Friday, June 17, 2011

Treasure in Heaven

Today's Gospel (Matthew 6: 19-23) is a command to all of us to make sure we have our priorities straight. So many people have investment planners, accountants, "life coaches", and all sorts of others who are employed to help them make sure they are able to enjoy "the good life". But this good life is a fantasy. There are no guarantees that the money you invest today will be there tomorrow. Just ask any who had money invested in real estate in the past five years!
And yet we spend so much time and money trying to guarantee what can never be a sure thing. The only sure thing, according to the Lord, is storing up treasures in heaven. So, just how do we do that? What are the "treasures" we store up in heaven, and how can we be sure we are accomplishing this? I think the easiest way to try and think about these treasures is to compare them to the "good will" that we speak of in human terms. Whenever someone does something that is, shall we say, altruistic (meaning that they do something good even there is no perceived benefit to them) we say that they have generated "good will". Whether you speak in a formal way about "philanthropy" or in the everyday parlance of being a "good person", we all have the experience of how this sort of intangible treasure presents itself.
So we need to examine our lives and see how we treat people. The common idea of "looking out for number one" goes completely against the goal of storing up treasure in heaven. We need to be more concerned about others than ourselves. Let me give you an example. During this week, youth from my parish have been camping out at the parish complex and participating in a "Work Camp". They have been performing manual labor here and working on projects that they chose. They landscaped in front of the church, built a beautiful patio, installed new signs, painted and in general helped make our campuses look beautiful. These teens took an entire week out of their summer vacation to give back to their parish, working from morning to evening. And they were great! The only reward they received was the satisfaction of doing something good for the Church. Each and every one of them have been storing up treasure in heaven this week. And they have loved doing it!
I would hope that we could all take time and see how we can imitate these youth. Perhaps a food kitchen could use our help. Perhaps a home-bound neighbor could use a visit. Maybe we could donate some time to babysit so that harried parents could get an evening out. The possibilities are endless if we simply use our imagination and creativity. And by doing so we may not receive anything in return. At least not now. But, as the Lord assures us, we will be storing up treasure in heaven, where it really counts!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Do Not Babble

It seems a little funny to hear the Lord tell His followers not to babble. It makes me have an image of a group of people who are all talking at once, with none of them able to make sense. Hew was very directive about the way they should pray. The formula He gave (what we refer to as "The Lord's Prayer" is pretty succinct and to the point. It gives us not only words but also a model for all prayer. Beginning with an acknowledgement of God as the one to whom we are speaking (Father in heaven) we offer praise (hallowed be thy name) and acknowledge the primacy of what God wants over what we want (Thy kingdom come, thy will be done). After that, we are able to place our own needs before God, but He specifies only the "short-term" needs (our daily bread). This shows a keen understanding of us as humans, since the Lord knows that what we think we may want tomorrow may not be what we want when tomorrow comes.
The second half is focused on forgiveness and sin. We can only ask for what we are willing to give (forgiveness as we forgive). Finally we ask for God's strength in the face of temptation, acknowledging that without His help we are powerless.
This wonderful way of praying was certainly different from what they expected. But then, God had now experienced first-hand what being human is like and Christ was able to speak from that personal experience. He knew that, without this sort of direction, we might be praying for things that were either unimportant, unnecessary or might actually be bad for us. The purpose of teaching the disciples and us how to pray was to help us do it better than we could on our own.
Sadly, we often think of the Lord's Prayer as just words to be said rather than a model for all prayer. Some of the most powerful prayers are those we make when speaking from our heart. But it is always good to try and keep the model in mind, using the same steps. To whom are we speaking, and for what should we praise Him? What do we think God wants? What exactly do we need right  now, not in the future? And what should we ask for strength to do ourselves, since we cannot expect God to do all the work?
Following this model, our personal prayer life can flourish. And we just might be better able to appreciate the answer that always comes to us when we pray, even if it is not what we expect. Just remember - don't babble!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

One in the Word

When Jesus prayed to the Father "that they may be one just as we are one" (John 17:11), He realized that this unity would come about because He had given his disciples "your word". In reflecting on this passage, I see that the two - unity and the word- are intertwined. When some people think about the inspired word of God found in Sacred Scripture, they see it almost as a personal preserve. We have a Catholic Bible, Protestant Bible, Hebrew Scriptures and various pieces of each. We tend to forget that God's word is always and everywhere One Word. No one can claim to hold and understand the Word of God in its entirety, but we are all united in that One Word.
It is always interesting to listen to various people of faith who come from different traditions and denominations when they speak about their Sacred Scriptures. The most interesting thing is that, in these discussions, we find we have much more in common that we have differences. And that point is exactly what Jesus expressed in His prayer. Scripture is supposed to unite us. But that cannot happen if we do not become familiar with it. For this reason, it is important for each of us to not only read but also study scripture, diving into the meaning of the words and expressions. There are hundreds of commentaries that can help us, although we have to realize that all commentaries are flawed. After all, how can we ever fully grasp the meaning of God's Word when we are flawed human beings?
The important point is that Jesus gave us the direction to unity. A love for, and knowledge of Scripture can and should bring us together with others. After all, if we truly live according to what is contained in Sacred Scripture, we will naturally become more and more one in the Word.

Monday, June 6, 2011

We Are Not Alone

One of the promises made most often by the Lord to His disciples was "I will not leave you alone". At various times He promised that "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in your midst"; "I will not leave you orphans"; "I am with you, even to the end of the world". Today we hear of the importance of the presence of the Lord through his Holy Spirit, as Paul called down the Spirit upon the people of Ephesus. This passage from Acts 19: 1-8 is a reminder to us of how the Lord continues to be present to us through His Spirit. Unfortunately,m we often do not act as though the Lord is present.
One of the things I try to do each day is to remind myself that everything I say or do is observed by the Lord. Whether my actions are correct or not, whether my words are uplifting or hurtful, the Lord see and hears, because His Spirit is present. And I have multiple opportunities each day to let others see and hear what the Lord would want to say and do. Through me, Jesus is able to interact with people. My words can become His words. My work can become His work. But if i do not keep reminding myself of His presence, I can fall back into old patterns of behavior that testify to the presence of another.
Imagine a world where everyone was aware of God's presence at every moment. Imagine how differently we would treat one another. Imagine how differently our lives would be. This can only happen if each and every one of us remembers that we are not alone. Jesus is with us, and will remain with us. But it has to start with you and me. How about today?

Friday, June 3, 2011

From Pain to Joy

In today's Gospel (John 16: 20-23) the Lord tells his followers (and us) that sometimes you have to suffer in order to get to the reward. Every pro football player knows this, since no one, no matter how much natural talent they have, you cannot win the Super Bowl without long, hard hours of practice and intense commitment, despite wanting to do other things.
I think that the same applies to our faith. We all tend to think that, since I believe and try to do what God wants, it should somehow be easier than for those who do not even try. In fact, the opposite is true. Those who do not care about God seem to go through life carefree. Often life seems to smile on them, and we can even think that they are blessed. But this is deceiving. Look at professional athletes, scientists, doctors, master carpenters or other "experts". You may not have to put in the long hours and hard work they do, and think that you are blessed with and easier life. But you also will never know the joy that comes from winning the big game, discovering ways to help humanity, saving lives of the sick, taking unfinished wood and creating a beautiful piece of furniture. The grief of practice, failure, study and injury is the price they pay for the joy and satisfaction they get from a job well done.
For people of faith, putting that faith into practice requires even more work. It means we have to concentrate on seeing the best in people, not the worst. It means we have to get up and go to church instead of sleeping in on Sundays. It means we have to forgive instead of holding a grudge. It means we have to help those in need instead of ignoring them and wishing they would go away.
Living this way may indeed make us "grieve" a little, but the Lord assures us that our grief will be turned to joy. Not joy that we will necessarily experience in this life, but a joy that will never end. And if winning the Super Bowl is something a pro football player will never forget, imagine what heaven will be like!!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Now You See Me, Now You Don't

In some places, today is the celebration of the Ascension of the Lord. Here in the Diocese of Wilmington, we will celebrate the Ascension this Sunday, so today's readings are from the regular Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter. The Gospel (John 16:16-20) is an amusing interplay between Jesus and His followers. The back and forth of "a little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me" seems to have confused them thoroughly. With our advantage of hindsight, we can think about how the Lord was present physically up until the time of his death, then was not seen for the three days, rose and was with them for forty more days, then ascended. Naturally they were expecting Him to return quickly again. He did, but not in the way they expected. Ten days after the Ascension, the Holy Spirit cam to them as He promised (I will send my Spirit upon you"). From that time on, the Lord has been present, but not in the physical way that they expected.
And even today, this is how Jesus is present to us. I think that every person of faith can recall at least one time when they felt the presence of the Lord very strongly. It may have been during an illness, while grieving the loss of a loved one, or a time of great joy, sadness, anger or hurt. This inner realization of the Lord's presence usually comes about when, as He said, two or three are gathered in His name. When we interact with others in the name of the Lord, He is present in a special and powerful way. That is why, for example, Paul had such success spreading the "Good News" to the Gentiles. He was not alone, but rather traveled with at least one companion. And by preaching "in the name of the Lord", Jesus was also present. And so miracles happened. It continues today. When we unite with at least one other believer and say or do things in the name of the Lord, He joins us. And so He is present in the world today.
All of us who are believers have a big responsibility. We are called to bring Christ to the world. And let's face it, the world desperately needs His presence, even if many do not believe that. So, how about we start today. To whom will you bring the presence of the Lord? How will you respond to those who say they do not see the Lord present in their life? Let's join together and make a difference - in His name.