book, My Life with the Saints, that describes how numerous saints impacted his life and relationship with Christ. Another eye-opener is Saints Behaving Badly by Thomas Craughwell. Why do I recommend it? Because it reveals how anyone can become a saint. That, after all, is our goal—to be a saint.

Some saints such as St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross might be better saved until you’re advanced in your spiritual maturity. I had to come to the humbling realization that I was not ready for them.

Holy Relationship

We should involve ourselves in relationships that help us to grow closer to God, and where we help others to know God. This is really our mission and vocation in life to get to heaven and help others do the same.
When you get married, your new job will be to get your spouse to heaven. When you have children, you have a special responsibility to educate your children so that they will seek heaven. They have to finish that calling themselves, but you have that special responsibility to show them how to live in such a way as to get there. If you have a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, your scope becomes a bit wider.

So if these are the aims of our vocations, doesn’t it make sense that essentially every relationship in some way should direct you and others to Jesus?

So flip around what I said about wrong relationship, and you’ll get a picture of what holy relationship should do:

  • Put God first
  • Treat others with the dignity of a child of God
  • Give others the freedom to do what is right
  • Practice the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love!

Spiritual Direction and Confession

Take advantage of sacramental confession frequently, and find a spiritual director who can help you discern your vocation and help you to grow in the Christian life.

Confession gives you the opportunity to be honest about your limitations and to seek the grace of forgiveness, which also strengthens you in virtue. A nightly examination of conscience will help you to remember those failings daily so you will have something to discuss in the confessional.

You can sometimes get spiritual direction in the confessional, but it’s really not designed for extended direction. For that, you need to find a spiritual director: someone with whom you can meet for longer meetings who can guide you in the spiritual life. You can often have a spiritual director who is also your confessor, although they are really two separate things.

All of us need assistance on the way, and you can do no better than to find a good spiritual director and a good confessor. They can help you to be honest with yourself and to find those areas where you fool yourself. We all do, and it helps to have a loving heart help us to recognize it.

When I was in my second year of diaconal formation, I had a humbling experience. I mentioned to one of my mentors, the wife of a deacon whom I respect tremendously, that I had been praying for humility.
She said, “What on EARTH are you thinking? If you pray for it, you better well expect that God will give it to you.”

She was absolutely right, and really she didn’t mean to say I should strive for humility—just that my timing wouldn’t be very good for a timely ordination. However, humility is one of the characteristics of all saints.
Remember that true humility is not in groveling and denying our natural abilities and gifts but in seeing ourselves as we truly are, especially in relation to our Lord and each other.

Thank you and God bless.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Baptism of the Lord—Cycle A

Isaiah 42:1–4, 6–7; Acts 10:34–38; Matthew 3:13–17

Last week, we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. The scriptural context of our celebration was the visit of the Magi to the house of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph some time after Jesus was born. But the feast itself represents something greater: the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. The shepherds who visited the Christ child on Christmas day represented the am ha-arez—the people of the land. These were the unschooled Jews of the time, possibly considered unrighteous by the teachers, scribes, and religious authorities.

The two feasts together represent the revelation of Christ to those who are traditionally outsiders to the righteous Jews. Today’s celebration is the baptism of the Lord—the revelation of Jesus to everyone. Suddenly, we’ve jumped from year one AD to year 30 to year 32 depending on the account you follow. What’s going on here? Why this broad jump over Jesus’ formative years? Perhaps it wasn’t eventful. Perhaps it simply wasn’t part of the revelation that we needed. St. John the Evangelist says at the end of his gospel that there aren’t enough books to capture everything Jesus told them. But let’s also understand that when we talk about scripture and revelation, what is revealed by the text is more than just the literal words on the page. Revelation contains a particular message for us. It’s not simply a historical account, although it may contain historical events. There is more to the text than the text itself.

We can see that the Old Testament and the New Testament affirm and support each other. St. Augustine said once that in the Old Testament, the new is latent—subsumed or hidden—and that in the New Testament, the Old is patent, which means that it is evident or clear. So the two testaments refer to each other, and this is fitting because the author is the Word Himself and all scripture ultimately points to Him. 

Today’s reading from Isaiah foreshadows Christ’s arrival and what results from it:
Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased. Upon him I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations.
So first God claims this chosen one, and then He speaks directly to him:
I formed you, and set you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, To open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.
This last passage reminds me of a work that may have been commonly known among educated Hellenist Jews during Jesus’ time, a work that many of you in high school and beyond have studied: Plato’s parable of the Cave. In Plato’s work, people live in a cave and see only shadows of reality on the cave walls. They have to be dragged out of the cave to see the light, and then many of them simply can’t believe that what they’re seeing.

And that, also, is the challenge of the gospel. The good news is put in front of our noses and we have a hard time seeing it or accepting it. Isaiah is very explicit about what Christ’s coming will mean for all of humanity… that we’ll be led out of darkness and our blindness healed. But the people of the time had a hard time seeing it—particularly the Jews, who were waiting for a completely different kind of savior. So in both Matthew’s and John’s gospel, we see Jesus being claimed by God as His Son. It’s as if God were stopping us midsentence and saying, “Wait, I just want you to get this one point”:
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
We modern people have to be hit over the head with evidence. The truth is right before our eyes, and God gave us hints throughout the Old Testament scripture to reaffirm the truth.
  • In Genesis 1, the breath of God moves across the water to sanctify it, and God’s Word—His Son—brings about all creation from it. (The early Church Fathers taught that Christ's also resulted in the sanctification of the earth's water for our baptism.)
  • Later in Genesis, Noah and his family pass through the deluge and into a world that is cleansed of evil.
  • In Exodus, Moses is placed in the Nile in a miniature ark made of reeds, and he eventually leads the People of Israel out of slavery across the Red Sea*
  • In Deuteronomy, Joshua leads the people across the Jordan to the promised land
In the first event, all creation begins with the sanctification of the water and separation from it. In each of the subsequent events, crossing the water signifies a rebirth, a new creation. Those were our Old Testament reminders that God was on the job all along, and those baptismal events in the Old Testament point forward to Jesus, just as everything in scripture ultimately points to Jesus. His baptism is a sign to us: a sign of His obedience, but also a sign to signal the way—a sign that simply says, “Follow me.”

Baptism is one of the three sacraments of initiation. It begins our life in Christ and joins us to his body, the Church. It cleanses us of sin: both original and personal. And most of all, it makes us adopted sons and daughters of God. We do it because Christ did it before us. In baptism, we follow him so that we can fulfill all righteousness, through God’s grace.

It’s fitting for baptism to be God’s instrument for our sanctification. He has given us these signs in scripture, for certain, but He also planted a reminder of redemption in our very being. Our entrance into this world, through pregnancy and parturition is through a water barrier. Every image we have of rebirth is modeled after our first birth, and that is as we should expect. We as Catholics are people of the Incarnation—of the embodiment of God. Our experience of God is in the world around us, so baptism takes this form to remind us of our rebirth as God’s children. When we are baptized, God looks down on us and says, “This is my beloved son—my beloved daughter—with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus came down to share our lot, to pitch his tent among us, to live with us and experience life with us—and ultimately to give us an example. By following him in baptism, we share His divine life, and that was the reason for revelation and for His incarnation. God loves us and does not give up on us regardless of how far we stray. He came here to lead us back, and all we have to do is follow Him.

*I did not get into ark imagery that is also present and that each ark conveys a savior of one kind of another. Noah's ark conveys Noah and his family, essentially saving mankind from extinct. The word used for the basket in the story of Moses' childhood is literally "ark" in Hebrew. So the people of Israel are saved by one who was transported in an ark. When Joshua crosses the Jordan, his carrying with him the Ark of the Covenant, which carries the word of God (the 10 commandments). Finally Mary is the ark of the new covenant.