To what end?

Two things I ask of you,
deny them not to me before I die:
Put falsehood and lying far from me,
give me neither poverty nor riches;
provide me only with the food I need;
Lest, being full, I deny you,
saying, “Who is the LORD?”
Or, being in want, I steal,
and profane the name of my God.
—Proverbs 30:7-9
There’s hardly a better argument for Aristotle’s “Golden Mean” than today’s first reading. (It’s even quite possible this verse was written first).
As Catholics, we often hear a lot about avoiding excess, but not quite so much about avoiding poverty. Don’t most priests and religious take an entire vow of poverty? Then how could sacred Scripture seemingly contradict this frequent idealization of poverty, of a general “lack” of possessions in the Catholic tradition?
 As is the case with so many matters of faith, these questions boil down to a simpler one: “What do we value in life? How does that change our definitions of poverty and riches?”
If we look to Pier Giorgio Frassati, the tension between rich and poor is at play throughout much of his life. In terms of finances, he was incredibly #blessed: he was well-to-do with plenty of opportunity afforded him due to his family’s political and economic status. This type of wealth,  however, was only of value to Pier Giorgio as far as it was able to provide for his mission and for others. His bus fare was more valuable as his starving brethren’s dinner. His health was more valuable as his capability to serve the sick. Likewise, those starving in the slums are not inherently better off in spirit than those whose table is always full.
The wealthy are not Good because of their wealth. The needy are not Good because of their need.
In every discussion about possessions, riches, or poverty, their is always an implied question: “To what end?” Money may be a facilitator or an obstacle. Starvation may be redemptive suffering or unwanted agony.
If the resources you and I possess are of any value to us, we must ask the question, “To what end?” Where does our heart’s contentment lie? With riches? Than we will inevitably find ourselves asking, “Who is the LORD” (i.e. What does He matter to me?). With poverty? Than we risk envy, cynicism, and being holier-than-thou. “Do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.”
Instead, we must pray and work to always desire relationship with the Lord. If we value the LORD above all, we can see times of feast as an opportunity to increase our gratitude and times of famine as opportunities for increased faith and prayer.
I ask that we pray tonight for a spirit akin the Psalmist in today’s responsorial:
Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet.
Remove from me the way of falsehood,
and favor me with your law.
Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet.
The law of your mouth is to me more precious
than thousands of gold and silver pieces.
Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet.
Your word, O LORD, endures forever;
it is firm as the heavens.
Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet.
From every evil way I withhold my feet,
that I may keep your words.
—Ps 119:29, 72, 89, 101

Zero-sum Game

Not only does the Lord work in mysterious ways, but He often speaks in mysterious ways.

My studies in college revolved around global economics, politics, and their effects on culture, and recently one of God’s mysterious messages has arisen as a theme in prayer and discussions that hearkens back to my freshman year lectures: the Zero-Sum Game.

A layman’s introduction: In the late middle ages and into the Renaissance, Europeans went goo-goo for colonies. Once new continents and worlds were discovered, a European Messiah complex, coupled with a healthy dose of greed, fueled a ravenous land grab. The international policies of the time were surprisingly simple: More colonies equals more trade and more resources to exploit, and that trade/exploration combo can make people disgustingly wealthy. The politics of the day revolved around this zero-sum, fear-based belief that “what isn’t mine is lost.”

During these Colonially-oriented classes, we touched on a commonly-held theory of the time: The Zero-Sum Game. Zero-sum politics can be summed up pretty easily: If I don’t claim something, somebody else will and I end up losing out.

Okay, Aidan, what in the world does this have to do with today’s readings?

Well zero-sum thinking goes far beyond politics; a host of psychological studies and papers have been written on the subject. With that in mind, I’ve recently spent a great deal of time thinking of how a zero-sum bias affects my faith life. Spoiler: it’s not how God thinks, and therefore it doesn’t end well.

Both today’s first reading and the Gospel treat on people’s perceptions of goodness. St. Paul discusses how Good Things, even so good as the gifts of the Holy Spirit, are emptied of their meaning without love. Wisdom, prophecy, tongues, all fizzle out if they do not have Love. Alternatively stated, they mean nothing if they are not attuned to the mind of God, who is Love. We may believe that we are doing others a service, we may believe that our preaching has value, I might believe that my reflections are pretty stinkin’ good (as the Gospel says, “Wisdom will be vindicated by her children,” so I suppose time will tell…), but if they are not wholly rooted in a love of Jesus Christ and His Church, then all of those talents are worse than useless: they are distracting, irritating noise.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus likens the the crowds to kids in a shopping mall: they’re quick to criticize, even contradicting themselves in the process. They’re not happy, and can’t be made happy.

In my life, unhappiness nearly always has some kind of root in comparison. How many of these statements, pulled from my own brain, ring true for you? (I hope I’m not the only one who thinks these things)

  • Why do they have it easier?
  • Why don’t they have to work as hard as I do?
  • Why am I restless? Why don’t I have a more meaningful project that I’m working on?
  • Why don’t I have as much free time as they seem to have?
  • Why am I bored? Their life seems more exciting.
  • Why am I suffering? Especially when they are not?
  • Why don’t they trust me with more important responsibilities?
  • How could they possibly believe that? I’m so glad my beliefs are different.
  • Why can’t they just believe what I do?

Get the idea? “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Do you live your faith with a zero-sum mindset? In comparing yourself to others, do you feel threatened by them? Jealous of them? Do others succeeding make you bitter or eager to point out their shortcomings?

The love of God is overabundant, overflowing, it multiplies: it is grace upon grace. God does not operate in absolutes or finite amounts. God is absolute. God is infinite.

The more I hear of Jesus’ love, the more I see how my jealousy leads me astray from Him. Why does it irk me when others have good things?! Should I not rejoice? Am I no different than those kids in the shopping mall?

Goodness builds. Others’ success edifies, scaffolds, increases. Our job is to love, and to celebrate the blessings of God in our life AND in our sisters’ and brothers’ lives. Don’t be afraid to compliment, don’t be afraid to celebrate others. Most of all, do not give into the lie that what you do not possess is lost. Our call to Love is far different:

Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, love is not pompous,
it is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing
but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

—1 Cor 13:4-8

A People of the Beatitudes

In listening to a reflection on the Beatitudes today, the speaker asked their audience to reflect upon what it means to live the Beatitudes. Not just to believe in them, but to live them.

To live the Beatitudes is to value the things that this world does not. To see with God’s eyes and hear with God’s ears.

We live in a world full of “takes”, of people and outlets vying for our attention by giving their spin or opinion on the world unfolding around us. I cannot begin to tell you how many different articles I saw posted on social media that were trying to vindicate or vilify Archbishop Viganó’s letter of accusation. The “liberal” Catholic figures were attempting to poke holes in the statement, the “conservative” Catholics were calling for the resignation of the Vicar of Christ, and most of the laity fell somewhere in the middle to be buffeted back and forth by one “take” after another. I began to despair, to be frustrating, to find myself alternately excited that the horror might not be as deep as it seemed and terribly, terribly angry that it very well could be.

Instead of attaching myself to either side of the “aisle” of this politicized version of Catholicism, I decided to cleave to the LORD. I prayed. I prayed my heart out, and I haven’t been that good with prayer lately, so you know I’m not saying it to brag. I say it because prayer is what brought me comfort. When the world around us takes every event and spins it into 2 alternate “realities” (call ’em facts and alternative facts, if that suits you), I took deep, deep comfort in the fact that their is ONE LORD and we shall have NO OTHER GODS above him.

Our LORD’s mind is not divided. His heart is pure, singly devoted to His children. Our LORD, given our participation, will sift the sheep from the goats, weave a braided cord and CLEANSE HIS HOUSE.

I’ve never been one for “fire and brimstone” preaching. Us cradle Catholics can be somewhat allergic to that. But in this last month where I have not known what is wheat and what is chaff, I have found myself praying for purifying fire. Elijah, calling down fire upon the prophets of Ba’al. I’m furious at many things, and most of all that the voice of Jesus Christ is being lost in this awful human noise. Drop your agendas, be respectfully skeptical of your favorite news source, and PRAY in a way that you have not yet. For those of you that have, bring the light of Christ to others; it shines in a way that blots out all the torches and pitchforks.

The voice of Jesus Christ is the voice that spoke the Beatitudes in today’s Gospel. Pray that we might all live these words, and see with God’s eyes what is valuable and true in the midst of the noise.

Blessed are you who are poor,
for the Kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.

Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!
Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.
For their ancestors treated the prophets
in the same way.

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
But woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way.

Shepherds

Today’s first reading offers a scathing critique of the shepherds who have neglected or mistreated their sheep. I cannot help but think of the priests, and perhaps even more so the bishops, who were sexual abuse perpetrators and their conspirators who covered up the sins.

I know we’ve all likely heard more than we can stomach about the recent report from Pennsylvania. As a Minnesotan, the sorrow rings true in my heart as we have had our own reports, our own accusations, our own lawsuits, our own criminal ‘shepherds’ here, too. The Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul declared bankruptcy to help them pay settlements to abuse survivors.

Since we’ve all heard so much from priests, leaders, friends, media outlets, and secondary sources, I implore you to read today’s first reading and hear a response to corruption and scandal in the Church straight from the mouth of God.

Before doing so, search your heart and intentions. So often with Scripture, we can get what we want out of it: If we read looking for fire and brimstone, we can find fire and brimstone. If we look for feel-good platitudes, well even Biblical truth can be stripped of its potency by bad or incomplete readings.

Read these verses with the accused in mind. Read it again with the survivors in mind. Read it with your local parish in mind. Read it with yourself in mind.

Today’s prophecy from Ezekiel offers a critique and a warning, but it also offers justice and hope for the sheep. The Lord, with power and might, will come for his sheep.

Here it is, in its entirety:

The word of the Lord came to me:
Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel,
in these words prophesy to them to the shepherds:
Thus says the Lord GOD: Woe to the shepherds of Israel
who have been pasturing themselves!
Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep?
You have fed off their milk, worn their wool,
and slaughtered the fatlings,
but the sheep you have not pastured.
You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick
nor bind up the injured.
You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost,
but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally.
So they were scattered for the lack of a shepherd,
and became food for all the wild beasts.
My sheep were scattered
and wandered over all the mountains and high hills;
my sheep were scattered over the whole earth,
with no one to look after them or to search for them.

Therefore, shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
As I live, says the Lord GOD,
because my sheep have been given over to pillage,
and because my sheep have become food for every wild beast,
for lack of a shepherd;
because my shepherds did not look after my sheep,
but pastured themselves and did not pasture my sheep;
because of this, shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
Thus says the Lord GOD:
I swear I am coming against these shepherds.
I will claim my sheep from them
and put a stop to their shepherding my sheep
so that they may no longer pasture themselves.
I will save my sheep,
that they may no longer be food for their mouths.

For thus says the Lord GOD:
I myself will look after and tend my sheep.

-Ezekiel 34:1-11

Feast of the Assumption

Sisters, Brothers:

Today is both a wonderful and terrible day for our Church.

I trust in Jesus Christ and his promises of life in Him. I proclaim my love for Mary, our invaluable intercessor, who was assumed bodily into Heaven, she was so pure.

Let’s pray for purity, then.

Let’s pray for mercy and justice. Today, Alyssa sang an Audrey Assad song at Mass: “Your rod and Your staff are a strange mercy in a world where I’m not yet home.”

Mercy, then. Mercy, mercy. Mercy, Lord. Your mercy come.

If any of us claim to believe in the power of prayer, may we now put it to the test like never before: Lord, bring your peace, healing, and love to your little ones, the victims. When all the world tells us that peace and healing are no longer possible, that ordained men have broken people in a way so that cannot be remade, we pray for your healing. We pray, that by the Blood of Jesus Christ, you will take this most evil of evils and bring about renewal.

I am at a loss for words. I do not need to add my “take” on the brutal truth. It’s true, and my God it’s brutal.

Instead, I will proclaim my faith, whether I feel it or not at this moment. I don’t. I will not proudly recite my faith from the rooftops today. I don’t claim to have much to offer in terms of comfort or clarity; it was just my day to write.

So I write my faith:

I believe in the Father. He is our creator. He is almighty.

I believe in Jesus Christ. He is the Son, the One who came into the world.

The virgin Mary miraculously bore Him, birthed Him, and raised Him as her son. She later was taken, body and soul, into Heaven to be with her truest loves.

I believe Jesus suffered. He died. He went down into the depths of death so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” He rose from the dead. He ministered further to His disciples and was then raised into Heaven to live forever with His Father.

He is our King, now and forever.

He is our Judge, now and forever.

I believe in the Holy Spirit.

I believe in the Holy Catholic Church. Even on days like today. Faith in the Church is not my right. It is not even my human, intellectual decision. It is the work of the Holy Spirit in my heart that has led, and will continue to lead me to profess my faith in the Holy Catholic Church. I believe in the Holy Catholic Church.

I believe that Saints can and do pray for us. Please pray for us today.

I believe that sins can be forgiven. Lord, forgive us today.

I believe that we, body and soul, may too join Jesus in eternal life because of His great and powerful Love and Mercy.

Mercy, then. Mercy, mercy. Mercy, Lord. Your mercy come.

Amen.

Earthen Vessels

We hold this treasure in earthen vessels,
that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.
We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.
For we who live are constantly being given up to death
for the sake of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

– 2 Corinthians 4:7-11

Look around you. Look at your spouse, your roommate, your good friend, your kids, your coworkers.

Do it. Right now. Look at them.

God the Father, through Jesus Christ, makes these people saints.

Tonight I attended a “Gospel Around the Grill” event put on by my local parish where we talked about the canonization process by which the Church proclaims Saints (with a capital “S”). The information was admittedly somewhat confusing and definitely fascinating, but ever since, my thought keep wandering back to the concept of humanity. Saints and their canonization are such an institution in the Church that sometimes it is easy to forget that they are not a separate category of being. They are not angels. They are not “other”. God did not hijack their humanity and release them as a holy automaton. The saints, every last one of them, were human.

Like your spouse, your roommate, your good friend, your kids, your coworkers.

Today we celebrate the feast of St. James the Apostle, and the readings selected for today certainly do not promote this narrative of saints as mythical creatures (if anything, they would almost seem a little harsh to anyone without the humility of a saint. Today’s first reading, much of which is presented above, talks about how Godly treasure resides in our “earthen vessels”. We’re dull clay pots holding golden, molten lava-fire-bright Grace, and if we play our cards right, it’s the Grace that does the walking, talking, and purifying. We can claim no accomplishment as our own: accomplishments, recognition, and glory are given by the Father alone, as today’s Gospel makes abundantly clear.

To paraphrase: “James, you will suffer with me, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you will celebrate in the eternal joy of Heaven with me. That’s for the Father to decide. He is the just Judge, He will search your soul and spirit to see if you spent your time shining up your earthen vessel to impress, or filling it with Grace to overflow.”

Today, please pray for the Grace to see the potential of God in every single person that surrounds you. Pray for the confidence that God can do that work in yourself.

And most of all: Pray and believe that the Father, through Jesus, will make you a saint.

Labor of Love

O LORD, you mete out peace to us,
for it is you who have accomplished all we have done.
– Isaiah 26:12

O LORD, oppressed by your punishment,
we cried out in anguish under your chastising.
As a woman about to give birth
writhes and cries out in her pains,
so were we in your presence, O LORD.
We conceived and writhed in pain,
giving birth to wind;
Salvation we have not achieved for the earth,
the inhabitants of the world cannot bring it forth.
– Isaiah 26:16-18

Jesus said:
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
– Matthew 11:28-30

It seems the LORD has a lot to teach us about our works in today’s readings. We have, respectively, a pure admission of God’s generosity and our inability to effect goodness upon the world, a lament of actions and struggles that leave us unsatisfied, and a promise from Jesus of what working IN HIM can do.

Having witnessed the birth of our child, the second verse listed above has an entirely new depth of meaning. The anticipation during pregnancy, the extreme anguish and sheer determination of labor, all to come to… naught? Devastating. Work, anguish, labor, struggle, without a prayerful heart, does not bring life to the world. Doing anything other than pursuing your current calling with your whole heart does not bring life into the world. The verse is moving and poetic (maybe even a bit off-putting or strange), but it’s also quite direct: nothing we can do apart from Jesus will bring life.

Conversely, ALL who are burdened, ALL who labor can find rest in Jesus Christ. No matter the work, no matter the recognition. Alyssa and I discussed the powerful sermon she mentioned yesterday (Here’s the link again if you want to watch it), and how it gave her renewed hope in this season as a stay-at-home mom: Our heavenly Father notices every little ounce of effort we put forth in our lives. In case you don’t know, stay-at-home mom life is not the most public of existences. Sure, with lots of planning and hauling of gear, you can have a fairly busy social life, but even so, so much work is behind the scenes. If she were to live her life solely running on the affirmation of human beings, she would have run out of gas a long time ago. That’s when exhaustion, resentment, or apathy can kick in. If we live our lives oriented toward our friends’, coworkers, and family’s perception of us, we will run out of steam. Every time.

Do you feel like you’re running out of steam? Read that last verse. Let it soak in. Read it again. These are Jesus’ words to you. ALL who are burdened. ALL who labor. Seek Jesus, and there is rest. Every time.

(…and if you feel like you’ve got it all made, you should seek still Jesus, just in case you turn out to be human.)