A Light Burden

IMG_0048“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Mt. 11:30)

Robert Bellarmine, a Bishop and Doctor of the Church in the sixteenth century, asked what is this burden that does not weigh heavy or this yoke that not does not weary.  He says, “It is, of course, that first and greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” 

Mark reports Jesus’ more complete statement as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31)

This is a love that involves all aspects of our being – our heart and soul, encompassing our non-physical nature and inner being; our mind involving our intellect; and our strength, involving our physical actions.  In other words, it is a total and complete love.

I have a friend Paul, whose daughter Maria has been ministering to orphaned children with special needs in Uganda.  Children with intellectual and developmental disabilities there are often viewed as cursed, outcasts, unwanted and unloved.   For the last couple of years, Maria, who is only 20, has been working through the Gem Foundation in ministering to the children.

One thing Maria observed was that a high percentage of the children actually had parents, but they didn’t have the resources or societal support to care for their children and pay for their medical expenses, often leading to maltreatment and abandonment.

So this August, Maria changed her vocation from caring directly for the children to helping to develop an organization that will train, empower and provide micro-finance and employment for parents so that they will have the resources to care for their children instead of abandoning them.

Maria is loving these children with her heart and soul.  She is loving them with her intellect in coming up with the idea to develop the means for the parents to provide for the children themselves instead of abandoning them.  Finally, she is loving them with her strength in the actions she is taking in helping to form this new enterprise with an organization called Imprint Hope Center.

We might ask how this example of the love of God is a light burden.  It is filled with sacrifice and self-giving.  But when love is complete, it is filled with a joy that sustains and transcends personal sacrifice. 

This is how the rest of us, who might never be called to serve children with special needs in Africa, can relate to Maria’s example.   We all seek a life filled with purpose, fulfillment and happiness.  When we truly love God and our neighbor as he commands, our joy is complete and our burden is light.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Mt. 11: 28-30)

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Overcoming the Crowd

“Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’” (Mark 10:48) 

When Bartimaeus, a blind beggar sitting beside the road outside of Jericho learned that Jesus was passing by, he began to shout.  He was seeking to ask Jesus to heal him of his blindness.  Mark tells us that the crowd that was following Jesus rebuked Bartimaeus and told him to be quiet, but he disregarded the crowd and shouted all the more.

Jesus rewarded his perseverance, restored his sight and said, “Your faith has healed you.”

Like Bartimaeus, we too, may experience the crowd in rebuking us and telling us to keep silent in our quest for Jesus.  

It is tempting to go with the flow of the crowd and do what is popular or easy, but the crowd is usually wrong.  It was the crowd that yelled, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!” (Mt. 27:22-23)  It was the crowd in the Roman Colosseum that took delight in the persecution of Christians in the early centuries of the church.

Sometimes the crowd is a work environment demanding us to be available 24/7 to the detriment of family and other important responsibilities.  Sometimes the crowd is the government when it attempts to force a baker to conduct his business in a manner contrary to his Christian beliefs and values.  The crowd may be a college professor ridiculing a student who is Christian for his or her belief in God.  The crowd could even be a parent discouraging a child to pursue a call to ministry or a less lucrative career in the service to others.

Sometimes the crowd is us, in our own inclination to sinful conduct that becomes an obstacle to our pursuit of God and fulfilling his will in our lives.  Having a tendency to always want to be in control of my schedule, I sometimes let my list of things to do to get in the way of dealing with the unexpected or what God would like me to do.

A number of years ago, I had a friend who had terminal cancer.  I had visited him both in his home and at the hospital.  One afternoon I received a call at my office that his situation had worsened.  I delayed going to see him in order to finish an item on my list for that day. I thought just a couple of hours wouldn’t matter.  He died before I got to see him one last time.  The crowd in this case was my will taking precedence over God’s will for me that afternoon. 

“Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Hebrews 12:1)

Love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”  (1 Co. 13:7)

What Is It About Truth?

“When Herod heard John he was greatly puzzled, yet he liked to listen to him.” (Mark 6:20)

After Herod had John the Baptist imprisoned, he would visit him, apparently fascinated by the things that John had to say.

Why did Herod like to listen to John?  Because John spoke the truth, and truth is attractive. 

Jesus told Pilate that the reason he came into the world was to testify to the truth.  Pilate, though the embodiment of all truth was standing right in front of him, asked, “What is truth? (John 18:37-38)

There is a purity in the truth that makes it attractive.  We have several common expressions about truth:

  • “Honesty is the best policy”
  • “As God is my witness”
  • “As a matter of fact”
  • “The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”

Jesus said, “If you hold to my teachings, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”  (John 8:32) There is freedom that comes with the truth – freedom from guilt, fear and sin.  All four gospels report how people were amazed at the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings and how he taught with authority.  Truth carries a certain authority with it.

From earliest childhood, our sinful human nature tends to obscure the truth to protect our selfish instincts.  One sibling blames another for starting a fight.  We begin to lie to cover up misbehavior and sinful conduct.  Without strong parental guidance and moral teaching, truth is increasingly pushed aside.

We deal with issues of truth in the practical aspects of daily life, and in the context of the larger questions of life itself.

On the practical level, as a former lawyer for a corporation, I was regularly called on to interpret whether certain proposed actions of the company were consistent with applicable law.  From time to time, the proposed action was in direct conflict with what a particular law or regulation required.  I would have to overcome the tendency to tell the affected manager what he wanted to hear, and instead hold to the truth that his proposed action would run afoul of the law.  In those cases, I would always try to suggest alternative actions that would satisfy both the company objective and the law.

On the philosophical level, from the very beginning of human history and to this very day, the human race has been searching for truth in terms of who we are, what our purpose is and how we and all that exists came to be.  The secular world looks to philosophy and reason to grapple with these questions.  The Judeo Christian world looks to God’s revelation in the writings of the prophets, scripture and the words of Jesus.

Truth is attractive; sets us free and lets us live out our lives with confidence.

St. Paul said, “Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.” (1Co. 13:6)  Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  (John 14:6)

 

Imprisoning God

“The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation…because the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

The idea that faith should be separated from living out the rest of our daily lives has become conventional wisdom for much of our culture.  We hear the phrase, “separation of church and state” and apply it to other venues such as the workplace and the public square.  We are told that that our faith should be private, not to be shared with others or manifested in our words or deeds, particularly in the workplace.

This perspective is 180 degrees from God’s intention as evidenced from the words of Jesus and scripture.  Jesus said it was not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” in worship of him who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but “only he who does the will of my father.” He expects more of us than to just worship him on Sundays; he expects us to carry his presence into all aspects of our lives.

In the Parable of the Talents, he praises the two servants who were good stewards in multiplying the talents given them. (Mt. 25:14-30)  In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, God welcomes into his final kingdom those who have provided food, drink, clothing, shelter, medical care and prison visitation to those in need of these things. (Mt. 25:31-46)

St. Paul said, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17)  Paul did not intend these words only for what happens at church on Sundays, but everything we do.  Later he says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as if you are working for the Lord.” (Colossians 3:23)

This is a 24/7 exhortation meant for Monday as well as Sunday; the workplace, as well as our prayer closet or church.  God created us to work and take care of the garden of his creation, including the physical world and one another. (Genesis: 2:15) This is how we make ourselves useful to one another and thus to God. It is a divine assignment.

Ever since God became one of us in the person of Jesus it has been his intention to dwell not in temples or buildings, but in each of us individually, provided we invite him into our hearts.

There have been times when I have separated my words and deeds from God’s presence because I put him in a box.  The unfortunate thing when that happens is that his presence may not then be available to the people in my life who would otherwise be blessed by him through me. 

Do we imprison God, only to be released on Sunday, or do we let him be manifested in every aspect of our lives?

Prayer and God’s Will

“Abba Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me.” (Mark 14:36)

We may be familiar with these words of Jesus which he uttered in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He was no doubt aware of what he was about to face – total rejection, false accusations, physical beatings and a tortuous death.  Some commentators say he was also feeling the total weight of all of the sin of the world, past and present.

We might take comfort that in his human nature Jesus is asking God to spare him this agony and pain.  He is showing us that there is nothing wrong with asking God to be relieved of pain and suffering, so long as we are willing to trust God for the answer.  Jesus follows up his request with, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

He ended up trusting the Father that what he was enduring involved God’s plan for the salvation of the human race.

We all have or will face trials involving either physical or emotional pain.  It may be the debilitating side effects of chemo therapy, watching a child suffer through a terminal disease, or the loss of a job and our economic security.

This past week I attended the funeral of Jim, a friend and brother in Christ who died from ALS, a neurological disease resulting in the eventual loss of all voluntary muscle movement.   While Jim’s family and friends prayed for his healing, Jim submitted his condition to God’s will.  Although ALS diminished what he was able to do, he told everyone he could still pray and invited people to send him their needs for prayer. Over this past year many people sent Jim various requests, which Jim kept track of on a spread sheet as he faithfully and repeatedly prayed for each need.

We asked Jim to pray for a particular need for our adult daughter with Down syndrome. We have seen notable progress in this need both before and since his death.

Jim was Presbyterian.  He had many Catholic friends.  At both his wake and funeral the spirit of Christian unity was absolutely palpable, for what was evident to everyone was that here was a man who had truly fulfilled the prophet Micah’s entreaty, “to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God.”   (Micah 6:8)

Who can know the mind of God?  “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor.2:9)

Acknowledging Our Need of Others

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”  (Philippians 2:3)

Our human nature tends to want to give the appearance that we are strong, smart, capable of handling things ourselves and not dependent upon the help of others.  This is true in most areas of life and particularly in the workplace.

After having worked as an attorney for over thirty years for large international oil company, I was asked to take an assignment overseeing policy and governmental compliance for our environmental, health and safety operations.  The staff of this organization was made up entirely of engineers and people with technical and scientific backgrounds, a knowledge base in which I was severely lacking.

Shortly after assuming this assignment, one of our audit teams had discovered several operational deficiencies in one our African affiliates that was responsible for producing a significant percentage of our crude oil production worldwide – over 600 thousand barrels a day, all offshore.   Because of the significance of this affiliate’s operations and its contribution to the overall profitability of the company, the audit findings became quite controversial.

The management of the affiliate attacked both the findings and the competence of our audit team.

Thus, it became my role to defend the audit team and their findings before senior management involving technical engineering issues for which I had little expertise.  Acknowledging my lack of knowledge in this area, I had to ask our staff for help – to literally educate me on each of the technical issues so I could overcome the arguments of the affiliate engineers.

With the staff’s assistance, we were able to persuade management to accept the findings of the audit team and their expertise.

As a result, several changes in this affiliate’s operations were implemented that likely avoided a potential accident costing the company millions of dollars and serious harm to affected employees.  We may remember BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago, killing 11 workers and costing BP billions of dollars to appreciate the potential impact.

Ironically, acknowledging our limitations is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength.  We are confessing the truth of who we are and what we are capable of doing and not doing.  As Jesus said to St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9)

When we acknowledge we need help, we are humbling ourselves before God and others.  Proverbs tells us that the Lord mocks the proud and gives grace to the humble. (3:34) Jesus says, “Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.”  (Mt. 11:29)

God, the creator of all that exists, performed one of the greatest acts of humility and love of all time when he became an embryo in Mary’s womb to become one of his created in the person of Jesus.   

Shouldn’t we be willing to humble ourselves in acknowledging our needs and seeking the help of others?

Putting Jesus’ Words into Practice

At the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he challenges us to put his many words into practice.  We are to love, to forgive, to care for those in need, be generous, reflect the Beatitudes, seek God and his kingdom and trust in God, along with the many other exhortations contained in Chapters 5 – 7 in Matthew’s gospel.

When we do these things, Jesus says we are like a man who built his house on a rock. The rains came, the streams rose, the winds blew, but the house remained and did not fall.  The rock is, of course, Jesus.

What kind of foundation is our life built on?  Is it based on the values of the world – wealth, position, pleasure and all of the things that popular culture esteems; or is it built on love and the values Jesus describes in his Sermon on the Mount? 

My friend Leo has been volunteering as a coach for Special Olympics for over 35 years.  Ironically, he began this work even before one of his daughters was born with Down syndrome.  He is one of the most dedicated advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that I have ever met.

In addition to Special Olympics, he was one of six parents who were instrumental in starting and funding one of the first special education programs in a Catholic high school in the U. S — Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, Virginia.  More than a dozen students with intellectual disabilities have enrolled in this program each year since its founding in 1998, including our daughter, Emily.

More than 1500 students from the general student body have volunteered as peer mentors to these students, assisting with their inclusion in various academic courses and school activities.  As a result, students with intellectual and developmental disabilities receive an education that serves their academic, social and spiritual needs in a loving and nurturing environment.

Approximately, ten years ago, Leo joined with other families to establish Porto Charities, a tax exempt organization to raise funds to support the expansion of these kinds of programs in other Catholic schools in the Arlington, Virginia Diocese.  By the fall of 2019, the Diocese will have inclusion programs in all four of its high schools and a half dozen or more parish schools.  While many others have supported Leo in this effort, he has been the driving force to support a segment of our population that is often neglected.

Leo may not talk about his faith a lot, but Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)

On October 1, Leo will receive on behalf of Porto Charities and its many supporters the 2018 Seaton Award of the National Catholic Education Association in recognition for their service to Catholic schools and God’s special children.

Leo, and the many others who have joined with him, are putting Jesus’ words into practice.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)