Cultivating the tender shoots

mustardseedThe readings today speak of planting and of growth. In the agrarian societies of Biblical times, everyone knew how trees and plants were cultivated, but we live in an age when we are disconnected from the patterns of cultivation and harvesting that put food on our plates. Patterns of planting and growing can be applied to our spiritual lives. Jesus makes that explicit when he uses these stories to illustrate the Kingdom of God.

The Gospel today tells us that the kingdom of God is fruitful, but we may not always know precisely how the fruit is to be borne. A man scatters seed on the land, Jesus says, and it sprouts and grows but the man knows not how. The Kingdom of God is not a place or a time. It certainly is Heaven, which is beyond space and time. It is also us, or perhaps more specifically, how we live out our faith each and every day.

We sometimes are resistant to doing the work of scattering seeds of love, patience, and kindness, because we want so much to know how they will grow into something beautiful. Jesus is whispering to us in this parable that we are to scatter those seeds trusting in his providence. Do the work, he seems to be saying, and leave the outcome to me. St. Paul says the same thing to the Corinthians when he tells them, “we walk by faith, not by sight.”

The kingdom of God is so fruitful we cannot count all the blessings that will come upon us and the entire world. The cedar trees described by Ezekiel come from tender shoots that grow into majestic trees that benefit birds  of every kind. When we were baptized, we were those tender shoots. If we inhabit the kingdom of God, we will grow into majestic trees that provide shade and comfort for more than we can count. Jesus is whispering to us, “Do not try to be God’s accountant, adding up his graces or his judgments.”

These readings tell us we are just to work on growing, but they do not really give us a plan of cultivation. Growth is something we notice after the fact. Cultivation is the work we put into growth. In an agrarian society, tools like plows and shovels and hoes were all used to till the soil and plant the seeds. They built cisterns to catch the rains, and irrigation channels to move the water from the cistern to the fields.

What are the plows and the shovels for us to use as we cultivate the Kingdom of God? I think they tie back to the Latin slogan Fr. Neil gave us in his homily two weeks ago. We are to cultivate how we worship (the rule of praying), and we are to cultivate our understanding of our faith (the rule of believing). If we do these, we will see growth in our lives, the rule of living.

The Mass is our rule of praying, and here it is prayed reverently. And how we worship reflects and corresponds with what we believe. The silence before Mass is not only a good thing, it is the right thing if we believe the Mass is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God who gave his only begotten Son to wipe away all our sins. When he prays, the priest says the words in the Mass book not because he cannot come up with good words on his own, but because he knows the focus of the Mass is Jesus Christ, not the priest. The music serves the Mass rather than the other way around because the musicians know they are liturgical ministers rather than performers. We all recite the Creed together because we are one body in Christ. Our rule of praying communicates and informs our rule of believing. In praying the Mass this way, we are preparing ourselves to serve God when we leave this sacred space. We are cultivating ourselves for spiritual growth through our worship.

Today is Father’s Day, and hopefully the kids are treating dad in a special way. I am a father myself, and I think the readings today speak to our growth as Fathers. An instructional manual would admittedly have been great, but most Dads had to cultivate themselves and trust that God would handle the outcome. We fathers have a perfect role model in our Heavenly Father. And through our personal behavior of worship and belief, we have taught our children the most important thing they can know: that God loves them and will take care of them.

And while this is Fathers’ Day, we cannot leave out Mom. Together, Dad and Mom have been living a life of self-sacrifice, of dying to self. That is just what Jesus did on the cross, and just what the apostles and saints did after Jesus rose to his throne in heaven. Parents show their kids that true love is a love of giving oneself to another for their good. True love is not always saying yes to whatever gets proposed. Sometimes the greatest thing a dad can do for his kids is to tell them no because he knows what they want to do is dangerous to their bodies or their souls. Parents teach their children wisdom, how to listen for God’s will and to respond to it, even if everybody else is turning away. Dad is here at Church when so many dads are on the golf course or on a boat fishing. By his rule of praying, Dad is communicating what he believes and who he worships.

So we thank our Heavenly Father for our earthly fathers, and we thank our earthly fathers for everything they do for us. We honor them, as we honor God. We pray that they continue to grow in their lives of faith, and we promise to keep growing in our lives, too.

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Justin evangelist

Today, on the feast of Justin the Martyr, we are reminded that in his last speech to his Roman executioner, Rusticus, that he died preaching the Good News.

Answering Rusticus’ question on the Christian teaching, Justin said:

Worship the God of the Christians.

In this simple statement, Justin acknowledges that there are other gods to worship, which would not have been news to Rusticus but is somehow news to us today. The God of Mammon never demands our worship, service, and adoration. He sneaks and slithers and hints and intimates. It is just what everyone else is doing, and so we don’t realize that we made a choice to follow Mammon.

Every day we choose God or ‘not God’ and many times throughout the day we are offered a chance to revisit that choice. Pray for the strength to turn away from sin and to accept the gift of salvation.

Justin Martyr, pray for us.

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Circles and Triangles and Lava and Ice, Oh My

Today is Trinity Sunday, when the Church celebrates one of its greatest mysteries. We affirm our belief in the mystery of the Trinity every time we recite the Nicene Creed. The mysteries of the Church are supernatural truths. These are realities that we know to be true, and we accept the fact that we cannot fully define them because they are above and beyond our human nature. We simply don’t have the words.

Now, we need words for definitions, but they are not so important for contemplation. Trinity Sunday is a day for us to ponder the infinite, eternal, triune God. All the mysteries of the Church, including the mystery of the Trinity, are invitations to contemplation. And a good place to begin contemplation of a mystery like the Trinity is the writings of the Church Fathers.

St. Athanasius was a deacon at the Council of Nicea in 325, where the Church met to respond to the heretical claim that Jesus was not truly the same as God the Father. Athanasius later became Bishop of Alexandria, and he spent the rest of his life defending the truth of the Holy Trinity.

Athanasius was firm on the “oneness” of God. In the Athanasian Creed it says, “the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.”

God the Father is God, God the Son is God, God the Holy Spirit is God. The three persons are all of the same substance. If you are tempted to think of the Trinity as an equilateral triangle, imagine the triangle as being a triangle that is also a circle at the same time because you cannot tell one of the three faces of the triangle from the other two because they are all one thing.

If you having some difficulty picturing a triangle that is a circle without losing its basic triangle-ness, then you are beginning to contemplate a mystery.

The Athanasian Creed is equally firm on the “three-ness” of God, for it says, “there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.” Now, when I add one (for the Father) and another (for the Son) and another (for the Holy Spirit), I get a total of Three. Which is probably why the next line in the Creed is this: “But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal.”

So there is one God, and there are three persons.

The three persons are not separate but they are distinct in relation to each other.

We teach that the Son – the Word of God – is begotten of the Father. The Word proceeds from the Father while at the same time remaining in the Father. We say in the Nicene Creed, “Light from light.” When we light a candle from another candle, the light of the first candle is not lessened by the light of the second candle. But the father and the son are not two separate beings, as two candles are two beings. This begetting occurs within the inner life of the one God.

We teach that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father, and the infinite love between them is the breath of God, the Holy Spirit and the third person of the one God.

I mentioned the image of the light from candles, and there are other natural things used in the scripture to help us approach the mystery of the Trinity. At the baptism of the Lord, the voice of the Father comes from the heavens and the spirit of God descends like a dove. Thus we see that the fullness of the Godhead is with us whenever we sense the presence of any person of the Trinity.

There are also some natural phenomena that might help us approach these truths of the faith that are just too big for us to comprehend fully. When we see an iceberg floating in the sea, we know but cannot fully comprehend how much ice is below the surface. When we see pictures of the lava flows on the big island of Hawaii, can we really comprehend in our minds how hot it has to be to set rock on fire? We’ve all seen ice, and we’ve all seen fire, but arctic icebergs and volcanic lava serve as reminders we don’t really know the fullness of ice and fire.

What are we to do in our daily lives with a mystery like the Holy Trinity? How does it apply to us?

First, this Triune God loves us and called us to be his sons and daughters. St. Paul reminds the Roman Christians that if we are led by the Spirit of God, we receive a spirit of adoption and intimacy so we can call God the Father, “Abba” just as a young child today calls his father, “Daddy.” Our God loves us so much he became Man – the Word was made flesh – and died on the Cross for us. Our God loves us so much the breath of God is here as a Holy Comforter and Advocate to protect the Church from the assaults of the Devil. We are loved by our God, more than we can possibly imagine. And our prayers should include contemplating that love.

Second, this Triune God wants us to share his love for us with our neighbors. On the mountain in Galilee, Jesus sends out his Apostles. He tells them to “make disciples of all nations.” Our job is to share the Good News. How should we share that Good News, how do we make disciples? Probably not by trying to explain the mystery of the Trinity. All we have to do is to live a holy life, one marked by the fruits of the Holy Spirit. If we are joyful people, if we are peaceful people, if we are kind people, if we are gentle people, and if we are people of self-control, others will want whatever it is that makes us joyful, peaceful, kind, and gentle. You or I may be the first book of the Bible some other person reads. Let’s make sure they want to read the rest of the Bible.

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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.”


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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