Do You Believe? Obey.

Today’s reflection is for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 5, 2018.

Today’s readings speak of the amazing mercy and love of God who not only desires that his children be free, but also provides for them daily while they struggle in their journey through the desert. That’s encouraging to know and comforting through difficult times but it also comes with an expectation, namely, that we believe. Jesus said to those that were looking for him after feeding the five thousand, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” (John 6:35)

One of the world’s favorite verses is John 3:16, where John (the evangelist) teaches us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Wow! That’s pretty amazing! God sacrificed his only son for me and all I have to do is believe! Easy day! I got this!

Just to make sure I was good though, I looked up “believe” in the dictionary so that I could be sure I punched that card correctly! (I don’t want any hanging chads!) I found out that to “believe” was to hold to something as true. According to Webster, it is more of an intellectual endeavor. Again, I got this!

And in the Johanine epistles (1-2-3 John) he tells us quite plainly his only intent for writing anything at all, “I write these things to you so that you may know that you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God.” (1 John 5:13) Again, we see that belief equates to eternal life, and according to my friend and yours, Mirriam Webster, belief happens in our head. But does it? Scripture teaches otherwise.

Today we see that the Israelites not only had to believe (in their head) that God would provide for them in the desert, they also had to follow his instructions (with their hands)–to the letter! Exodus teaches, “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘I will now rain down bread from heaven for you. Each day the people are to go out and gather their daily portion; thus will I test them, to see whether they follow my instructions or not.'” (EX 16:2-4, 12-15)

Okay, so according to Scripture, belief happens with the heart and the hands! We believe and then we do. We’ve got to follow God’s instructions. We’ve got to go out daily to gather our portion. No wonder Jesus refers to belief as work! In fact, Jesus tells those who followed him that they were working for all the wrong reasons! Work is assumed, but work for the right reason is what Jesus demands.

He told them, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (6:27) I think it can be very easy to work for things that perish! In fact, unless you live in a monastery, most of us spend the lion’s share of the day working for things that perish! Sadly, I know in our home we’re cleaning out the fridge all the time! We buy fruit, vegetables, bread, and a whole host of other things with our hard-earned money only to see it go bad within weeks! It doesn’t take long for the bananas to begin to turn and the bread to mold!

The truth of perishable items is all around us. We work and work and work, and it seems that nothing seems to last! Not our food, not our clothing, and not our toys either–made in America or not! Evidence of corruptibility is all around us and still we labor as though any of it is going to last forever. Our very good friend, who lives in Redding, was on vacation in Santa Cruz when she discovered that her house and everything in it was destroyed in the fires that have been burning there! Praise God that none of her family was hurt. As the fires burn in California, more and more people are discovering the truth of the futility of storing up treasure on earth.

Can you even imagine?! I work by butt off day in and day out for our home, shoes, food, our trailer, and many other toys–and just like that, it could all be gone. I’m not following Jesus’ advice very well, am I? How about you? Jesus tells us that if we’re going to work, we should work for those things that never perish! He says that if we store up our treasures on earth we will always be disappointed, and he demands that we instead store up treasure in heaven (MT 6:19)…now that’s good work!

The work that we must be about is work that endures–acts of kindness and compassion, love and sacrifice. We ought to spend our time visiting those who are incarcerated, and those who are infirm. We need to spend our time and treasure in food kitchens, in women’s shelters, and in refugee camps. In other words, we need to spend our time in the trenches of human suffering and misery! That’s were Jesus was in his day, and if we wish to find him, it’s where he is still today.

Jesus tells his listeners, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.” If we really do believe in Jesus, “the one that he sent,” then we must do the work that he did! In other words, belief = obedience to Jesus’ way of thinking and acting. Belief for Christians automatically assumes action. Our actions can and should be an indication of what is happening in our head. Imagine that! Our thoughts, words, and actions should be consistent. Harder and harder to find that in our world today, I’m afraid. Proof positive that Christians have an important job to do in restoring worldly affairs!

God will give us our daily bread. God is going to provide for us–believe that. God’s mercy and love will always pour over us–believe that. The world needs Christ and Christ-ians doing good work daily in the midst of human suffering that is never far from us–go there. It’s time to roll up our Christian sleeves and provide evidence that we believe. Do you believe? It’s time to go to work. Below you will find a number of informational websites as well as opportunities to provide evidence of your belief. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is a good place to start, and start we must. If you are aware of others who are also doing good work and need hands, post them here. If you know of opportunities to serve feel free to post the website or opportunities to serve.

Click here to find and volunteer for many Catholic Charities programs within the Stockton Diocese.

Click here to find out more about Catholic Charities in the U.S.A.

Click here to find out how to be more involved with supporting legislation that reflects Christian belief and values.

Click here to find out more about faithful citizenship.

Click here for a number of resources on Catholic Social teachings.

Some questions for reflection:

To what degree are my actions consistent with what I say I believe?

How much of my time, talent, or treasure is used in a way that gives glory to God by helping to alleviate human suffering?

Does my attitude toward sinners, the marginalized, the addicted, the homeless, and the incarcerated reflect Jesus’ own actions and attitude toward the same?

How is God calling me to serve him by serving those most in need?

Have a great Sunday!

By catholicevangelist

Our Claim

Today’s reflection is for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 15, 2018.

What exactly makes one great? Money? Power to influence? Personal or professional achievement? Possessions? Positions? “Bragging rights” mean quite a lot to us, don’t they? Today’s readings call us to humility, knowing that the only accomplishment that matters at all is not our accomplishment at all.

For me, being a Marine was quite an accomplishment–to be a Force Recon Marine even more so! To be a “dual cool” (airborne and combatant diver) Force Recon Marine doing Close Quarters Battle and be an Explosive Breacher meant that heads turned wherever I went in the Marines. It felt good. My accomplishments were hard-won through a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears–quite literally. All of our service men and women–and especially those that rise to the level of Special Forces deserve a great deal of respect–and rightfully so. When I got out, I started going to college and no one seemed to care about military accomplishment. The game had changed–now degrees mattered! And I pursued them too–Bachelors! Masters! Credentials! Oh my!

After 15 years in the “trenches” of the classroom, I’ve been congratulated quite a lot lately on a new administrative position that I’ve accepted in the Turlock Unified School District–Dean of Students at Turlock Junior High. Yes…thank you…thank you… (bowing and such).

When it comes to certificates and degrees and accomplishments, I’ve got a bunch. How about you? What brings you pride? For what do you (or the world) pat yourself on the back? From the bottom of my heart, while I am quite proud of those physical, academic, and professional accomplishments, I can see quite clearly that none of those were an end in themselves. No, that was just training and formation toward a much higher calling, namely, to stand witness to the power of God, to bring light out of darkness, to bring joy where there was only pain, to bring salvation through mercy and forgiveness. With the Psalmist, our only prayer should be, “Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation. (Ps 85:8)

Today’s message is quite simple–if we have any reason to boast, it is only in the generosity, love, and mercy of God. He is the reason we move. He is the reason we breathe. He is the reason we have being. If I have accomplished anything at all; If there is any good in me; If I have any good thought or action at all; to Him I give the credit, the thanks, and the glory. As St. Paul tells the Ephesians, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him.” (1:3)

You see, before the foundation of the world, God knew me and had important plans for me. God’s plan was to use every hardship that life (and the evil one) would bring my way to use for His glory! God’s amazing like that. When I heard God’s call to serve Him, His Church, and the world, my life’s trials and triumphs finally made sense. I discovered that it was never about me at all, but rather, what God desires to do through me.

Again, “In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved.” In him we were also chosen, destined in accord with the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will, so that we might exist for the praise of his glory, we who first hoped in Christ.” (EPH 1:5)

But to what end does God call us, destine us, and equip us? Toward what end has God transformed every sorrow into dancing, ever accomplishment of mine into Glory for Him? The answer is quite clearly revealed in today’s Gospel–all of this that we might go out two-by-two, mano e mano, as brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, children and parents proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom of God.

The Gospel proclaims, “Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits…So they went off and preached repentance. The Twelve drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” MK 6:-13

We who have heard God’s call realize that all is grace. All that we have and all that we do, all that we receive, and all that we will do gives us no reason to boast, but instead only place a burden upon us–to proclaim Christ to the world. How can I who have received so many gifts remain silent about the Giver of those gifts? I cannot. Nor should you.

I have discovered that each of us has been given gifts that are particular to God’s calling for us. My gifts are not yours, and yours are not mine, but the end of the proper use of those gifts is the same–to somehow, in some way, in some place, to some people known only to you and God to love God and neighbor.

When we give our “yes” to God and His calling we change the world around us. Through our yes, we enlighten minds that are in darkness, bring peace to conflict, bring hope where there is only despair. That’s our high calling. That’s why we have any power or possessions at all–to more freely, frequently, and fervently love. No reason to boast–only have eyes open, hands open, and feet moving to those most in need.

Some questions for reflection:

What are your accomplishments in this life–your reasons to boast?

What struggles have you had or do you have that don’t seem to make any sense?

How is God calling you to use your gifts, accomplishments, and pain to transform the world around you?

And finally, are you listening?

Blessings, Stephen

By catholicevangelist

2018 Catholic Men’s Fellowship Fall Retreat – Sonora

Brothers,

We are officially launching the registration for the “2018 Catholic Men’s Fellowship Fall Retreat – Sonora, CA” and appreciate your support. Review, share, and forward this post to other brothers as we invite you to join us for another great gathering in Christ.

“Virtues are gifts from God that lead us to live in a close relationship with him. Virtues are like habits. They need to be practiced; they can be lost if they are neglected. The weakness caused by original sin causes us to be inclined toward sin. The power of virtue is that it reverses the inclination toward evil, and by strength of habit inclines us toward the good.”

Come join us as Stephen Valgos, Catholic Evangelist, in his wisdom of the teachings of the Church lead us to a better understanding of how practice of “The Seven Virtues Perfect our Seven Principles,” and tip the scales of the moral life toward good and away from evil.

Fr. Mike Lacey former Pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish, San Lorenzo Ca. will celebrate Mass for our Retreat.

Accept this invitation to join other men for a weekend of reflective spirituality. Get away from the pressures and activities of daily life for a refreshing weekend of renewal. Regain, deepen and strengthen your spiritual perspective.

Select links for details:  

https://www.catholicmen.org/catholic-mens-fellowship-fall-retreat-august-17-19-2018/

More about Stephen:

https://catholicevangelist.com/

Retreat Date:

August 17 – 19, 2018, Friday – Sunday.

Beginning at 5pm Friday and concluding at noon Sunday.

Retreat Cost: $185 per person (Includes lodging and all meals).

You may register online and pay with your credit card or PayPal account.

You may also register by mail by downloading the attached flyer, printing it, and sending a check to the address on the flyer.

Make checks payable to 2018 CMF CA Fall Retreat

Mail to: 10905 Kelso Ct. Sonora, CA   95370

Retreat Location:

OLD OAK RANCH

15250 Old Oak Ranch Rd.

Sonora, California 95370

God Bless,

(209) 264-2263

Email Sonora CMF

Sonora CMF Website

http://www.catholicmen.org/

2018_CMF_Flyer

By catholicevangelist

A House Divided

Harry Potter DividedToday’s reflection is for the Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 10, 2018.

Today’s Gospel demands that we take a serious look at the divisions that exist within ourselves, our relationships, our country, and in our Church. Sadly, there can be no doubt that divisions do indeed exist. The question is what to do about it.

Last summer was the summer of Harry Potter! Mark was reading the series and as a reward for him completing a book, I would rent the movie for us to watch–so that we could all enjoy his hard work! I couldn’t help but be moved by Harry’s struggle to keep Lord Voldemort out of his head! It seemed, tragically, that Harry and “the Dark Prince” were irreversibly linked to the point that Harry was often sick, Voldemort’s thoughts and words become twisted and intertwined with his own, and Harry clearly  was in anguish over the physical, emotional, and psychological toll that the division was taking…and so it is with Satan and ourselves.

When did all of this division occur? Is brokenness a part of God’s plan? My students are quick to say (in what I think is a defeatist, victim-type attitude), “Well, Mr. Valgos, that’s just the way it is.” To which I am even more quick to respond, “That may be the way it is, but that is NOT the way it ought to be! Let’s not talk about what is unless we also talk about what ought to be!”

The beautiful stories in the first book of Sacred Scripture, the book of Genesis, give us both what it ought to be and what is–and even why it has become the way it is. Through rich symbolism and figurative language we clearly see the truth that God created a beautiful world, in perfect harmony: man to woman, humanity to earth and animals, and all of Creation to the Creator. In today’s first reading from the second story of Genesis, we are immediately confronted with the reality of sin and its consequences.

God created man out of the dust of the ground and created a beautiful paradise in which man could live–but man was alone. So God put man to sleep and from his side created another to be man’s companion, friend, and love. In short order, humanity disobeys God and disorder is the immediate consequence! In their desire for what was not properly theirs the man and the woman eat of the forbidden tree and feel shame in each other’s site, begin to hide from God, and begin to blame each other, evil, and even God for their woes.

God says to the couple, “You have eaten, then, from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat!” The man replied, “The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it.” The LORD God then asked the woman, “Why did you do such a thing?” The woman answered, “The serpent tricked me into it, so I ate it.” And just like that, we have the modern internal, family, and national crisis that exist! How long have these divisions and blame been going on?! Well, since the beginning!

This condition of division within ourselves and with God that causes us to hide from God’s sight, that creates conflict within our relationships, and disharmony with all of Creation, and that ultimately results in brokenness, sadness, and pain is what we call Original Sin. But we must admit first and foremost that in the Beginning it was not so. Okay, so it didn’t last long, but it is the way it ought to be!
The C.C.C. teaches that “The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents (390). In that deed the state of original holiness and justice, from which happiness and friendship with God flowed (384) was lost. (sigh)
This tragedy is the flip side of the Good News. Again, with regard to original sin, the Catechism teaches, “The doctrine of original sin is, so to speak, the ‘reverse side’ of the Good News, that Jesus is the Savior of all men, that all need salvation, and that salvation is offered to all through Christ” (389). We know that God’s desire is harmony and peace! Our brokenness, however, is the cause of disharmony, and disunity that leads to death–spiritual and physical! The first eleven chapters of Genesis all teach the same truth of this sad human condition of disobedience toward God’s will: The Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, and the Tower of Babel.
Each of these narratives all teach the same truth, namely, that humanity turns against God, and when it does pain, suffering, and death quickly follow. But these eleven chapters also teach the most important truth, namely, that sin, brokenness, and death never has the last word–grace does.
In the story of The Fall humanity’s relationship with each other, with the earth, and with it’s animals changes, but God’s mercy clothes them and promises to “put enmity” between the serpent and humanity (a foreshadowing of Christ). In Cain and Abel, Cain is sent to be a restless wanderer but God’s mercy marks him with a seal of protection from those who might seek his life. In Noah and the flood wickedness is washed away, cleansing the earth, but God’s mercy calls Noah to build an ark that God’s creation might endure. And in the Tower of Babel, God scatters humanity across the nations confusing their languages–an event undone by God’s mercy in the call of Abraham that leads to the day of Pentecost whereby the Power of the Holy Spirit unites nations to hear the Good News through the gift of tongues!
Jesus enters the scene and although he is indeed the source of reconciliation with humanity and God, although he heals the blind and the lame, the deaf and the mute, although he forgives sinners and brings them back into the community and to the worship of God, although he the very means by which God is reconciling the world to himself, the scribes have the audacity to claim that HE is acting on behalf of the devil! What?! Even when all evidence is to the contrary, he is accused of being a source of division between humanity and God.
Jesus gives them the beautiful truth that transcends every generation, namely, that a house divided cannot stand. What they claim cannot be true he says. How can he both be the source of unity, goodness, and truth while at the same time be aligned with the divider, the evil one, the deceiver? “Summoning them, [Jesus] began to speak to them in parables, “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand; that is the end of him” (MK 3:23-26)
No sir, Jesus quite clearly cannot be working for God AND working for Satan. Nor can those who belong to him. Those whom make up the family of God. The new people of God. Those who are brothers and sisters of Christ Jesus. There is a new family that exists through Jesus. Are you in it? Whose side are you on?
Earthly family, blood line, genetic code no longer has any power over us. Not a history of family sin, not a history of personal sin. In Christ Jesus we can be renewed, redeemed, and become heirs of God’s mercy and paradise. Jesus drives this point home to his audience when they say that his family has arrived! He says, who, them? Jesus looks around at those seated in the circle and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers.
For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (3:34-35).
Therefore the Psalmist today proclaims, “With the Lord there is mercy, and fullness of redemption!” (130:7bc) God does not leave us alone in our sin. God wants us to be undivided in our heart, united with each other, and united to Him. That’s what Jesus and the Kingdom are all about! St. Paul tells the Corinthians we have been given a spirit of faith that causes us to believe and to give witness in word and deed! And this Spirit is all about the work of renewal in us and in the world.
He says, “Everything indeed is for you, so that the grace bestowed in abundance on more and more people may cause the thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God. Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day…for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal” (4:15-18)
The Good News today is that while sin existed from the beginning and has been ever present as a source of internal, family, societal, and church division, it need not be so and this division does not have the last word–God’s abundant grace does. Grace, however, requires cooperation. We must choose to belong to Christ Jesus and his family, and participate with the work he is about. With our freedom we must choose Christ and life. God has given us his spirit that is all about the renewal of our body and soul, but we must strive daily to enter into the mystery and be transformed by God’s life and love.
Division only has the last word if we reject God, because with God there is the fullness of mercy and redemption. Division only has the last word if we refuse to participate in what God is doing in the world. Division only has the last word if we do not today fall to our knees and seek his family of faith. In other words, division only occurs if we let it. Division only occurs if we only talk about what is, instead of what ought to be and what can be through Christ Jesus.
Let’s unite God’s house. Let’s start in me. Amen?
By catholicevangelist

Surprise! x 3!

This reflection is for The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Cycle B, 5/27/2018.

I think most parents remember playing “peak-a-boo” with their babies. I just saw a young mother playing with her daughter a few days ago and it brought back a flood of wonderful memories. I remember how much fun I used to have with my boys playing that game. Simply cover your own eyes with your hand, remove it quickly, say, “boo!” and wait for a little jump and giggles galore! So much fun! I’m not sure who enjoyed it more, actually, my sons or me. That’s probably why I played it so much. They loved being surprised and I loved surprising them!

Not a lot has changed for us now that my boys are nine and eleven, actually. They still love surprises and I still find so much joy in doing the surprising! I think most people love surprises, and I’m always sad when I hear someone say that they don’t like surprises! I think some of the greatest joys in life catch us by surprise.

People do love surprises: Christmas gifts, unexpected flowers, wedding proposals, birthday parties, and surprise endings. We love to discover something new and unexpected. It’s proof that we don’t have all the answers, we don’t know all the possible outcomes, and you never know what might be just around the corner!

You know, God likes surprises too! I like to speak of God as the God of surprises. How many times I have said, “Man! I would never have imagined that! Amazing!” Haha!

That’s exactly what Isaiah discovered about God thousands of years ago, when God surprised his faithful people by ending their exile in Babylon! Surprise! King Cyrus of Persia has defeated the Babylonians, and has returned the Judah-ites to their land–and even gave them money to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem! Surprise! (‘Betcha didn’t see that coming!)

Isaiah proclaims of God, “you worked awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as had not been heard of from of old. No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you working such deeds for those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 64:2-3)

St. Paul actually uses the words of Isaiah when talking about Jesus to the Corinthians. He says, “as it is written: ‘What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.’” (1Cor 2:7-9)

Isaiah and Paul rediscovered what Moses discovered far earlier, but the people had forgotten! God loves surprises! Believe me, you can just imagine Paul’s surprise when while heading off to persecute Christians, Jesus appears in a bright light and says, You’re not going to kill Christians! You’re going to become one, and proclaim my name to the gentiles! Surprise!

In today’s reading from the book of Deuteronomy, Moses helps the Israelites to be people of faith who never doubt the awesome power, love, and blessings of the God of surprises!

You’ve been slaves in Egypt for 400 years, but it’s time to go! Surprise! And look, Pharaoh is even giving you camels, gold, and silver for your trouble! Moses gives the people a laundry list of surprises from God.

“Moses said to the people: ‘Ask now of the days of old, before your time, ever since God created man upon the earth; ask from one end of the sky to the other: Did anything so great ever happen before? Was it ever heard of? Did a people ever hear the voice of God speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live? Or did any god venture to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by testings, by signs and wonders, by war, with strong hand and outstretched arm, and by great terrors, all of which the LORD, your God, did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?” (DT 4:32-34, 39-40)

And then, in the fullness of time, God visits His people! The Incarnation! God really surprised Mary and Joseph, right?! The angel says, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High…The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” (LK 1:31) Yahweh is God–but Jesus is too! Surprise!

And no one loved surprises more than Jesus! You can’t find me, mom, I’m in the Temple with the Elders! Surprise!

You’re out of wine and your wedding is ruined! Surprise! Party on!

You guys are horrible fisherman whose nets are empty! Surprise, your nets are breaking!

There’s not enough food to feed 5,000 people! Surprise, everyone is full and there are leftovers!

Your hand is healed! Surprise!

Get up, you can walk! Surprise!

You are cleansed of leprosy! Surprise!

Lazarus is not dead! Surprise!

You are a condemned sinner but now you’re forgiven! Surprise!

Apparently Judas learned something about surprises from Jesus because Judas had a little surprise of his own, right? You claim to be God but I’m handing you over to be crucified! Surprise!

And then Jesus had a little surprise for Satan! You thought I was dead and gone, I am risen! SURPRISE!

And finally, just when you thought God was all out of surprises, God sends His Holy Spirit into the hearts of His faithful that they might know Him, think like Him, and become like Him. Surprise! Yes, by His Spirit God restores His children to His likeness and image that was lost “in the beginning.” Freedom is ours. Original holiness is ours. Salvation is ours. Surprise!

St. Paul tells the Romans today, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” (ROM 8:14-17)

OMG! God is three! Surprise! Glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; to God who is, who was, and who is to come. (RV 1:8) Today we celebrate the most Holy Trinity. We celebrate what could only have been known because the God of the universe chose to reveal something about His inner self, something closest to Himself to people He loves very much.

The God of love, who never ceases to surprise us, wants to love and surprise others too. God does not want our joy to be contained within us, but instead to be shared with others. We share our life, our love, and our joy with those around us! As His children, we must be full of surprises too!

The truth be told, I have a confession to make: I still play “peak-a-boo,” but with other people’s baby! With friends, or family, and sometimes with complete strangers, I always take the time to teach the importance and joy of surprise. (Disclaimer: Get permission first with stranger’s children!) Don’t keep it to yourself, Jesus says!

In today’s gospel, “Jesus approached and said to [the eleven], ‘All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.'” (MT 28:16-20)

God is our Father. God is risen. God is Spirit. God is one and three. He is with us forever. What an amazing surprise! Happy Trinity Sunday. Go be like God, surprise someone you love. Surprise someone who needs to know they are loved.

Blessings, Stephen

By catholicevangelist

Is This Your Fight Song?

This reflection is for Pentecost Sunday Mass During the Day, Cycle B, 5/20/2018.

Okay, so I have a confession to make, I love Rachel Platten’s song, “Fight Song.” I think the song gives such great testimony to the power and influence that a singe individual can make in transforming the world. In the opening lines she says, “Like a small boat on the ocean, Sending big waves into motion. Like how a single word Can make a heart open, I might only have one match But I can make an explosion.”

Her song teaches us the truth that every thing that every person does can have an immeasurable impact and can transform lives, and even the world. And this is what Jesus did, and this is what he calls us to do today. Jesus told his disciples, “I have come to set the world ablaze! And how I wish it were already burning” (LK 12:49).

Fire is an amazing force, and an appropriate image for the Holy Spirit. Fire brings warmth, peace, comfort, and security when there is fear, uncertainty, danger, and darkness. How valuable a camp fire for one who is alone in the wilderness! Fire is also trans-formative. It changes everything that it touches! Burning wood becomes ash, burnt prairie teams with new growth and, if not for fire, the giant sequoia would never release its seeds for new life. And this is why Jesus sent His Spirit to the earth: to be our comfort, our guide, our security, our hope, and our force for transforming our life, our family, and our world. Jesus calls us to make disciples of all nations and to proclaim The Kingdom with boldness, and it’s the Holy Spirit received at baptism and strengthened at Confirmation that enables us to do just that!

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “The reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace, and by it we are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit which makes us true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and able to defend the faith through our word and actions.” (C.C.C. 1285) In baptism we receive the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but in Confirmation they truly come alive in us! Confirmation is like steroids for the gifts of the Holy Spirit within us! What are the gifts that the Spirit gives?

You might remember that they are those gifts prophesied by Isaiah, found in the Book of Isaiah 11:2-3. They are Knowledge, Understanding, Wisdom, Counsel, Fortitude, Fear of the Lord, and Piety. It might be helpful to remember them this way: The Spirit gives us knowledge, which is good, but doesn’t exactly help us to solve our everyday problems. Knowledge is good, but what we really need is to understand. Understanding allows us to not just know it, but really “get it!” Once we get it, it’s time to apply it to the normal circumstances of life. The real-life application of knowledge and understanding is wisdom. That’s usually the toughest part though. Actually LIVING what we know to be true and applying it in the concrete circumstances of life! That’s where the fourth gift comes in, namely, fortitude/strength. Fortitude steels our spine that we might do what we ought, even in difficult situations. Now that you know the way and go the way, it’s time to be a great leader and show the way. That’s the fifth gift of the Spirit, Council. Council means that you are now helping others to know what to do and to do it. Of course, when people recognize how thoughtful you are, how wise you are, and how strong you are, this can easily lead to arrogance and pride! It can all go to our head and we begin to act as though all of this greatness is from us! That’s where the sixth gift comes in: fear of the Lord. Fear of the Lord is not being afraid of God, but is rather a healthy respect for the greatness of God. Fear of the Lord recognizes that everything I am, everything I have, and everything I do is entirely owed to God. HE is the one to whom the glory goes–not me! Fear of the Lord recognizes that I am merely the vessel of God’s gifts and in no way deserve any of the credit. And that is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow, I’m afraid. In a world of self-aggrandizement, humbly giving glory to others is quite difficult. The pious person does not have this issue. The seventh gift of the Holy Spirit, piety, finds absolute joy and fulfillment in the fear of the Lord. The pious person points always to the Lord and wouldn’t have it any other way.

With these gifts, the disciple of Jesus Christ can transform the world! We are courageous soldiers of Jesus who humbly yet boldly say what is true, give direction in life, take leadership roles, and give all the glory to God. It’s no wonder that Jesus asks so much of us, He gave us the means to achieve everything He had done, and more! In John 14:12 Jesus says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.” He knew we could do it because He promised that we would receive this amazing gift of the Spirit, first at Pentecost, and then with the laying on of hands by those at Pentecost! And the power of the Spirit has been transferred from the Apostles by the laying on of hands in every generation until today!

Jesus told His disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:6) Simon, the magician, was so impressed by the power of the Holy Spirit transferred through the laying-on of hands, that he tried to buy it! Acts 8:18 reads, “When Simon saw that the Spirit was conferred by the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, ‘Give me this power too, so that anyone upon whom I lay my hands may receive the holy Spirit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘May your money perish with you, because you thought that you could buy the gift of God with money.'” The act of attempting to buy or sell the power of God is aptly called, “simony,” named after Simon the Magician.

You see, from the very beginning the Spirit has been a gift to the world. That’s it. It is free, but NOT cheap. Jesus’ death and resurrection has paid the price for this gift to us. It is not something that can be bought, but a person must be open to receiving the gift and must be willing to cooperate with God’s gift for it to truly take root and transform his/her life. It’s not magic, after all. It is the gift of God that binds us to Jesus and the Church, and enables us to fight the good fight and live out Jesus’ commandment to love.

The Church teaches that the laying on of hands in Confirmation doesn’t do anything new in us, as we already have the Spirit and It’s gifts, but it does strengthen those gifts in us–for one purpose and one purpose only. The Catechism teaches, “Confirmation brings an increase and deepening of baptismal grace: it roots us more deeply as children of God;  it unites us more firmly to Christ; it increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us; it more perfectly bonds us with the Church; it gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross. (C.C.C. 1303)

If we are His, we must boldly proclaim Him to the world. We must spread the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ that the whole world might know Him, love Him, and serve Him–and it’s the Spirit’s presence and working in us that transforms us into these bold courageous witnesses to Jesus. What will our lives look like if we are His, and what will the world look like when every knee bends at the sound of His name?

St. Paul first gives a glimpse of what living apart from the Spirit looks like (living in the flesh), and secondly, what living in step with the Spirit looks like when they are filled with, and responding to the presence of the Spirit within them. He teaches that if they have the Spirit, and the Gifts of the Spirit, then they should be producing the Fruit of the Spirit. He says, “Brothers and sisters, live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, lust, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit. (5:15-25)

Jesus wants to transform the world, and it’s His Spirit that will do it–but not alone. Today we celebrate Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the Church, whereby Jesus sent His Spirit into the hearts of the faithful, giving them gifts that they might produce fruit for a hungry world. Jesus is the only saver of souls, and no one can say, “Lord, lord, except by the Holy Spirit” (1 COR 12:3). It is our job as His disciples to share the name of Jesus in word and deed. We are called to day-by-day bring light and love, goodness and truth, wholeness, mercy, forgiveness, and compassion to thirsty souls. That’s a pretty difficult thing to do, of course, especially as the world becomes increasingly violent, but the true disciple will continue to love in spite of suffering and pain.

Jesus promised His disciples that in these last days, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be famines and earthquakes from place to place. All these are the beginning of the labor pains. Then they will hand you over to persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of my name. And then many will be led into sin; they will betray and hate one another. Many false prophets will arise and deceive many; and because of the increase of evildoing, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the world as a witness to all nations, and then the end will come. (MT 24:7-14)

No big surprise, then, all this should be expected. Let’s do our job: receive the Spirit and Its gifts, call on the Spirit, produce good fruit, boldly proclaim Christ, and persevere until The End. I mean, “Like a small boat on the ocean, Sending big waves into motion. Like how a single word Can make a heart open, I might only have one match But I can make an explosion.” (And set the world ablaze for Jesus!) Amen?

Easter Blessings, Stephen

By catholicevangelist

Where Did Jesus Go?

This reflection is for Ascension Sunday, Cycle B, 5/13/2018.

I was surprised recently when talking with my students. It was this past Friday before Mother’s Day/Ascension Sunday. I like to make sure that my students are thoughtful about their mothers and how much their mother’s do for them and sacrifice for them. One of my students, when making a mother’s day card, wrote in Spanish in big letters, “I know I’m not the best son, but I’ll always love you, mom.” As I read it I told him how powerful it was and that I’m sure his mom would appreciate it. He said, “Yeah, Mr. Valgos, moms never stop loving you no matter how bad you mess up.”

As I agreed with him, I thought about my own mom and how many times I’ve messed up, and I thought about my wife and how much she loves our boys and sacrifices for them. I was immediately overcome with gratitude for both my mom and my wife, and got all choked up and became teary-eyed. Not a single one of my students clowned me for it. When you teach alternative education, everyone knows moms reign supreme. They pick up the phone, they hassle the kids, they make sure they’re dressed, on the bus, and are passing their classes. Moms are the ones who sacrifice everything for their children. In this Age of the Church, Jesus is working through moms in a powerful way. Many will come to know the love of God through the love of their mom.

Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus. In the Creed we announce that, “He ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father” (C.C.C.659-667). And the very next phrase is, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead” (C.C.C. 668-682). It is very important that we reflect a moment on the implications of these two short phrases because the implications are tremendous. I hear quite often that Jesus “lives in you and me,” or that Jesus “is in my heart.” But technically speaking, how is that possible if the resurrected Jesus “ascended to the Father” and “will return to judge” at the end of time, as we state every Sunday in the Creed?

I once saw a bumper sticker that read, “Jesus will return! Look busy!” If Jesus will return…then how can He also “be here” or “in my heart”? What I think most people really mean is that, “the Spirit of Jesus” lives within us, or that Jesus’ Spirit is here among us. It is the Holy Spirit that is Jesus’ active force in the world today. That, after all, is the importance of Pentecost, which we celebrate this coming Sunday! Jesus looked forward to ascending to the Father so that He could send the Holy Spirit (cf JN 16:7) and usher in the “age of the Church” whereby Jesus would act in and through his faithful disciples, the body of Christ, the Church.

The Catechism says it like this, “The gift of the Spirit ushers in a new era in the ‘dispensation of the mystery’–the age of the Church, during which Christ manifests, makes present, and communicates his work of salvation through the liturgy of his Church, ‘until he comes.’ In this age of the Church Christ now lives and acts in and with his church.” (C.C.C. 1076) In yesterday’s Gospel reading Jesus says to His Father, “As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world” (JN 17:18).

A great way to see these two realities lived out quite clearly is by comparing Luke, the evangelist’s, two writings, namely, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Acts is part two of the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel of Luke begins with, “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received” (Luke 1:1-4). So the Gospel clearly intended to gather information about Jesus’ life for “Theophilus” (which translates “Theo” = God + “Philus”= lover, so a “lover of God”) into an orderly narrative from the beginning to the end of Jesus’ life. Luke ends with Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

Acts of the Apostles is our reading for today, and begins with, “In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.” (Acts 1:1-2) Clearly Acts continues Luke’s teachings about Jesus, only Acts IS NOT about Jesus, per se. It is instead about the Body of Christ! Whereas we saw the earthly Jesus in the Gospel, we now see Jesus in Heaven working through the Holy Spirit in and through His Church in the Acts of the Apostles.

The Acts of the Apostles replaces the Old Testament reading throughout the Easter Season. We’ve been hearing from it everyday since Easter and we continue to hear from it right up to Pentecost. You might have noticed that in Acts, the Apostles heal people, show mercy to people, and proclaim the good news–in other words, they continue the mission and ministry of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit–and it all begins at Pentecost!

If you want to see Jesus in action, read the Gospel! If you want to see Jesus Spirit in action, read Acts of the Apostles. The Holy Spirit is sent to Jesus’ disciples that they might be Him on earth until He returns. No, Jesus is NOT in your heart, is not in your neighbor, and is not in the Church–the Spirit of Jesus is! Jesus is seated at the right hand of God and will come again to Judge the living and the dead. The Holy Spirit binds believers together into one body with Jesus as the head. The Spirit makes Christ a present reality in and through His members, the Church, the Body of Christ.

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) said it perfectly and beautifully when she wrote the following poem:

Christ Has No Body

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

In today’s Gospel Jesus said to his disciples, “’Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.’ So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God. But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.”

Jesus is still “here” and working with and through His Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. We will indeed experience Jesus today–by the Holy Spirit that makes Christ present during this Age of the Church–most especially in the Eucharist. But we will experience Him primarily through others. Through other people’s responding to Jesus and producing good fruit. We will experience the fruit of the Spirit by their love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control (cf. GAL 5:22).

We will come to know Jesus Christ ascended by the working of His Spirit through the Church. We will come to believe in Him by the way that they live out holy lives. We will come to hear the words of God, see the face of God, feel the love of God through others…moms first of all. And we should do the same.

On this celebration of Mother’s Day we give thanks for all those moms who responded to Jesus’ call to proclaim the Gospel to every nation…starting in their home, with their husband and with their children. Thank you, mom. Thank you, wife. Thank you, Jesus. And we who have come to know the love, mercy, and forgiveness of Jesus are called to go out and do likewise. We continue by the power of the same Spirit of Jesus that animated them to love to then go out and show love, forgiveness, and mercy to others. And that’s how we and the Holy Spirit build the Kingdom of God. Let’s get started! The King will soon return. Look busy.

HAPPY MOTHER”S DAY!

Easter Blessings,
Stephen

By catholicevangelist

Love. Period.

This reflection is for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Cycle B, 5/6/2018.

My son, Luke, receives the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist today for the first time! Yeah! Naturally, he’s very excited, and we  have spent a long time learning what Catholics believe about the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

We believe that this bread and wine have become, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ, our Lord. We are what we eat, and when we eat the flesh and blood of the Son of Man, His blood mingles with ours, like water and wine, and we become more like Him–which, of course, is the whole journey of our Christian life. In this journey is growth in holiness and sanctification. The Church teaches that, “The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. In the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself.” (C.C.C. 1324), and elsewhere that, “The Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith.” (C.C.C. 1327)

What follows below are both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition that stand as a witness to the teachings above. We begin with Jesus’ teaching, often called The Bread of Life Discourse. It is worth reading in its entirety. You can follow the link to read all of chapter 6.

In John 6:53-58, Jesus tells his disciples, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

Incidentally, this is the ONLY place in Scripture where Jesus’ disciples walk away from Him never to return. They say His teaching is just too much. It’s too hard for them to wrap their mind around. John 6:60 reads, “Then many of his disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’…As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, ‘Do you also want to leave?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.'” (vs. 66-68)

The saying is hard–it’s true. It is difficult to understand, and can be accessed not with reason, but instead only through faith. Our experience is that with the words of consecration, by the power of the Holy Spirit, ordinary bread is transformed into our extraordinary God. Just as many people only saw an ordinary man, in Jesus, those with faith were able to see more. They were able to see the Messiah and Son of God.

The words of consecration, by which the change occurs, comes from The Last Supper Discourse found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (Mt. 26:17–30, Mk. 14:12–26, Lk. 22:7–39 and Jn. 13:1–17:26). The Matthean version is below and should sound familiar to church-goers.

Matthew 26:26-28 reads, “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.'”

Clearly, the tradition of celebrating the Lord’s Supper continued in the early Church because, St. Paul, who was not at Jesus’ last supper with the disciples, is able to teach the Church in Corinth the tradition that had been handed on to him. He even goes so far as to say that you need to examine yourself or else! We must confess, and be reconciled to God and the community before we receive communion with the Lord and with one another–or else our communion is not communion at all! If we are not reconciled then we are not truly in communion; we are divided and our communion is a lie.

St. Paul teaches, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.” 1 Corinthians 11:23-29

The Book of Revelation gives the Christian community a glimpse “behind the veil” at the worship that goes on in perpetuity in the Heavenly Jerusalem. John says that the Lion has triumphed, but when he turns around he sees not a lion, but a Lamb that seemed to have been slain. John says, “I shed many tears because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to examine it. One of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. The lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has triumphed, enabling him to open the scroll with its seven seals.’ Then I saw standing in the midst of the throne and the four living creatures and the elders a Lamb that seemed to have been slain.” (Revelation 5:1)

Jesus, the Lamb of God, remains for us the sacrificed Lamb. Jesus continues to offer himself, at every moment of every day for us and for our salvation. The sacrifice of Christ is not a time-bound event, but instead is an eternal event, that exists in every moment all the time. This can be very difficult to understand, naturally, because we don’t often experience eternal realities. Difficult to understand, yes, but where else would we go? He has the words of eternal life, right?

The early Church certainly believed so, and they went to great lengths to teach clearly what we believe, as it wasn’t any easier to believe back then either! In fact, the early church was thought to be cannibalistic, because they ate the flesh of their savior!

St. Justin the Martyr (c. 100 – 165 A.D.) wrote, “We call this food Eucharist; and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration [Baptism], and is thereby living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, AND BY THE CHANGE OF WHICH our blood and flesh is nourished, IS BOTH THE FLESH AND THE BLOOD OF THAT INCARNATED JESUS. (First Apology, 66)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c.350 A.D.) taught similarly, “Do not, therefore, regard the Bread and the Wine as simply that; for they are, according to the Master’s declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm. Do not judge in this matter by taste, but — be fully assured by the faith, not doubting that you have been deemed worthy of the Body and Blood of Christ.” (22 [Mystagogic 4], 6)

Click HERE for more quotes on the Eucharist from the early church fathers.

Jesus taught it, His disciples continued it, St. Paul taught it, St. John saw it, Saints Justin the Martyr and Cyril of Jerusalem, taught it, and we continue to teach it right to this very day when my son Luke will receive the Bread of Salvation! As the readings today teach, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:25) What an amazing God we have that He would bless us with so much, and that His arms are spread so wide. God desires that all come to believe and receive salvation in Him.

The Lord Jesus, out of crazy love, takes on human flesh, endures suffering and death, and offers himself as a perpetual sacrifice, so that we could be united with the most Holy Trinity forever. And what is the appropriate response from every believer who has received this gift? Love. That’s it. That’s our job. In 1 JN 4:7-10 the epistle teaches the early Church, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.”

It’s really quite simple, God the Father loves Jesus. Jesus loves us. We love each other. Love forgives, heals, brings wholeness, and sacrifices for the beloved.  Today’s Gospel spells it out quite plainly for us as well. From Acts to 1JN to the Gospel, we are called to love. The Gospel reads, “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. This I command you: love one another.'”

Love one another. That’s what Jesus did, and continues to do–especially in the Eucharist. We receive His very life blood in the Eucharist not only for our own sake, but so that we can be like Him and love like him for ourselves and for the world.  Love. Period. Amen?

By catholicevangelist

Pruning? That Could Sting A Bit!

Related image

This reflection is for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Cycle B, 4/29/2018.

In today’s Gospel, taken from John chapter 15, Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. ” (vs. 2) Growing up in the Central Valley, it is easy to understand the image of pruning both vines, as we have many grapes, and tree branches, as we are blessed with an abundance of fruit-producing trees. I grew up earning money each Christmas vacation at veterinarian Gary Daily’s property, picking up tree prunings from the ground and gathering them together into a large pile to be burned. When Jesus tells his disciples that His Father, the vine grower, takes away every branch that does not bear fruit, and prunes the others so that they bear more, we need to appreciate exactly what that means and why that occurs.

I planted fruit trees in my back yard when I lived in Salinas, and the first three years are particularly important for pruning, as this is when the tree is shaped and the lasting structure of the tree is formed. In other words, in the first three years there isn’t a lot of fruit being produced, but the pruning is important because it is formative. The tree is in the process of “formation” so that the tree can ultimately support the crop load in the coming years. And the same is true in our Christian life–formation is key.

Right now I am going through the discernment process for becoming a deacon in the Catholic Church. The program is rightfully called a “formation” program. The process seeks to shape the deacon as a prayerful Christian minister, who loves God and neighbor with his whole heart. A big part of this formation period is removing all the distractions possible! I have been asked to “prune” away some ministerial activities that I enjoy very much, such as preaching at a friend’s church, leading youth retreats, and giving adult lectures, missions, and retreats. I hate to give those things up, and it pains me to do so, but it is very important that I do. And here’s why: I enjoy and am good at “talking,” but to be a well-balanced minister I need to get out of my “head” and into my heart. I need to have a meaningful prayer life and a life of service to the poor, the marginalized, and those most in need. I am quite imbalanced that way, actually. Instead of praying, it’s very easy for me to study and write. Instead of serving the poor, it’s very easy for me to preach and to teach those who are already in the Christian community. I am much more comfortable teaching Christians than getting my hands dirty with the poor, and I often skip prayer in order to study!

But God needs a prayer warrior who serves and teaches by his love, and not just the guy who preaches the Good News. If I were a tree I’d fall over! A full two-thirds of my balanced Christian life is underdeveloped! Here I am writing now! Each of us must be thoughtful about whether or not we are a “well-balanced” Christian. God wants to use us to provide a great variety of fruit in the coming years, but if we develop only one aspect of our Christian life at the expense of other areas, we run the risk of producing limited fruit, or ultimately, damaging the tree (that’s us).

Sister Wanda, my formation director, asked me to hold off on some areas of ministry so that I might grow more in prayer and service. What about you? How is your prayer life? Do you have one? What is your level of commitment to serving the poor and marginalized in our communities? Do you do any intellectual work at all? What Christian book are you reading? Which theologian are you studying? Is there any at all? Do you work with homeless shelters, foster youth programs, support women’s shelters, or provide food or clothing for the homeless? Do you assist at or visit elderly care facilities? There is so much work to be done! So many need to experience the healing hands of Jesus Christ through us! Have we gotten comfortable with what we’re naturally good at but have become imbalanced?

Beyond formation, fruit trees are pruned every year to improve fruit quality. Horticulturalist, Bill Hanlin, says that pruning trees is a “necessary chore that improves sunlight penetration” and “increases air movement through the tree.” That’s also true of our Christian life. First, know that it is a necessary CHORE. Pruning is neither fun nor easy. I’m quite sure the trees aren’t standing around thinking, “I can’t wait to have my limbs chopped off!” Nor is the farmer looking forward to getting out there and doing it! But the farmer does do it, and the tree does goes through it, and they’re both the better for it.

The first step in the pruning is to remove any diseased or damaged branches, as diseased limbs will carry the disease into the upcoming season causing bacteria growth and can spread to other branches. Damaged limbs are more susceptible to disease and insect infestation that can further damage the tree. In our spiritual life, God wants us to be healthy, happy, and whole. God’s desire is not that we carry our brokenness around with us. When life damages our hearts or when people break our spirit with injustice, parts of ourselves become broken. When we carry around anger, bitterness, despair, sadness, and pain, like that fruit tree, these “broken limbs” open us up to disease that is contagious! God wants to remove these branches from our life. He wants to remove this bacteria that weakens us and threatens others. When we carry around bitterness and pain, we become dark and unloving. Our disease contaminates our most important relationships. We pray less often, we are short tempered with our spouse, our children, our coworkers, and customers. Instead of producing fruit for a hungry world, we instead spread destruction and disease. We need to be healed. We need to be pruned.

The third reason form pruning, beyond formation and to remove dead and diseased limbs, is because of what farmers call “vigorous upright growth from the previous season.” Limbs shoot up vertically from the branches (called water sprouts) that will not bear fruit and can create excessive shading on the interior of the tree. Vigorous upright growth sounds really good! It’s vigorous and it’s upright! It’s fast growing directly to the sun…except it doesn’t produce fruit! Instead it only uses up the tree’s resources that should be dedicated to fruit-producing branches. Although farmers usually prune in December, and citizens of the world in anticipation of the New Year do the same, Christians do this pruning primarily during the season of Lent. Lent is when we take a good hard look at the areas of growth that are not producing fruit in our life. I mean, sure, we’re busy, but too often we become busy with things that are not helpful for our Christian life.

For example, in solidarity with coworkers, we decide to start going to staff get-togethers weekly at a local bar or restaurant. It’s good enough and is causing vigorous upright growth, but as we evaluate our year, we can see that although it’s good for the work environment and relationships, it’s using precious resources such as money and time, that should be used on family and those in need. This is always that hardest part of pruning. Cutting off dead and diseased branches is easy and obvious. The more difficult task is to ask, “What ‘good’ am I doing that is keeping me from doing the ‘great’ that God desires of me?”

Sometimes we spread ourselves too thin. We do a lot of good in a whole lot of places, only to realize that we haven’t done much total good at all-nor have we advanced God’s kingdom. Jesus tells his disciples, “You are already pruned because of the word I spoke to you,” but he also says that the vine grower, “takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.” We are pruned and are producing fruit, but we need to continue to cut out areas of our life so that the ones that remain produce fruit in greater abundance.

The fruit of the Spirit-filled life, St. Paul tells the Galatians, is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (5:22-23). When we are formed well, when we are pruned to remove brokenness and disease, and when we remove areas of growth that undermine production of fruit, we are better able to love others. We are a more joyful person. When conflict arises, not only are we NOT the source of that conflict, but we might even be an instrument of peace in it. We are more able to be patient when tempers flair of when long suffering strikes. In a world with so much need, anger, and selfishness, we can remain kind and generous to others who are in need. We are people of faith in a world of darkness–gentle and kind, and never out of control!

As we said above, a good pruning removes the darkness from within the tree. It allows sunlight to enter into the core of the tree and allows fresh are to blow though it’s branches, and so it is with us. God wants us to create fruit for a hungry world. If we’re going to produce that fruit, we need to allow God to prune that darkness from our life.

Finally, when we have been properly pruned and formed, and the dead, diseased, non-fruit producing branches removed; when light fills our hearts and the Spirit moves freely about, the final step is to remove the pruned wood from around the tree. It must be picked up and burned. If these branches are left near the tree they can be a source of disease and pest infestation in the upcoming season. After all this transformation of the interior of our life occurs, the last thing we want is to ruin our upcoming season by clinging to vines and growth that has been pruned away. Sometimes we just need to clean house. Give it away, dispose of it, or burn it–just get it out of the garden! What does God want to prune from your life this season that you might produce fruit in abundance? Some unhealthy relationships, maybe? Some unhealthy activities? Some addictions to entertainment, social media, sports, alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling? These “branches” are the unhealthy, diseased, broken, and otherwise non-fruit producing branches that the Vine Grower seeks to remove. Isn’t it time to allow the Holy Spirit to do It’s work in your life?

God’s desire is that we produce ever more fruit from season to season. His desire is that as each year passes we are more able to provide spiritual fruit for those who are hungry. Each year we should love Him more and love our neighbor more. It’s not too late to start pruning. Amen?

Easter Blessings, Stephen

By catholicevangelist

Other Sheep in Other Flocks? What?!

This reflection is for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Cycle B, 4/22/2018.

In today’s Gospel Jesus tells his faithful disciples what so many Christians DO NOT want to hear, namely, that Jesus may have someone else “on the side!” Yikes! “But…but…I thought you only had eyes for me, Jesus!”

I distinctly remember having lunch with some amazingly faithful, generous, and kind, Christian friends who with the greatest of confidence said, “If a person has not accepted Jesus into their heart, they cannot be saved. They are in Hell.” He did admit that he was sorry to say it, but that it was absolutely true. But this view is inconsistent with Jesus’ actions and outlook as he ministered, and exactly the opposite of what we hear Jesus say today, and what the Church teaches.

Today Jesus tells His disciples, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd” (JN 10:16) What?! Scandalous! Who are these “other sheep” that MY LORD also loves?

Well, certainly in Jesus’ day this would have meant the gentiles–or non-Jews–and this inclusivity became the cause of much division within the apostolic Church! In fact, the admittance of the gentiles is settled in Acts 15:28 and the rest of the book of Acts as well as the rest of the Scripture, right up to the book of Revelation shows the great struggle with how to be a Jewish-Gentile Christian community in light of the Holy Spirit’s guidance toward greater inclusivity.

Every part of Jesus’ ministry challenges the status quo with regard to who is blessed and who is not. Jesus always invited others to “put out into the deep” so the catch might be more abundant–and it always is with God. Jesus came that the whole of humanity might have life through him–that none should be lost.

But what to make of Peter’s seemingly narrow statement to the leaders of the people and elders, wherein he proclaims they must know that, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

Many Christian communities take these Scripture verses and use them to advance an agenda of exclusivity quite contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus DOES make it clear, and so we believe, that He is the way, the truth, and the life, and that none go to the father except through he (JN 14:6), and Peter makes it clear that there is no salvation apart from Jesus.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches how these verses can be reconciled with what we heard today, and it has to do with the grace and mercy of God for all His children, by whatever name they call Him, and in whatever way they understand Him.

The Church teaches both the necessity of baptism for salvation, AND that there is more than one way to receive the grace of baptism–even without receiving Christian baptism itself. In the Catechism, paragraph 1257 on The Necessity of Baptism, she writes, “The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation…The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the Spirit.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”

The last line is crucial, as it allows for God to be God. It recognizes that God has indeed provided a way in baptism for the salvation of souls, but ultimately, God can save souls anywhere and anytime, through any means God chooses, in ways known only to Himself and the one(s) to whom it has been revealed! We don’t know of any–but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have any!

The following two paragraphs, 1258 and 1259 speak of what is commonly called, baptism of desire. The first is by blood, where one was martyred for their faith in Jesus even before being brought into the community for baptism, and the second, the baptism of desire, whereby a person desired baptism but for whatever reason (ignorance, location, scandal, etc.) is prevented from receiving it.

In both cases, we recognize God’s greatness and the tragedy of human limitation that kept that person from entering the waters. And the teaching goes that the grace of baptism that is normally received with water can be applied to that person in light of their desire for it. God will not be denied those who seek Him.

And finally, probably the most difficult for many, the following paragraph opens the door of grace wide for all the rest who have not been baptized nor desired baptism explicitly at all. It’s worth noting here in its entirety.

C.C.C. 1260 “‘Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.’ Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.”

The Church’s teaching admits of the great impediments and limits to human understanding and to the abundant mercy and generosity of our Father-who desires that none should be lost. Jesus, the good shepherd, lays down his life for all his sheep–those we know of and those we do not.

Sadly, I fear far too many Christians spend an inordinate amount of time trying to decide who gets to go to Heaven and who is in Hell. Time, I believe, that would be better spent on showing love, forgiveness, and mercy to those in need. It’s not our job to decide who doesn’t meet the criteria and is in hell. Incidentally, the church admits of none by name who are in hell, but only that hell does indeed exist for those who knowingly and freely reject God and His love (C.C.C. 1035). For my part, I hope no one is in hell at all and that beyond this earthly life they discover the God of mercy, repent, and believe.

So as it turns out, you and I may have to share our Lord with those that we don’t even know about! How exciting! I can’t wait to get to heaven to meet all the rest of my brothers and sisters in Christ! Jesus calls us to love–that’s it. Not to condemn, judge, or speculate, but to love. Not a bad gig. I’ll try to love more tomorrow than I was able to today, and God can be God.

Easter Blessings, Stephen

By catholicevangelist