Humility is a Choice

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Mt. 23:12)  Jesus seems to imply that being humble or exalting oneself is an act of our will.  It is a choice we make.  Personal experience and history show that we are not naturally humble.

Jesus illustrates his statement with a parable about a guest invited to a wedding feast who picked a place of honor only to be told by the host to move to a lower place, so another guest more distinguished than he may take his place.

One of the reasons being humble is difficult is that it runs counter to our instinct to survive, which is part of our human nature and natural law, and inclines us to put self first.  Original sin involving pride and disobedience also predisposes us to put self first.  To overcome our nature and instead be humble, therefore, requires a choice.  To serve rather than be served necessitates a decision on our part. 

Jesus praises such a decision both in the passage above and in the first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 5:3)  Jesus describes himself as “gentle and humble in heart.” (Mt. 11:29)  Peter, James and Paul all encourage us to be humble in their letters.

In David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman, he tells the following story.  At a special reception Truman held for Stalin and Churchill at the Potsdam Peace Conference near the end of World War II, Sergeant Eugene List, an American concert pianist, played a Chopin waltz.  List asked if someone in the audience would be good enough to turn the pages.  Truman jumped to his feet, waived off another volunteer and did the job himself.   In a letter to his wife, List later wrote, “Imagine having the President of the United States turn the pages for you!  But that’s the kind of man the President is.” 

Personally, I have to work hard to maintain a humble spirit in all my interactions with others.  Too often, my pride overtakes my intentions, particularly in the area of desiring recognition.  We need God’s grace to help us make decisions to be humble, rejecting all efforts on our part to seek attention.  God is completely aware of the good we do, which is all the recognition we need.  Proverbs 27:2 says, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth.”

Actions that help nurture God’s grace include daily prayer, the reading of scripture and regular participation in the sacraments.

How do you make the choice to be humble?

God’s Kingdom — Promise or Reality

“The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘there it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

These words of Jesus were in response to a question from the Pharisees of when the kingdom of God would come.

There is a common notion among many Christians that the kingdom of God is only to be experienced after death.  Yes, if we abide in God and seek to do his will, there is a heaven that awaits us upon our passing from this life, a resurrection that follows, and an eternal life with the Father in a new creation. 

But so much of what Jesus said to his disciples and the people of his day exhorted them to do something with this life in order to advance the creation that God had inaugurated and Jesus had redeemed. 

Jesus gave us a model prayer that has as its first petition a request for the kingdom of God to come on this earth here and now, as it is in heaven – “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Mt. 6:10)

Many of Jesus’ parables which are about this life describe what the kingdom of God is like:

  • The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows from the smallest seed or effort into a worldwide movement. (Mt. 13:31)
  • The Kingdom God is like the leaven of yeast, a small number of Christians impacting the larger dough of the world. (Mt. 13:33)
  • The kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field, leading us to give up everything to acquire the field.  (Mt. 13:44)

Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.  My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:23)  Through the Father and Jesus living in us, we have the opportunity to experience the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control),  and share that fruit with others. (Galatians 5:22-23)

A few years ago I learned that a particular friend had lost his wife to cancer.  While speaking to someone who has just lost a loved one can be awkward, I felt like the Holy Spirit was nudging me to go see him.  When he came to the door, I said, “I came to give you a hug.”  We hugged and he invited me in.  He appeared to be all alone.  For the next hour, I listened to him talk about the last few months of his wife’s suffering, the last few hours of her life, and of all the support he had received from friends, his pastor and medical personnel.  I listened as he reminisced about their life together. 

My time with him, as well as the subsequent funeral celebrating her life, was an example of the reality of the kingdom of God here and now.   

How do you experience the kingdom of God here and now? 

Fearful to Speak the Truth

“Fear neither them nor their words when they contradict you and reject you.  Neither fear their words nor be dismayed by their looks for they are a rebellious house.  But speak my words to them whether they heed or resist.”  Ezekiel 2:6-7 

God is instructing Ezekiel with these words as he calls him to be his spokesman to the people of Israel.  He tells Ezekiel that he will hold him accountable for the people’s rebellion if he does not speak up. 

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.  We have had litigation on whether our health care laws can require Catholic institutions to provide medical insurance for abortions.  We have seen public accommodation laws require Christian businesspeople to provide services for same sex marriage in contravention of their personal conscience.   Recently the NCAA has allowed biologic males who identify as females to compete with other females in collegiate swim meets.

All of these actions present a dilemma to Christians since they run counter to God’s Word found in the Holy Bible, natural law, and basic common sense.  How should we respond to so-called political correctness and woke culture that are advancing these positions?  How often does fear of what others think cause us to withhold our comments on proposed government actions that erode our First Amendment rights?    

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)   When angels appeared to Zachariah, father of John the Baptist, to Mary, and to Joseph, the first thing they said was, “Do 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.” (Luke 5:10)     

Does political correctness deter you from speaking up for the truth of the Gospel?  

Jars of Clay

“We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”  (2 Cor. 4:7)

The treasure is Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in us.  The jars of clay are we who have accepted Christ, who have been baptized into his church, and who have opened the door of our hearts to experience his presence and the fullness of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

But this treasure is not just for us, but also for the people and circumstances in our lives.  To release the treasure, the jars of clay need to be broken.  We need to be broken of our pride, our agendas and doing things “my way.” 

My self-focused nature is often the greatest obstacle to my sharing the treasure of God’s love with my family, friends and strangers that enter into my daily life.  It is amazing how easily I can forget that Christ lives in me when responding to an unsolicited phone caller, a store clerk who doesn’t seem to meet my expectations or the interruption of my plans for the day by a loved one. 

Yet as we share this treasure, the light of Christ, his love, truth and sacrifice will shine in the darkness of the world surrounding us even if the darkness does not understand it.  There are of course countless ways to share this treasure.  Let me offer one example. 

One day I was having lunch with a business colleague and he started to share with me how his wife of more than 40 years had left him due to some actions on his part.  I could tell that he was very distraught over both his actions and her response.  After listening to him  get choked up as he described their life and the recent developments, I asked him if I could pray with him.   He said yes, I reached across the table, took hold his arm, and prayed that God would give him courage to say he was sorry and ask his wife to forgive him; that she would be open to receive his request and the grace to forgive. 

He was not necessarily a religious person, but by God’s grace they reconciled.  He subsequently retired and died of cancer a couple of years later in her love and care.

How are you allowing the treasure of Christ’s presence in your jar of clay to impact the people and circumstances of your life?

A Fool’s Eulogy

“Watch out!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15)

Have you ever heard a eulogy at a funeral commemorating the deceased for his or her wealth? 

Eulogies are usually about how someone has been a good parent, a loving spouse, or a faithful friend.  We hear about attributes such as being kind, gentle, patient, diligent and loving.  We listen to stories about how they have served others instead of themselves, how they have been generous with their time and resources, and how they have volunteered for this or that cause.

What we hear in eulogies seems to confirm Jesus’ warning about greed.  Jesus shares the Parable of the Rich Fool, whose land produced an abundant crop.  So he decided to tear down his barns and build larger ones to store all his grain.  He then said to himself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.  But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself.’” (Luke 12:16-21)

Throughout recorded history people have been consumed with accumulating money and possessions in order to achieve some supposed level of security.  Power, authority and fame all contribute to this drive.  As a young attorney, I was very career focused early on in my life.  Marriage and children started to temper that focus.  Then I experienced an encounter with Jesus Christ, and a renewal in my faith that led to some challenging choices between career and family, and later between work and ministry.    

Being blessed with abundance is not sinful in itself, but it can become a distraction to what God wants for us because of the temptations of increased self-focus, entitlement, increasing comfort, and isolation from people in need.  These are not the kinds of characteristics that usually end up in eulogies.  No doubt that is why Jesus urges us to “Watch out!”  

When a reporter asked John D. Rockefeller, who at the time was considered the richest man in the world, how much money is enough, he responded, “Just a little bit more.”  Although Rockefeller, a practicing Christian, used a good part of his surplus wealth to build hospitals, support numerous educational institutions and other causes, his response demonstrates how insidious accumulating wealth can be.  

As eulogies bear out, a kind word, a joyful heart, a loving act of service and sacrifice have lasting effect.  They are indeed eternal and, as Jesus characterizes them, “treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal.”  (Mt. 6:19-20)

What will be your eulogy?

“I AM Doing a New Thing”

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing!” (Isaiah 43:18-19)

God’s work did not end with his creation.  Jesus said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.”  (John 5:17)  God never stops creating.  He is constantly doing new things.  Through his Son, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, he loves, forgives, teaches, heals and guides.  He also invites us to join with him in taking care of his creation.  In all of this he is always looking forward, not backward. 

While our sin can interfere with God’s creation and work, God provides a remedy through repentance and forgiveness.  Once we acknowledge our sin and seek to change, God offers forgiveness.  While it is natural to regret our past sin and mistakes, once we acknowledge them and are forgiven, it is time for us to move on and seek to live the life that God is calling us to live today. 

For me, that includes loving and caring for my wife of 58 years, supporting an adult child with special needs, and being available to love and encourage four other adult children who are raising families of their own.  It includes being a good steward of the time, talents and resources God has made available to me to serve him in family, work and ministry. 

As an example, God has opened the door for me to work with a charitable organization that raises funds and supports special education and inclusion in Catholic schools.  This past year we have taken steps to hire professional staff and expand our board to bring more expertise and resources to our mission.  At one point our diocese had no schools that served students with special needs.  Today, students with special needs are being served in all four diocesan high schools, and ten parish schools.  The objective of our organization and our Bishop is that every Catholic school in the diocese will be able to offer a loving, nurturing and inclusive education for students with special needs.   

God is doing a new thing in the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, and I am blessed to be a part of it.  He is always seeking to do something new to further his kingdom on this earth.  So too with us, he is always seeking to do something new – providing new opportunities for us to love, forgive, teach, heal, guide – always looking forward, advancing his creation “on earth as it is in heaven.” 

Do you hold on to the past, or are you opening your eyes to the new opportunities God is putting before you?

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 little power? 

Before COVID, I took communion on one or two Sundays a month 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 this occasion became quite agitated and even accused me of wanting to do her harm.  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.   

The next time I returned to the home, I found Mary Jane just finishing her breakfast and I 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 accomplishment, 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.”  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 a personal prayer or a family prayer time.  We can only speculate what she may have been thinking, but it brought her a sense of joy and peace.  

We should not 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, 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 in the shadow of Alzheimer’s?

A good exercise for us might be to say the Lord’s Prayer very slowly as Mary Jane did, hanging on each word, and meditating on each phrase. 

Complacency

“Woe to you who are complacent in Zion.” (Amos 6:1) 

During the middle of the eighth century before Christ, the prophet, Amos, was decrying those in Israel who were accumulating wealth and neglecting the poor. 

Complacency is ruinous to almost any endeavor of life – athletics, parenting, doing your job well, and living out our Christian faith.  A few years ago I read a book entitled Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis, describing her experience of going on a mission trip to Uganda over Christmas break of her senior year in high school and how it led her into full time ministry to care for and educate the poorest children of Uganda.  

The book describes multiple stories reflecting a special God-inspired love she acquired for children who live in houses of sticks, stones and mud, and sleep on hard dirt floors surrounded by filth and disease.  After returning to Uganda instead of going on to college as her parents desired, her reaction was:

“In my mind, these people had every reason to be despondent and downcast, but were the most joyful human beings I could imagine.  I learned so much from them as they made my frustrations seem small and petty and taught me just to rejoice in the simple pleasures God surrounded me with.  Once I could do this, I embraced extreme exhilaration; I felt closer to God, to myself and the people, and more alive than ever before.”

Katy is the exact opposite of being complacent.  She is full of passion for the Lord Jesus Christ, and she is bringing his presence to hundreds of children in Uganda, thirteen of whom she has since adopted as a single mother.

Like Katie, all of us who have been baptized have God dwelling within us.  Do we let his presence and love be manifested through us to the people and circumstances in our lives, or do we bury his presence through our complacency?  I wish I could say that I always embrace the same level of passion for the Lord’s call on my life as Katie’s, but I struggle with the distractions of my comfortable life.

We must remember the words of Jesus to the church of Laodicea, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish you were either one or the other!  So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:15)

Fortunately, through my affiliation with Christians in Commerce, I have been able to support in an indirect way that the people of Uganda hear about Jesus Christ, and to assist with their need for clean water, food and education.   But we don’t need to go to Africa to bring God’s presence to the people in our lives including our families, work colleagues, friends and strangers. 

Am I complacent in living out my Christian faith with the people and circumstances in my life?

Battling Temptations

“Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil.”  (Luke 4:1- 2)

If Jesus, who shared our humanity, needed the Holy Spirit to resist the temptations of the devil, how much more do we?  Certainly, our fallen humanity makes us subject to all kinds of temptations.  The list is lengthy.  St. Paul describes, “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like.” (Galatians 5:19-21)

Other sins are more subtle, such as checking our faith at the door of our workplace, not taking time to listen to someone who is hurting, or failing to be kind and respectful in our interactions with others.  These sins of omission can be just as destructive to others and us as the more obvious sins of commission.

There was a time in my life when I let my work and career take precedence over my wife and family, but fortunately, I was invited by a priest and a group of nuns from Scarsdale, New York to be prayed with for the release of the power of the Holy Spirit.  I will never forget the reassuring words of God’s love and forgiveness from Sister Pauline, one of the nuns.  Experiencing the presence of the Holy Spirit in a more personal and real way opened my eyes to both the sins of commission and omission.  It changed the course of my life.

We all have different propensities to sin, but Jesus came to forgive and free us from our sins and enable us through the power of the Holy Spirit to resist temptations.  I can personally testify that Jesus can set you free of a nagging, persistent sin.  Ask Jesus with all your heart to take a sin from you, and he will do so!

The Holy Spirit gave me an entirely new perspective on how God was calling me to love and serve him through my family, work, and ministry.  Experiencing the fullness and presence of the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential to resisting the devil’s many temptations.   

Have you asked God to fill you with the Holy Spirit to help you resist sin?

Encouraging One Another

“Encourage one another daily, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” (Hebrews 3:13) 

The Gospel of John explains what “sin’s deceitfulness” means when it tells us that the devil “is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44His most prevalent lies are that we are not worthy, that we are not loved or appreciated, that what we do doesn’t matter, and that God does not really care about us or our lives.

These lies seek to oppress us.  They cause us to forget that we are God’s special creation, made in his image and likeness, with the important task of taking care of the garden of his creation and establishing his kingdom on this earth.  These lies can be disabling.  They derail us from the reason for our being. They prevent us from carrying out the work God has in mind for only us to do in the context of the people and circumstances of our lives.

The antidote for these lies is encouragement.  Psalm 10:17 says God encourages the afflicted.  We are his agents for encouragement.  It is an act of love.  One of the ways God shows his love for us is through the encouragement of one another.

When I think of encouragement, I think of my wife who constantly encourages our adult daughter, Emily, who has Down syndrome.  Up until last year Emily worked at a bakery and catering business five days a week for twelve years.  The bakery employed more than thirty people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  In March of 2020, the bakery suspended operations due to COVID.  For a variety of reasons the bakery later closed its business permanently. 

Because of the continued presence of COVID and the general lack of employment for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, we have not been able to find suitable work for Emily.  Needless to say, she misses the routine of her work, getting out of the house, and seeing her many friends there each day. 

My wife constantly encourages Emily by getting her to help with the daily chores of making the beds, folding clothes, vacuuming, and other housework.  She develops routines for Emily to help with making her lunch and snacks, going for walks, arranging for former high school friends to come and visit, and generally encouraging her to be the joyful person she has always been — upbeat in spite of not having the work routine she previously enjoyed so much. 

Is there someone in your life who needs encouragement?