Dead or Alive.

April 29th Sunday Readings.

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Arbor day 1989, I come home from school with a runt-of-the-litter little sapling that I was determined to plant and grow in our yard. I had been convinced by a presentation at my elementary school that planting trees was the way to save the world. My mom was convinced this sad little sapling was going to die in the first week it was planted. It did not. 

Now the tree is so large that my parents have to regularly have it trimmed so that it doesn’t harm the house. It is a healthy, fully grown conifer. Why? Because it was connected to a good source of water and food. It was planted in good soil. 

Every single Arbor Day sapling my poor daughters have brought home has not been so lucky. Whether they rot in our fridge waiting to be planted or whither in the yard for lack of water, these poor things never make it. Why? They aren’t connected to a good source of water and food. 

In the gospel this Sunday, Jesus explains that he is the vine and we are the branches. God the Father is the vine grower. The analogy that Jesus is making is so helpful for the spiritual life because it demonstrates clearly that being connected to Jesus Christ is a life or death reality. 

To be cut off from God doesn’t mean someone is a bad person. To be cut of from God is to be a dead person. 

Morality, right and wrong, isn’t some list of arbitrary rules that someone made up long ago that we have to reevaluate in each new generation. No, the purpose of leading a moral life is to be connected to the source of all life, Jesus Christ. The rules of the moral life don’t exist for their own sake. The rules exist to keep us connected to the source of life. One direction leads to life. One direction leads to death. 

The reality is that most who are away from God don’t have a defining moment they cut themselves off from God. Most people drift, slowly and painlessly, away from God. At some point they have forgotten what is like to even been connected with the source of life. At this point, sin and death feel normal. 

Yet, when we find ourselves disconnected from God and thus disconnected from his body, the Church, we may sense that something isn’t quite right. We may not notice it right away. We may not recognize it constantly, but in the small hours or when we are alone or when we are ambushed by a moment of unexpected silence, we can feel the withering, the drying out of our life. 

The good news is that we are never too far gone for God. The vine grower has the supernatural capacity to connect us again to the source of life and to fill us again with goodness, love, beauty, and grace. There is nothing we can do to stop God from loving us. God is willing to go the distance to give us life again. Not because we deserve it, but because of his unconditional love for us. 

Live it:
Go outside. Go find a tree and take 5 or more minutes in silence near it. Be reminded that just as it needs water, good soil, and sunlight, you need to be connected to God to live. Ask God to bring you close to him. 

Old is a bad word.

April 22nd Sunday Readings.

A week after Christmas (and 4 or so days after the birth of my son), I dropped my smart john-paul-joseph-henry-245902-unsplashphone into the toilet. To save you from unpleasant and unnecessary detail, I’ll just say this – it didn’t make it. We had an old flip phone in the junk draw and so I transferred my number to ol’ reliable and fired it up. The battery lasted for days. It was so small and fit so well in my pocket. I wasn’t chained to it’s screen expecting a constant drip of dopamine from likes, retweets, or texts. Of course it wasn’t all good, and when I finally broke down and got a new smart phone, I was relieved. 

There is nothing wrong with the latest and greatest. Often the reason the new replaces the old is because it’s better in some manner or degree. Innovation and improvement are good in so many ways. However, far too often, I think our predilection for “the new” is absolute. We are quick to flush the old anything in favor of the new for no other reason than it is new. Honestly, it feels like “old” is a bad word in our culture. 

Sometimes we desire new because of the shortcomings of the old, which is good. However, by the time we recognize the shortcomings of the new, the old is long gone. 

Is it possible to hold onto the old and embrace the new? I’m not sure yet, to be honest.

What I do know is that in the gospel this Sunday, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This way of thinking about Jesus, as good shepherd, feels old. My grandparents had a painting of Jesus carrying a lamb on his shoulders, in their home. Now, we hear about Jesus as bridegroom or Lord or Hurricane or Good Father, but rarely, shepherd. There is some simple beauty in this scripture even as it isn’t stylish or current to think about Jesus as shepherd.

zoltan-tasi-308658-unsplashJesus the shepherd cares for us. Jesus directs us. Jesus chases us down when we are lost. Jesus sometimes uses a stick to get us back on track. Jesus works out fights when we run into other sheep. Jesus picks us up when we are too small to walk. Jesus leads us to clean water and lush, verdant pastures. Jesus provides exactly what we need. 

Jesus is my shepherd. 

Live It:
Take some time with this piece of scripture. Pray through it. What would it look like if Jesus was shepherding you?

I’m so scared.

April 15th Sunday Readings.

 

denny-muller-534079-unsplashAre you the kind of person who is startled easily? I wish I could say no, but I’d be lying. A number of years ago, a friend of mine hid in a darkened closet to scare me. I opened the door, he harmlessly jumped out from behind a rack of chairs and barely uttered “boo” before I started screaming uncontrollably. I threw the music stand I was holding at him and nearly dropped by lap top. I was terrified. No real injury except for my dignity. 

In the gospel the resurrected Jesus comes into the presence of the disciples, and scripture says they were startled and terrified and thought they had seen a ghost. This was after Peter returned from the tomb, and after the two disciples on the road to Emmaus had recounted their experiences of the risen Jesus. 

Jesus goes on to inquire as to why they are so afraid. He even goes so far as to ask for something to eat. This thing before them isn’t a ghost, but Jesus, their friend, raised from the dead. Yet the disciples who saw all of Jesus miracles, were still shocked by his resurrection. 

How would you react if you encountered the resurrected Jesus? Would you be scared, startled, and spooked? I think how we react to Jesus the living God is directly related to who we think Jesus is and what we expect him to do.

If Jesus is just a good man and a good teacher, then seeing him appear after his death would be a frightening thing. If what we expected out of Jesus is that he would conquer the Romans, then we might just be terrified if he showed up after having been killed by the Romans. If Jesus is only our judge, then we might be a little worried when he appears. 

However, if we really believe that Jesus is God and if we believe that Jesus’ purpose was to conquer death and restore humanity’s relationship with God, then I don’t think we will be too worried about encountering the risen Jesus. If Jesus is on our side, and wants us to go to heaven even more than we do, then having him appear in our midst should be a relief for us. 

The other thing is this; as humans, we have a natural suspicion of strangers. If we were out to dinner with our family and some stranger sat down at our table, then we would probably be scared or at least a little on edge. Is Jesus a stranger for you? I don’t mean do you know who he is – of course you do. But do you know Jesus, personally? If really, truly encountering Jesus would be shocking and terrifying, I think it’s time to think about whether you know Jesus and why you think he wants to be near to you. 

Live It:
Invite Jesus into life. Whether it is at the end of the night before you go to bed or in the middle of Mass on Sunday, say a little prayer inviting Jesus into your heart and into your life. That way Jesus won’t be a stranger.

What’s it going to take?

April 8th Sunday Readings.

Getting kids to eat whatever they don’t want to eat can be a monumental task. I realize Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplashthat there are strategies that work. Also, negotiation is not most effective way to get children committed to a power struggle to do what you ask them. And, there are times when getting a child to eat green beans or ham (depending on the kid or the moment) just boiling down to the questions, “What is it going to take?”

When faced with unbelief in the lives of our family or friends, or even in the dark corners of our own doubt, I think we could easily ask this question, “What is it going to take?” What is it going to take for you and I to really believe the good news of the gospel? What is it going to take for our sibling or parent or spouse or offspring to believe that Jesus is their Lord? What is it going to take?

In the gospel, we hear about Thomas who states clearly what it will take for him to believe. He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” It would appear that for Thomas it takes touching the wounds of Christ to believe. At first blush, this seems like a lack of faith. Thomas appears to be put conditions on what it will take for him to believe in the resurrection, but I think there is more going on here.

John, the gospel writer, never states whether Thomas actually touches the wounds of Christ. In fact, Thomas says, “My Lord and my God,” when he simply sees Christ. For Thomas encountering Jesus face to face is enough. Meeting Jesus is what it takes for Thomas to believe.

I believe this to be true for most of us. For most of us, we believe once we have had a face to face encounter with Jesus Christ. Christianity isn’t only a set of beliefs or a moral code, but it is a relationship with a person. To really meet the person of Christ (and not just the idea of Jesus) fundamentally changes us at our core.

When Thomas sees the resurrected Christ, he exclaims, “My Lord and my God.” This profession of faith is one of the most vivid and explicit in all the gospels. By giving Jesus the titles of both Lord and God, Thomas is proclaiming Jesus the same God as the God of his fathers, the Lord God of all Israel and the Old Testament. When we encounter Jesus face to face, we know Jesus is God.

Live It:
Jesus lives. If we really believe in the resurrection we will look for him now. Two suggestions: Look for Jesus in the Eucharist and in the poor.