Tuesday, November 6, 2012

For Want of a King

On this election day, I'm reminded of the story about Israel demanding that God put a king over them. Up until that point they had been ruled by "judges" who were unofficial leaders in their communities with an internally recognized hierarchy, but no official centralized authority. These judges usually emerged in times of crisis, but were looked to for leadership even during peace time. Together with the spiritual leaders of Israel (priests and prophets), Israel maintained order...and even prospered (much of the time anyway). But as one of the most respected judges grew older, Samuel, and the newly appointed judges proved of questionable moral fiber (Samuel's sons), the people began demand that a king be set over them. Even after they were warned by God that a king would ultimately bring pain and suffering, they persisted.
"No!" they said. "We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles." Samuel 8:1-22
The Israelites were convinced that an answer to their problems would be found in a king...in a leader. They wanted someone else to "fight our battles." And in the end, that is what God gave them...he gave them King Saul. But also in the end, as God warned, Saul was shallow and morally weak and brought war and death to Israel. And sadly he wasn't the only king of Israel for who that can be said.

But there were good kings too (David...mostly...and Solomon...mostly). Honest kings...noble kings. They followed God...obeyed God...and in return their kingdom was blessed. So it is not that leaders can't help. They can...but by themselves, they are not the answer.

So here we are in the United States...in this land of democracy and freedom...and I can't help put feel we have started sounding like the Israelites. We too, it seems, have a tendency to look for leaders rather than solutions...myself included. We see the huge challenges facing our country (or our own lives), and we think that the solutions have to be huge as well....like government. And of course we aren't wrong that the answer is big...we're just wrong to think that it is manmade. The truth is...the answer is God made...the answer is us.

Leaders, be it kings or presidents, will bring prosperity and decay. They will build up...and tear down. They are not 100% bad...nor 100% good. They are men and women just like us...and they have lives to live...choices to make. Just like we do. And just like our kings and presidents, we can make a difference.

We have the ability to bring prosperity to someone...maybe to a few people. We have the power to build up...to support...to help up. We have good that we can do. We just have to recognize it...and accept it.

Now of course we need leaders. And of course we should all exercise the freedom so many have died to preserve and vote today...and every election. But I pray that this election day leads us all to pause and consider the possibility that maybe presidents and senators and mayors are just a small part of the solutions we seek. The biggest part...the most critical piece...I believe...is ourselves.

What choices are we going to make when we see someone in need? What are we going to do when we encounter someone who needs help? When its the money in our pocket that can make a difference or its our free time that is needed...what will we choice then? Together the needs and challenges facing the country are overwhelming. How many million people need food...need shelter...or just need someone to listen? But at the local level...at our level...the scale is a bit different. We can do a lot...if we just love those that God brings into our lives. He knows how much we can do...He knows how much we can handle. And so whatever need we face, whatever problem we encounter, He'll provide the solution. In fact He already did...we just might not have known it.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Inside Out

So I'm on my way home from the gym, doing a little mental assessment of my workout, and I think the Holy Spirit decided this was a good time to open my eyes a little bit about us humans. Maybe part of the reason we are such a sexual culture...a culture of outward appearance...a culture of physically based attraction...is that we're lazy. Now I realize that probably sounds ironic...or maybe just wrong. But I think there is something to it.

Of course going to the gym, working out, eating healthy, etc. requires work and effort. And of course most of the people identified as incredibly fit (physically speaking) are not what we deem lazy. But I think it all depends on the scale we are using.

If we use a physical, outward based scale where one end is the proverbial "couch potato" and other end is fitness freak/gym rat, then certainly those people devoting time and energy to getting their bodies in peak shape are certainly not lazy. BUT if we use a different scale, one that maybe goes from "complacent about the person I am" to "striving to be the best person I can", then I think we may find a whole lot of us on the "lazy" end of that scale.

I'm being a little too broad here I know, because physical health is important. Eating right and taking care of your physical body are important and good and godly. What I am getting at here is the prioritization of this very visible aspect of ourselves versus the equally visible (though we don't think about it too often), but less visually apparent, inner part of ourselves.

It seems to me that improving the inside part of ourselves...our character flaws, our weaknesses, our sinful tendencies...is much, much harder than making ourselves lift a weight or run on the treadmill. It's not as fun, the benefits are not always as immediate and not always as easy to see, and in the current culture, it often seems less valuable. But it wasn't always that way, and I don't think it is that way every where today...and with everyone. In fact I know that it is not.

Still, there is no denying that we live in a world that is preoccupied with the outside. And let's face it, the outside is easier to work on. I mean I know dragging yourself to the gym can be a real challenge. And I know denying yourself that slice of cake takes real effort. But compared to holding our tongue when all we can think to say is something bitter or spiteful, or compared to forgiving the person who maybe even deliberately hurt us, or compared to carving out 15 minutes of our day to spend in prayer...compared to those things...I think the physical stuff is comparatively easy for most people...at least I know it is for me.

Not only does working out our inner self require a lot of effort....it's ugly. We have to confront the fact that at our core we really are not very nice people. Most of us are inherently (it seems) selfish. We are easily offended. We carry grudges. We judge others to make ourselves feel better. We do all kinds of things that make us not very attractive. So can we really be blamed for focusing our effort somewhere else? I mean rather than confront that ugliness and the self-doubt and fear that comes along with a good look at ourselves, it seems perfectly natural that we turn to something we can more easily control...our outside appearance. Ultimately, we want to be loved. Ultimately, we want to be wanted. And whether we admit it or not, most of us are terrified of being unlovable.

I think we all have a sense of this deep down. We know somehow, that left to ourselves, we fall short. We know the ugliness inside us...even if we never look at it. And so we feel like we are unlovable from the get-go. We feel unworthy of love. BUT...we need it. We long for it. In fact we were created for it. So we have a choice. We either work on who we are and try to clean up the ugly parts of ourselves...or maybe...since that is really hard and real slow going sometimes...maybe instead we can pretend to be better than we are...and then we can distract people with the stuff on the outside. I think too often that is the road we take...not really because we are lazy....but because we are afraid.

But the good news is that regardless of how unloveable we feel...we are loved. And we are loved by the greatest of all lovers...our Creator. And even more, the truth is that when He created us...He created a good person. So this means that at our core....we are good. Did you get that...we are already good. And so while it may take work to get to where we are more often kind than not, or to where our default is to think of others more than ourselves, or to where we enter every situation looking for how we can best share God's love...the good news is that we can get there...because that is who we were made to be. Rather than changing something from what it really is....we are really just scraping off all the crud to let what is already there shine through. And THAT is pretty good news.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Weekly Humility

I play fantasy football. For those who play or are familiar with the game, I expect what I am about to share will ring very true. For those who don't play, I think you'll still be able to relate to the weekly lesson Fantasy football delivers.

[BTW, not that you need to know this to understand what I am sharing, but for those who don't play, fantasy football is a game (usually online) where you get to "pick" real NFL players to be on your virtual Fantasy Football Team. You then get points each week based on how those real NFL players perform in the games they play in real life. So for example, if you have Peyton Manning on your team (QB for Denver Broncos and frequent star of TV commercials) and he throws a pass for a touchdown, your fantasy team gets 6 points. Each week you compete against another player who has their own Fantasy Team with the winner being whosever team gets the most total points that week.]

So I've been playing Fantasy Football for probably over 10 years now, and I'm convinced God is a fan of Fantasy Football. How do I know this you ask? Well, I think God is generally a fan of anything that offers a regular healthy dose of humility. [This is the same reason that I think God is a fan of annual physicals.]

You see, playing Fantasy Football is a near constant reminder of how limited my vision is and how little I know. I don't say this because I'm a perennially fantasy loser. That would make this more about self-pity than humility. No, the reason Fantasy Football is so humbling is because my successes often occur despite myself and my losses are the direct result of something brilliant I thought I did.

Keep in mind there are fantasy football players far more "into it" than I am, but I take it fairly seriously. I subscribe to a couple sports websites offering inside information. I listen to podcasts and read articles by experts offering good strategies and forecasting the best performances in the upcoming week. And then I take all this, factor in what I've seen in previous games, throw in a good dose of "gut feeling," and then set my sure-fire can't lose line-up for the week. Come Sunday I have my laptop (or iPad) by my side as I watch the games anxiously but confident that I'll win my weekly match-up.

And then it happens. Actually one or more things happen. Sometimes one of the players that I took out of my line-up winds up having a high scoring day (which means I don't get his points since I took him out of my line-up). Then sometimes the player I was sure was going to have a career day winds up playing absolutely lousy (again resulting in very few points). And still other times, the player I wound up starting because I had absolutely no choice winds up winning the entire matchup for me because he did have a career day. And of course sometimes times all of these things (and others) happen in the same week. Can you see the frustration....and the humility?

With all my facts and information, with all my insight and insider info, Fantasy Football has taught me over the years that I am pretty incapable of affecting an outcome. Sure sometimes I win...and initially my pride swells and I feel pretty good. But it doesn't take long for me to realize (although sometimes it takes until next week's match-up) that a lot of why I won had nothing to do with me. And on the flip side, when I lose, though initially my pride searches rapidly for excuses as to why I lost (like one of my players got injured or because the defense was playing better than normal or whatever), I eventually realize that if I had made some different decisions (which now seem sort of obvious), I would have won. So the bottom line is that every week I get smacked in the face with a heaping, but healthy dose of humility.

Of course it doesn't take too big a stretch to see that this fun little distraction of Fantasy Football is like a little microcosm for how we live our lives a lot of the time.

On any given day there are a million decisions to be made. We are constantly faced with choices...some big and some small, but all with ramifications. Often we (or at least I) try to make these choices using the "wisdom" of our life experiences, the "expert" information propagated by the gurus, and/or that "gut feeling" we have about what will bring us the most success or the best outcome. Too often the very last thing we do...if we do it at all...is ask God what we should do. Even then, we're often only half-asking (or half-listening) because our minds are already made up or the moment has already passed and we had to act.

When this is how we live, the results of our choices, even if they seem good initially, ultimately hurt us. Our successes allow our pride to puff itself up, dig in a little deeper, and fight even harder next time for figuring stuff out on our own. Our failures often don't do much better because there is always a reason or excuse for why we can't really be responsible for the outcome and how if we had only known X, then we would have made a better choice.

But the fact is...if we are honest...its pretty easy to see that only God can see beyond our choices...only God can see the ramifications of every step and every choice we make. And if we truly care about the consequences of our actions...and if we truly want His best for our lives...then we need to embrace our limitations...embrace our dependence. After all, we are dependent on Him...for every breath we take in fact. And after all, He loves us. The Creator of the universe, the Master of time and space, the Alpha and Omega of Love...loves us. Why not seek Him first whenever we have a choice to make? Seems like an easy decision to me.

"For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways," declares the LORD. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8-9
Trust in the LORD with all your heart And do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes ; Fear the LORD and turn away from evil. Proverbs 3:5-7
Now if God will just tell me who to start on my Fantasy Football team this week... :-)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Easy Answers

We all want easy answers. The lazy, pain-avoiding selfish side of us all wants solutions that require minimal work from us and that ultimately cost us very little. And certainly elections feed into this desire. The bigger the election, the bigger the hope that the answers to our problems are only a vote away. If only [INSERT CANDIDATE] is elected, then [INSERT ISSUE, i.e. The Economy, Unemployment, Healthcare, etc.] will be fixed. Making it worse is the fact that while we agree with the popular notion of "The Good" for all, if we are really honest, underneath this hope for an answer to the "big" issues, is really a desire for some personal benefit (i.e. I can finally retire, or I can finally find a job, or now I don't have to worry about getting sick, etc.).

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting it's a sin to want/need a job, or to want the economy to be stable, or to want healthcare for myself and/or others. These are all good things and just part of surviving. The problem comes in our wanting all this to be "easy."

When we are faced with difficult situations...hard choices...we recoil from the possibility of pain. We don't want to endure any kind of pain...even briefly...whether that be the pain of unhappiness or depression, the pain of sacrifice due to financial struggles, the literal pain of enduring an illness, or even the more altruistic pain of knowing there is a world of suffering that we feel we can't do anything about. And so to avoid the pain, we cling to easy answers..or at least the appearance of easy answers. If we can just get the right leader, or the right job, or the right spouse, or the right economic environment, or the right law, etc. then everything will be better. Despite the seemingly obvious naivete of this belief, it makes us feel better. We console ourselves with the notion that by supporting this candidate or this cause or this 'solution', we are DOING something about the problem. But the reality is...we are wanting someone else to do the work that solving this problem would really take.

We see this play out time and time again. A pain (meaning an issue) rises and consumes our collective attention. Journalists begin talking about it, politicians begin debating it. Grand solutions are drawn up and then these are debated. Despair grows as this looming issue persists in our collective mind. And in the end we get a new program or a new law and the process starts all over again. But often, the situation continues. People are still hungry, crime still exists, prices still rise, jobs are still hard to get, and people are still in pain.

The challenge is that we are complacent and comfortable...even in our discomfort. For solutions to happen, change has to happen. And while we are accustomed to talking about change in the big picture, we are all fairly deft at avoiding change in our own little world. Change hurts. It requires a breaking of our will...forcing it from one position to another. And since that is so very hard for us to do, most of the time we don't do it.

But for all that elections do to foster this false hope in an easy answer, they also provide us with a wealth of reminders and a great opportunity to recognize the truth. The solution to all of our problems (hunger, illness, crime, loneliness, depression, and even death) begins with each of us. We need to stop trying to escape the pain of change...the pain of difficulty...the pain of resisting our selfishness. If we see or know of someone who is hungry, WE need to feed them. If we know of someone who is sick, WE need to secure care for them (if not do it ourselves). If we know of someone who is lonely, WE need to visit them. Of course this is inconvenient, and yes this can be awkward, and yes this can cost us (both time and money), but that's the real answer. As Gandhi put it so succinctly, "be the change you want to see in the world." If each of us were willing to do this, the world would change....problems would be solved.

But sadly that won't happen. I'm not really this much of a pollyanna. I know that not all of us are willing to try to do this...and fewer still will persevere long enough to actually do it. [I have enough failures in my own life to doubt whether I can actually do it...even as I write this.] But changing the world isn't really the reason to do this anyway. The reason I should change...the reason I should act...and the reason I should feed and care and visit (and the reason you should too) is not because I can change the whole world, but because I can change the world of at least two people: myself...and the person I help. And what greater purpose can a life have than to improve the life of someone else...that is to love someone else. This is what it means to really love. This is what loving your neighbor really looks like. This is what God desires of all of us.

"Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 'For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat ; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink ; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.' "Then the righteous will answer Him, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink ? 'And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 'When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' "The King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.' (Matthew 25:34-40
"Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." (Romans 12:15-18)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Our Call in the Moment

So often when we think of our calling in life or we hear about "the call" on someone else's life, we think of a vocation or a grand direction....and usually it is a desire or compulsion to pursue an occupation such as the feeling you are being called to be a doctor, or a missionary, or priest. Of course there are not-for-pay callings too such as being a stay-at-home mom (or dad) or being a deacon. And certainly there are callings to marriage, or virginity, or celibacy. All of these are examples of God's stirring something in us that desires to live a certain way and/or perform a certain job. But the other day while I was praying...seeking to surrender my will to His, I found myself asking God to help me hear and recognize His call not in this big sense...but in a much smaller sense. I asked him to help me hear His call in each moment. I didn't think about these words before I said them, but once I did, I quickly suspected that maybe I had just been given a bit of Divine insight.

Many theologians (Protestant and Catholic) have written and preached about how each of us have God-appointed tasks to do in life or God-given duties to perform. And there can be no doubt that God directs us and leads us to our occupations and roles in life...if we let Him. (I love the line in one of St. Therese's prayer: "May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.") But I feel like maybe there is an opportunity to draw closer to Him if we usurp the idea of a calling...or of God's call...from it's normal context and see it at its core.

God's call is not about our making a one time decision or about His occasionally pointing us in a certain direction. Rather God's call is more basic. It is His voice in our lives...urging us to follow along the perfect plan He has for us. God's calling is dynamic and specific. It is not measured in lifetime achievement or years of service....but rather it is measured in seconds...in the outcome of individual moments. You see....this is where He lives. He is in the Now...He is the Present. If we accept this premise...that ultimately our "calling" is just God's appointed direction...which is to say action...in our lives, then we can see that "His call" is more than roles and occupations. In fact, I think maybe we need to see that is His call is really just for each of us to obey Him in every moment...To act like His Son in every situation. In other words, God's calling on our life is much more granular than what we normally think. God is much more personal! God has a specific plan...a desired action...for each one of us in each moment. He wants to be there and help us in every situation. He wants to lead us in every moment of our lives. He loves us THAT much.

And how can we not trust His direction? He sees beyond us...beyond this moment. He not only knows the moment we are currently in, but had already been there before us. He sees the actions that will most benefit us...and the actions that will most benefit those around us.
For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11)
And so He calls to us...longing to directs us and guides us along our best path...not just the big picture path...but each step, around each stone, across each crack of the journey. We don't ever have to enter a moment feeling alone...feeling lost or unsure. Not matter what the moment looks like...God is there...calling us.

So yes...we all have a calling. And yes...God has appointed-tasks for us in life. Most of us have to work...and all of us have roles to fulfill. But more than being a doctor, a missionary, or a priest...He wants us to be a healer, a servant, and yes even to be His Son...in every moment of our lives. So I guess that means that you and I need to forget the "big" question and begin asking God the smaller question (over and over again)...what is Your call for me in this moment?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lenten Thoughts: Recalculating

I don't think I have ever used my GPS on a trip and not heard the system announce "recalculating." And usually I hear it multiple times. For any number of reasons it's just hard to consistently stay on corse and follow each and every direction. Many times the reasons are my fault, but sometimes it's just a matter of "life" just not working out as planned (such as when there is no road where the GPS says we are suppose to turn right). What I realized last night (Ash Wednesday) is that this is true for both traveling down the highway...and traveling through life. And as our pastor pointed out, what an incredible metaphor for Lent.

Lent is a time for us to reflect on and be transformed and renewed by Christ's Sacrifice and God's Love. It is a time for us to humble ourselves, to remember our weakness, to acknolwedge our faults. And inevitably, if we are honest and exhaustive in this exercise, we come to realize that we are not wholly where we need to be. For some of us...or maybe it is better to say that at some point in all our lives...we are significantly off course. For others...and at other points in our lives...maybe we have just drifted off the road a bit or slowed down too much or spent too much time in the rest area.

But regardless of the degree, most of us are off course...and so Lent is a time for recalculating. It's a time to assess where we are and spend maybe a little time thinking about how we got here. But most importantly, I think, Lent is a time for figuring out how to get back to where we need, and want, to be.

Sometimes we have to figure out where exactly that is. Sometimes we just know...and maybe have known for awhile. But regardless, the broader method is the same. We have to identify where we are, we have to decide where we want to go, we have to map out a plan for how to get there, and then lastly we have to resolve to follow that plan. Maybe we need to start (or re-start) a daily prayer time. Maybe it's saying the rosary on a weekly basis. Maybe it's reading the Bible more frequently. Maybe it's going on a retreat. Maybe it's reading an inspirational (and/or very practical) book by a saint. Or maybe it is a combination of all these things. Each person's path is going to be unique because God has a unique plan for each of us...and He is dying to show us what it is. Some of us already see it (and we are just not there yet). Some of us know that we saw it at some point in our life, but that seems so long ago. And some of us have never really seen it at all. But again...that is what Lent is for. This is our opportunity. All we have to do is say yes to God's Positioning System (GPS!) and He will recalculate our lives. We may have to go down some unfamiliar roads...we may have to travel through the night...but if we humble oursleves and diligently follow His directions...we'll get back on course...His course...and come Easter morning...the Son will rise...and we will find we have Life...and have it abundantly (John 10:10)!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

When Worry Grips Us

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to His disciples, "Sit here while I go over there and pray." And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and distressed. Matthew 26:36-37

It is always a little surreal to me saying the Rosary during Christmas time, particularly the Sorrowful mysteries. There is something about pulling the Crucifixtion into the Nativity that seems wrong...jarring. But in truth, they are one and the same. Both are saving acts from our Creator. Their significance is eternally woven together. We shouldn't see one without the other.

Besides, there is so much to learn from Jesus...and about Jesus...through His Passion. Take the passage above for instance. In just a few verses we learn at least two very practical things about Jesus...and about ourselves.

First, we learn that Jesus worried. He grieved and felt distressed. He knew what lie ahead for Him...and quite naturally...it upset Him...made Him anxious. How very human! And all the more testament to Paul's teaching:
For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Hebrews 4:15

Second, we see that Jesus thought about the future. His mind wandered, just as ours does, out of the present moment and into the not yet formed future. So often it seems we are encouraged not to worry about tomorrow. To focus on today and let tomorrow take care of itself....as if simply thinking about tomorrow...about what might be is wrong. And while no doubt Christ's words are Truth and Wisdom (Matthew 6:34), I think this very vulnerable moment in Jesus' life helps frame what He really means when He says not to worry about tomorrow.

Clearly Jesus worried (or grieved or was anxious or distressed)...and yet He was without sin. So that must mean that worrying...or maybe I should say feeling worried...is not sinful. In fact, I think we have to admit it is very human. It's in our nature. But where the real decision point comes...where the step toward or away from sin really happens...is in where we go from there....in what do we do next. And the answer to that, is found in the Garden.

And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will." Matthew 26:39
He went away again a second time and prayed, saying, "My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done." Matthew 26:42
And He left them again, and went away and prayed a third time, saying the same thing once more. Matthew 26:44

Like so many aspects of our human nature, it is not our initial reaction which leads us to sin. For better or worse, we are the creatures we are...at least at this level...the level most similar to animals' "instinct". No...the decision point...the thing that determines if we take another step toward being a heavenly creature or a hellish creature (to borrow from C.S. Lewis)...is what we do after that initial reaction...what we do next. And thankfully, Jesus made it abundantly clear what we are supposed to do next. Whenever we are worried, or anxious, or grieved, or distressed, we need to go to God in prayer. We need to seek Him. We need to acknowledge His sovereignty and our weakness. When we need peace...we must go to the source of all Peace. And then...we need to let go of our worries and trust Him. Sometimes this takes work....sometimes it takes time. Jesus prayed three separate times before He completely exorcised His anxiety...His distress. So we must expect that there will be times when we will need to go back to God in prayer again...and again...and again. But if we go to Him faithfully...honestly...openly...humbly...and if we truly desire to abandon our worries and fears and instead trust Him...then Jesus teaches us...God will answer (http://www.biblestudytools.com/nas/luke/22-43.html)!