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Archive for July, 2013

I can totally relate to Peter, the ‘rock’ upon which Jesus built his Church.  Weak, precipitous Peter, who took his eyes off Jesus and quickly sank like a rock!  Impulsive, passionate Peter, who lied like a rug when accused of being friends with Christ.  Yet this fallible, ordinary fisherman became the first pope, boldly leading thousands to Christianity.  History is full of frightened, hesitant men and women, who felt inferior and unworthy, yet made huge contributions to Christianity.  Even though Moses stuttered so badly God used his brother Aaron as his spokesperson (Exodus 4), he was able to lead his people to the Promised Land.

King David committed adultery with Bathsheba, and when his lover got pregnant, murdered her husband to hide his sin!  Jacob lied to his father, Isaac and assumed his brother Esau’s identity so he could steal his inheritance.  Yet Jacob went on to become the father of  the people of Israel; his twelve sons became the twelve tribes of Israel.  In Genesis 20 Abraham was a coward and lied to King Abimelech that Sarah was his sister, instead of his wife, because he feared for his life.  But in spite of his flaws God made a covenant with Abraham and promised that he would become the “father of many nations”.

If someone who failed Christ as magnificently as Peter could become the leader of the entire Catholic Church, then there is hope that God can use an anxious, guilt-ridden person like me.   Sometimes we don’t think God can use us because we aren’t smart enough, talented enough or knowledgeable enough, but this premise is totally false.  You might be struggling with an addiction or overwhelmed by the weight of your problems, but God can still use you in a mighty way to touch others.

St.  Paul was complaining to God about “the thorn in his side” and God replied  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”.  (2nd Corinthians 12:9) St. Paul was then able to boast of his weaknesses “in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.”  He was “content with weaknesses, insults and hardships”, for he learned “when I am weak, then I am strong”.

St. Francis of Assisi came from a wealthy family, but he renounced his wealth and became a simple monk, embracing chastity and poverty.  He had no army, no title, no money and no power, yet this humble friar went to the Holy Land and was able to boldly cross enemy lines and march into the muslim encampment to meet with the sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil.  The two discussed possible solutions for peace, and then Francis courageously invited the sultan to become Christian!

In “The Chronicle of Ernoul” the sultan’s religious advisers warned Francis and his companion, Illuminato, that preaching Christianity would violate Islamic law.  “If there should be someone who wishes to preach or speak against our law, the law commands that his head be cut off!” Knowing the consequences, Francis and Illuminato daringly stayed for several days in the muslim camp.  The sultan offered them riches of gold and silver, and was quite moved by Francis’ refusal, even when it was offered instead to the Church.  The humility of these two friars impressed the sultan and softened his heart.

During his visit St. Francis explained the importance of the Church of the Nativity to Christianity, and coverrequested permission to send Franciscans to maintain and guard this sacred church.  The sultan graciously consented, returning the two friars with “great reverence and many signs of honor” to the Christian camp, according to James of Vitry.  Almost 800 years later, the Franciscans are still in Bethlehem, protecting and caring for the Church on the very spot where Christ was born.   (Excerpts from “The Saint and the Sultan” by Paul Moses)

Our own puny strength won’t get us very far.  I’m sure you all have friends or family who espouse the self-help tactics of motivational gurus like Tony Robbins or Joel Osteen.  Their advice is to “get motivated and achieve a higher level of success”.  This is good advice, up to a point.  First make sure your priorities are straight – God first, family second, job last.  You don’t want your quest for success to to crowd out your faith or take center stage in your life.

God is omnipotent and omniscient; nothing happens without his consent.  It is way too easy to become presumptuous and arrogantly think you are in control, rather than God.  As we are warned in James 4:13 “Come now, you who way, ‘Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town, spend a year there doing business, and make a profit’ – you have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow.  You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears.  Instead you should say ‘If the Lord will it, we shall live to do this or that.’ But now you are boasting in your arrogance.  All such boasting is evil.”

St. Bernadette was so poor her family lived in an old jail, in a hick, country village.  She was illiterate and so ignorant of theology and spirituality that she remarked “Who do you think I am? The Blessed Mother picked me because I was the most ignorant one. Had she found someone more ignorant than me she would certainly have chosen her.”  Yet God chose this country peasant to receive apparitions and messages from the Blessed Virgin Mary; when she conveyed these messages to the local bishop, he was indignant that HE wasn’t chosen.  The bishop and the local police grilled poor Bernadette unmercifully concerning her visions; after all, why would God choose a humble, ignorant peasant, when he could have chosen a prominent bishop!

So make plans and goals, dream big!  But always surrender and first ask God if your plans are in alignment with his will.  And if you are wildly successful in your career and other aspects of your life, give thanks to God and don’t get too puffed up by your achievements.  After all in Matthew 19 we’re reminded  “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”!  It was only AFTER St. Francis gave up everything and was a penniless vagrant that God was able to accomplish the miraculous.  This meek little monk went on to found one of the most prominent and largest of the religious orders.  

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My faith hasn’t always meant as much to me as it does now.  In fact, when I was 14, I basically threw it away like it was useless rubbish.  When I was quite young, my parents went to church every week, and most of their friends were from the Presbyterian Church of the Good Shepherd, which they helped found sometime around 1957.

After my dad’s restaurant burned to the ground when I was three,  my parents started having problems in their marriage, and somewhere along the way quit going to church by the time I was nine years old.  Without a solid foundation in Christianity, I dabbled in the occult, fascinated by anecdotes from psychics Edgar Cayce and Ruth Montgomery about reincarnation and the mysteries of the universe.  An author in the seventies who claimed to be a “good witch” mesmerized me with her tales of black and white magical powers.

Sci-fi thrillers from author Isaac Asimov and his intriguing fantasies of ESP and aliens were as beguiling to me as bees to honey.  The chilling novel The Stand, by Stephen King, kept me up nights as I discovered a titillating new supernatural world of good and evil.  James Michener’s book about Hawaii and it’s many gods were entrancing, and his descriptions of the miraculous intervention of the mythical gods Pe’le, Tane and Ta’aora were much more alluring than the belief in a God who was hung on a cross to die.

When I was 14 my brother Elbert, came back from Viet Nam a broken and crushed man, traumatized by the horror of his war-zone experiences.  He was a helicopter machine gunner, and the disturbing visions he brought back simply unhinged him, leading to a violent mental breakdown.  Watching his mental deterioration terrified me, and somehow God’s grace broke though my cloud of darkness, and I fell to my knees asking for God’s help.  I immediately felt the most loving, warm presence surround me; a fountain of love and peace washed over me.

Now you would think I would have turned toward God and never looked back.  Oh no, not this bright, self-reliant creature.  With a family member’s words ringing in my ears that “religion is a crutch for weak people”, I simply could not perceive that my experience was real.  Instead, I thought I must have imagined the whole thing, and turned my back on God, diving full tilt into the occult!

It was 24 years later before I experienced God’s amazing grace again.  This time I knew it was real, and as Matthew describes the kingdom of heaven as a pearl of great price, I knew my faith was the most valuable treasure I would ever have in my lifetime, and I wasn’t about to relinquish it for anything!

Sadly, my brother never found the priceless pearl; the emotional wounds haunted him the rest of his life, until he finally silenced his demons by committing suicide when he was 42.  Thankfully my other brother, Chris, discovered the pearl several months before his death.  Chris too was driven by the demon of drug addiction most of his life, but several days before his death he called me to make amends for the past.  He knew the end was near and he knew where he wanted to go – he chose the kingdom of heaven.

When my brother Elbert committed suicide, I was devastated.  A kind lady in my Renew Group worked in the office at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, and offered to make an appointment with Fr. James Fennessy, the pastor.  Fr. Fennessy was so kind and comforting and reassured me that even though Elbert couldn’t seem to find God, often God will reach down and find us.  I knew deep in my heart that God looked into my brother’s heart, past the trauma and pain, and saw the kind teenager who would win all the marbles in the neighborhood, and then roll them down the street for the little kids.  I knew he saw the brother who would lay down with me at night until I fell asleep, and the compassionate man who simply couldn’t endure the cruelty he witnessed in Viet Nam.  Even when we can’t find our way through the darkness, God reaches down and finds the pearl within each of us.

Another veteran of Viet Nam, Guy Gruters, was an officer and when captured by the Viet Cong, was especially targeted for torture.  He was beaten daily, doused with cold water and left outside in freezing weather, given small amounts of bread and water loaded with maggots, and tied up like a pretzel so tightly his shoulders dislocated.  Life was so grim, as Gruters described it “When you woke up in the morning, it was like waking up into a nightmare…Every day was a month. Every month was a year. Every year was a lifetime.”

The only way to endure such brutality was through prayer; the vet prayed constantly throughout his ordeal, drawing him into God’s warm embrace.“I had no idea that he really does control every detail until prison camp. I saw his power. Prison camp was the best thing that ever happened to me.”  His final three years of imprisonment were filled with God’s peace and grace, and a deeper surrender as he realized “I wasn’t worried because I knew he was in charge.  If he wanted us out of there, we were going home. If we didn’t go home, that’s fine. He knows best.”

Have you ever heard of the poem “The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson?  In the poem the author compares our distance from God with a hound following a hare.  “As the hound follows the hare, never ceasing in its running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, with unhurrying and imperturbed pace, so does God follow the fleeing soul by His Divine grace. And though in sin or in human love, away from God it seeks to hide itself, Divine grace follows after, unwearyingly follows ever after, till the soul feels its pressure forcing it to turn to Him alone in that never ending pursuit.” The Neumann Press Book of Verse, 1988

If you have family members whose hearts are encased in ice and have rejected faith in God, keep in mind God’s persistent grace, and don’t give up hope that they will find the pearl more valuable than anything else in the world.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like to treasure hid in a field; the which when a man has found, he hides, and for joy thereof goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like to a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.”  (Matthew 13:46)

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Everyone has their own faith journey; sometimes slow, sometimes extremely fast, but personal none the less.  The main goal in spiritual progress is moving toward God, and away from world, but it isn’t always a straight path.  Sometimes we take one step sideways and stay on a plateau for a while; the pursuit of a promotion at work might sidetrack our desire for a deeper intimacy with God.  Other times our faith grows by leaps and bounds, such as when we experience the presence of God in a mighty way.

Some people have faith in God, they attend church every week, and give to charity, but have no interest in deepening their faith.  They are quite comfortable with the status quo. Unfortunately, in Rev. 3 Jesus had harsh words for the lukewarm, those who were “neither hot nor cold”.  Instead he wants us to take the spark of faith in our heart, and allow God to turn it into a raging, passionate fire. “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.” (2 Tim. 1:6-7).

The Greek word for turning from the world, and to Jesus Christ is “metanoia” which means transformation.  In Matthew 9:17 “Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”  In other words, it is all about the change in our hearts, becoming a new creation.

A few years ago Steven Curtis Chapman came out with a song called “The Change”

Well I got myself a T-shirt that says what I believe
I got letters on my bracelet to serve as my ID
I got the necklace and the key chain
And almost everything a good Christian needs, yeah

I got the little Bible magnets on my refrigerator door
And a welcome mat to bless you before you walk across my floor
I got a Jesus bumper sticker
And the outline of a fish stuck on my car
And even though this stuff’s all well and good, yeah
I cannot help but ask myself–

What about the change
What about the difference
What about the grace

As Chapman states in his song, these are all great signs of your faith, but more importantly, what is the state of your heart.  Are you growing in holiness?  Closer to Christ?  Are you losing your anger and pride?  Becoming more patient and kind, and less judgmental?  Less self-centered and more concerned about your fellow man?

We are the wine, and the Holy Spirit is the wineskin;  unless we become a new creation, the power of the Holy Spirit is useless, wasted.  Imagine the Holy Spirit as a raging river; some of us are little stones that get movedRaging River and shaped the way God desires.  Others are ten foot boulders that don’t move one inch…Take a long, hard look at yourself today, and compare it to five years, or ten years ago.  If there has been no substantial change, then you may be on a nice, comfortable plateau.

It might be time to shake up your prayer time, go on a retreat, or start getting spiritual direction.  It might be time to evaluate the books you read, and the television shows you watch.  Do they bring you closer to Christ, or do they take you farther away from him?  Are you too busy to pray?  If so, you are too busy!  You may desire to grow spiritually, but seem stuck.  After my father died I ‘wallowed” in grief for several years. Finally on a retreat I was advised by my prayer team to let go of my grief.  In prayer I asked Jesus for healing, and was able to relinquish my pain.

It’s important to have a prayer partner or spiritual director, who can help you recognize the “dead and barren” areas which need to be pruned (John 15).  If you have been betrayed, cheated or abused, then anger or unforgivness may be an issue for you.  You definitely have a problem if you frequently fly off the handle or rage at others.  Or perhaps you worry incessantly about every detail of your life;  if so, it’s time to work on your pride and self-reliance.  Are you resentful because of the disappointments in life?

These stones in your heart block the power of the Holy Spirit and can put up a wall between you and God.  Complacency or apathy are also deadly to spiritual growth.  Ask God to use a flashlight and reveal the areas which need to be transformed. Remember, in John 15 Jesus warns “Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither”, but “if we remain in him, we will be pruned, so that we may bear more fruit”.  And what is the fruit of the spirit?”  “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal. 5)  I think we could all bear some pruning to be more fruitful!

Song “The Change” by Steven Curtis Chapman

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God and Dogs

I love dogs, although I didn’t have my own dog until about nine years ago, when my daughter came home from college announcing “mom, look what I have for you”!  In her arms was an adorable tiny Yorkshire Terrier, who was absolutely terrified!  Several years before, my daughter, Beverly, had gotten a little black Yorkie from a dog breeder while she was in college.  Beverly loved her little “Pancho’, and had expressed interest in acquiring another Yorkie.

Apparently my little Yorkie, Rosalie, was never sold, so when she was a year old, she was given to Beverly.  Poor Rosalie was extremely shy, as the breeder rarely handled her, and for the first 48 hours she was in Beverly’s home, simply froze and didn’t move.  The clincher was that Pancho didn’t want to share his owner, so Rosalie was destined to be mine.

I work full time, so I started bringing little Rosie to work with me every day; we quickly bonded and now if I leave her at home, she sits and waits on the stairs for me to come home.  Did I mention that Rosie is neurotic?  She is still extremely shy, but she has come a long way.  The first year she wouldn’t come downstairs if a stranger was in the house, but now is much more relaxed and will actually sit next to strangers and sometimes even ask to be petted.

I once read the devil hates dogs, because dogs embody unconditional love.  Even if we forget to feed them or ignore them, our dogs are still devoted to us.    Having a dog for a pet has given me a new perspective on my faith; dogs feel safe and secure when they are near their owner, and can get nervous and upset when their owner leaves.  Similar to the way I feel when I can’t feel God’s presence in tough situations; I feel abandoned and all alone.

Dogs are wonderful companions and are good for our health; stroking a dog can relieve stress, slow down our breathing, and lower blood pressure.  After my mother died in 2001 I suffered from massive panic attacks and rarely slept.  During those agonizingly long nights, just reaching out and touching my faithful companion helped calm me and kept me grounded.

Our pets seem to sense when we are sad, or down in the dumps, and instinctively nudge us or lick us as if to comfort us.  A dog’s love for it’s owner is uncomplicated and non-judgmental; dogs listen without any criticism.  The presence of an animal can help us to release emotions, which is extremely healing.  Many animals are used in  “animal-assisted therapy.” The national organization Pet Partners has over 10,000 teams of volunteer handlers and animals that visit nursing homes, hospitals, schools, as well as victims of tragedy and disaster. Most of the teams use dogs, but some use horses, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, and even pigs and chickens. (From the National Geographic article below)

Interestingly enough, stroking our pets releases oxytocin, the same hormone which helps couples bond with each other, and parents with their children.  The outpouring of love from our pets help soften our heart, which hardens over time from all the hurt and pain we experience throughout our lives.  The more our hearts are opened, the closer we draw to God; so our pets can help us deepen our intimacy with God.

After the school shootings in the elementary school in Sandy Hook, dogs were sent to help the children and adults grieve.

One boy confided in the gentle-faced golden retriever about exactly what happened in his classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School that day—which his parents said was more than he’d been able to share with them. A little girl who hadn’t spoken since the shootings finally started talking to her mother again after petting one of the “comfort dogs.” Groups of teenagers began to open up and discuss their fear and grief with each other as they sat on the floor together, all stroking the same animal.” (From The Healing Power of Dogs)

This picture of a man holding his dog is one of the most viewed images on the internet.  Schoep, a 19 year-old shepherd mix, experienced so much pain from arthritis, he was unable to sleep.  His owner would float with him so he could rest comfortably.

Pets can be extremely demanding and help us to be less self-centered and focus more on the needs of others (of course children accomplish this as well!).  Four months ago my husband found a beautiful black and white pit bull puppy and brought it home.  We didn’t really want another dog, as we have another pit bull mix, Jessie, and of course my Rosalita.  Being unable to find her a home, we named her Lady. I nicknamed her the “wild woman”, as she is the strongest willed, most demanding dog we have ever had.

Lady is physically strong as an ox and tries to bulldoze through fences to get her way, and if left out of her crate will eat my couch.  My husband is sorry he brought home such a troublesome dog, but as our neighbor Pat believes, “we don’t pick our dog, God chooses the one for us he think is the best for us”.  Pat is a fantastic dog trainer, and has been over several times to help reign in our wayward pet, who jerked my husband’s hand so badly he tore a ligament and has to wear a brace.

I know Lady will be a wonderful companion for my husband, and as I look at her willfulness, I can see God looking down on his stubborn, troublesome children who are hellbent on going their own way, no matter the consequences.  As we have to use the choker to slow Lady down, so God uses the ‘choker’ of sickness or financial troubles to get our attention and slow us down.

Right after we found Lady there was a story in Guideposts about a troublesome dog named Charley-bear, whose owner felt God was calling her to keep him in spite of his shenanigans.  When I read this I felt my heart sink, and felt God might be asking me to take on the “wild woman”.  Sometimes God’s will doesn’t make sense at the time, but we have to trust and follow wherever he leads us.

After all, in Isaiah 55:8 we’re told “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. For sure!!!

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