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Joy Complete

“You will fill me with joy in your presence,” says the psalmist.  (Psalm 16:11)  Joy is an emotion that usually flows from something that gives us pleasure or makes us happy.

Over the years I have experienced joy in a variety of ways — when I proposed to my wife on a snowy Christmas eve; when I witnessed the birth of our five children; when I received a promotion in my work; when I used to hit a good golf shot; when the Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl (years ago); when I have had the courage to share about God’s grace and the saving power of Jesus Christ; and when I do something for someone else instead of myself.

The world tends to look at joy in terms of pleasure, good fortune and success.  Even Webster defines joy by using these terms.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that if we obey his commands we will remain in his love and our joy will be complete.  He says we should follow his example. 

“If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s command and remain in his love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:10-11)

Remaining in Jesus’ love and obeying his commands results in a joy that is complete.  It is ongoing.  It gives rise to a general state of happiness and well-being regardless of the circumstances.  It is a joy that survives setbacks, disappointments and even tragedies. 

Many years ago some people prayed with me at a Life in the Spirit program to experience the fullness of the Holy Spirit in my life.  I drove home in a blinding snow storm on the curvy and hilly roads of northern Westchester County, NY.  I could barely see beyond the hood of my car.  Because I was so filled with joy from experiencing God’s presence in the Holy Spirit, that blizzard didn’t bother me one bit.

As Jesus suggests, it is God’s presence that is the source of our joy.  The more we are in his presence, the greater potential we have to experience that joy.  We can seek his presence through prayer, scripture, and the sacraments and in joining with other Christians in his name.

But perhaps the best way to experience God’s presence is simply to seek him at all times in our thoughts, in our work, in our time with others, in whatever we are doing.  If our life is a constant dialog with the person of Jesus, we will be in his presence, and our joy will be complete. 

“You fill me with joy in your presence.”      

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We All Want Purpose

Do you have purpose in your life?  I have never met anyone who didn’t want to have purpose and meaning in their life.  Rick Warren sold over 32 million copies of his book, Purpose Driven Life, indicating a fairly high level of interest in the subject.

Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and finish his work.” (John 4:34) Jesus seemed to be equating food with purpose.  In a way, food is similar to purpose in that they both keep us going and sustain us.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, reveals his quandary over whether he would prefer to be with Christ through death in his prison cell, or remain in this life and continue to proclaim Christ to the Philippians.  He concludes that the Philippians need his continued presence and encouragement more.  “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Phil. 1:21-26)

As Christians, the Church teaches us that we are called to come to know God, to love him and to serve him in this life, so that we can be with him after this life and into eternity.  How this plays out in real life varies with each individual, for God creates each one of us with unique characteristics, skills and purpose.

For me, I came to know God through the Christian heritage of my parents, as well as through a personal encounter with Jesus Christ forty years ago this month.  Early in my adult life my primary purpose was to love and support my wife and children and advance in my career as an attorney for a large international oil company as far as possible.

I didn’t give much thought as to whether those two objectives were a purpose God had given me.  

My wife and I practiced our Catholic faith by going to church every Sunday, raising our children with Christian values and getting involved in a few church activities.  It wasn’t until we experienced a renewal of our faith through the power of the Holy Spirit in our mid-30’s that I began to look at the purpose for my life in the context of God’s will for me.  Through that renewal experience, I began to have a desire to spend time with God each day in prayer and come to know him more fully by regularly reading scripture. 

God enlarged my perspective of purpose.  Loving and serving my family, and serving my employer and others were part of his desire for me.  I came to understand that God wants us to be good stewards of the time, talents, responsibilities and people he entrusts to our care.  Just as he commanded Peter at the end of John’s Gospel to feed and take care of his sheep, he commands us to love and take care of the people he puts in our lives.  He wants us to help lead them to Him and where he wants them to be.

“And we know in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

Why We Celebrate Christmas

thenativity%20600%20x%20300After hearing the Christmas story over and over, year after year, we might be tempted to take it for granted.  Yet if we think about it, God’s willingness to become one of us is the greatest act of humility and love in all of human history.  “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” John 1:14

Here we have God, the Father, creator of all that exists, creator of the millions of galaxies and the billions of stars whose distance is measured in light years; this God who created the atom and the molecule whose size is measured in nanometers – that’s one billionth of a meter; this God who created the human being with a body, soul, spirit and mind, became one of his created in order to free each of us from our sins and the world from its bondage to sin – to reconcile us to him and one another.

Father William Barry, in his book, A Friendship Like No Other, says, “God took humanity seriously enough to become one of us, and we do God no service if we downplay what God has done in becoming human.”

God in Jesus was a real human being, born of Mary in the humblest of circumstances in a cave or stable with animals nearby.  He had to be toilet trained, learn a language, be raised by real parents, work out his vocation and discern the will of God just as we do.   His family was forced into exile to Egypt to escape the sword of Herod.  After assuming his public ministry, the leaders of his own religion handed him over to the Romans to die a horrible death.  God is no stranger to suffering.  God in Jesus knows what human life is like from the inside.  His desire for friendship and to dwell with us and in us knows no bounds.

A cobbler does not become a shoe, a cabinet maker does not become a cabinet, but God the Father and creator of all that exists became one of us.  Little wonder that history’s calendar is measured in terms of before and after this event.

Let us celebrate the birth of Jesus for what it is – the greatest act of humility and love in all of history.

“Do Not Be Afraid”

How much does fear drive your decisions? a7d73ba0293be4532f8852ba9f84b465

When God called Jeremiah as a prophet, Jeremiah resisted saying that he did not know how to speak and that he was too young.  The Lord responded, “Do not be afraid…for I am with you.” (Jer. 1:8)

Throughout scripture God tells people not to be afraid.  In Genesis, he tells Isaac not to be afraid of King Abimelech and the Philistines.  (Gen. 26:24)  Moses tells Joshua and the people to be e strong and courageous and not to be afraid of the people they will encounter when they cross the Jordan River.  (Deut. 31:6)  As Jesus sends out his disciples to heal, cast out demons and proclaim the kingdom of God, he tells them not to be afraid. (Mt. 10:26) When angels appear to Zachariah, Mary, Joseph and the shepherds in connection with Jesus’ birth, their first words are, “Do not to be afraid.” (Luke 1 and 2) Among Jesus’ last words to the disciples were, “Do let your hearts be troubled, do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)

For God to place this much emphasis on overcoming our fears suggests that fear plays a significant role in whether we live by faith and make daily decisions in accordance with God’s will and purpose.

While fear is an emotion that is part of our human nature to protect us against threats to our safety, it can negatively impact us in many ways when carried to excess.  Examples include fear of rejection and what others may think; fear of being humiliated and corrected; fear of failure and defeat; fear of change and the future; and fear of physical harm and death, to name a few.

Fear can keep us from doing the things we should be doing, cause us to worry unnecessarily about outcomes, and even get us off track in fulfilling God’s will in various areas of our lives.

A couple of years ago, I felt a nudge from the Lord to volunteer with the Chaplain’s office at the local county jail.  After completing the training, I must confess that I was somewhat fearful and intimidated by the structure, discipline and strict procedures of the jail environment.  Even the sound of the heavy steel doors clanging behind me was intimidating.

After encountering the inmates, however, I came to realize that there was not that much difference between them and me.  We are each created by God in his image and likeness, and loved by him in the same way.  God has given me a love for these men.   

I hurt for them.  I desire for them to come into relationship with Jesus and be blessed by his presence in their lives.  This love for them has overcome my fear.  “There is no fear in love.  But perfect love casts out fear.”  (1 John 4:18)

Trusting in God and his love for us is the antidote to fear.  “The Lord is my light and salvation – whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1)

Speaking Truth to Today’s Issues

Does political correctness and conventional wisdom deter you from speaking up for the truth of the Gospel on issues of life and morals?   

In recent years we have seen increasing cultural acceptance of governmental actions that erode the sanctity of life, God’s institution of marriage, and sexual identity.  Our health care laws require Catholic institutions to provide medical insurance for abortions.  Public accommodation laws require Christian business people to provide services for same sex marriage in contravention of their personal conscience.

More recently, the Fairfax County, Virginia School Board voted to include gender identity in their nondiscrimination polices.  Critics are concerned that it will lead to allowing students to choose bathrooms, locker rooms and even sports teams based upon their perceived sexual identity instead of their biological sex.  The school board’s excuse is that they are being mandated by the U. S. Department of Education to do this under the threat of the loss of federal funds of more than $41 million.

All of these proposals present a dilemma to Christians since they run counter to God’s Word found in the Holy Bible, natural law and even basic common sense.  How should we respond in the face of the so-called conventional wisdom and political correctness that seem to accompany these issues?

When God called Ezekiel to be a prophet to the Israelites in the sixth century, B. C., he said, “Do not be afraid of them or their words.  Do not be afraid, though briars and thorns are all around you and you are living among scorpions.  You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious.” (Ez. 2:6, 7) The Lord went on to tell Ezekiel that he would hold him accountable if he did not speak up.

How often does fear of what others will think cause us to withhold our comments on proposed government actions that erode our First Amendment rights to live out our faith in our daily lives?    

Fear is a powerful human emotion.  Perhaps that is why God was preparing Ezekiel to deal with the resistance he would encounter when he began to speak God’s word.  That is why God told Isaac, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” (Genesis 26:24)  He encouraged Joshua to be “strong and courageous.”  (Joshua 1:6)   The first thing the angels told Zachariah, father of John the Baptist, Mary, and Joseph was not to be afraid.  The first words of St. John Paul II to the people in St. Peter’s Square upon his election as Pope were, “Be not afraid.”

The more a culture moves away from God, the more it moves away from truth.  When Jesus, the embodiment of all truth, stood before Pilate and told him that he had come to testify to the truth, Pilate asked, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38)

Fear is the favorite tool of the enemies of truth, but Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid.  I am with you always.”  (Luke 5:10; Mt. 28:20)

Belief in More than Ourselves

What are the reasons for your belief or unbelief in God?

On a recent cruise vacation, my wife and I visited the Island of Gozo, part of Malta, where we toured the Ggantija Temples dating back to 3600 BC.  This makes them older than the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge in England.  Eighteen hundred years before Abraham, these ancient ruins reveal the human heart attempting to acknowledge a cause, force, or person larger than itself to explain our existence.

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God created us with a desire to seek him.  It is part of our DNA.  Intuitively, we know that there is something more than ourselves to explain all that we observe in the world in which we live.

The Book of Hebrews captures well what has happened and God’s intention.  “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.  The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” (Heb1:1-3)

God demonstrated his great love for us by becoming one of us in the person of Jesus, in order to bring his presence into the world in a very visible way at a specific time in history.  Jesus demonstrated his great love for us by sacrificing his life to free us from the grip of sin and Satan’s power over the world.  By the resurrection of Jesus, God confirmed the saving nature and power of that sacrifice.  

In contrast to the people of the ancient world, we are blessed to have the benefit of God’s revelation through the prophets, scripture, the words of Jesus and the teaching of the Church over many centuries.

God’s plan for creation is to dwell in us, his human creatures, through his son, Jesus Christ, so that we, with the power of the Holy Spirit, can partner with God in bringing his presence to the people and circumstances of our lives. 

God never stops reaching out to us.   Like the Father of the prodigal son, he is always waiting to receive us. (Luke 15:11-32)  Even when we have turned away from him, he is still seeking us.  Like the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in search of the one lost sheep, God never stops loving us. (Luke 15:1-11)

We are incomplete without God in our life.  No matter the knowledge we have gained, the success we have achieved, the fame we have experienced, the wealth we have accumulated, the friends we have made, we are not complete and will not be satisfied until we ask the God of all creation to dwell in us.

Forgive me, Lord, for my sins and excluding you from the core of my life.  Come, dwell in my heart.  

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” (Is. 55:6)

A Surprising Outcome with the Lord’s Prayer

Does our frequent use of the Lord’s Prayer result in it becoming a rote prayer with no power?

Over the past couple of years, I have been taking communion on Sundays to residents of a local nursing home.   One of the residents on the Alzheimer’s floor (we will call her Mary Jane) has always been eager to receive communion, but on a recent visit she became quite agitated and even accused me of wanting to kill her.  I was shocked as was her attendant, who tried to calm and assure her that everything was fine.  She would have none of it, and I retreated to call on other residents.

Last week when I returned to the home, I found Mary Jane just finishing her breakfast and asked if she wanted to receive communion.  She did not respond.  I knelt down beside her chair and asked if she would like to say the Lord’s Prayer.   I started to say it slowly, “Our Father who art in heaven…”  She quietly joined in, “Hallowed be thy name.”  As we continued, she pronounced each word in a slow deliberate fashion, “Thy – kingdom – come, thy – will – be – done, on – earth – as – it – is – in – heaven.”  She grew more emphatic, “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” With a smile on her face and a look of contentment, we continued, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

I gave her communion, and then to my surprise, she said, “I love you.”  I responded, “I love you, too, Mary Jane,” and gave her a pat.  What a contrast to my prior visit! 

In reciting the Lord’s Prayer, Mary Jane may have been recalling a prior time in her relationship with God – perhaps in church, maybe in personal prayer or a family prayer time.  We can only speculate what she may have been thinking, but it brought her peace and contentment.

We must never underestimate the power of this prayer which Jesus used to teach his disciples how to pray.  Its proclamation of the holiness and omnipotence of God, and its petitions that God’s will to be done on this earth, that our daily needs be provided, that our sins be forgiven as we forgive others, and that we be protected from temptation and evil are a profound and eloquent summation of what counts most in life

Why should we be surprised that this prayer, testifying to the kingdom, glory and power of God, awakens a soul ensnared in the darkness of Alzheimer’s disease?

St. Paul declared, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power.” (1 Co. 4:20)  There is power in the Lord’s Prayer and God’s word.  May we all be awakened!