Thursday, January 20, 2011

Living a Sacrificial Life for Love of Him who loves us first - Jesus!

Sisters and brothers of Christ and friends of St. Francis, let us begin the New Year with our father, St. Francis of Assisi, on Mt. Alverno.  He is kneeling on this cold night with sister Moon shining down upon him, crying out to our loving Father.  We can hear his voice clearly as he prays:
                  Oh Lord Jesus Christ, I entreat You to give me two graces before I die: first, that in my lifetime I may feel in body and soul as far as possible the pain You endured dear Lord, in the hour of Your most bitter sufferings; and second, that I may feel in my heart as far as possible that excess of love by which You, O Son of God, were inflamed to undertake so cruel a suffering for us sinners.'

Francis was praying for something so amazing, so wonderful and so hard, that probably most of us have never considered praying something like this for ourselves.  Who are we to ask for something so holy and also, would we have the strength to bear up under Christ's cross?!  Well . . . we are the children of our father Francis and have stated our intention to 'follow in his footsteps' - live, think and feel like Francis.  This prayer and the response of God to it - the Stigmata - are our birthright as his children.  If anyone has the right to pray this . . . it is us!

The real question is . . . why would we want to pray this prayer, or at least part of it?!  Understanding God's love for us, that compelled Jesus with the greatest urgency to die for us, would be wonderful since His love is SO wonderful.  But to feel such horrific pain . . .?!  And yet, notice that this request is the first part of the prayer indicating how important Francis thought it was.

Francis truly followed in Jesus' footsteps and during the 2 remaining years of his life after receiving the stigmata, was selfless, loving and very concerned about EVERYONE else (forgetting himself) even as he suffered the daily agony of crucifixion through the Stigmata.  We all know talk is cheap and feelings/thoughts can be more like dreams, unconnected to reality.  However, nothing (in this world) is more real that what we feel and do with our bodies.  Francis followed Christ 100%, counting the cost, and was more than wiling to pay the price.

This prayer is our's by right . . . if we want it.  By resolving to follow Christ in the footsteps of St. Francis, we have chosen to make the prayer our own.  Trying to understand God's love only with words, thoughts and feelings CANNOT bring us to the truest understanding and realization of that Love.  THAT love is something we DO, not something we think or talk about.  Those who think they understand it through thinking are living in an illusion.  Feeling it in your flesh, understanding it thrupain and suffering, brings one into the very heart of God - where our father Francis is.

This year, 2011, let us take advantage of every opportunity God gives us to suffer in our body - through illness/disability or by abuse from others - to plunge into the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Francis saw all of these sufferings as a sign from God of His desire to give us great honor, for one is closest to Christ in His agony, when one shares his pain and sorrow.  Let us celebrate before God, with praise and thanksgivings, our trials and temptations and, like father Francis, let us know the Love of God.  There is nothing greater in the Universe.  After all, as St. Paul said, 'God IS Love'.  Let us go on from here to know God.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Who is a 'stranger'?

I was assigned a new 'client' - a person recently convicted of a crime and assigned to me - a probation officer.  As I stood in the doorway leading to the waiting room, I read out his name - "_______".  He looked up nervously, got up and came to me.  I didn't recognize him and the only thing I knew about him was that he was a felon, convicted of committing a serious crime - a sex crime.  A stranger?  Yes, and one that most of us wouldn't want to know any better!

Recently, I was walking down the main street in town and passed the doorway of a local business.  Piled in it was an assortment of blankets, a shopping cart filled with what looked like garbage and, huddled up against the door, an old woman, filthy with grime - apparently sleeping.  I didn't know her and continued on my way, saying a quick and nervous prayer for her.  After all I thought, she was no one to me - a stranger living hard but . . . not my responsibility, after all.  I mean, I didn't know her!

Jesus said, "When I was a stranger . . . you welcomed Me".  I can't imagine Jesus as a 'stranger'.  He has been in my life for so long (decades) and has stood by me, supporting, encouraging, and strengthening me during the hard times and celebrating with me the good.  It is too hard for me to try to imagine Jesus being a stranger.  Also, even when I first met Him He never treated me as a stranger but as an old friend, more so, a dear long-lost friend.

However, Jesus sometimes (especially after His resurrection) came to His friends as a stranger. 

When Mary Magdalene was searching for Jesus' body she came across various people - the soldiers assigned to guard the tomb, angels and also the Apostles.  However, she also ran into a 'stranger' who she thought either owned the Garden in which Jesus' body had been buried or who she thought might be the caretaker/gardener of the place.  She was desperate to find Jesus' body when this 'stranger' approached her.  The Gospel says "She saw Jesus standing there but did not recognize Him".  Jesus even spoke to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?  Who are you looking for?"  He not only appeared to be someone other than Himself but never indicated that He was anything but a stranger to her.  Her response, "Sir . . ." makes it clear that she didn't know Him.

Later He appeared to two disciples as they were traveling from Jerusalem.  St. Luke says, "Jesus Himself came up and walked by their side; but something prevented them from recognizing Him."  Later, He 'broke bread' with them and, Luke says, "And their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; but He vanished from their sight".  The two said, "Didn't our hearts burn within us as He opened to us the words of the prophets?!"  This just affirmed what they felt while with this 'stranger', who walked and spoke with them - he was the Christ!

Finally, He appeared to Peter and several of the other Apostles as they were fishing. St. John said, "It was light by now and there stood Jesus on the shore, though His disciples did not realize that it was Jesus".  He tells them to cast their net out to catch fish, calling them 'friends' as he did so - though He appeared to be a 'stranger'.  Following His directions, they do catch fish - a lot of them! - and St. John says to Peter after seeing this miracle (they had fished all night without catching even one!), "It is the Lord!"  St. Peter, apparently believing what John said, jumped into the sea and swam to shore.  At breakfast on the shore,  St. John made the observation that "None of the disciples was bold enough to ask, "Who are You?": they knew quite well it was the Lord".  The proof - besides the miracle of the fish?  Jesus spoke to them intimately, asking Peter "Do you love Me?" and also affirming St. John with the words, "If I want him to stay behind till I come, what does it matter to you (Peter)?  You are to follow Me."  It must have been disconcerting to the disciples to look at this man - looking so different than the Jesus they had walked with for the last 3 years - and realize that, despite appearances, HE WAS JESUS.

St. Francis had a similar experience.  Before he 'left the world' but after God had touched his heart (filling him with a great desire for spiritual things) he was riding his horse one day when, in the distance, he saw a leper approaching, with hand held out, begging for an alms.  Francis wheeled his horse around to race away but God stopped him and, overcoming his revulsion and fear, Francis went to the poor leper, got off his horse and not only gave him a generous alms but kissed the lepers hand - for the love of Christ.  Overcome with emotion, he leaped back onto his horse and rode away.  He describes this as a pivotal moment in his life and so, in gratitude a day or two later, sought out the leper to offer more help.  He found out from local residents that no leper lived in the area!  Francis was convinced thereafter that Christ had appeared to him, in the form of the poor leper, so as to transform his heart with love!

Francis said about poor 'strangers': "Whoever says anything evil to a poor man, insults Christ by it . . ."  Also, "When you see a poor man, brother, a mirror of the Lord . . ."  Once again, Francis encouraged us to 'welcome the stranger' for in him we can find the Christ.

Strangers?  Those people in the elevator with you.  Those waiting in line to buy groceries.  That person sitting alone on a park bench.  That woman in the church who no one talks to.  They are all the strangers that Jesus so powerfully identifies Himself with.  He said, "When I was a stranger you welcomed Me".  Welcoming means being friendly, putting the stranger at ease, trying to meet their needs, especially for human contact.  This is what Jesus meant and is the way He is with everyone.  This is how Jesus feels and treats us since, as a human, he learned that no one is really a stranger.  Everyone is a friend - a member of the family of God.  My new client was a stranger, as was the homeless lady.  I had another chance with my client but never saw the homeless lady again.  God give me grace, the next time, to be warm and welcoming to her as a human being, as a child of God, as Christ suffering.  Jesus help me to see You in everyone I met, especially the sad, lonely and forsaken.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Working in my Yard, feeling the Rich Earth in My Hands, Fills me with Joy and, at the same Time, Helps me get Closer to God!

 I love to work in my yard, cutting the lawns, trimming hedges, weeding and planting flowers and shrubs. There is something quite wonderful smelling the rich earth and fresh cut flowers. I love the sensation of my hands digging in the rich earth, of a cool breeze blowing on my sweaty body - cooling me - as the sun beams down warmly. It is great to see the various bugs crawling around and see birds flitting around, singing as they go about their business. Working in the yard is not work to me. It's renewal. It heals, refreshes and renews my mind and my soul. It fills me with good feelings, good thoughts and inspires me to be the best person I can be. Very strange the effect it has - very spiritual - when all it is is 'work'!

Work has a bad rep. Many people think that work is part of the curse that humanity brought on itself when we chose to believe the lies of the devil and distrust God - disbelieve that He is truly good and wants to bless us always. This is understandable since God told Adam what he could expect after turning from Him and eating the fruit, "Accursed be the soil because of you! Painfully will you get your food from it as long as you live. It will yield you brambles and thistles, as you eat the produce of the land. By the sweat of your face will you earn your food, until you return to the ground as you were taken from it. For dust you are and to dust you shall return."

However, we forget what God had said before the 'Fall' to Adam, "Yahweh God took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden to cultivate and take care of it. Then Yahweh God gave the man this command, 'You are free to eat of all the trees in the garden'." Note that, after making Adam, he gave him 'work' - 'cultivating' the Garden. He was to be responsible to make the garden flower and flourish - make it bear fruit in abundance. He was to 'take care of it' - show loving concern, tend and minister to it, love and nurture it, cherish it.

God made all things good - both the earth and all creatures and man. After each day of creation God looked at His work and said, "It is good!" When He made Man He was especially pleased! After making man in His own image - 'with His own likeness' - He said, "It is good! It is VERY GOOD!" The goodness was reciprical - good for good, grace for grace. God wanted Adam to work the land because it was a 'good' thing to do. Man was to bless (benefit) the garden and the garden would, in the process, be a great blessing to Man. Man would be blessed with fruit and beauty but would also be blessed in his soul as well. The earth, all created things, would help man to know, understand, appreciate and love God more fully - help him grow in his relationship with God.

St. Paul said, "What can be known about God is perfectly plain to them since God has made it plain to them: ever since the creation of the world, the invisible existence of God and His everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind's understanding of created things". Note that both God's existence and His power is revealed through His creation. In like manner His mind, heart and goodness is also revealed. Getting 'back to nature' actually means finding one's way back to God. Every creature reflects, like a work of art, the creativity of the mind and heart of God - the Master Artist. Therefore, getting close to nature allows one to get close to God.

One of the most wonderful things about working with nature is getting your hands on it - feeling it - and seeing, at the end of one's efforts, the fruit of your efforts. The fruit trees bloom, put off a wonderful smell, attract buzzing bees and lovely birds and then produce fruits that draw more birds and squirrels. It is nice to see the seeds you planted break through the soil, rise up into the air and then produce wonderful flowers. It is all . . . so wonderful, so good!

I thank You Father for the gift of work - especially the joy that comes from working the earth. I thank you that it renews my spirit and reveals to me the wonder of Your own good nature. I thank You for the fruits of my labor and the many creatures who are my companions while I do it. It is all wonderful how You accomplish Your good purposes through me and at the same time, use those very things to accomplish Your good purposes within me. How truly wonderful and good You are Father. I am very glad, very grateful, for all of these wonderful gifts. I am very grateful for Your love of me and of Your blessing me with Your love. Thank You Father. Amen.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Annunication, though Joyful, also asked Mary to risk a terrible death or become the object of ridicule and abuse as an Adulteress!

The young girl had gone outside - the only place for real 'privacy' since the one room house she lived in was very small and her parents were now sleeping.  It had been a long but uneventful day.  She was tired, wanted to go to sleep, but had few opportunities during the day to be alone  . . . with God.  This late night vigil was not the first for her.  Though only about 14, she had for years sought God in the quiet stillness of the night.  It was her favorite part of the day even though she struggled against fatigue - fought the desire (need) to sleep.  She refused to give up this sweet time with God.  This night her life was to change for ever!  The angel Gabriel appeared and told her some wonderful (but personally frightening!) news: Mary would become pregnant with the very Son of God!

Mary seems to have had it all - at least from a spiritual perspective.  After all, she grew up under the loving guidance of two great people, her parents (saints no less!)  She grew up with the knowledge of God - the greatest gift parents can give their child.  She was devout, faithful, and fervent in prayer and experienced the presence of God in her life.  Adding to all of these blessings were those that came with the Arch-Angel Gabriel, the great things God was going to do for her: making her the Mother of His heavenly Son, Jesus the Christ.  She would be given the opportunity to provide loving support to God's own Son (her son!), teach Him about God and guide Him, preparing Him for the work of salvation that would save all of humanity.  What greater honor and glory could anyone hope for or imagine!

However, this gift of the Son of God was one that would, in the here and now, have serious life-threatening consequences for Mary.  We hardly think about those things though they are what give Mary the glory that she deserves. Mary must have given deep thought to what was being asked of her.  She was engaged to be married but the wedding date was some months away.  Her pregnancy wouldn't show right away, but, after a few months, it would be obvious to everyone that . . . she was pregnant.

What would she say, especially to Joseph who she saw on a daily basis since they lived in the same small village?  He longed to be with her, noticed everything about her and would note her mood and appearance to her whenever he saw her each day.  He would notice that she was getting larger around the waist. and given that everyone was poor (didn't generally have enough food) it would become clear that it wasn't from over eating!  When confronted by him what could she say?  If she told the truth he would think she was mad or lying.  Who got impregnated by God?!  And, if God wanted to do this thing, why would he choose a poor simple peasant girl in this village of Nazareth?  Joseph would reasonably conclude that what Mary was saying was preposterous, impossible.  What would Joseph do?  He was a good trusting man but, being down to earth, like most people would conclude that this pregnancy (like most!) was due to her having sex with a man and of course he would know that he was not that man.  He would be extremely hurt, disappointed and possibly very angry.

Mary would have to conclude that Joseph, after deciding that Mary had had an affair, would have very few options - none of them very good.  He could go ahead with the marriage, take her into his home, and raise the child as his own.  No one else would know this terrible secret but it could gnaw at him for the rest of his life.  In addition, the child would be a living reminder both of Mary's supposed infidelity and of the man who had had sex with her.  The child would be a living image of that man who had shattered Joseph's hopes and dreams - stole his bride. This man was probably someone he knew - someone who also lived in the small village - and he would always wonder which friend, neighbor or relative was 'the one'. He would have to live with the knowledge that this someone, for the rest of his life, would laugh at him behind his back - would have a secret claim on both Mary and her child.

Joseph could also publicly denounce his bride to be.  He could  curse Mary as he proclaimed to everyone that she had wronged him, shaming herself and her parents through her act of infidelity.  He would announce that she had violated both the law of God and her own sacred marriage agreement with him by giving in to sexual temptation.  By renouncing Mary he would wash his hands of her and surrender her to the justice of the law of Moses.  That law made it clear that Mary . . . must be stoned to death. Joseph would, of course, have the right to throw the first stone but even if he didn't the villagers would take care of her punishment.  Even if the community decided to not stone her - if Joseph was generous enough to try to persuade them to not take that course of action - she would be hated, despised, mocked and shunned for the rest of her life - as would her child.  She would, in effect, be an outcast of the village and, worse than that, be the object of scorn and verbal attacks, slaps and kicks, each day - as would her child.

Mary had to think about most of this after Gabriel announced what would happen to her - what God would do.  It is clear that Mary knew she had a choice because her response to the angel was "I am the Lord's servant.  May it be to me according to your word."  (These words remind us of Jesus' own words in the Garden!).  Simple words, humbly said - but obviously very serious! Mary knew that this was God's will, God's work.  She knew her life was not her own anyway.  Her life was a gift from God and He had ultimate right over her, over her life.  She also knew that God was good and was doing only good in the world - often in the most mysterious way.  Finally, she knew that God was all powerful and all wise.  He would make it all right - turn it into something wonderful.  This was the God she knew, believed in, so she could confidently move forward with Him.

The story of the Nativity is beautiful, however, when we look more closely, we can see how hard it was - not an easy thing for any of those involved.  God, Lord of all, was in charge.  Our lives, with God, can also be hard.  We must encourage ourselves with the story of the Virgin Mary and Joseph, remind ourselves that in fulfilling God's will, by comparison we have it easy.  And when it does get hard not forget that others, in their journey of faith, proved they could endure with God's help.  We also, with God's help, can do all that God wants.  We see how Mary was blessed for her faithfulness.  We will also be blessed by submitting to the will of God in our lives.  God bless you all!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

'Mid-Life Crisis' OR 'When will God call me to do His work?!'

I was invited to a James Taylor + Carole King concert by friends at the Hollywood Bowl in L.A..  Boy, was it a trip . . . back in time!  I used to listen to their music when I was a teenager and here I was, over 30 years later, remembering and, in some sense, re-experiencing what I felt, thought and experienced 'back in the day'.

James Taylor and Carole King sounded great - gave a great performance  - to the packed 'bowl'.  I noticed that both were showing their age.  Boomers were everywhere but it was only after the lights came up that I was able to look around.  I was shocked to see all the gray heads.  Do I look like that?!  I don't spend a lot of time in front of the mirror but knew . . . of course I did!

Where had the time gone and what did I have to show for myself - what did I accomplish - in the years since I was an idealistic teenager?!  I was a bit upset to realize all of this and realilzed I was having a 'mid-life crisis' moment!

Well, in evaluating my life, I realized I I had had a successful academic career and, professionally, had done well since graduating.  I was married to a wonderful (and lovely) woman and had two great boys (still pretty young - since I was a bit of a late bloomer!)  I owned my home, had money in the bank and had great relationships with family, friends, co-workers - everyone.  I was healthy, physically fit and still full of vim and vigor.  Also, I had known and walked with the Lord for decades and knew a bit about scripture, the spiritual life, etc.  I was minister of our local fraternity of Secular Franciscans, was well-respected and people seemed to both appreciate and admire me.

However, considering my youthful aspirations - it was apparent to me that I had fallen far short.  At an early age Jesus had touched and transformed my life - flooding my dark soul with light, freeing me from depression, anxiety and many other emotional (and social) problems.  He had opened up life and the world to me and I felt extremely indebted to Him.  After all I had nothing - no life and no future (I was suicidal!) and He had given me life, 'and that abundantly!'  I wanted to serve Him and bring His message of love to the world.

I've tried but . . . accomplished so little.  I can't help but feel discouraged at times.  I'm getting older, my vitality and abilities seem to be declining, so when and how will I be able to fully serve, really please, the Lord?!

The Lord, however, reminded me of Moses who, from his birth seemed destined for great things in life.  Born, only to be 'thrown on the waters' of the Nile to die, God took him out of the river and placed him in the heart of the Egyptian royal family.  He was raised as the son of the daughter of Pharaoh and given all of the advantages of royalty: a great education, influential friends, experience in a postion of power and authority, wealth, etc.  Why would God place him there if it wasn't to accomplish some great work?!  What greater work needed to be done than the deliverance of the people of God from slavery and who was in a better position to do it . . . than Moses?!

Moses waited for decades for God to speak - give the word to act.  Finally, at the age of 40, he decided to take matters into his own hands.  He began to 'visit' his people in their slavery, intervene in their affairs.  His heart was in the right place - he loved the people - and wanted to serve and be a blessing to them.  He ended up killing an Egyptian who was unjustly attacking one of the Israelite workers.  The fact got back to Pharaoh and Moses ran for his life.  It was clear that though he was raised as Egyptian royalty he had chosen to ally himself with the people of God - the people enslaved to the Egyptians - making himself an enemy of Pharaoh and of the Egyptian state.

His hopes and dreams of serving God and serving God's people were dashed.  He went from the Royal courts of Egypt - the place of power in the Egyptian empire - to  . . . shepherding sheep in the wilderness!  What could he do in the wilderness!?  The Israelites - the people he felt called to help - now were many miles away.  The Hebrew Bible tells us he shepherded sheep for 40 years and I'm sure, his dream of delivering the people of God was put on the proverbial shelf and, eventually, forgotten. 

However, during those 40 years, Moses sought the face of God.  Not so much to get answers, accomplish some great 'work', but just to be with Him - to know, wonder at and celebrate His goodness.  The wilderness presented few distractions and the hours were long.  Who was there to talk to but God who, of course, is everywhere.  God was ever near and ever willing, to spend time with him, of course.  Moses had been faithful and devout before (during his time in Egypt) but His faith deepened in the wilderness.  His relationship with God become more intimate, more powerful - more all consuming.  Later, we see the result of this extended time living like a hermit in the wilderness.  The Hebrew Bible tells us God addressed Moses as 'my friend' - something God had never said about anyone before (until Jesus of course!)! A friend is someone you open your heart and mind to - who you talk to about those things that are most important to you.  Moses spoke to God and, deep in Moses' heart, God spoke to him.

Then one day, out of the blue, God appeared to Moses in the bush and gave him the ministry he had looked for all of his life!  Now, of course, Moses was a transformed man - prepared for the work God had in mind (had always had in mind).  Now (at 80!) Moses was ready to begin his life's work.  He would do that work for the next 40 years!

God teaches me that, before thinking about serving others in ministry, I must make Him the center of my life and serving him in prayer and praise should be my only (spiritual) objective.  Though Moses was sincere, fervent and very willing to serve, it is apparent that, in God's eyes,  he was not ready.  The 40 years in the wilderness were the foundation for his ministry since during them Moses truly allowed God to make Moses' relationship with Him the foundation of his life.  Moses' position in Egyptian society, no matter how powerful and influential that might have been, was not what  qualified him for the work.  It was his intimate relationship with God.

So . . . I guess I'm not too old!  I need to get out in 'the wilderness' (at least spiritually!) and seek the face of the living God.  Once my heart is firmly grounded in the Truth that He is, in the power of His goodness and the glory of His love then . . . He will be able to use me to do some good before I pass from this life.

P.S.  When Moses died at the age of 120 we are told that he had the strength and energy of a young man.  God willing, if we are as faithful, we'll do just as well and be called home at the height of our energy.  Won't that be a blast!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Jesus asks me, His Friend, for one hour of Loving Support in the Garden of His Agony. Yet . . . I keep falling asleep!

During the last night of Jesus' life His heart was greatly troubled. He was feeling desperate, filled with anguish, when He arrived with His disciples at the Garden of Gethsemane. "And He began to feel terror and anguish. He said to them "My soul is sorrowful to the point of death! Wait here and stay awake with Me". He fell to His knees, just a few feet away from them, and prayed with a heart overwhelmed with sorrow and fear. His anguish was so great that 'He prayed even more earnestly and His sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood'. He turned to them after praying and found them . . . sleeping. He said, "Are you asleep?! Had you not the strength to stay awake with me for one hour?!" Jesus never asked His friends to do much for Him while in this world.  One of the few things He asked - and it wasn't asking much - was this - that they STAY AWAKE with Him.  Regretably, His friends couldn't do this smallist of things for Him.

How alone, unloved, He must have felt that night! They slept as His heart was torn with the greatest agony! They had promised, all of them, to stay with Him 'to the death' . . . but could not provide the moral support, a word of encouragement, or even their mental presence to support Him when He most needed them (even after telling them how much He needed them) while He cried out for His life to God! He asked for 'one hour' but got . . . nothing.

Jesus, all His life, thought about what His last hours of life would be like. He knew the 'plan' required Him to suffer and die in the most degrading and painful way. He knew that He would be falsely accused, unjustly condemned, abused, mocked, beaten, spit upon, whipped and tortured in other ways and finally executed by crucifixion - a tortuous way of dieing. He knew men - evil sinful men - would do this and so planned to 'set His face like flint' to endure the abuse. However, how could He prepare Himself for how His 'friends' would fail Him?!

Soon thereafter Judas arrived - a very dear 'friend' - coming to betray Him. Jesus said when He saw Him, "My friend, why have you come?" Judas, earnestly called Him "Teacher!" and then kissed Him - an apparent sign of . . . love but actually an act of betrayal. Jesus was incredulous as He looked deep into Judas' eyes and said, "Do you betray the son of man with a kiss?!" He wasn't angry but heartbreakingly disappointed. What pain is greater than betrayed love?!

All of His disciples ran at this point and Jesus was left alone with His enemies.  They proceeded to drag Him to prison, beating, kicking and spitting on Him along the way. Peter followed Jesus to the prison.  It was cold and to warm himself he joined the high priests guards and servants - the enemies of Jesus - around the fire. Peter was questioned and accused of being a disciple of Jesus and, after  the third accusation, the Gospel tells us he began to curse with desperation - at everyone, including Jesus.  He suddenly realized the cock was crowing and it was at that very moment that Jesus was being dragged across the courtyard. The Gospel tells us that Jesus looked straight at Peter. At that same instant Peter, still cursing the name of Jesus, turned and saw Jesus - their eyes locked. Peter's eyes filled with bitter tears of regret and Jesus' eyes showed He was wounded to the core of His being at what Peter had just done. What pain is greater than that caused by a betrayal of trust, of love?!

Jesus, how did You endure all of these betrayals?! How did You keep loving Peter and Judas, and how do You keep loving us? How did You maintain Your focus on suffering and dying for us?!

St. Paul said about Jesus' loving sacrifice of Himself, "Some might take a chance and risk death for a good man but He proved the depths of His love for us by dieing for us when we were still sinners". Jesus loved us and willingly gave His life for us even though we prove ourselves unworthy - everyday - of any of the good He shows us.

Jesus had said, 'deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me'. Where do we follow Him? Jesus carried His cross up Calvary. If we follow Him that is where we will end up. But of course, all of this - the sufferings in the Garden, the passion and agony of the cross - happened thousands of years ago. Jesus was speaking figuratively right? He couldn't have REALLY meant that we would be with Him on Calvary! The Gospel makes it clear that this is exactly what he meant. This is what St. Francis of Assisi understood and that is why he literally became crucified - while meditating on the crucified Lord - when he received the Stigmata!

St. Paul said to some early Christians, "You have seen Christ crucified".  However, they lived years after Jesus was crucified. What did Paul mean? He also said to other Christians, "I would know nothing amongst you but Christ and Him crucified". Know, in the Greek, can be translated 'experienced'. How can Paul (or any of us) experience 'Christ crucified' now?

We can do this by meditating, like Francis, on the Passion stories found in the Gospels. We can transport ourselves spiritually, through prayer, to the last hours of Jesus' life and be with Him, offering loving support. The Gospels were designed by God, to transport us spiritually - outside of space and time - to the actual time Jesus was suffering.

Jesus is still waiting for His 'friends' to stay awake with Him in His hours of greatest human need - a need that He took on Himself for love of us. Jesus is still in Gethsemane, still in the prison, still being tortured and humiliated and still hanging on the cross - looking for a friend, for us. We can draw close to Him when we gaze upon Him on the crucifix while He suffers. We are close to Him, supporting Him, when we are aware of His humble sacrifice of Himself in the Eucharist. We can walk with Him in the Way of the Cross - loving Him and feeling His pain - sharing His pain.

Jesus, You tell me You are my friend and then prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. You tell me what a true friend is like and then You showed me by Your sacrifice of Yourself for me, a wretched sinner. I am stunned by Your love and dedication to me. I am unworthy - prove this everyday - however, what I do doesn't change the fact that You love Me and want to bless me. I beg You Lord, to give me the strength to keep vigil - to kneel at Your side, walk with you in the way of the Cross, keep watch at the foot of the cross - better, hang at Your side on my own cross - and be a true and good friend - be like You. I love You Jesus, want You and want to be with You always - no matter where that is, no matter how painful and sad. I love and trust You Jesus to show me the way to be a true friend of Yours. You deserve nothing less for You truly are most wonderful! Amen.

Check out my sister Blog 'St. Francis Speaks . . .'

Monday, May 3, 2010

Jesus Makes me Strong - letting me See that What Looks like a Curse is Actually . . . a Blessing!

The 23rd Psalm is so beautiful, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever".

God's words were the furthest thing from my mind when I accompanied my pregnant wife to the hospital for a 'check up'. She was seven months pregnant, had been in just the day before and there were 'some concerns'. The baby didn't seem to be growing much and it's head was a bit small. My wife had noticed that the baby rarely moved - the baby had been VERY active.

A heart monitor was attached to my wife's swollen belly. All was fine for the first few minutes and just as my worries began to subside the doctor announced, "I'm not getting a heart beat". However, after a few seconds, he heard it again. A few more minutes went by and again . . . no heartbeat. The babies heart stopped beating another 3 times over the next 20 minutes. Finally, the doctor told us, "You're baby is in distress and is dieing. Unless we take it out now it will die".

Jesus said, "Peace I give to you, my own peace I leave with you, not like the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid." Later He added "I have told you all of this so that you may find peace in Me".

Things began to move very fast. My wife was prepped for surgery and I was left alone with my fears for 10 minutes. Remembering the Psalm in my distress I tried to pray it. My heart was bursting with grief as I cried out to God to save my baby.

A nurse came, took me into the operating room, where I found my wife crying. I held her hand and caressed her, trying hard to assure. The baby was soon out but I couldn't see it from behind the cloth they had set up. I heard the urgent voices of the doctors and nurses and, a few moments later, a doctor rushed by me toward the door, holding a tiny limp creature - my son. Later, we were told his heart had stopped beating in the womb - that he had been born dead - and that it took another five minutes to bring him back.

Jesus said, "In this world, this life, you shall suffer many trials. However, be encouraged. I have overcome the world".

The next 24 hours were hell. The doctors were not optimistic and said our baby would probably die. We prayed with breaking hearts. A few hours later the doctors said the baby was on life support and that he would soon be back for our decision as to whether to withdraw life support. More hours passed and the doctor told us that we didn't have to make that terrible decision after all; 'God made it for you. Your baby will live'. However, with a tone of regret, he told us that his life would be very hard. Our son had a seizure condition (epilepsy) and would have cerebral palsy (poor/limited control of his body). He also indicated that our son would have serious mental disabilities.

King David in the 23rd Psalm said that, even if death is overshadowing him, he WILL not be afraid. He knows almighty God is with him and so is confident and relaxed, at peace, even though surrounded by enemies - people who want to kill him. He is actually so relaxed that he feels free to enjoy the many and varied blessings of God, material and spiritual: a 'well spread table', the sweet fragrance of the oil anointing his head and a goblet of wine so full with the blessings of God that . . . it overflows with joy! This peace remains unshaken - even when surrounded by hate, danger and the possibility of death!

We named our son Luke after St. Luke, the writer of the Gospel and the 'good physician'. He weighed only 1 1/2 pounds at birth. During the 7 weeks that Luke was in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) we saw many newborns that had serious health issues - some worse than Luke's. Some of those babies died. We began to learn to count our blessings as well as to pray for other suffering babies (and their parents).

Nearly 8 years later our son still wears diapers, can't walk or talk. There are very few things he can do for himself. He doesn't understand much nor can he tell us what he needs. However, he is a happy boy - given to smiling and laughing, getting 'goofy' - and his mom and I are happy he is around - grateful that he knows he is loved and is able to show us, in small ways, that he loves us.

Many people express wonder at how 'strong' my wife and I are. However we aren't strong at all. The experience broke and crushed our hearts. We survived, just like Luke did, by God's grace. The strong and gentle hand of God was there to steady and strengthen us (with faith and hope) - to give us peace (mend our broken hearts) when it became too much for us to handle. The Lord IS our shepherd - keeps us strong in our daily struggles - especially when worries for Luke's future rise like a threatening sea.

St. Paul said "The Lord is near. Never worry about anything; but tell God all your desires of every kind in prayer and petition shot through with gratitude and the peace of God, which is beyond our understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus". St. Paul was right - it doesn't make sense for a person to feel peace after one's hopes and dreams are shattered. Yet, through God's mercy, I know this peace. Jesus said that He wanted us to find 'peace in' Him. I did, as well as God's limitless goodness! Through prayer, I know that Jesus is near, guiding, comforting and blessing me. So . . . I offer Him words of praise in gratitude for blessings seen and unseen, and for this mysterious peace and indescribable joy, gifts of His love. I joyfully proclaim with King David, "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever".