Delighting in the Law

Blessed are you, O LORD;
teach me your statutes.
In your statutes I will delight;
I will not forget your words.
Open my eyes, that I may consider
the wonders of your law.
Make me understand the way of your precepts,
and I will meditate on your wondrous deeds.
Give me discernment, that I may observe your law
and keep it with all my heart.
Lead me in the path of your commands,
for in it I delight.
—Psalm 119:12, 16, 18, 27, 34, 35

Often we think of the law as something that places limits on our freedom—God’s list of don’ts. But true freedom does not mean we can act however we please without punishment; rather, it means being grounded in the truth, so that we are free to act in accordance with the purpose we were designed for, without being held back by the snares of sin and self-importance. True freedom must be rooted in truth; thus, it must be objective, not bending to our subjective demands. God’s law is not a list of restrictions; it is a recipe for our well-being, meant to help us to thrive.

Whether or not we believe that God’s law is rooted in truth, we will face the consequences if we choose to disregard it. When we begin to see the ways in which God’s law protects us from harm, we move beyond a sense of mere obligation and start to obey out of love for the God who cares for us and keeps us safe. When we find our will is stymied by His law, we will trust that He has our best interest at heart and seek to understand why He has placed that barrier before us. Ultimately, like a parent who places an arm out to keep their child from a ledge, His law is always for our good.

Rely on Him

Rely not on your wealth; say not: “I have the power.” Rely not on your strength in following the desires of your heart (Sirach 5: 1-2).

As a teacher, I often have to tell my students what not to do… I often go throughout the day saying, “Don’t poke your neighbor,” or “Don’t run in the classroom,” or “No! Don’t eat that!” However, in today’s First Reading, it is my turn to be told what not to do. I hear God say, “Don’t rely on yourself,” which is a reminder that I often need.

It is so difficult to let go, to move away from relying on ourselves. Like children, we need constant reminders of what not to do and what we should do instead. In today’s Gospel, we learn how to detach ourselves from self-reliance and different temptations that prevent us from growing closer to God.

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire (Mark 9: 43).

This image really wakes us up to the importance of looking at the world through God’s eyes. The earthly things that we may cling to with our two hands are nothing in comparison to God’s salvation. The Scriptures, along with our life experiences, continually teach us that we cannot rely on our own strength or possessions. Through our joys and sufferings, we learn to fully rely on God.

As Lent approaches, let us pray about what prevents us from following God wholeheartedly. Let us ask ourselves, “What do I need to cut out of my life to follow God more closely, to rely on Him alone?”

Open Hands

“They brought the boy to him. And when he saw him, the spirit immediately threw the boy into convulsions. As he fell to the ground, he began to roll around and foam at the mouth. Then he questioned his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” He replied, “Since childhood. It has often thrown him into fire and into water to kill him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “‘If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Then the boy’s father cried out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” Jesus, on seeing a crowd rapidly gathering, rebuked the unclean spirit and said to it, “Mute and deaf spirit, I command you: come out of him and never enter him again!” -Mark 9:20-25

I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.

I remember this moment so clearly. It was my first year in NYC a few years back, and I had already adjusted to the rush of the morning and evening commute after spending my whole life in the quiet Midwest. I was going through a challenging time and had been crying out to God for months, asking Him, “Where are You?” Head down, walking at the New York brisk pace, I made my way through the crowd to head home after a long day, the usual question playing in the back of my mind of if anyone else felt so lonely in the sea of so many faces. When I turned the corner to my block in Queens, I glanced up at the big tree across the street from my apartment and a gust of wind blew through its leaves. Then, out of nowhere, it hit me like a ton of bricks: God had been there with me all along. He never left. He was there in my struggle and there in the sea of faces.

I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.

Have you ever had a moment like that, friends, where God cracks through your darkness with His light just enough to make you realize He’s been there all along? I had been living from a place of unbelief for months, questioning where God was when all I needed was Him to lift the veil from my eyes and help me to see the reality of His love that had been right there waiting for me, aching for me, all along.

I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.

Jesus responded to this humble cry of the father in today’s Gospel with intimate love, presence, and healing. He was there. He is capable. Maybe things seem dark for you right now, maybe your heart is aching, maybe you’ve given up on praying about something. Jesus is there in that. He is there with open hands and has been there all along. Jesus invites us into a deeper relationship with Him. He invites us through all the ways He gives us His grace—the Sacraments, prayer, and the reality of His continual, steadfast presence with us. He aches for you.

I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.

This can be the battle cry of our hearts today. Jesus won’t be disappointed if we ask for His help with our unbelief, because when that is uttered from our hearts, we open our own hands to grasp His open hands in front of us, allowing Him to break through and remind us that He is with us and will never leave.

Hiding in Paradise

A two-year-old niece makes many things more fun, but Hide-And-Go-Seek is not one of them.  Zippy thinks that if she closes her eyes and can’t see me, then I can’t see her either.   Sometimes, to make it more challenging, she puts something over her face as if for a prolonged game of Peak-A-Boo.  Or, once I’ve really hidden—behind the refrigerator, or the door, or under the bed—she will hide there herself.  Again, and again, and again.  Each time, I am supposed to play surprised.

When Adam and Eve hide in the garden after eating the forbidden fruit, God asks “’Where are you?” Surely the omnipotent God already knows.  So why does God ask?  And why does He follow Adam’s answer with still another question: “Who told you that you were naked?”  God wants them to see them as they are, naked and hiding from Him.

In my last reflection I wrote about the strategies of the Opposition Voice, whose goal it is to separate the Father from His children.  He does this first by getting them to reject God.  His next strategy is to get them to believe that God will reject them.

In tempting them with the forbidden fruit, the Opposition had begun to sow doubt in God’s goodness, and thereby to instill a fear of dependence on God.  Adam and Eve are initially tempted to choose self-sufficiency—achieving God-like status on their own, by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Once they have eaten the fruit, the voice continues to promote self-sufficiency versus dependence on God.  They seek to cover their nakedness and dependence, and to hide from God rather than trust in His goodness.

As they lose sight of the God in whose image they are, they lose sight of His image in themselves.  “Guilt says you made a mistake; shame says you are a mistake” notes Gregory Cleveland, OMV.  And so to cover the mistake that they think they have become, Adam and Eve dress themselves in fig leaves.

It is an obvious strategy of the Opposition to make sin appear good, or perhaps necessary, or at the very least, not a big deal.  In a more subtle strategy, after our sin, the Opposition seeks to make our sin bigger than God.

After Genesis 3, we don’t get a visual on the serpent again until the Book of Revelation, when the seven-headed ten-horned dragon is at war with the Woman and Her Offspring.  But the Opposition Voice echoes through the books in between, spoken sometimes from without, and sometimes from within.  The first sin is for man to try to become like God on their own.  The second (and all subsequent) sins is to try to become like God on our own.

This is the mistake of the Pharisees, whom Jesus warns against in today’s Gospel.  “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” He tells His disciples.   The disciples are confused, thinking He has rebuked their forgetfulness (once again, they don’t have enough bread).  He recalls to them to the multiplication of the loaves, and asks “Do you still not understand?”

He is bringing them back not just to a previous lack, but to God’s providence in that lack.  It is God who provides everything.  He provides the grace to avoid sin, but also the grace to repent and to return once we have sinned.  He is the source of good, and the source of mercy when we are not good.

The Pharisees wish to adhere to a system of goodness based in the Law and traditions; to systematize a way to heaven with ritual and righteousness.  They cover themselves with the fig leaves of outer conformity to the Law, but like small children with their eyes closed, they presume that God cannot see the truth within them.

It is not the good deeds of the Pharisees that upsets Jesus; it is their reliance on them, versus reliance on God.  At its heart, it is still denial of God’s Fatherhood.

“Where are you?… Who told you that you were naked?”  Because man is now afraid and unable to approach and depend on God, God comes to earth as a naked baby, completely dependent on us.  And He shows us what dependence on humanity alone will lead to, when He is once again naked, stretched out on the Cross.

 

 

 

 

Other Paradise Trees

 

 

 

Don’t Doubt Your Gifts

“The Pharisees came forward and began to argue with Jesus,
seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him.
He sighed from the depth of his spirit and said,
“Why does this generation seek a sign?
Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”
Then he left them, got into the boat again,
and went off to the other shore.” -Mark 8:11-13

“Don’t doubt your gifts.” This is something that has come up many times in conversations with friends recently, and it’s something that I need to preach to myself, as well. God has given all of us gifts to use to build up His Kingdom. God made us all unique and unrepeatable with unique and unrepeatable gifts that He has etched into our souls at Baptism. Every single person in the Body of Christ matters and plays an integral role in witnessing to the Lord’s love. And brothers and sisters, we are at a time in our Church where your “yes” is needed.

You see, the gifts aren’t about us in the first place, and it’s certainly not about us being “good enough” because we aren’t. The Holy Spirit wills to work through us, broken and imperfect as we are, and God is aching for our “yes.” It’s all Him anyway; we just have to be open. And I feel that therein lies the biggest problem. We end up turning inward and closing ourselves off because we’re afraid, feel inadequate, compare ourselves to others, and worry way too much about what other people think of us. Don’t let the devil try to tell you that if you do the things on your heart that are burning from the Holy Spirit that no one will listen or get it. Nope, not a chance! The moment we open ourselves up and let the Holy Spirit pour through, amazing things can happen. Hearts are transformed by His fire.

Do we look for signs to test God or because we are attune to His will? Do we look for signs when we know what He’s calling us to but we’re just too afraid of what might happen if we say yes?

Today’s Gospel cuts to the core. Jesus had just multiplied the loaves and fish, and here the Pharisees are asking Him for another sign. It isn’t that God wants to make our lives difficult or His plans ambiguous for us, but when He has clearly given us a gift or shown us where He wants us to be, who are we to doubt Him and ask for another sign out of fear? We are faced with the choice of running and hiding in fear like Adam and Eve, or trusting like Mary.

God will show us the way—but when He has—don’t doubt it. I know it’s scary sometimes, and it’s okay to feel afraid. But let your fear fuel you into bold surrender to letting the Lord work in marvelous ways. Trust in His peace, take the leap, and follow, one step at a time. He is with you. Hold nothing back of yourself from the One who gives you everything.

“Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him. The task of the shepherd, the task of the fisher of men, can often seem wearisome. But it is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God’s joy which longs to break into the world.” -Pope Benedict XVI

Open Jar

Happy Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, friends! Today we remember how Mary appeared to St. Bernadette, identifying herself by saying, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

Mary being conceived without sin allowed her to be totally open, completely receptive to what God wanted to do in and through her. She said “yes” to the Lord at every moment—including His timing. Mary was never rushed; she was totally trusting in when and how God wanted to reveal Himself to her, even in watching her son, the Son of God, be crucified. Mary is like the water jars we hear about in today’s Gospel of the miracle at Cana—she was entirely open to the Spirit, providing the capacity for God to speak. Mary did this in every way—literally in giving of her body to give birth to the Word Incarnate, and spiritually in her receptivity and her fiat, her total surrender to God. And through her surrender, God worked wonders and brought about our salvation. Just like the water was turned into rich wine, God pours out an abundance of grace through her—all she had to do was say yes and provide the open jar of her body and soul for Him to do so.

God calls us to be like those open jars, too. Mary points the way to do this with her model of docility to the will of the Lord, speaking those words to us, as well: “Do whatever He tells you.” What are we willing to allow God to do through us? Where do we sometimes shrink back in fear? Do we stifle or doubt our gifts? God wants to do great things through you—all He needs is your own “fiat” to letting the Holy Spirit work through you.

Lourdes is a beautiful place of countless miraculous healings from the spring of water that welled up when Our Lady first appeared to St. Bernadette. The graces we receive from God flow through her Immaculate Heart, healing us, restoring us, redeeming us, and transforming us to be more like Jesus.

Probably the most beautiful monstrance I have ever seen in Adoration was one with Mary holding up the Eucharist. Mary always leads us to Jesus, holding nothing of herself back from Him, being open and vulnerable. With her as our Mediatrix and Queen, she will not lead us astray. We have such a good Mom. Let her love you, and let her bring you into deeper communion with our Lord’s tender gaze.

Toward the Light

He said,
“To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
—Mark 4:30–32

IMG_1982I have two plants sitting on my windowsill that have been there for two years now, and quite honestly, I’m very surprised that they’re still alive. It’s safe to say that I do not possess a green thumb, and my apartment doesn’t get a lot of sunlight. But somehow these plants have persevered—sometimes looking a little worse for the wear, yet thus far still surviving my neglect and horticultural ineptitude.

It amazes me how tall these plants can climb, upward toward the sunlight. To think that they started as just a tiny seed—a seed that contained within itself the capacity to grow and flourish—is incredible. They’ve even survived being repotted after outgrowing their containers. Their growth is not really any credit to me, as I’ve done less than the bare minimum to keep them alive. It is more a testament to the design of God, who has created beautiful things to flourish even amid adverse conditions.

In Jesus’s parable of the mustard seed, we hear how God brings tremendous growth out of tiny beginnings. We, too, are small; and yet we are created completely whole. Within each soul is the capacity for greatness. All it needs is to be nurtured by water and light, to be broken open so that roots may stretch out from its core and new buds may blossom outward into the day. We are created as tiny seeds, but we are not meant to stay that way. We are meant to climb toward sainthood.

But growth happens slowly. We must learn to be patient with ourselves and with others; our transformation will not happen overnight. We must place our trust in the Master Gardener and let Him do His work. Sometimes it may seem like we won’t survive in new soil, but really we only need to extend new roots. If we have patience through the spiritual dry spells and cold fronts (and even, perhaps, a polar vortex), God will guide us to adapt and grow through every circumstance. All we have to do is keep craning our heads upward toward the light.

“Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched.”
—Pope Benedict XVI