Sin is the Problem

There is a lot happening in the US right now- and a lot of discussion about things that are wrong. I think it is good and healthy to take stock- and there is always room for improvement in any organization, be it a family a company or a country. One thing that I am beginning to hear more talk about is sin – and in particular sin as a root problem in our country. I wish it were a bigger discussion, but I am glad that there are at least some people who are willing to examine the role of sin in what ails us. To my way of thinking, and I think most believers in God, sin is actually THE problem.

I recently watched this discussion between Raymond Arroyo- the well known Catholic commentator, and Marc Little, pastor, author and lawyer- on the topic of racism and the current social unrest in America. Marc Little spoke eloquently about the problems of sin- racism is a sin, and so are other issues in our communities such as domestic violence, abortion and more. Fundamentally, people mistreating each other is a “heart problem” and heart problems can only be cured through faith in God. I saw another commentator speaking to a similar point, and he was wearing a shirt that said “Make America Godly Again”- recognizing that as a country we have gotten so far away from the biblical precepts of right and wrong- something that had previously connected much of the country.

There was a recent video of a High School football coach speaking to his players. The coach is black, the players looked to be about 50/50 white and black. The message that the coach was saying to the kids was that they were not going to let the hate of this world permeate their team. That they were going to love one another because God commanded us to do that. That we are all made in the image and likeness of God- and that to grow to be good men (which he said was the primary objective of being on the football team)- they were going to have to practice love in a very proactive way. Love is the opposite of sin. God is love. It was a beautiful thing to have someone so clearly articulate to this group of young men the imperative of acting in love towards one another. It was clear how much this man loves those kids- how great it would be if all of our kids around this country were being fed this message of love instead of hate.

The world seems to be divided right now, but I do believe that most people want to live in harmony with the rest of the world. They want to not have violence in their communities and they don’t want to live in hate. But we can’t ignore that there are people who are consumed by sin and whether that manifests in violence or in otherwise trying to tear each other down we have to make an effort to be the salt and light that God has asked us to be to stop the negativity. We need to pray with all the urgency we can for our country. Our Lady of Guadalupe – pray for us!!

A Few Reasons I Believe

Someone I love very much asked me recently why I believe in God, and why I believe that the Catholic Church is the One True Religion. Big questions, but I believe that this is a great opportunity to share what is most important to me. My belief in God came in my adulthood and my becoming a Catholic later, so this is a brief recounting of my thinking.

  • I remember seeing the movie “The Ninth Configuration” when I was a teen. It wasn’t a great movie but the over arching point was that the probability that the universe was created randomly is so much less likely than by intelligence- and it was a compelling argument. I later heard this articulated as “”if you toss a box of loose Legos in the air a million times, they will never land in the shape of a building” – basically the same argument. The world is so filled with beauty and order- and that has never come from chaos. The existence of God is therefore, to me, obvious.
  • So then the question is if you believe that God exists, why the God of Christianity? For me this was a long process to get to that conclusion- where for years I thought that all religions were pretty much the same, and all were just made up by people trying to understand God, and most of it was superstitious nonsense. But I came to understand a few things:
    • Christianity is available to all people – and I would think the God of creation would want all of His creation to know Him.
    • Christianity focuses on being peaceful, helping the poor and weak, loving your neighbors – things universally understand to be good
    • There is a moral law that is written on everyone’s heart. As C.S. Lewis discusses in “Mere Christianity“, people can argue that everything is relative and there are no “right and wrong” that is absolute- but those same people will appeal to “fairness” when they -are wronged.
    • Jesus was either a “Liar, a Lunatic or the Lord” as well articulated by Lee Strobel in his book “A Case for Christ”. Essentially non-Christians mostly agree that Jesus was some sort of a historical teacher and “good guy”. But He said he was the Son of God and part of the Trinity. So either he was lying- and why would he go to the point of being violently murdered to keep the lie going (as well as his followers being willing to be martyred for that cause)? Or, he was a lunatic, and there aren’t any instances of lunatics getting a following for 2000+ years, whose messages get stronger and transform the world. I agree with Mr. Strobel’s conclusion that Jesus must, therefore, be Lord. (Watch the Netflix movie A Case for Christ or read the book for an even better explanation).
    • Once I accepted that God is real, and that Christianity is the religion that He established (as the fulfillment of Judaism which He established prior), then which of the thousands of Christian groups is the “right one”? Here is a good summary, but essentially it was the Church established by Jesus and it was thousands of years of Christianity before any splinter groups formed. Why not go to the source? The Catholic Church gave the world the Bible- again, the source of God’s word. But there are other appealing things about the Catholic Church – such as the contributions to science– the Church has always recognized the need for consistency between faith and reason. Many people are surprised to know that it was a priest who was responsible for the formation of the Big Bang theory, for instance.
  • There are numerous – very well documented- miracles that have occurred. Over the years I have enjoyed reading more deeply about many of them. The key is the third party validation- of which there has been many. Miracles of healing, miracles of visions, Eucharistic miracles- there are so many. These are glimpses that God gives us of His presence and of His desires for our lives. One thing that I have heard many non-believers say “if God wanted to let us know He is there, why wouldn’t He be more direct about it to eliminate the confusion.” I would say that all of nature and God’s miracles shout His existence- but we need to be willing to listen.

Receiving Help Cheerfully

I read about a saint once, I can’t remember who it was- but it really stuck with me. Apparently she had great plans for serving others in the Lenten season, but just when Lent began she became very ill. The result was that she had to be waited on – and accept being served rather than serving others. At first she was very unhappy about this, but eventually she realized that this was exactly the sacrifice that God had in mind for her- to allow others to serve her rather than being the one in service. This idea came up again recently- I was on a “virtual retreat” to Lourdes and there was a song that we sung to the “Malades”- the ill people that would, under normal circumstances, be brought to this place of pilgrimage and healing. Given that we can’t travel, we prayed for our blessed Malades- and in the song we thank them for allowing us to serve them, and we also say that we are thankful for people serving us too.

It is easy to get into the mindset that God always wants us to do for others- and He does. But sometimes what is best for others is for them to have an opportunity to serve us, and we need to allow for that. Sometimes our crosses are for us to grow in faith, but sometimes they are for the benefit of those around us, to give them opportunities to serve that they wouldn’t have otherwise had.

I remember a friend telling me about her poor grandmother who was dying a very protracted death in the hospital. My friend would go very day after work and sit at her grandmother’s bedside. She told me she wondered why God didn’t take her grandmother sooner and take her out of her misery. But then one day she realized that perhaps her grandmother’s suffering was for the benefit of her roommate. The roommate had no visitors, and she was someone that my friend would speak with at length every evening. She saw that this difficult trial for her grandmother was, perhaps, to have someone come and care for the other woman in the room- bringing her companionship and joy. We won’t know what God has planned, but we can see that our suffering can be of service to others in a very tangible way, as in my friends case – or we can offer our suffering as a sacrifice for the intentions of our prayers, or to reduce the suffering for the poor souls in purgatory. Our suffering can be in service to others if they can help us through it.

Our Lord said in John 13:1-17 that we must be willing to have our feet washed, just as we must be willing to wash others- it is a two-way street. If we don’t allow others to do for us, we are depriving them of their blessing of doing for others. For some of us this can be really hard, but it is important to remember that God’s ways are not our ways, and if we are being asked to be the one receiving rather than giving, that is something we can accept with joy, and it can reinvigorate our desire to serve others even more. God wants us to be cheerful receivers of help as well as givers!

Making Hard Decisions at Work

Sometimes the world is complicated. I was speaking with a Catholic business owner the other day, and she said that she regrettably had to fire some of her staff to keep the business afloat- given the state of the world today, that is a pretty common phenomenon. She did what I think was the right thing- first asking all the staff if there is anyone who plans to quit- letting all of them know that there would be a need to reduce the level of staffing, so letting people volunteer. Three people came forward and said they were planning on retiring or moving soon, so they worked out a pain-free resolution- good for everyone.

Unfortunately with the fourth person, the situation became trickier. A few months back that person had told the business owner that her husband was likely to change jobs requiring a family move. She had also said that she was not enjoying the work and would look forward to leaving. So when the time came to let some people go, the boss called her to ask what the situation was with the husband’s job etc. The woman became enraged before there was really a conversation to be had, starting with “how dare you consider firing me” etc. Ultimately it became so inflamed of a discussion, that it became clear that letting her go was for the best – and ultimately they worked out a separation agreement and parted ways. However in the course of all of this tension and drama, the fourth woman said to the business owner “How can you call yourself a Catholic when you would fire the people who work for you?” This really hurt the business owner- and this was the topic of our conversation.

What does it mean to be a Catholic business owner? It does mean that you act with honesty and integrity. It does not mean that you never fire someone. Of course that is easy to see if someone is not performing on the job. It is harder to see- at least for the person being fired- when they aren’t being fired for cause. As I said to the business owner, if she didn’t make the hard decision to let people go, ultimately the entire business would go under and everyone on the staff would be fired. Is it better to fire four people and keep many employed? I think it is. What is potentially even worse is that if the company went out of business, the people the business serves (in this case patients in a medical office) would not get their service.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel good to make the hard decisions- but being “nice” in this case (i.e. not firing anyone) would still result in those people losing their jobs- along with the rest of the staff. That is not nice- even though it may make people feel better in the short run. Sometimes it is hard to know what the right, hard choice is. This is when we can:

a) Look in the Catechism and see what the Church teaches on a certain subject, or

b) Talk to your priest and see if he can help shed some light on what a real Christian solution is, or

c) Look in your bible and see what the Word of God says. If you feel like it’s hard to understand, there are some great resources. One of my favorites is The Theology of Work Project, which was put together by some wonderful Christian people who wanted to create a resource for people wondering what the Bible says about work. You may not be surprised to know that the Bible says a TON about work- and our role in being workers.

d) Talk to other Christian business leaders. It is sometimes helpful to talk this through with a sounding board.

e) Pray really hard to be enlightened as to the right decision

It is never easy to run a business and this environment is making it harder. Following the path that Jesus laid out for us on how we should behave is always the right thing to do. It can be really hard, and not feel great- but we have to do what we know is right.

Embracing Suffering

I was reading in the book of Job this morning with a group of people, and we were discussing the topic of suffering- which seems so relevant in this time. A few thoughts that surfaced:

  1. We try to solve other people’s problems or to make sense of things- as Job’s friends, with undoubtedly the best of intentions, did. But somethings aren’t ever going to make sense to us, and sometimes as friends the best thing to do is to just accompany someone in silence. I started reading the book “The Power of Silence” the other day, by Cardinal Sarah. What a beautiful and profound book that is. I find I have to read it in small bits and just think about it. Much of it focuses on the noise that we live in – both externally and in our own heads, and the importance of silencing that noise to be able to hear God. So often we just talk too much, even with the best of intentions.
  2. We live in a culture that worships youth, but like so many things, we have that wrong too. The beauty of aging is that you see that suffering is the normal part of life in a fallen world. When I was young and had loss or tragedy hit me, I thought that was the unusual part of life. Now, like most other people of a certain age, I know that the abnormal part of life is when there are no problems- that is a blessing that we can relish, but the norm is tragedy because we live in a sin filled world. The next life is the one we can look forward to, to live in holiness and without the blemish of sin- not now.
  3. Suffering causes us to be purified. Most of us can look back over our lives and see that the growth came not when things are good, but when times were hard. That’s when we grow closer to God, or shed some behavior that isn’t serving us. The book “Catholic Martyrs of the 20th Century” by Robert Royal is a sobering and uplifting look at the reality of suffering for those who are closest to God. We see that in the cross- if Jesus who was without sin suffered so greatly, why would we avoid it? And our suffering can bring us closer to our Lord, and can also be offered up as a sacrifice to help others such as the poor souls in purgatory.

Embracing suffering seems entirely counter to human nature, but it is what we are called to do. Like Job we can ask God about the purpose that the suffering is meant to serve in our lives (and we may not get an answer), but we need to make sure that our trials bring us closer to the Lord and not cause us to turn away. This life is short, and we can endure- and pray for our own strength and the strength of others- to finish the race well.

“What Do You Want?”

I had the pleasure of joining a virtual Bible study last night, hosted by my terrific parish priest. He was teaching on Matthew:20 – a chapter that we have heard so many times. As is almost always the case, however, upon rereading there is always something new to learn. What really struck me this time was that twice in this chapter, Jesus asks the people he comes across “What do you want?”, or “What do you want me to do?”.

Jesus obviously knows what they want- in one case the men he encounters are blind and unable to fend for themselves- so healing is clearly what they want. In the other instance the mother of the sons of Zebedee approaches Jesus to ask for special treatment in the kingdom of heaven for her sons. Again, it was well known to the Lord what she had come to ask of Him. But in both cases, He asks them to articulate what they want. Why?

What really struck me is that Jesus clearly wants us to ask for what we want. My experience is that I have heard so many sermons, and been in so many discussions where the message was “God is not your ATM”- with the implication being that we shouldn’t just ask for what we want all the time. While this is most certainly true, the result is that I had tended to overshoot and not ask God for anything- with my prayers being “Thy will be done.” What I learned is that God is way more gentle than my interpretation had allowed for. What I got from this scripture reading is that God DOES want us to ask for our wants and needs AND it is also still important to ask that His will be done. The two are not mutually exclusive.

I think it goes back to a relationship. The analogy of a parent to a child seems to hold here. As parents who love our children, we do want our kids to come to us with their wants and needs. And as a loving parent, we would say “no” if what our children asked for is detrimental to them. And there are things that we can ask for – such as the healing of someone ill, or the conversion of a non-believer- which are good things, but we have to trust in God’s timing and His providence, to make the right things happen in the right time. The two verses that come to mind are:

Luke 11:9-13 And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.d10For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.11What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish?12Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?13If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit* to those who ask him?”

and

Romans 8:26-28: ...we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. 27And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will. 28* We know that all things work for good for those who love God,* who are called according to his purpose.u

In the past 12 hours I have not hesitated to bring my desires and prayers to the Lord- and what a blessing it is!

The Narrow Path

I was in a discussion this morning with a group of people, talking about Matthew 5-7 in the Bible. Jesus’ first and longest teaching, it pretty much tells is all we need to know about how to live our lives. The person leading this discussion focused on the Narrow Path. He said the following:

  • There are only two kinds of people in this world- those that are on the Narrow Path which leads to life, and those that are on the Wide Path that leads to destruction. The Narrow Path is a choice that we can all make, but most of us don’t.
  • At the end of Chapter 7, it says that the people who listened to Jesus teach were astonished. We are also called to live in a way that astonishes people.
  • Once we let the Lord lead us to the Narrow Path, we can plant the seeds that lead our families, friends, colleagues and communities to the Way, the Truth and the Life.
  • Thomas Merton said that to become a saint is to become your true self. It is to become the person that God created you to be.
  • If you can become your true self, then logically it is also the case that you can be your false self- and our pursuit in life is to cast off the false, the worldly, the pretense.
  • In becoming the man or woman that God created us to be, we need to understand that we are all in our own Calcutta, and like Mother Theresa we can all serve where we are- there is no shortage of need. We all have unique gifts, given to us by our Creator, that are perfect for our circumstance and for how we are expected to serve, whether at work, or at home, or in our communities.
  • The transformation to becoming a saint is to first allow the Lord to work on you, and then in you, and finally through you.
  • To be on the Narrow Path we need look no further than the Beatitudes for the road map of what we are meant to be. We are to be salt and light in this world, not selfish, giving to those in need, with a disciplined and sanctified mind. We would seek to be forgiven, fast in secret to benefit others, not treasure the things of this earth, not worry, not be preoccupied, and take joy in seeking God.
  • God loves everyone, but only a few choose to be intimate with the Lord. Only when we seek Him and spend time with Him can we be open to His training in our lives.
  • We need to go outward beyond ourselves and move towards God and towards others.

We need to seek the Narrow Path.

Sisters of Life

I had the great good fortune to spend some time speaking with one of the Sisters of Life yesterday. They are a wonderful order of nuns that are so joyful and loving- it is hard not to be drawn to their near glowing radiance! The woman I was speaking with yesterday said a few things that really struck me, which I thought worth sharing:

  1. She said that they don’t help pregnant women and young mothers because they (the nuns) are good, but because they see the good in the women that God has brought to them, and the goodness of these women in need inspires the nuns to want to help them. What a wonderful way to see each person around us. Remembering that each and every one of us walking this planet have been made in the image and likeness of God and that there is good in everyone- and approaching each person in trying to see them the way God sees them is a wonderful way to go through life.
  2. She talked about the approach they take with the ladies in need as a call to “leisure”. By that she didn’t mean that they weren’t working or helping, but she meant that in contrast to being frenetic or trying to force an outcome, they rest in knowing that God has it under control. So they do what they can- and all that they can (which is a lot!!)- to help the women and the babies that come to them, but ultimately they don’t fret, and they turn their concerns over to the Lord. Something we can apply in every area of life!
  3. One of the ministries that the Sisters of Life has is in helping women who have had abortions to find healing and love. I was told that many women come to them, even decades after having an abortion, and ask them “could God still love me”? It breaks my heart to think of someone walking around this planet feeling like somehow they are beyond the love of the Father- and so it is wonderful that the Sisters can help these ladies to see that God forgives them, and that their lives are also so valuable and important to God.

During these unusual times, when we are self isolating, the Sisters remain at work in bringing food to the women they serve, providing guidance, and importantly praying for all of them- and so much more. This Holy Week, consider adding the Sisters of Life to your prayers. They are indeed the hands and feet of God here in New York City, and in the world.

Why do we pray?

One of my son’s asked me this the other day. It surprised me, because I know he is someone who prays a lot. My first response was to ask if he was finding it a challenging time to pray- we all have the desert times- and he said no. What he was really asking was, since God knows all of what we want and need, and he knows what we are thinking, what is the point in also specifically talking to God- isn’t it redundant? And also, does praying change God’s mind about anything? If not- what are we doing praying?

Here was my answer to that. One main purpose of prayer is to build a relationship with God. You can’t know someone unless you engage with- and listen to- them. God already knows us better than we know ourselves so it can seem like there is nothing to be gained from more interaction. However, we have so much (an infinite amount, really) to learn about God. So we benefit from being still and listening- but also to going to our Father in heaven and sharing our burdens with Him- not because he doesn’t know about them already but because our bond with Him is strengthened when we turn to Him. Like all relationships, they require an investment of time- that is prayer. It is also the right thing to do to thank God for all the blessings He gives us, and prayer is a time to say thank you!

For the second part of the question- does prayer cause God to do something different than He otherwise would- I looked to the Bible. The recounting of the conversation between Moses and God about what the punishment should be for the wayward Israelites who were worshiping a golden calf in Exodus is a good example:

Then the LORD said to Moses: Go down at once because your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted corruptly.8They have quickly turned aside from the way I commanded them, making for themselves a molten calf and bowing down to it, sacrificing to it and crying out, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”9e I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are, continued the LORD to Moses.10Let me alone, then, that my anger may burn against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation.

11* But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying,f “Why, O LORD, should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand?12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent he brought them out, that he might kill them in the mountains and wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning wrath; change your mind about punishing your people.13Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self, saying,g ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky; and all this land that I promised, I will give your descendants as their perpetual heritage.’”14So the LORD changed his mind about the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.

Of course God knew the hearts of every person, so it isn’t that he got new information, or had wanted to do one thing but Moses talked Him out of it. This is one of many opportunities where God allows His people to come to Him and to actively illustrate that He listens. He hears our pleas and He wants us to come to Him with our desires. We can also go to God and ask for what we need, and He hears us. God invites us to be with Him in prayer- what a gift and an opportunity for unsurpassed joy! One of the most stirring things I have witnessed was Pope Francis praying last Friday for the world in the Urbi et Orbi blessing. What a beautiful and humbling example for all of us!

Resting in the Strength of God

As I write this, the count for people diagnosed with the Coronavirus in the US is past 45,000 people, and globally it’s over 367,000 – and God is still in control, we need to remember that. There are so many people on social media making end times proclamations, but we know from Matthew 24:35 “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.”. Is that time close? Who knows- but here’s why it’s ok not to know- because we should already be preparing ourselves for the day when we meet Jesus face to face, whether that is because He is coming back soon, or whether it is our time to die. The Coronavirus is just a wake up call to the fact that each and every one of us will die- Memento Mori again!

What we can do:

  1. Relax, and give our troubles to God. Whether that is physical illness, financial troubles, loneliness or relationship strife, God is there to listen. The prayer that will never let any of us down is “Not my will, but Yours be done”.
  2. Pray- for healing on this earth, and for people to turn from sin to the One who created them.
  3. Participate in worship services- the beauty of technology is that even though we can’t go to mass we can still commune with the Lord and participate in church via video.
  4. Stay in close touch with family and friends, particularly those who are alone or in trouble.
  5. Continue to be generous- whether with individuals in need, or organizations that need help- there is no shortage of places where a donation of money or other goods would be appreciated.
  6. Be a little kinder to those who are near you- extending some grace (which may involve biting your tongue) will pay huge dividends. Tip delivery people more if you can afford to. Thank the person who is checking out the groceries for being there.
  7. Don’t watch the news 24/7. It’s good to be informed but don’t obsess. If you are home and have more time on your hands take up a hobby- write a book, draw a picture, sing a song. Watch a happy movie!
  8. If you are one of the people in an essential job that is keeping this world going- THANK YOU!! But also be kind to yourself and ret when you can. Ask for help where it can be given. So many people want to be helpful but don’t know how.
  9. If you are suffering, align your suffering to Jesus’ on the cross and offer the pain up for the poor souls in purgatory. It will not be wasted! Our Lord suffered so much for our sins, we can also suffer and draw closer to Him as a result.

We will get past this. Unfortunately we will lose people – this life is short, and we will all die. This is the perfect time to pull together and sacrifice our wants for the betterment of our communities. We can do this- and we will come out the other side a stronger society. God is carrying us, we just need to rest in His strength when we find our own is waning.