I love you but No

There was a teacher at my kids’ high school who would often respond to the students’ persistent requests with an unassailable conversation stopper:

I love you, but No.

For the kids, it was the last word in that sentence which resonated. They didn’t really believe the first part. And that is understandable, for much of our teacher-student, boss-employee, or parent-child conversations operate in an atmosphere of power. Those with power may from time to time sprinkle nice words in their directives, but their underlings often hear only the directive.

As Christians, we have been given the two greatest commandments: to love God with all that we have, and to love our neighbor as we want to be loved. For us, then, the better wording of the conversation stopper might be:

I love you, so No.

Love sanctifies power. Our all-powerful God is also the God of Love, and we are called to be like Him. As a parent, as a teacher, even a boss, we should start and finish our communication with those in our care with love.

It is because I truly love my children that I don’t give them so many things they want.

It is because I love my students that I hold them accountable to the requirements of the course.

It is harder to see love at the heart of employer-employee relationships because of the transactional character of modern capitalism, but God is against an impersonal, transactional economy. At the center of the Church’s teachings on social issues is a reminder of the deep dignity of the human person made in the image of God. No economic or political system is valid if it ignores that fundamental reality. So, love should be why I say No to my employees.

When we live, learn, and work together, we must bind our instructions and corrections in love. It is the way, the truth, and the life.

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Come Holy Spirit

Today is Pentecost Sunday when the Holy Spirit was given to the apostles and to the church. Pentecost is sometimes called the birthday of the church. On the Church calendar, Pentecost is one of the Sundays when we sing something called the sequence before we hear the gospel proclaimed.

The sequence for today is an ancient and lovely poem beseeching the Holy Spirit to come and be with us. It reminds us that the action of Holy Spirit was not just what happened 50 days after Easter Sunday. On that Pentecost, the apostles were given the gift of tongues, so that men and women of every race and culture could hear the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected. The Holy Spirit is working today with each and every one of us, and it is doing the same thing it did on that Sunday: it is letting us hear in words we can understand, and in other forms of communication, the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected.

The gift of tongues given here in the gospel reading is basically the gift of translation. The people in the audience are surprised to hear men who are clearly from Galilee and Judea able to speak to them in their own language: Persian, Median, Greek, and others. But the gift of tongues is not only translation. It is nonverbal prayer and communication between us and our God. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians that the gift of tongues is the least of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Paul is in no way demeaning or diminishing the gift of the Holy Spirit. Rather, he is reminding us that we speak to God, and we hear from God, all the time in nonverbal ways of communication. The sequence today reminds us of some of the ways that we hear from God through the Holy Spirit in our everyday lives.

After the Ascension, the Holy Spirit is the presence of God. After the ascension Jesus has risen to his throne in heaven. He is truly Christ the King, the Lord of the universe. He continues to make himself present to us, fully, really, his body, his blood, his soul, his divinity, in the Eucharist, even though it continues to look like bread and continues to taste like wine. And this is a personal relationship with Jesus. Indeed, we can have no more personal relationship with Jesus than to receive him into our bodies at Holy Communion. It is however, the third person of the Holy Trinity, whom Jesus sent to us after his ascension, who is that sense of presence that we feel. The sequence today reminds us of some of the ways we do feel him.

And we need to feel God’s presence. We are flesh and blood human persons. We cannot live fully with only an intellectual or metaphysical understanding of God. We need to feel his presence. The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, what Jesus called the Paraclete, is that sensation of love, of rest-filled hearts, of good deeds, of warmth, of good thoughts. God sends the Holy Spirit, as the Sequence says, to heal our wounds and to renew our strength.

All the saints, and most likely all of us here today, have had periods of spiritual dryness. These are periods when we felt that we did not sense God’s presence. The sequence today reminds us that it is the Holy Spirit who “on our dryness pours out God’s dew,” who drenches us with his love.

Think of the times when you go to confession. After you confess your sins, the priest, acting in the person of Christ, gives you absolution, and your sins are forgiven. Many of us walk out of the confessional with lighter hearts and a spring in our step. Perhaps this is what the sequence means when it says the Holy Spirit will “come and wash the stains of guilt away.” We leave confession knowing we are forgiven, thanks to the words of the priest, and we leave feeling better, thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit. God sends us an advocate, a protector, and a holy comforter to give us the good feelings that will strengthen us and renew us.

All of us should welcome the Holy Spirit into our lives. He is with us when we leave this sacred space. He is with us as we are fighting traffic in Atlanta. He is with us when our children are a struggle, or when our parents are a struggle, or when our boss is a struggle, or when our subordinates are a struggle. When we are at odds with each other we can be reminded to ask the Holy Spirit to “bend our stubborn heart and our stubborn will.” We can ask the Holy Spirit to “melt what is frozen and to warm what is chill.” We can ask the Holy Spirit to guide our steps when we have gone astray. It is the Holy Spirit that speaks to us in our inmost heart. It is the Holy Spirit who tells us, let’s go to Mass it’s been a while, or let’s go to confession it’s been too long. It is the Holy Spirit that lets us see joy when we are not very happy. It is the Holy Spirit who lets us see the grace of God when our lives are a mess. It is the Holy Spirit who lets us see peace when our lives seem to be full of contention.

 

Come Holy Spirit, come.

And from your celestial home shed a ray of light divine.

Come father of the poor, come source of all our store,

come within our bosoms shine.

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Good Sheep Sunday

On the Fourth Sunday of Easter we are reminded by the Church in the readings that Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead and will ascend to his throne in Heaven, did not leave his people unprotected. He left us shepherds. He tells us why in the old testament reading and in the letter from St. John: the Church of Jesus Christ does not conform to the world, and so the world turns against it. It is quite difficult to go about in a world that rejects our fundamental beliefs, and we need shepherds to lead us. They lead us in the right worship practices, they teach and re-teach the eternal truths of our religion, and they steer us away from danger or rescue us when we fall into it by our own decisions.

Leading us in worship, teaching us, and governing us are the three sacred offices of Priest, Prophet, and King.  All Catholic priests at their ordination are consecrated with Sacred Chrism, so they can stand in the person of Christ. They are consecrated to those sacred offices of Priest  as they offer the sacrifice of the Mass, of Prophet as they teach the faith to the flock, and of King as they make decisions.

Deacons are ordained to service, and we cannot stand in the person of Christ. The priest and the bishop wears his stole straight down to be a reminder of his role as another Christ. Deacons wear our stoles across our chests to be a reminder we were not consecrated but ordained to service.

I bring all this up because when it comes to Good Shepherd Sunday, as a Deacon I have much more in common with you than I do with the priests, the bishops, or the Pope. They are the shepherd, and they work to be good shepherds. Each is accountable to God for how good a shepherd he is. You and I are the sheep, and we are accountable to God as to whether or not we are good sheep. If we make an effort to be better sheep, it helps the shepherd be a good shepherd.

So what do we need to know about ourselves as sheep? And to be a sheep doesn’t sound like something to be proud of. Sheep are not considered intelligent animals. They get themselves stuck and need the help of their shepherd to get unstuck. Yet this is the term Jesus uses to describe his children.

Sheep are hunted by wolves, which Jesus mentions in his story from the Gospel today. Sheep look for safety in numbers, which is why we have flocks of sheep. The shepherd protects the flock because the wolves are always trying to get in and grab one. When the flock gets going in one direction, the shepherd is the one who has to make sure it doesn’t go into danger.

At the same time, sheep sometimes wander away from the flock, where they are even easier for the wolves to get. The hired hand will just let that happen, for he does not really love his sheep. The Good Shepherd loves his sheep so much he will leave the 99 and go get the one lost sheep.

There are not many sheep in Buckhead these days, so all this might sound a bit foreign to our modern, suburban, ears. But we can look at patterns today where we need the help of our shepherds. Perhaps we can see where we could try to be better sheep, too.

Two of the biggest issues where the shepherds of the flock of Jesus Christ are challenged by the behavior of the sheep are sexual ethics and economics. Times change, and social norms change, but the truth of Jesus Christ never changes. We live in society and are affected by it. God asks us not to be affected by society but to change society so it conforms to his timeless truth.

The timeless truth of Jesus Christ is relentlessly pro-life. The church has prohibited abortion and artificial birth control since the first century, and it stands today almost completely alone while modern society has embraced both. Since the Pill was made widely available in 1965, it has been a challenge for Catholics to remain distinct rather than go along with the changing social norms. It takes great courage and great faith to stay with the shepherd when all the other flocks and many of the other sheep in our flock wander away. The shepherds also must have great courage to exercise their teaching office and explain the timeless truth to the wandering sheep in such a way that they can come to embrace it.

Our modern economy has also evolved over the past centuries, and it has become much more efficient. Professional economists praise efficiency and productivity gains because they see economics as a system for allocating scarcity. The Church sees economics as how God’s children will be stewards of their gifts and take care of each other. It does not support productivity for the sake of productivity. It only supports improvements that improve the common good.

The shepherds of the the flock are loving us sheep when they remind us that workers – wherever they may be – are not “human capital” but “human persons.” All human persons, the unborn, the factory worker, the aged dealing with Alzheimers, are God’s children and none should be discarded because of utilitarian reasons. Good sheep listen to their shepherds to hear the word of God in a world that rejects Him.

Our shepherds are not for hire; nobody signs up to be a Catholic priest or bishop, or Pope, for the money in it. They have given their lives over to the service of the sheep, with years of preparation and formation before they are ordained. We see here in our own parish they work well past the normal age of retirement. This is a labor of love, love for God and love for his people.

Our Lord gave us shepherds because he loves us. He asks his shepherds to love his sheep. You and I and all the priests and all the bishops were all made in the image and likeness of God. We are his delight, the apple of his eye. We are his greatest creation, the one which when he saw at the beginning of time he pronounced “very good.” To some of his children, he called them to be shepherds, to give up their lives for his sheep. Love of God, and love of neighbor, are why those men could say “yes” to God’s call. They love God, and they love us, with all that they have and all that they are. Let us love them as they love us.

 

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Love Languages

Gathered in our home were 5.5 couples (one husband could not make it) to support each other in trying to live as Christian husbands and wives. Married for as long as three years or as briefly as three months, these men and women want to live out the promises they made before God and witnesses.

  • We promised to give ourselves totally to each other.
  • We promised to be completely faithful to each other.
  • We promised we were free to join to each other.
  • We promised our marriage would be fruitful.

These are the bedrock FREE, FAITHFUL, FRUITFUL, TOTAL tenets of today’s Catholic marriage prep that builds on St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Everybody says they want an authentic Christian marriage, and most of us are sincere in that desire.

But it is so hard to be that way day in and day out. Total is a scary word, for it leaves no room for my ego. Faithful does not just mean sexually faithful but totally faithful. We can be bound in love, but only because we freely bind ourselves to each other. And we must embrace the reality that the marital act should never employ artificial methods to block the possibility of life. We chose when we said “I Do” to live vulnerably, to live intimately with our beloved. The world does not support this, despite what it says. We must be strong enough to live as strangers in a strange land.

We need tools and tips to live as strangers bound in love in a strange land that does not understand the fullness of love. One we talked about was the concept of love languages, which was made famous by Gary Chapman’s book, “The Five Love Languages.”

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5 Love Languages

Chapman suggests we can identify from these five ways the method that we really feel the love our beloved is trying to say, “I love you.”

  1. Words of Affirmation – when my beloved tells me he appreciates me for who and what I am, I am filled with his love
  2. Quality Time – when my beloved will sit with me while we do nothing in particular, I am filled with her love
  3. Gift Giving – when my beloved finds a little something and makes a present of it for me, I am filled with his love
  4. Physical Touch – when my beloved will hold my hand or give me a hug, I am filled with her love
  5. Acts of Service – when my beloved will do the laundry or clean up the closet, I am filled with his love

We talked about these love languages and then shared which one was primary for our spouse. (And then we confirmed we had it right or got corrected.) As husbands and wives, we want to say “I love you” in the way that our beloved will best hear the message.  Just being willing to speak in his love language is participation in the free, faithful, fruitful, total tenets. Love is rarely complicated. It is usually simple. That doesn’t make it easy.

 

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Gift

God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to the end that whoever believed in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. This is John 3:16, the verse you are most likely to see on a sign in the stands at a football game or other public event. It speaks to the radical nature of the gift God has given us. His gift is also referenced by St. Paul in the second reading. Our salvation through faith is not from us, it is the gift of God. Even the pagan king Cyrus is aware that what he rules he was given by God.

The gift of salvation from Jesus Christ is an unconditional gift. He gives himself – his love – freely to us without demanding anything in return. This is something we do not see much in our world. It is not something we experience frequently.

We are much more familiar with gifts that come with strings attached. Sometimes the gifts are really not gifts at all because we never let go. Sometimes the gifts are really not gifts because they were given with the expectation of something in return.

I cannot really give this songsheet to Monsignor if I keep holding tightly to the corner of the paper. If I really give my kid my old truck, I cannot keep asking how my truck is doing. It is only a gift if the giver lets go of it. God gives us himself – his love – and he lets go of it so we can have it.

What we call exchanging gifts is often better described as trading. We do this all the time in the business world. When I pick up the tab for lunch, do I do that expecting to hear my dinner partner say something like, “I’ll get the next one?” When Jesus gave us the gift of salvation by dying on the Cross, he gave us something for which we just cannot say, “I’ll get the next one.” There is no reciprocal gift that keeps the score even, the way there is in picking up the tab for lunch.

When we do our gifting, we do it with a fairly small circle of people on whom we can depend to return the gift. Jesus, on the other hand, gave the gift of salvation to everyone, not just Mary and his disciples, but also the Jews and the Romans and the two thieves who were crucified with him. He did not expect anything in return.

The completeness of the gift of God is somewhat frightening to us. It even repels us. Many times, when we are offered a real gift, we don’t want it, which is what St. John means when he says that people preferred the darkness to the light. We see that in the two thieves crucified with Jesus: one continued to mock Jesus because he would not accept the gift of everlasting life.

Our religion is grounded in this free gift. It is different from all the pagan religions, where they would buy off the wrath of a mean god or placate a weather god through offerings and sacrifices of produce and animals. But God’s gift is completely free. It comes with no strings attached. We can accept it or not.

And this brings us to the second distinctive characteristic of a true gift. The giver leaves the receiver to choose what to do about the gift. He gives up ownership, and he gives up outcome. We are so reluctant to make a gift and let the chips fall where they may. In this, we prefer the darkness of conditional giving to the light of true giving.

God’s gift is also his call. He makes no demands, but he makes an invitation to a relationship by giving himself totally to us. And he invites us to respond. That is what we mean by a vocation. He allows us to turn to him in response – as the good thief did. He also allows us to turn away from him – as the bad thief did. We are offered light or darkness, and we get to choose.

The invitation from God is a call. God calls us to holiness – to living a life of grateful acceptance of the gift of salvation. When we mess up – as we surely will – he offers us the gift of spiritual healing in the sacrament of confession and reconciliation. But at no point does God trade his love for something in return. It is gift – always gift. It is a call, a call to holiness, a call to relationship.

Our vocation – our call – is a call to serve god. That’s what holiness is. We can serve him in many ways. Our serving God should be something people notice, though we should not do it in order to be noticed. It is for most of us a private thing, which is why we talk about a personal relationship with Jesus. We accepted the invitation, we accepted the gift, and we spend the rest of our lives saying “thank you” to the giver.

Some people, like Monsignor Frank, respond with a gift of self as priest or religious. Priests give up the good of a family life to be husband and father to the whole Church community. The priest leads us in our sacrifice, which is not like the pagan sacrifice of animals in atonement or appeasement, but is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to the God who gave himself completely to us.

Married people respond with a gift of self that is focused on a particular family in the vocation of Holy Matrimony. In the spirit of dying to self, the husband and wife build up the family, which is the fundamental cell of society. Mom and Dad – by how they live their lives – teach their children and teach the world what love looks like.

Our vocation to holiness is a universal vocation. It is lived by some in holy orders and by some in holy matrimony, and it is how the world today hears and is invited to accept the gift of God’s love. All of us are invited by God to be the light that pierces the darkness. All of us are invited to share that light with everyone we encounter. Let us accept the gift. Let us answer the call.

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Fishers of Men

“Repent and believe in the Good News.” This message is so commonly proclaimed by preachers, it can become so familiar we stop listening and just hear “blah, blah, blah.” Jonah was not the first preacher in Nineveh, and Jesus was not the first in Galilee. Somebody else preached from this very ambo on these very words three years ago. Today, it’s my turn.

So why do we preach the same message: repent and believe in the Good News? I’m going to suggest to you today it is primarily because of distraction. We get caught up in our daily lives and are distracted from what is truly important. In this respect, the people of Nineveh and the people of Galilee were just like us.

When distracted people meet someone who cannot be distracted, it can be a challenge. We are tempted to write them off as oddballs. Let me give you two contemporary examples: Coaches Nick Saban and Bill Belichick. Both of these guys are repeat champions in sports that are not conducive to repeat champions. If you had to pick one characteristic, it might be that both of these men have the ability to remain focused on what they see as the important things.

When Coach Saban is on a recruiting visit, he probably asks the player if he wants to be more than a football player. Does he want to be a truly excellent player of football? That is in so many words, what Jesus says to Simon and Andrew when they are casting their nets into the sea. He says, “Don’t just be fishermen. Be fishers of men.”

For most of us, when we are challenged, we are tempted to dismiss the challenger rather than listen to the challenge. We call attention to how odd they are. Does Coach Saban ever smile? Why does Coach Belichick always look angry in that short-sleeve hoodie he wears even on winter days?

Coach Belichick does look grumpy, and Coach Saban rarely looks happy. But don’t let the messenger be the message. The message is truly remarkable. This is the really good thing about the Good News, or the pursuit of excellence in the game of football. It does not depend on our worthiness. The Good News is that God loves us even if we are not all that loveable.

Most of us spend our lives pursuing mundane things. We are fishermen, plying our trade and living ordinary lives. We have ordinary achievements and ordinary failures. The Good News is that we are much more than ordinary. We are deeply important to God, we are supposed to be with him for eternity, we are loved by him beyond our comprehension.

Life – real life – is the life of Christ. Since most of us have let ourselves be distracted by the things of a lesser life, we need to recalibrate to live the life of Christ for which we were made. That is what repentance is. That’s what the people of Nineveh did: they heard the message of the Gospel and believed. Their belief led to changing their behavior. They recalibrated.

The Apostles also responded. The life of Christ needs ministers, servants who will lead and feed the people Christ calls to himself. Like the two football coaches, the Apostles preached constantly to help the people remain focused on the important thing: the Good News.

You and I are asked to be like the Apostles. We need to respond to God’s call. We need to look at our lives and see if we have been satisfied being nothing more than fishermen when God is calling us to be fishers of men. Some here may be called in a special way to live a consecrated life as a priest or religious. All of us are called to live a holy life as a disciple of Christ.

Our holy lives as disciples of Christ will make us look a bit odd to most of the world, just as Coach Saban and Coach Belichick look a bit odd. And for the same reason: we cannot let ourselves get distracted from the Good News by the general tendency of everyone around us to settle for something less.

Christ loves us at all times, in all situations, and in everything we do. Even when we don’t love him back the way we should, he loves us. He never gives up on us. He knows our souls are immortal – we will exist forever even though all of us will experience bodily death. He wants us to spend eternity with him, so he keeps after us our whole lives. He wants us to be willing to look a little bit odd in the eyes of the world.

Repent. Recalibrate. Let us love each other as Christ loves us. Let the world settle for commonplace. Let the world scratch and claw in its mundane pursuits. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Good News.

 

 

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Mary, the handmaid of the Lord

The Ark of the Covenant and the Temple of the Lord were important physical manifestations of the presence of Yahweh in the lives of the Israelites. God was the creator of everything, willing it into existence in the creation story by saying, “Let it be so.” Adam and Eve, the first human persons, were his greatest creation. They were conceived without sin, they were full of grace, they were made in his image and likeness. Only when they chose to follow the serpent did the fullness of God’s grace depart from them, and suddenly they were ashamed of their nakedness and had to leave the Garden of Eden.

Even as he evicted them from the Garden, God promised Adam and Eve – us – he would in time send someone to bring us home again. Much of the rest of the Old Testament is a story of humanity’s repeated efforts to live well without an intimate relationship with the God of our being. But God kept calling us. And we kept turning away from him. Continue reading

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