Tuesday, October 29, 2019

False Self Vs. Real Self

Catholic Liturgy for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Oct. 27, 2019. Luke 18:9-14. Theme: False Self Vs. Real Self

As the father of 6, grandfather of 5 and uncle to somewhere over 40 and counting, I have had the privilege of watching such an array of human beings grow from infants into children and then young adults.  What a joyful marvel it is to see such a mix of personalities, each one uniquely created by God.  And yet, there can a bit of sadness mixed into it every so often, when I see one or the other of them not appreciating or valuing the person that they are, but trying to re-invent themselves into someone whom they are not. 

I suppose there is that a temptation within all of us to do the same thing, no matter who we are or what our age or status in life might be. We often seem to spend so much time and energy putting forth a false self to others. By the way we act or talk or dress we often try to refashion ourselves into an image of what we think will make us more pleasing, or more loveable, or more popular and admired.

We see this very same thing happening in today’s gospel. The Pharisee and tax collector both go to the Temple to pray. However, the Pharisee, instead of presenting himself humbly before God as he is, tries to put forth a false self who is perfect in every way. As ridiculous as it sounds, he has so fooled himself that he is trying to refashion himself even in God’s eyes in order to make himself look better than others!

On the other hand, the tax collector goes to the temple and prays honestly, with a sincere heart. Unlike the Pharisee, he does not try to conceal who he really is or put on a mask to hide his real self from God. He is able to see and accept himself clearly. Even his body language displays his repentance: he stands at a distance from the sanctuary and does not even raise his eyes to heaven.

The tax collector is not trying to fool God or put on false airs. He sees and accepts who he really is, which is the only way to making real and lasting changes in our lives. We see his sincerity and self-awareness in his prayer, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Therefore, God meets him where he is and lifts him up. The tax collector goes home justified.

And that brings us to the heart of this story that Jesus told which begins with the word “righteousness” and ends with the word “justified”, two important religious terms that actually mean the same thing. To be righteous or justified means that we have been freed from the guilt of our sins and have been put into a right relationship with God. It is a gift of grace that can only come about on God’s initiative. The only way we can truly hear and respond to this invitation is to first of all acknowledge that we need it!  This is exactly what the tax collector did.

I think that the Lord is saying to us in this parable that we have nothing to fear in approaching him just as we are. In fact, this is the correct way to approach God. Otherwise we block him out from our lives because we are too full of ourselves. We have to humbly admit our own nothingness before God and our dependence on him like that tax collector. It is when we fully embrace and admit who we are, as we are, and realize our deep need for conversion of heart and mind, that we are ready to receive God’s grace.

As a way for us to respond to this invitation to be free from sin and live in a right relationship with God, Jesus has given us the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is a wonderful way to make this gospel become something real and meaningful in our lives and not just remain a story on a page of the Bible.  In this sacrament, we have the opportunity to honestly examine and accept ourselves as we truly are, to admit our sinfulness, and to receive the grace of God in order to change. It is a beautiful way to acknowledge that we are sinners, to receive the Lord’s mercy and then to go home justified like that tax collector.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Heart Speaks to Heart

Catholic Liturgy for the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Oct. 20, 2019. Gospel of Luke 18:1-8. Theme: Heart Speaks to Heart

Today’s liturgy directs our thoughts to the important role of prayer in our lives. Prayer, according to Jesus, is simply speaking heart to heart with God. It’s the honest interpersonal conversation we have with God about our lives, our thoughts, and anything or everything that is happening to us and around us. Prayer is a non-negotiable component in our relationship with God and like all relationships, we will only get out of it what we put into it.

In today’s first reading we see Moses giving all he’s got to the task of praying. His prayer is so intense that it begins to wear him out and he seeks the help of others to enable him to continue on. This speaks to me of the importance of having like-minded friends and the spiritual support of our parish, to help us remain faithful and trusting in our relationship with God especially when we undergo difficult times and experiences in our lives.

And in the gospel Jesus uses the example of a persistent widow who will not take no for an answer. She keeps coming back to the judge, constantly in his face, demanding what is rightfully hers. But the point of this parable is not that prayer changes God’s mind, because it doesn’t. Rather, it teaches us that perseverance pays off. And often we get way more than we asked for or imagined.

These examples of prayer that we find in today’s readings all depend upon the gift and virtue of faith. Faith is a word that we use a lot and I think most people would define it as believing in God, in the Scriptures and in the teachings of the Church. Now, this is surely part of it, but Christian faith is so much more than just believing. To believe simply means that we accept what someone says as being true. In other words, faith on that level means religious knowledge, head knowledge.

But the Scriptures teach us that real faith, the faith that changes hearts and transforms lives, is so much more than just head knowledge.  Faith means trust in God. And as we all know trust can only be born out of a personal relationship. Head knowledge alone does not form a relationship. But heart knowledge does. And this only comes to us through prayer; through making and spending time with God in daily life.  And I think we can appreciate the truth of this by reflecting on the experiences we have in our human relationships.

Think for a moment right now about a relationship in your life that is very important to you. Now imagine for a moment what that relationship would be like if you never gave attention to that person; if you never phoned or texted with them; if you never made time to be with them in person and share what’s happening in each of your lives.  How long do you think that relationship would last? How deeply significant would it remain in your lives? I think we all know that under such circumstances a friendship that is treated like that would surely wither and eventually die.

And the same is true about our faith-relationship with God.  If we do not give it the attention it needs; if we do not take the time to nurture and deepen it, it will surely die.  We call this sad experience of losing the gift of faith.  And we hear Jesus make the connection between faith and prayer in the last verse of today’s gospel, asking if when he returns to earth he will find any faith left in people’s hearts.

And sadly, this seems to be the case with many today and especially among our young people.  Many of them have gone to Catholic schools or parish religious ed programs but these all have to do with head knowledge. I often wonder if anyone has ever taught them to acquire heart knowledge by prayer?  Not just to recite prayers but to develop the habit of speaking with God heart-to-heart? Because it’s only through prayer that we come to experience God up close and personal and know that he is not just some Cosmic Energy or Higher Power but as a Father who created and loves us, a Brother who became human and died for us, a Spirit who comes to dwell within us.

But as Christians who know the power of prayer we do not give up on anyone, even if it seems that they no longer have faith. We know that intense prayer like Moses and persistent asking like the widow, can bring us more than we can ask for or imagine. The classic Catholic example of this can be found in the life of the 5th century North African saint, Monica.  She prayed for 30 years that her son, the hedonistic pagan Augustine, would just simply become a Christian. That’s all she asked and she never gave up praying for this request. And she kept trusting and praying even as he kept going from bad to worse as the years went by.  And what did Monica end up getting? Not only a Christian son, but one who went on to become an important bishop and one of the greatest theologian-saints in all of church history!

So, let’s keep growing in our faith-relationship with God by making and keeping this commitment to daily prayer from the heart.  It will fill us with peace and strength, knowing that God, who desires only what is best for us and who alone sees the bigger picture of our lives, can and will make all things, even the difficult things, work out for the good of those who trust in him.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Experiencing God Through the Ordinary

Catholic Liturgy for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Oct. 13, 2019. 2 Kings 5:14-17 (for the full story read 1-19). Theme: Experiencing God Through the Ordinary

I almost always preach on the Gospel but this Sunday’s first reading about Naaman the Syrian is one of my favorites and a story that I just can’t ignore!  I have to say that I am disappointed that for some reason our liturgy has us are dropping into the story almost at the end. So much has happened that we haven’t heard! Unless we know what comes before, we miss out on some extremely important details that enable us to better appreciate Naaman’s cure and his coming to faith in God. So, allow me to quickly fill in the back-story of what is missing.

Naaman was the prestigious commander of the army of the King of Syria. In one of his many raids upon Israel, had captured a young girl as a slave for his wife. After he contracted leprosy, this slave-girl told him about Elisha, a powerful prophet of the True God back in her homeland. She assured him that through this holy man he could be healed. So, Naaman sets off seeking the cure.

Being a pagan who is used to a lot of fanfare and frenzy in his religious practices, Naaman expects that the almighty and majestic God of Israel will surely manifest himself by means of some awesome dazzling displays of power. However, no such things are connected with his cure.  Elisha simply tells Naaman to do immerse himself seven times in the Jordan River if he wishes to be healed. Now don’t think of the Jordan as you might the Russian River in its glory or the gorgeous Columbia up in Oregon. The Jordan River at this juncture was small, muddy and quite ugly.

Naaman doesn’t take this well becomes furious! He feels like he has been treated disrespectfully and made to look like a fool. In his wounded pride, he packs up and intends to return to Syria. However, the servants traveling with Naaman convince him to at least give it a try. They say that if Elisha had told him to do some bizarre things, such as waving his hands, jumping up and down and chanting magic incantations, he would have followed those instructions.  So why not do as the prophet says, wash seven times in the Jordan River and see what happens?  And this is where we enter the story into today’s first reading. And of course, we know that he was indeed healed of leprosy and converted to faith in the One True God.

This story speaks to me about an important way in which we as Catholic Christians encounter God’s presence and power in our lives today.  The choice of the number seven and the use of an ordinary thing like river water makes me think immediately of the seven sacraments because they are so much like what we see in Naaman’s experience of God.  These seven God-given and God-giving actions that we received from Jesus himself, make use of ordinary things to bring the extraordinary into our lives.

And like Naaman, I think that it’s so easy for us at times to find it hard to believe that such simple rituals can bring us to an experience of the presence and power of God. Like him we would prefer an unmistakable sign that God hears us. We would like him to manifest himself powerfully and dramatically. We can find it hard to believe that God’s presence and grace truly comes to us and changes us through such ordinary things like the water of baptism, the oils of Confirmation and Anointing, or the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

I mean who could imagine that simply through the pouring of water in baptism, we are healed of the spiritual emptiness that every human is born with and become the adopted sons and daughters of God, heirs to Heaven?

And how incredible does it sound that through the power of the Holy Spirit and the blessing of a priest, the bread and wine of the Eucharist are truly transformed into the Body and Blood of the Risen Lord Jesus so that he can come to dwell within us?

Or that through the simple honest conversation that takes place between priest and penitent in Confession our deepest sins are completely erased as if they never happened and our dark past is utterly obliterated by the mercy of God?

But let’s not forget that Naaman wasn’t cured simply by going through the action of washing in the Jordan.  He was healed because he trusted in the promise and power of God even if he didn’t understand how it could work.  And I believe that each one of us can truly experience more deeply the presence and power of the God through the sacraments if we approach them in the same way as Naaman: with humble, trusting and obedient hearts, willing to do whatever God asks of us.