Poor hidden in plain sight

I was a student for a good number of years and I really loved it. But, one of the worst parts about being a student was all the exams. If you think back – if you have not purged the bad memories from your mind – I think that you will agree.  As much as I hate to admit it,having tests and exams was good for me because it helped me learn. I was often behind in my studies, but if I knew I had an exam coming up then I would take the time to study and absorb the material. In fact, my favorite exams where the ones where the teacher gave the questions they would ask beforehand.  Often they would give ten essay questions from which you would need to answer three random ones on the actual test. For these exams I really studied! I had no excuse not to learn the material!  Our life as Christians is a lot like this.  We are students trying to learn how to live as God intended.  Jesus is our teacher.  At the end of our life we will be tested.  But Jesus is a very kind teacher; He really wants us to prepare well and be ready so He has been very clear about what we will be asked on our final exam. In the gospel that we have just heard, Jesus gives away one of the big questions that we will be asked on the final exam of our life.

In the end we will be judged on how we have treated the poor.  The question we will be asked on our final test as Christians is “what have you done to help the poor”? In the parable today, the rich man lived a luxurious life and did not lift a finger to help the poor man Lazarus who suffered on his doorstep. The rich man failed his test.  In the Church I know that many people do a great deal to help the poor. This is incredibly encouraging.  I would like to share one example I read about recently.  In LA there is a Jesuit priest named Fr. Greg Boyle who works with gang members, among whom he is simply known as “Father G”. Fr. Greg does a lot to get youth out of gangs and prison and integrated into society. He recognized early on that this was not an easy thing as many people are not eager to hire ex-gang members or convicts. In response he set up his own business, called “Home-boy Industries” which produces clothing and other products and is staffed by ex-gang members. Fr. Greg also set up a free tattoo removal service after having a conversation with a an ex-convict who kept complaining about how no one would hire him. He could not figure out why.  Fr. Greg, who could see quite clearly the tattoo of a profanity written across the man’s forehead, knew perfectly well and he did something to help this man and others in a similar situation. Closer to home, in our own parish many people do much to respond to the needs of the poor. Numerous groups have initiatives to feed, clothe and provide housing for the poor.  Many individuals give generously to collections to help the poor locally and abroad.  This is important because at the end of our life we will be judged to a large extent on how we have treated the poor.

Poverty often takes a different appearance than we expect.  When we think of poverty, images of malnourished children in developing countries often comes to mind. Or perhaps we think of problems closer to home: the poverty of Vancouver’s downtown eastside or in Walley.  This kind of material poverty is terrible and widespread.  Jesus calls us to do help ease this kind of suffering.  We need to be aware, however, that in addition to this material poverty there is another kind of poverty that is particularly rampant in the West. Mother Teresa is well-known for her work with the poor.  For the first years of her ministry, she served in India.  Later she expanded her work to Africa and Latin America.  Eventually she began opening houses in the developed world, in North America and Europe.  It was there that she first encountered what she called the “spiritually poor”.  These were people who felt unloved and unwanted by society: the elderly, the disabled, children in broken homes, those struggling with addiction, people on the fringes of society, the lonely. Such people are not starving for a food but for love. She explained that this kind of poverty is incredibly destructive and hard to alleviate.
I find the poverty of the West, much, much, much greater, much more difficult to remove because a piece of bread will not satisfy the hunger of the heart. And our people, the “shut-ins”, they are hungry people. The fear, the bitterness, the hurt, the loneliness, the feeling of being unwanted, unloved, uncared for … I think it is a tremendous disease, much greater than leprosy and tuberculosis.
It is important that we be aware of this spiritual poverty because we often turn a blind eye to it. Poverty often takes on a different appearance than we expect.
When you want to begin serving the poor, a great place to start is the poor closest to you.   Looking out at all the poverty and suffering in this world – both material and spiritual – it can be overwhelming.  Sometimes we don’t know where to start.  The parable in today’s gospel it is interesting that Lazarus is literally on the doorstep of the rich man and yet he is ignored. He was so close.  Are we missing some poor person who is on our doorstep?  Today I would like us to especially think of people who are spiritually poor because we often miss them.  When Mother Teresa would speak in the West she would often point out that we all come in contact with people who are spiritually poor every day but we often ignore them.  To seminarians in Lebanon she said:
Maybe right here in this wonderful, big university, maybe your companion is feeling lonely, feeling sick, feeling unwanted, feeling unloved, do you know that?
Speaking about the closeness of the spiritually poor she explained:
And maybe that kind of hunger is in your own home, your own family, maybe there is an old person in your family, maybe there is a sick person in your family, have you ever thought that your love for God you can show by maybe giving a smile, maybe just giving a glass of water, maybe just sitting there and talking for a little while.  There are many, many in rich countries. There are many.
When we want to start serving the poor, a great place to start is with those closest to us.

If Jesus were to give us a “pop-quiz” today, how would you do? In giving us one of the most important questions on the exam in advance, Jesus has done us a great favour. He has given us a chance to “study” well, to change ourselves and have a positive impact on others in the meantime. Today we can do some cramming for the final test.  Ask yourself, who is the Lazarus in my life? Perhaps we can be more generous in helping the materially poor. Beyond this, all of us know someone close to us who is spiritually poor.  Remember the words of Mother Teresa.  Helping satisfy the hunger of the spiritually poor can be as simple as giving a smile or lending an ear to listen. Let us be generous! Remember well that when your life here is over, you only get to take with you that which you have given away.

Hound of Heaven

EX 32:7-11, 13-14
LK 15:1-32

I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasm├Ęd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

These are the opening lines of the famous poem by Francis Thompson called “The Hound of Heaven”.  At first blush this poem – even the title itself – is a bit startling.  The poem compares the relationship between God and a human being to that of a dog chasing a rabbit.

For various reasons – either consciously or unconsciously – we are like the rabbit fleeing from God, the hound. At different times in our life, we have probably distanced ourselves from God.  In the 1st reading we see a clear example of this.  The people of Israel have just been saved from slavery in Egypt and now they have run from Him to worship a golden calf.  We do the same. Perhaps we have become caught up in a cycle of sin. Maybe a death in the family has made us angry with God. Or perhaps we have just become too busy for God because of work or school and lived like He didn't even exist. Whatever the case, at some time we have all ran from Him.

God never stops searching for us.  God our Father loves us dearly and is relentless in His quest to be united with us. God is the “Hound of Heaven”. Like a dog chasing a rabbit, he pursues us, never stopping and always getting closer until at last we sense His presence, turn around and meet Him. In today’s gospel Jesus is reprimanded by the Pharisees and scribes for keeping company with sinners.  Jesus snatches the opportunity.  Through a couple of striking parables He teaches us something so fundamental about God. God is like a shepherd who will leave behind the ninety-nine to search out the one that is lost. God is like someone who will tear their house apart searching for the one lost coin. This seems like madness to us; God’s behaviour seems illogical.  With these parables, Jesus wants us to understand three things about God: 1) His love for sinners, those who have turned from Him, is immense, 2) He will do anything to bring them back to Himself and 3) when He is reunited with them, He is not angry with the sinner, He does not scold them but rather His heart overflows with joy – He throws a party to celebrate.  God, the Hound of Heaven, never, ever stops searching for a way to be united with us.

Though we can flee at times from God, deep down, every human being longs to be reconciled with Him.  Often times we are not even aware of this deep desire of our heart to be united with God. We yearn to be reconciled to God our Father.  In one of his books, Ernest Hemingway, tells a wonderful story that illustrates this point.  In Madrid there was a young man named Paco. In Spanish “Paco” is short for “Francisco” and is a very common name. For various reasons, Paco had become estranged from his father, run away from his home and was living on the streets. His life was on a downward spiral towards destruction. This was the last thing that Pacho’s father wanted. He desperately wanted to find his son but knew that he could never do this just by wandering the streets of Madrid, and so he made one last desperate attempt to locate his son.  He paid good money to publish a large advertisement in Madrid’s largest newspaper “El Liberal”.  The ad, which took up nearly a page, read as follows:
"Paco, meet me at the Hotel Montana at noon on Tuesday. All is forgiven! Love, Papa."
That Tuesday at noon the father made his way to the Hotel Montana. When he reached the hotel he discovered something incredible. A huge crowd had gathered, it filled the lobby and spilled into the street. Over 800 young men named Paco were waiting for their fathers and the forgiveness they never thought was possible. Deep down we are all like this. We all yearn to be reconciled with God.

We have seen that 1) God is always searching for us and 2) deep down we want to be found by God. But, there seems to be a disconnect between these two points because may people search for God but do not seem to find Him. They feel that God is far away.  How can this be? Perhaps we are looking in the wrong place.  Maybe we fail to recognize God’s invitation for reunion because it is not what we expect.

God, in fact, often tries to connect with us through the difficult situations in our life. It is precisely at times when life is at its most difficult when the “Hound of Heaven” is closest. Let me ask you a question.  Do you think that more people turn to God during good, happy times or at times of difficulty and crisis, like an illness or death in the family or some personal crisis? Often it is not till we have hit rock bottom that we realize our need for God. Certainly God does not cause these times of crisis or want us to suffer, but He does use them. The author of the “Hound of Heaven”, Francis Thompson, experienced this first hand in his life. His life was similar to Paco’s. Francis Thompson lived at the end of the 19th century in England. Initially he studied to be a doctor. He did not take his studies seriously and never actually practiced medicine. Instead, he moved to London with the hopes of becoming a writer. Things did not work out; eventually he was reduced to selling matches and newspapers for a living.  Things kept getting worse. He became addicted to opium and went to live on the streets. At this time Francis started writing poetry. Eventually a couple read one of his poems, recognized his talent and rescued him. Soon after, Francis became a very devout man. Later Francis came to realized that God used His period of suffering to lead Him back to Himself. This was the only way he could have been reconciled with God. Francis captured this experience in “The Hound of Heaven”.  Often God uses suffering and times of difficulty to lead us back to Himself.

If you have listened to any motivational talk, you have probably heard this anecdote about the word “crisis”. Apparently in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.  Times of crisis are both a time of danger and opportunity. This is especially true in our spiritual life. Difficulty and suffering can be an opportunity to draw close to God, but unless we recognize this, these events are just painful.  Sometime soon, somebody will come to you and share with them some painful struggle – big or small. When this happens, help them to see this as an opportunity to come closer to God. Help them to realize that God, the Hound of Heaven, is right behind them, trying to draw close. Help them to stop, turn around and face their loving Father.

How we are held back from following Jesus

Imagine that you are standing on one side of a large room with your back against the wall.  You really want to get to the room because there is something at the opposite wall that you desperately want, so you begin walking to the other side of the room. At first it is easy, but soon you begin to notice that walking become harder and harder with each step, until all at once you stop. You are frustrated because you cannot take another step forward. Then, to add insult to injury, you suddenly feel yourself pulled back to the wall where you started. In your confusion you turn around and see something you hadn't noticed before: there is a big elastic band that is connecting your back to the wall! How had you not noticed it earlier?  Now, as ridiculous as this story sounds, we can easily experience much the same thing when we try to follow Jesus.

Because of our over-attachment to something or someone, we often fall short in following Christ. Sometimes our hearts are too full of things other than God that we do not live up to our potential as Christians. In today’s gospel, Jesus says that our hearts should be attached to Him alone. He mentions that we need to detach from certain things, but His language is confusing. We need to hate our family in order to be Jesus’ disciples? Really? Doesn't that go against the commandment to honor your father and mother? We cannot follow Christ unless we give up all our possessions? What will we wear? Where will we live?  Clearly Jesus is speaking in hyperbole; we should not take this literally. Jesus is trying to strike home this important point: different things, even good things, can hold us back from following Jesus. These things become like the elastic band in the story I told earlier.  In our life it is like we are in that room, trying to get to the other side.  We are trying to walk towards Christ and heaven.  When we follow Jesus we can feel like this journey is easy at first, then it can get harder and harder until we stop making progress altogether.  Sometimes we may even regress and be pulled backwards.  Often it is as though we are tied to the wall by a big elastic band.  The elastic is anything that takes the place of God in our heart or takes us away from God.  The thing might be good in itself like our family, a friendship, work or a hobby. But when these things divert us from God they become like an elastic band that holds us back from following Jesus properly.

Today’s gospel teaches us that Jesus must always be the priority in our life.  Good things, like family, work and hobbies have a very important place in our life, but Christ must take the most important place in our life.  I once heard an analogy that explains this well.  Actually the one I am about to tell I have changed a little bit, so if you have heard the original and like it better, I apologize in advance.  Imagine that you have in front of you a big, empty glass jar. Now imagine that you place one large rock into the jar. The rock is so big that when it is placed in the jar the top of the rock is level with the top of the jar. At first glance you may think that the jar is full, but then you take a bag of pebbles and begin pouring them into the jar.  The pebbles fill in all the spaces that separate the large rock from the sides of the jar. Again the jar seems full.  But Wait! Again you take another bag, this one filled with sand, and begin pouring the contents into the jar.  The sand fills up all the spaces between the pebbles.  This time the jar looks really full! But next you take a pitcher of water and pour it into the jar.  The water then fills all the gaps between the grains of sand. 

Our life is like this glass jar.  Each of us fills our life with things of different importance; this is represented by the rock, the pebbles, the sand and the water.  The large rock is Jesus and He is meant to fill our life.  What this analogy teaches us is that even when Jesus fills our life there is still room for everything else.  There is room for the very important things, represented by the pebbles: family, friendships, work, and school.  There is still room for the things of lesser importance, represented by the sand, such as hobbies and good recreation. There is also still room for things of the least importance, represented by the water, such as playing games on our smart phones and watching videos on Youtube about cats doing funny things.  In fact, all these other things that fit in our jar of life along with Jesus are transformed for the good, they become “touched” by Christ, just as the pebbles, sand and water touch the large rock. There is one final lesson the analogy teaches us and this is the central point of today’s gospel.  As long as we put the big rock in the jar first, there is room for everything else.  But, if we put in other things into the jar first, then there is no room for the rock.  If we fill our lives first with things – whether they be of great or little importance - there will be no room for Christ.  When this happens, these things become like that elastic band tied to our back. They prevent us from making much progress in following Jesus.  The message of Jesus in today’s gospel is that He must always take first priority in our life.

Today is a great opportunity to examine what takes priority in our life and makes changes if necessary.  At the start of this new school year we have a great chance to ask ourselves the question: what is filling the jar of my life? Is my life filled with water, with sand or with pebbles? Is there room for Christ in my life? There are practical ways that we can give Christ priority in our life. Something that I would like recommend, something I myself find helpful, is a prayer called the “Morning Offering”.  I say this prayer first thing each morning.  When my alarm goes off I literally roll out of bed, kneel down and pray this prayer:

Dear Jesus, through the most pure heart of Mary, I offer you all my works, joys, sufferings and prayers this day, for all the intentions of your Most Divine heart, in union with all the Holy Masses being offered throughout the world, I offer you my heart, make it meek and humble like yours.

The exact words don’t really matter.  The important thing is that you start each day by putting Jesus first and offering everything else you do to Him.  It is a chance each morning to first put Jesus in the jar of our life, all else can then follow.  Today we have a great chance to evaluate and change if necessary what takes priority in our life.

I would encourage each one of us to make the Morning Offering a habit in our life.  In this way we can try more and more to put Jesus at the center of our lives and cut any of the bands that hold us back from walking along the path to follow Him.

Be humble, be happy.

I know a man named Bill, he is retired and lives in San Diego.  Several times a week he does something quite out of the ordinary: he drives his car across the border to Tijuana, Mexico to serve the poor.  Bill helps the needy in Tijuana in different ways, he visits a prison and cuts the hair of inmates, he gives soup to people living on the street and he goes to poor villages to deliver toys to children.  Bill does all these things in a simple and matter-of-fact sort of way.  He never draws attention to himself.  What is amazing is that he does all this work in Mexico knowing basically no Spanish.  Bill is also a bit of a character; you could say he is a little rough around the edges. Sometimes his language can be a little “colorful”.  In fact, if he knew I was speaking about him today, he would probably have some choose words for me, words I couldn't repeat here.  Bill is definitely a unique individual and among all that he is, what stands out the most is that he is perhaps the most humble man I have ever met.

In today’s gospel, Jesus speaks strongly about the importance of humility.  The virtue of humility seems to be one that is very close to the heart of Christ. It is one facet of His life we need to imitate, in fact he commands us: “learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt. 11:29).  You can easily picture the scene of today’s gospel.  Jesus is at a banquet, perhaps He is in the back of the room, out of the way, but He is watching very attentively the behavior of the guests.  Jesus can see them trying to “one-up” each other, seeking to get the seats of honor at the table, looking for attention and in general strutting around like peacocks. Because of what He witnesses Jesus tells us a parable with a strong message: be humble, do not be puffed up or prideful, or seeking to be seen great in the eyes of other.  We are blessed to have a living witness to this message in our current Holy Father.  Through his actions Pope Francis is echoing this teaching of Christ.  A couple examples come to mind.  You might have heard that after he was elected as Pope he declined to take the waiting limousine that was to take him to dinner with the cardinals.  Instead, he chose to ride to the dinner with the cardinals in a mini-bus, he wanted to be “one of the guys”.  The next day, Pope Francis was in a car on the way back from visiting a Church.  He had the car stop at the hotel he had been staying at prior to his election, got out, went to the main desk and paid his bill.  This is something he easily could have had an aide do. His example shows us the utmost importance of humility in our lives as Christians.

In different ways, we all struggle with being humble.  I doubt that humility is an easy thing for any of us. Now, we have probably met some people whose lack of humility is all too evident.  They walk around talking about themselves all the time and drawing attention to themselves.  I doubt that any of us are like this. We lack humility in more subtle ways.  During a retreat while at seminary, the retreat director spoke to us about humility. He read out a list, written by St. Josemaria Escriva, which gave signs that you might be lacking in humility.  Listening to the list was a sobering experience for me as I found myself ticking off each point. I would like to share a few of the points with you. Here are some signs that indicate you may be lacking in humility:
  1. Thinking that what you do or say is better than what other do or say
  2. Always wanting to get your own way
  3. Arguing when you are not right or – when you are – insisting stubbornly with bad manner
  4. Giving your opinion without being asked for it, when charity does not demand you to do so
  5. Speaking badly about yourself so that others may form a good opinion about you, or contradict you
  6. Being hurt when others are held in greater esteem than you
  7. Being ashamed of not having certain possession

I could go on, but I think we get the point.  In subtle ways, we all struggle with humility.

Perhaps one of the reasons that we struggle being humble is because we do not really understand what humility is. Oftentimes we have a mistaken notion of what humility entails. First, let’s look at what humility is not.  Humility is not walking around with your head bowed down thinking to yourself how worthless you are. A great definition of humility is “walking in the truth”. Humble people are able to honestly know and assess themselves, both their gifts and their limitations.  They know their gifts and realize that they have been given to them by God. Knowing ourselves to be unique and gifted individuals is indispensable first step to grow in humility. As the expression goes, “God does not make junk”.  Further, humble people know that these gifts are meant to be used to serve other people. In addition to knowing our strengths, to be humble we must also be aware of our weaknesses. We need to understand that we are limited human beings in need of God’s help. It important that we keep in mind what humility truly is.

Striving to live humility is a road to happiness. When you meet someone who is truly humble you will find that they are truly happy and full of joy. Bill, who I spoke about earlier, definitely fits this description.  He really knew himself. He knew his strengths and gifts: he had time, good health, knew how to cut hair and liked people.  He also knew his weaknesses, among them a bit of a tempter and no Spanish skills. Bill made the choice to use his gifts to serve people who were in need.  In doing this he did not let his limitations get in the way.  Bill loved to say: “what I lack in verb conjugation I try to make up for in love”. As a result, he was truly a happy man.  Bill’s life was not without struggle but he was filled with joy.  When we strive to live true humility we will find happiness.

In life, some people will be recognized by the world for their accomplishments.  However, for the vast majority of people, like my friend Bill, their work and efforts will be seen by few, perhaps by God alone. But, as the gospel shows us, being recognized is not important, humility is. Jesus wants us all to experience the joy and peace of heart that comes through humility. This is His invitation today. Let us begin to grow in humility.  Ask yourself today: what gifts do you have? Try to think of at least three and give thanks to God for them. In addition pray that God will show you some new way that you can put these gifts at the service of others so that you can experience the happiness of being humble.