Acknowledging Jesus in the Poor and the Immigrant: A Reflection on Our Time in Costa Rica

“I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others the Son of Man will acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God.” 

Luke 12:8-9

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Micah and I on the bus

Micah and I spent the last week in Costa Rica helping out with a short term mission trip consisting of two parishes from Alabama and Florida. It was a blessed trip and had a number of firsts for us. One of those firsts was that the trip had two priests attending which allowed for daily mass both in our base town of Coopavega and mass in the surrounding small communities where there is only monthly or quarterly mass.

I was in charge of one of the work projects working with a poor Nicaraguan family who had crossed the river to Costa Rica seeking a better life. They lived in a small wooden house covered in dirt next door to the local lumber yard. The inside of the house had a flimsy wooden floor to help keep it about a foot off the ground because water sometimes flowed underneath. 20170728_102127[1]When we entered the house we had to watch out for the center of the room because you could feel the wood giving way and there was a space large enough for a small child to fall through. There were about 7 people living in the house from what I could tell. The oldest woman was named Rosario (Rosary). She recently had a stroke but was so happy.

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Phil Brupbacher, one of the local missionaries down there told me she loved to be prayed with. Fr Jim Dane, the pastor of St Thomas Parish in Orange Beach, AL was with us the first day. He blessed the family and we all prayed for them and Rosario’s healing. While we were there work on their new house next door progressed rapidly. A roof was put on and most of the house was painted.

20170728_071451[1]Felipe, her soon-to-be-spouse, was so excited and had such a beautiful smile. He told us of the hard times in Nicaragua and his new life in Costa Rica. On our last day they fed us homemade tortillas and cheese.

This morning as I was reading my Bible I read a passage in Luke 12 that appeared to me in a new way. Jesus begins to tell his disciples not to be hypocrites like the Pharisees. THeir attitude could probably be best summed up as in Jesus’ parable on the two men who go up to the temple:

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The dump side of the lumberyard next to Rosario and Felipe’s house.  Those piles are saw dust.

Luke 18: 10 Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.11 The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector.12 I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’

Or earlier in the parable of the Good Samaritan:

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Rosario’s grandkids

Luke 10: 31 A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side.32 Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side.33 But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight.

In both the parables the men overlook the fact that the man before them is a child of God, their brother and as Jesus reveals, in a mysterious way they also are Him. (Matt 25)

I have heard so many times people, who when encountering the poor, instead of being moved to compassion, are rather grateful that it is not they who are suffering or poor. When confronted with misery, instead of feeling compelled to share in the cross they rather go the other side of the road, grateful that they are not the ones suffering. And yet here is where the Luke 12:8-9 spoke to me in a new way.

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Phil Brupbacher and Fr Jim outside the new house about to start painting

When we acknowledge that it is Jesus in the poor, in the migrant, in the Felipe’s and Rosario’s of this world we can understand better the idea that Jesus is not asking us to acknowledge Him publicly only in times of religious persecution. He is asking us to identify with the poor, the migrants, the refugees. He is asking us to see Him, recognize Him, stop and look into His eyes, love Him. He really is present in the miserable of our world. He still carries the cross of every man or woman who has a cross. I know that even our small crosses would be too heavy if He wasn’t walking with us helping us on.

I pray I can be the first to recognize Him in those around me, the lost, the unlovable, the filthy, stinking masses of sinners who bear the image of the crucified Lord.

20170728_105349[1]“Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not scorn him in his nakedness, nor honor him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked. For he who said: This is my body, and made it so by his words, also said: You saw me hungry and did not feed me, and inasmuch as you did not do it for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did not do it for me. [Mat 25:34 ff]. What we do here in the church requires a pure heart, not special garments; what we do outside requires great dedication.”

St John Chrysostom Homily 50

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I am Not the Measure

It is not hard to obey when we love the one whom we obey.

–Saint Ignatius of Loyola

Jesu storm

Since becoming a missionary which began only months before Pope Francis began his papacy, I have been constantly shocked at how easily we Catholics can write off what he says.  In order justify our dissent (which often is simply a justification of our lifestyle) many of us spread second or third hand stories about his supposed pacts with the devil, the masons or worse or all- the gay lobby!  I have heard Catholics judge and condemn the pope or the church as “infiltrated” by any host of “enemies” soon after some papal proclamation challenges their lifestyle or standard of living.  This “cafeteria Catholicism” has become the norm for many Catholics who simply refuse to accept anything the Church says that isn’t in accordance with their own vision of the mission of the Church.  

“Cafeteria Catholicism” allows us to pick those “truths” by which we will measure our lives as Catholics. … “Cafeteria Catholicism” is what happens when the stance of Protagoras, regarding man as the measure of all things, gets religion — but not too much.

— Fidelity, 1986, published by the Wanderer Forum Foundation

 

When we consider the Church’s moral teachings on Abortion, Homosexuality, sexuality, the environment, social justice, capital punishment, or war among others, it is commonplace for some to simply accept those issues championed by their particular political party or news source and then write off the others as irrelevant or worse satanic!  How many Catholics who disagree with the Church on contraception or abortion can actually present the Church teaching in a coherent way?  How many Catholics who disagree with the magisterium on care for the environment or capital punishment actually try to understand the Church’s argument? I have meet few on both sides.  

 

It amazes me that someone could condemn another for dissenting from Humanae Vitae (the last encyclical written by Blessed Paul VI) and yet themselves have no problem dissenting from the teachings of Populorum Progressio (an encyclical written the year before by Blessed Paul VI).   I recently quoted Blessed Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio on facebook and was told by some of our friends and benefactors that we could lose monetary support if I kept it up.  

 

Behind much of the anger and gossip seems to be a genuine fear that the Holy Spirit is not in control, that Jesus has somehow let His Church down.  Fear, fear, fear.  It lurks behind so many uncharitable words and criticisms.  

 

I John 4:18 “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”  As our love increases our fear will decrease.  It’s that simple.  We need not fear the masons!  We need not fear ISIS.  We need not even fear Satan himself.  Rather as Jesus says “I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!”

 

We need to love our neighbors and trust in Jesus. Mark 4:40 “Why are you afraid?  Do you have no faith.” Again 2 Timothy 1:7 “for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control.”

 

As Dr. Felix Just, S.J. points out “The most commonly repeated phrase in the whole Bible, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, is “Have no fear!” or “Do not be afraid!”

http://catholic-resources.org/Bible/HaveNoFear.htm

 

I am not afraid of where the Pope is calling us.  I believe he is speaking for Jesus.  I have dove into his teachings first hand and found a medicine for my soul.  I am praying for each of you who read this blog that God rescues His flock from fear “to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our lives.” Luke 1:75

 

Jonathan

Back in General Cepeda: Our First Week

“Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” Luke 6:38

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On the mountain in General Cepeda

It is so good to be back in General Cepeda!  A month or so ago our family was invited to help staff a number of short term mexican mission trips down here.  We were thrilled at the opportunity to revisit a place that has meant so much for our family.  We spent our first year of missions in General Cepeda and we were eager to return and help others encounter the beautiful people who call it home.  

 

God has reminded us of His faithfulness and generosity continually during this first week.  I wanted to tell you all of two stories of how God provided for us already.  The first story is about the generosity we have encountered everyday in our fellow missionaries and the poor.  I am constantly challenged how willing the poor are to give to us from their need.  I pray God would open my heart to be more generous with all He has blessed me with.

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Some of our boys and the Gehl boys

Last Thursday we headed down with another family, the Gehl’s, for a five week stay here in the Casa de Misiones.  On the way down we stopped for the night in Eagle Pass, TX and met up with another missionary, Jason Healy, who would be leading the trips.  On Friday we began the adventure crossing the border and having breakfast with some of our fellow FMC missionaries just across the border in the town of Allende.  

 

After breakfast we headed over to the visa office in Allende to get our visas and the permit for the FMC van we drove down in.  I still remember sitting in the visa office remarking that God was so good.  The crossing was going so smoothly!  We would be back in General Cepeda in a few hours maybe before dinner.  And yet God in His goodness had other plans.

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The younger crowd

As we handed over the paperwork to get the van into the country, the woman at the counter said she needed to go out and inspect the VIN number.  We went out together and she took a few pictures.  Once we were back inside she let us know that our van was too heavy to be let into the country at this time.  She pointed to law from 2016 taped up on the window.  We could possibly get permission from the border patrol to enter but would need to backtrack 30 minutes or so to the Piedras Negras Border Crossing.  We spent the next hour or so finishing up the rest of our paperwork before we had to decide what to do.  I was so blessed by the generosity of our FMC community.  The Gehl’s and Jason didn’t want us to go back alone.  Even though the Gehl’s have a newborn and five other children and it was hot and we had been driving for hours, they still cheerfully suggested that we all stick together.  It was such a blessing to travel in a group.  We drove all the way back to Piedras Negras and wandered about trying to find someone who could help us.  In the end we were told we could not get the vehicle into the country until June 12th!

IMG_0233I was a bit crestfallen but the others kept on encouraging.  It was such a blessing.  We headed back to Allende and met up with the Garza family, a Mexican family who were FMC missionaries there.  They have seven children and are quite poor.  I have been astounded at their willingness to give their all for Jesus.  We had notified them of our coming and told them we wanted to see them on the way down.  

Originally we planned to stop by for an hour or so after breakfast.  They have so very little and we had 17 people in our caravan.  These beautiful poor missionaries said not to think of eating out but that they would be providing a full breakfast for us.  We were so astonished at their generosity.  This was the same generosity I had marvelled at long ago our first year we spent here.  The poor’s generosity seems to know no boundaries.  They gave us so much food.  Good food.  They humbly waited on us and made sure we were well fed.  As we headed back to their house from Piedras Negras we wondered if they would let us leave the van at their house and we could take a bus to General Cepeda or try and squeeze into the other two vehicles.  They astonished us again.  As we pulled up they had just finished washing their own vehicle.  When they heard our plight they immediately offered us their only family vehicle with joy.  We felt the normal reluctance at accepting their gift, at putting them out etc.  They cheerfully offered us their most expensive possession without hesitation.  “We can use your van in an emergency.” Tonio said.  He also mentioned there was a small car he could use for ministry.  I was so blessed and overwhelmed by God’s goodness.  We eventually left and arrived in General Cepeda in the middle of the night.  

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Dealing with border agents and police in Mexico is difficult at times and most of us have heard some nightmarish story of someone’s dealings with corrupt mexican police.  I have often heard of the “need” to bribe police at times.  We also have felt the temptation to do so at the customs office and on certain occasions with the police.  I have never bribed an officer.  I believe it is morally wrong.  Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household, but he who hates bribes will live. Proverbs 15:7  God allowed my conviction to be tested this last week and once again He was so faithful never testing us beyond what we could bear. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”  I Corinthians 10:13

 

Our third day in Mexico Josh, Jason and I were in Saltillo and got in a car accident.  The guys in the other vehicle told us they had a friend on the force and we would need to just give them $400.00 USD or they would call him up.  We told them we weren’t going to just give them $400.00 and that we wanted to do everything correctly according to the law.  Praise the Lord we were able to encounter a few policemen before “their guy” arrived.  After a grueling few hours of learning the laws and ways of handling accidents in Mexico we had notified our insurance agents who had to come out to the scene and assess the damage.  When all was done the other vehicle drove off and we were left with one sole police officer.  I had been talking off and on to the officer about the faith and his family.  He seemed genuinely kind but then at the end of it all he told us he would have to give us a ticket and take the driver’s licence.  We explained that we were on our way to Monterey to pick up another missionary so we needed to keep driving.  He said we would have to pay the ticket the following day and there was nothing he could do.  Then his face changed and he said he could “help us out.”  There was an awkward pause then he said he could take away the ticket if we really wanted him to.  We realized he was hinting at a bribe.  I felt so sad inside.  How many drivers had given him a bribe in the past?  I looked him in the eyes and I said “Brother, you know I am a Catholic Missionary.”  I was preparing to tell him his soul was in jeopardy, that he was allowing the love of money to destroy his heart.   “A bribe corrupts the heart.” Eccles 7:7 “Nothing that comes from bribery or injustice will last” Sirach 40:12

Before I could go further he looked at me and suddenly pointed to the sky and said he swore by God above that he wouldn’t accept any money from us.  He immediately got into his vehicle and drove away without issuing us a ticket.  We blessed him and said we would pray for him.  I felt so blessed and relieved that God provided a way out.  

 

One of the most incredible blessings of missions is constantly being challenged to live the truth we preach.  Sometimes we can quietly go about our day and merely go through the Christian motions, attending church, praying, living our lives of faith in private and in the comfort of our own boundaries.  Jesus came to free us from the narrow confines of economic comfort and the chains of “personal space.”  He asks much of us because He wants to give us so much.  Please pray for our family and all those involved with our June short term mission trips that the Lord would move hearts and touch lives.  Please pray especially that He would raise up new missionaries who would be open to carrying His message to the ends of the earth.

 

 

A Life Transfigured by God’s Presence: Becoming Spirit-filled Evangelizers in the Modern World Part 2: Intercessory Prayer – The Prayer of the Spirit-filled Evangelizer

picture of a praying man

Here we see that intercessory prayer does not divert us from true contemplation, since authentic contemplation always has a place for others.” (Pope Francis Evangelii Gaudium 281)

Having grown up in a Christian evangelical household, prayer was unconsciously understood as intercessory prayer.  When we got together in church to pray or in our home, it always implied that we would be lifting up intentions on behalf of ourselves and those around us.  I can still remember my father early in the morning crying out to God in the other room asking Him for His help and provisions.  I was raised in a household where we brought before Our Lord all that we needed in faith and assurance that He would hear us.

St Paul urges, “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people” (I Tim 2:1)  We also see in the early church when Peter was in prison “earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” (Acts 12:5)  Intercession was perhaps the prayer of choice for St Paul who goes as far as to encourage the Ephesian believers to pray “at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Eph 6:18).  He also mentions that he was “constantly mentioning” people in his prayers. (I Thes 1:2)

When I entered the Catholic Church in 1999 I began studying the Church’s teaching on prayer with great interest.  So many forms of prayer and ways to live out the spiritual life! I fell in love with the scriptural rosary.  I loved the Mass.  I began using a variety of prayer books and for the first time began praying the Psalms as though they were my own.  All this was so very good for me.  I admit, though, that I began to intercede less.  I began to think that Intercession was a lesser form of prayer for beginners and that meditation and contemplation were higher forms of prayer to which I needed to dedicate all my focus.  I remember reading with great interest The Cloud of Unknowing and falling head over heals for the Jesus Prayer.  

Nevertheless I have come to see that in all our zeal for deeper prayer we can miss out on the profound encounter with Jesus, indeed a Christocentric form of contemplation that Pope Francis, in his great pastoral wisdom, is encouraging us to foster. The rediscovery of personal intercession, I believe, will lead us to fresh waters and spiritual richness.  

Before looking at the Papal teaching I wanted to mention that I found it quite difficult to discover any teachings from Catholics in the last millennium on intercession.  A simple internet search on Catholics and intercession got me nearly half a million its and yet pages and pages were simply devoted to the intercession of the saints, apologetic endeavors to defend saintly intercession, or liturgical forms of intercession.  The development of personal intercession seems greatly neglected.  I believe this dearth of formation is the backdrop for Pope Francis’ exhortation.  

In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis draws to our attention two forms of prayer particularly necessary for modern believers- missionary-disciples.  One is Lectio Divina (which we will discuss in a later post) and intercessory prayer.  He devotes an entire section of his exhortation (281-283) to this particular form of prayer.  

In our modern globalized conscience we are aware as never before of what is going on in our world.  Many people experience deep anxiety over what is happening all over the world which leads oftentimes to a feeling of powerlessness before all the suffering and evil in the world.  It can move us towards indifference and a sense of futility in our charitable actions which seem to do so little in the world.  We can become suspicious and closed off to our neighbors who seem wholly other and threatening.  Yet seen in a different light it is an opportunity for greater encounter if we allow Jesus to guide us.  

One could certainly call globalization a crisis.  Pope Francis recently points to a way of understanding crisis based upon the Chinese word for crisis which is taken from two words “danger” and “opportunity.” (Pope Francis Feb 17, 2017)  The danger is that we disown our neighbors excluding them from our love and compassion thus dehumanizing them.  Any time we respond to another human person with any attitude but that of love we dehumanize them.  (Karol Wojtyla Love and Responsibility)

The opportunity is that in others we can encounter Jesus.  Jesus said He would be with us always (Matt 28:20).  He certainly is with us in the Holy Eucharist but also He meets us in our neighbor, especially in the poor.  Pope Francis encourages us to take advantage of the opportunity to meet Jesus in other people.  

In Evangelii Gaudium 281 Francis says:

One form of prayer moves us particularly to take up the task of evangelization and to seek the good of others: it is the prayer of intercession.

An awareness of others needs should lead us to desire for them a personal encounter with Jesus.  That should be our first response.  As Pope Saint John Paul II stated in Mission of the Redeemer “The poor are hungry for God, not just for bread and freedom. Missionary activity must first of all bear witness to and proclaim salvation in Christ.”  We need to realize that before any other need the human person desires to know that God is with them.  This is the true task of evangelization.  The message is simple:

Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you. (Ev Gaud 164)

We need to believe that deep inside the human person is longing for this revelation.  Your maker loves you and is for you.  Intercession should first and foremost increase our desire to encounter others with this message.  As Pope Francis says intercession should move us to evangelization:

“We are convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly, not the same thing to hear his word as not to know it, and not the same thing to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to. It is not the same thing to try to build the world with his Gospel as to try to do so by our own lights. We know well that with Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything. This is why we evangelize.”  (Ev Gaud 266)

Intercession also opens our hearts to other people’s needs.  As we ask God to move in the lives of others it reminds us of our filial relationship with them.  It calls us on to greater compassion.  How can we disown the person we have been bringing to mind in our personal time with God?  

“We achieve fulfilment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names!” (Ev Gaud 274)

Certainly Saint Paul was constantly praying for others in his personal prayer time (Phil 1:4,7).  He was a mystic and yet we can clearly see “that intercessory prayer does not divert us from true contemplation, since authentic contemplation always has a place for others.” (Ev Gaud 281)  I think of the long lists of names the Dorothy Day kept and prayed for every day.  I realize I was mistaken about the idea of contemplation and the place of others in my prayer life.

Intercession, Francis teaches, leads us to a greater gratitude to God for others.  This is so important today when the world has become so connected.  We can easily become threatened by others.  How often the fear of another destroying my way of life gets in the way of authentic Christian love!  Yet when I intercede for others I begin to realize all God is doing in the life of others and in my own life.

[Intercession] is a spiritual gaze born of deep faith which acknowledges what God is doing in the lives of others. At the same time, it is the gratitude which flows from a heart attentive to others. When evangelizers rise from prayer, their hearts are more open; freed of self-absorption, they are desirous of doing good and sharing their lives with others.  (Ev Gaud 282)

How many people would be changed if they began praying for their enemies, for immigrants, for refugees, for anyone on the periphery, and trying to see what they needed as they prayed.  How often would we discover the value in our neighbor as we ask God to give them their daily bread.  Our hearts can be opened by encountering the needs of others seeking to understand rather than be understood.  It opens doors rather than building walls.

So many of the great men and woman of the Bible were intercessors.  I think of Moses arguing with God for His people.  I think of Abraham pleading for the few righteous men in Sodom.  I think of Jesus n His high priestly prayer of John 17.  One could go on.  Francis says that:

Intercession is like a “leaven” in the heart of the Trinity. It is a way of penetrating the Father’s heart and discovering new dimensions which can shed light on concrete situations and change them. (Ev Gaud 283)

Our society longs for change.  We ourselves long for a better world.  Yet without God we are utterly powerless.  All our actions amount to so precious little.  When we intercede for others we touch Jesus and can be drawn into the very heart of the Trinity.  We encounter our neighbors needs but find that God “in reality is always there first.” (Ev gaud 283)

During this lent I want to encourage you and myself to intercede more, to exercise your priestly ministry given at Baptism.  I am reminded of the words of the Second Vatican Council concerning the lay members of the Church:

“Their work, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily labor, their mental and physical relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life if patiently borne-all of these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Pt 2:5). During the celebration of the Eucharist these sacrifices are most lovingly offered to the Father along with the Lord’s body. Thus as worshipers whose every deed is holy, the lay faithful consecrate the world itself to God”(Lumen Gentium 34).

We can truly consecrate the world itself during the offering of the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  While the ministerial priesthood asks Jesus to become present in the bread and wine we ask Him to become present in our everyday lives, in those we meet on the streets and online.  Rather than simply offering assent to the petitions during the sacred liturgy let us begin personally offering up our world to Jesus so that He “may be all in all.” ( I Cor 15:28)  

God bless you in Jesus name.

Lazarus is Not a Threat, He is a Gift: A Parable for Modern American Christianity

I recently reread Pope Francis’ Lenten message for 2017 entitled “The Word is a gift. Other persons are a gift”and felt personally challenged to see those around me as gifts of God, as living words of love being spoken by our Heavenly Father.  And yet as I read I realized how much we in the American Church as a whole need to hear the message of this parable.  I decided to do a cursory read of what the last few pope’s have had to tell us about this parable and its application in our lives.  This blog post is about my findings.

 

Pope Saint John Paul II had some powerful words to share with Americans in particular about this parable. Preaching inside Yankee stadium during mass on October 2, 1979 he told us:

 

“The parable of the rich man and Lazarus must always be present in our memory; it must form our conscience. Christ demands an openness that is more than benign attention, more than token actions or half-hearted efforts that leave the poor as destitute as before or even more so.. All of humanity must think of the parable of the rich man and the beggar. Humanity must translate it into contemporary terms, in terms of economy and politics, in terms of all human rights, in terms of relations between the “First”, “Second” and “Third World”.”  (Homily 7.)

 

God is calling us to take notice of our suffering brothers and sisters right outside our borders and those who are running to us seeking our help.  What is so beautiful is that every poor person is a gift, everyone who seeks our help is also a means of God helping us, rescuing us from worldly pursuits.  In the parable the very name Lazarus means “God helps.”  (Pope Benedict Lenten Message 2012)  If we read the message of the parable we can see that God sent the poor beggar to the rich man’s “large gate” as a way to help him.  Lazarus himself was a gift, the gift of Jesus’ own presence. And yet for probably many of the same reasons we have today the nameless richman tried to ignore him and keep him outside.  He wanted to be able to choose his neighbors, choose the when and where if ever he would respond to God’s voice.  And Lazarus was the message, he was an embodiment of Christ’s own incarnation of the father’s love. This poor outsider was the embodied presence of the God-Man.

 

Pope Francis says:

 

No messenger and no message can take the place of the poor whom we meet on the journey, because in them Jesus himself comes to meet us: “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40) General Audience Wednesday May 18, 2016  

 

Yet how often we ignore the message of the Gospel found in the needy around us, attempting to keep ourselves safe by human means relying more on man than God.  I remember my first time living in Mexico.  How sad was the extreme poverty we saw within minutes from the US border.  How many Lazarus’ sat outside the gates of our country.  How often they are ignored or seen only as a threat to the American way of life!  And yet we know they are there.  

 

“Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows what is in man. He alone knows it” (John Paul II Homily)

 

How fearful the worldly Christian is!  Since returning to the US I have been amazed at how little biblical wisdom is used to make decisions about one’s neighbor by christians!  It all seems to be centered on a certain worldly wisdom.  I am reminded of the Worldly Wiseman in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress who offers:

 

what you desire, only without the perils that you are certain to encounter if you follow the way ahead…for instead of dangers you will meet with much safety, friendship, and content.

 

How many of us have sought the crossless Christ, the Jesus without danger, a safe, friendly Jesus who made sense and fit into our box.  But this Jesus can’t help us see God because he isn’t the image of God’s love which reaches out and enters the pain of the world.  He is merely a sanitized copy lifeless and unable to give sight to our blindness.  

 

Pope Francis tells us that “being worldly means losing your name and having the eyes of your soul “darkened”, anesthetized, until you no longer see the people around you.”  (Homily for Thursday March 5, 2015)  It is a sickness, an affliction.  “With a worldly heart” is impossible to comprehend the necessities and needs of others. With a worldly heart you can go to Church, you can pray, you can do many things…But what did Jesus pray for at the Last Supper? “Please, Father, protect these disciples” so that “they do not fall in the world, do not fall into worldliness”. (ibid)

 

I remember experiencing this worldliness in some who visited us at our mission post and instead of feeling compassion for the poor and lost they felt happy that they were going home and didn’t have to live this way.  They felt “thankful” for all they had but seemed little inclined to use it to lift their brothers and sisters out of misery.  For some this led to a sense of disgust that people lived this way.  They were then much more concerned with the possibility that America could be “heading in the same direction” because of the President.  They had worldly hearts, afraid of others, afraid of suffering, afraid of the cross.  

 

And yet  “God’s word teaches us that only our trust in Jesus is secure: other trusts are useless, they do not save us, they do not give life, they do not give joy”. Indeed, “they bring us death and drought”…’our problem” as the Scriptures tell us, “is that our hearts are treacherous”. (ibid)

 

Where is our trust?  In the government?  In walls and stronger borders?  In better vetting and harsher declamations against “Islamic terrorism?”  Do these forms of trust draw us closer to Jesus in others?  

 

John Paul II reminds us “When we Christians make Jesus Christ the center of our feelings and thoughts, we do not turn away from people and their needs.” (Homily Yankee Stadium)  

 

The poor of the United States and of the world are your brothers and sisters in Christ…You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs from the feast. You must take of your substance, and not just of your abundance, in is order to help them.  And you must treat them like guests at your family table. (Ibid)

 

What would really make America great would be an openness to Jesus found in our neighbors. “It is in the joyful simplicity of a life inspired by the Gospel and the Gospel’s spirit of fraternal sharing that you will find the best remedy for sour criticism, paralyzing doubt and the temptation to make money the principal means and indeed the very measure of human advancement.”  (Ibid)

 

I understand some will see this post as judgemental and smug.  I am sorry.  I still struggle with the same issues within my own heart.  I turn away from the homeless man.  I feel put out when he or she is waiting for me at the red light of the off ramp.  Let me be the first to admit my own need of a Savior.  Let me be the first to admit my need for the poor.  I need them to bring me close to Jesus.  Nevertheless someone needs to says these things.  As Pope Benedict writes:

 

“Christian admonishment, for its part, is never motivated by a spirit of accusation or recrimination. It is always moved by love and mercy, and springs from genuine concern for the good of the other.” (Lenten Message 2012)  

 

May our Merciful Father bless you and keep you and be present to you in His poor and lost.

 

A Life Transfigured by God’s Presence: Becoming Spirit-filled Evangelizers in the Modern World Part 1

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FMC Class of 2016

How I long to find the right words to stir up enthusiasm for a new chapter of evangelization full of fervor, joy, generosity, courage, boundless love and attraction!”  Pope Francis Evangelii Gaudium 261

 

During the month of January I was blessed with the opportunity to lead a group of new missionaries through the final section of Pope Francis’ magisterial document on Evangelization Evangelii Gaudium.  We spent some weeks carefully studying how we can become better evangelists, filled with the Holy Spirit, convinced of God’s love and abounding in the joy of the Lord.  I wanted to write on some of our finding and share some reflections from our time together in hopes that it will bless others who didn’t have the privilege of being present in our sessions.

 

One of the central themes in the Catholic vision for true Evangelization is the need to pray first and work second.  A Spirit-filled Evangelist is one whose life is devoted to prayer.  He or she must be convinced that only through prayer, through a constant drawing from the well of life (Deus Caritas Est 7) will one’s mission or testimony be authentic.  As Pope Francis states:

Without prolonged moments of adoration, of prayerful encounter with the word, of sincere conversation with the Lord, our work easily becomes meaningless; we lose energy as a result of weariness and difficulties, and our fervor dies out. (Ev Gaud 262)

 

Alone we cannot even begin to complete the great work of evangelization Jesus has entrusted to us.  Our mission becomes a mere duty, an ethical choice rather than an offspring of personal encounter and love.  I am continually reminded of Pope Benedict’s words “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (Deus Caritas Est 1)  What this means is that we do not profess our faith nor share Jesus’ love because it is the right thing to do or because it is a radical idea.  We do it because our love of Jesus impels us (2 Cor 5:14) to share our joy with those around us.  This in turn is our principal way of loving Him.  Going to Mass and even adoration is “fragmented” (Deus Caritas est 14) without an equal desire to love our neighbor and share with them the True Bread of Life.  We need to reach out and meet the most urgent needs of our brothers and sisters around us.  “For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” (I John 4:20b)  And yet as Saint John Paul II said we know that our neighbors “are hungry for God, not just for bread and freedom.” (Redemptoris Missio 83)

In spite of all possible exhortations to love and evangelize we know ourselves all too well.  My desire easily flags and my mind becomes easily distracted by the world.  I struggle to stay focused on the light of Christ as I live among other lesser lights of the world.  We recently spent a month serving among the indigenous tribes of Fort Belknap Reservation in North Montana.  One day we crossed the border to Canada and stopped at the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park in South Alberta.  It was so beautiful.  As we left we stopped at a gas station and picked up a flyer that discussed light pollution.  It showed how many lights were visible from space 50 years ago and how many more are visible today.  All this “light pollution” makes it harder to see the stars in the sky at night.  

I considered that the spiritual life is so similar.  When we surround ourselves with so many lesser lights, television, nightly news, talk radio, internet, etc.  We can find it more difficult to encounter the living God.  How often do I spend reading my Bible or in prayer?  How often do I spend watching television or listening to someone else interpret my reality for me?  We must go to the true source.  Without this vital and often encounter with Jesus we will struggle to see His light, hear His voice, be His voice.  

We should have a great zeal to share His love.  Yet we cannot simply conjure up the joy, share a love we do not fully possess.  “Love grows through love.” (Deus Caritas Est 18)

The words of Pope Francis give us direction and comfort when he says

What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? If we do not feel an intense desire to share this love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts. (Ev Gaud 264)

He will hear us if we ask He will pour out joy into our hearts and a burning passion for the lost.  Ask God right now for a joyful strength to live the life of a Spirit Filled Evangelizer and He, who is so generous will give it (James 1:5)  “There is nothing more precious which we can give to others.” (Ev Gaud 264)

The Profound Sweetness of the Cross

I Corinthians 2:2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

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In the 15th chapter of the book of Exodus we are given a profound foretaste of the power of the cross and it workings in the spiritual life.   The setting is the immediate aftermath of the passing through the Red Sea and the miraculous saving intervention of God destroying the enemies of Israel and His glorious triumph.  Moses and the Israelites sing the first song recorded in the narrative of the Biblical text.  They sing of His glory.  They sing of His grandeur.  He is painted as a warrior who has utter control.  There is no possible opposition to His power.  The enemies of God and His chosen are in terror and dread and “because of the greatness of thy arm, they are as still as a stone.” (Ex 15:16).  Later on in the chapter Miriam, the first prophetess, also sings with the women a shorter song proclaiming His glory and His power.

Nevertheless, 3 days later in the narrative the Israelites begin to feel thirsty and start to panic.  When they finally find water it is undrinkable because of its bitterness.  This leads them to question the motives of their great and powerful God.   “And the people murmured against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” (15:24) Their complaint becomes more explicit further on in chapter 16:

 

Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger. (16:3)

 

In 17: once more they murmur:

 

“Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?”

 

What fascinated me so much when I read and reflected upon this passage was that the Israelites never questioned God’s ability of provide or even whether He was in control.  They certainly didn’t question His existence.  They had seen and marveled at His powerful intervention in their lives but then once it was missing they lost confidence that He cared for them. They knew He was a God of armies with a strong arm yet their question and complaint was one I have struggled with often in the bitter disappointments and regrets of my own life.  They begin to doubt whether this saving, terrible God was for them.  They question whether He cared for them, whether He had the best in mind for them.  I remember asking these same questions to God when we lost Ezekiel our 2nd year of mission.  “Why did You bring us out here to Mexico to kill my children?  I have wrestled with these types of questions off and on many times when my kids have been sick or the mission seems fruitless and hard.  Sure God CAN work miracles in my life He CAN do all things, He CAN heal me etc.  But does He really want to?  Has He tired of my weaknesses and failures?

My faith has often failed me as did the chosen people’s in accepting that God, so glorious, so powerful, could possibly be so interested in me. “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps 8:4) I too have complained bitterly before the Lord of His apparent neglect of me and my own.  I too have asked Him if He brought us into missions to kill us off.  I too have drunk of the bitter waters and murmured against His goodness.

In Exodus 15:15 is says “And he cried to the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.” God pointed out the tree and through the tree He made the bitterness sweet.  I read that story yesterday before the blessed sacrament and I began to weep because I could hear Him saying to me, “Son, I have also given you a tree.  I have bound myself to it as an eternal pledge of my love for you.  You are precious in my eyes.  You and your family.”

The same tree that made all bitter things sweet was the God-Man’s greatest bitterness.  I starred up at the crucifix next to the tabernacle.  I saw Jesus hanging there, thirsting for me:

Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.  (CCC 2960)

In the cross the God-Man bound Himself inseparably to our suffering and bitterness.  Saint John Paul II writes that the cross throws “a new light upon every suffering; the light of salvation.” (Salvifici Doloris 14) His sufferings make our sufferings sweet because the most important question for me about the bitterness and suffering in my life is not why it happens but rather whether God is with me in the pain and bitterness. Whether He feels my pain and knows what it is like, whether He identifies with my suffering.  I heard God speaking to me pointing out the tree of the cross and saying “I have bound myself to you and to your suffering to make your suffering sweeter”.

Saint Paul writes, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31). I need to believe that God is on my side, is by my side. To believe that HE ONLY GIVES ME THE VERY BEST.  Nothing has so destroyed my image of God as the loss of my precious son.  Before His death I too was so impressed by His power and provision.  I wanted this power. I wanted to be strong.  Yet “when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10)

I have come to treasure so much more the beauty of the cross.  The cross is the proof that HE IS FOR ME, FOR US, FOR MY FAMILY.  I can have peace only when I trust in His enduring love for me.  In the deserts of my own life when I have tasted the bitterness of suffering I have heard His voice say to me: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28) Like John the beloved disciple “I have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.” (I John 4:16)

Pope Benedict writes:

We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words, the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John’s Gospel describes that event in these words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should … have eternal life” (3:16).

20170109_121824This is the bedrock of the Gospel message for the world, the entire message we proclaim as missionaries.  God is for us.  Ever since the fall we have lived with the lurking fear that steals our peace “What if He is against me?  What if He won’t come through for me?  What if He wants to destroy me or my own?”  I have hidden so many times from my God as He walked in the gardens of my heart.  Yet the goodness of the Gospel we preach is that He is for us.  In the encouraging words of Pope Francis:

 

On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” This first proclamation is called “first” not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment. (Evangelii Gaudium 164)