Focus on Beauty

Matthew 13: 44-46 (17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A)

Are you a Catholic because you want to be a Catholic or because you have to be a Catholic? Do you go to Mass on Sunday because you desire to or because you feel obligated to?

It makes all the difference when we follow Jesus because we want to rather than because we have to. Doing something because we desire to do it is a completely different experience than doing something because we feel obliged to do it. This principle applies in all areas of our life. If you watched the recent World Cup, you no doubt know Lionel Messi, (arguably!) the greatest soccer player in the world. Do you think that Messi became so good because he wanted to play soccer well or because others forced him to play well? Imagine if during Messi’s life, his father constantly  pressured him to practice and train hard so that he could become a professional soccer player. Perhaps Messi would continue playing for a while, but this external pressure would only take him so far. Eventually he would give up. The reality is that Messi desired with all his heart to play soccer and become great at it. It was this desire that led him to willingly make sacrifices and train hard year after year. In the gospel, we heard Jesus explain that the kingdom of heaven - that is, following Jesus and his way - is like a treasure or a pearl that someone is willing to sacrifice everything to obtain. If we go to Mass, pray and follow the commandments because we feel we have to, because we feel obliged by rules or expectations from our family and friends, we will only go so far. Chances are, we’ll eventually just give up. We should follow Jesus because we want to. Following Jesus should be something that captures our imagination and leads us to desire it above all else. When Jesus becomes our greatest treasure we willingly make sacrifices to be close to Him. It makes all the difference when we follow Christ because we want to rather than because we feel we have to.

In order to renew our desire to follow Jesus, it is helpful to reconnect with its beauty. The key word here is beauty. Notice in the parable that Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure or a wonderful pearl, two beautiful things. Jesus Jesus does not say that the kingdom of heaven is like a pair of old gym socks, taxes or broccoli.   Beauty attracts us, it draws us out of ourselves. Encounters with beauty inspires us to makes changes in our life. This is something I experienced in my own life. I was raised in a Catholic family. Like many in my situation, I often went to Church because I felt my parents made me. As is so common, when I started to become an adult and no one pressured me to go, I started to have a lot of questions. Why should I go to Church? Was Jesus God? Is there even a God? During this confusing a difficult time, I had an experience that greatly affected me. One day I went to visit my grandmother who lives close by the ocean on the Sunshine Coast. It was already dark and I was walking along the beach towards her house. Suddenly I was struck by the beauty of what I saw around me. The water was so calm and peaceful. The moon, which was shining brightly in the clear sky, was reflecting upon the ocean. It is difficult to explain, but at that moment I was struck by the idea that all this beauty was created by a good God.  More than this, I felt that this wonderful God wanted to have a relationship with me. This seemed like such a wonderful and beautiful thing! At that moment I greatly desired to have this relationship in my life and began searching to see how this could be possible. There is so much beauty in our faith. The beauty of Jesus’ life who died out of love to save us. The beauty of the holy lives of the saints. The beauty of being part of the Church, a family that transcends time and nationality. When we reconnect with this beauty, we renew - or perhaps enkindle for the first time - our desire to follow Jesus.

Our view towards Sunday Mass will tell us a lot about whether we follow Jesus because we want to or because we feel we have to. Sometimes going to Mass each Sunday is referred to as our “Sunday Duty”. True, going to Mass each Sunday is an important obligation and if we miss Mass on Sunday without a just reason it is a serious sin. Further, getting to Mass on Sunday can be difficult at times; people are busy and parking can be difficult to find! This said, we can often approach Sunday Mass as something we want to get done and out of the way so that we can get on with the rest of our day. Would we go to Mass if there was no rule forcing us?  The YouCat (Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church) has something very interesting to say on the issue of “Sunday duty”:
Actually, for a genuine Christian, “Sunday duty” is just as inappropriate an expression as “kiss duty” would be for someone who is truly in love. No one can have a living relationship with Christ without going to the place where he is waiting for us. Therefore, from ancient times the celebration of Mass has been the “heart of Sunday” and the most important appointment of the week. (YouCat 219)
If we really understand the beauty of what Mass is, we should want to go. We would desire to be with Jesus and receive Him in His word and His Body in the Eucharist. We would want to be strengthened by a community that is also trying to grow closer to God. How we view going to Mass on Sunday can tell us a lot about our desire to follow Jesus.

Are you here today because you want to be here or because you have to be here? Do you follow Jesus because you want to and or because you have to? If you are unable to answer a resounding “yes!”, stay calm. At times, it is normal for our desire to follow Christ to become cold. Take a moment today to rekindle your desire to follow Jesus by reminding yourself of one beautiful aspect of our faith that captivates and inspires you.

What is your "beautiful reason" for following Jesus?

Mythbusters: Catholic Edition

Matthew 13:24-43 (16th Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A)

Have you ever seen the TV show Mythbusters? This program tests the validity of myths, rumors and urban legends. Today I thought we could have our own episode of Mythbusters: Catholic Edition. In the Gospel, Jesus gives us three parables, all describing what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. Quite simply, the Kingdom of Heaven is a kingdom in which God is in charge. It is a kingdom found in our hearts and in the world, particularly in the Church. It is a kingdom that is really here, but hasn't yet been brought to completion. Each of Jesus’ three parables about the Kingdom of Heaven dispel one of three common myths or misconceptions that people have about the Church and what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Myth 1: Evil in the Church disproves its Divine origin
With the terrible sexual abuse crisis in the Church in recent years, we are all too aware that there is sin in the Church. Other examples can be pointed to: crusades, inquisitions and certain Popes who were preoccupied with being worldly kings rather than spiritual leaders. Many wonder, how can an organization that has done this evil possibly be founded by Jesus? How can it possibly be part of the Kingdom of Heaven? Some use the sins of the Church as an excuse for not wanting anything to do with it. The parable of the weeds and the wheat helps us understand that the Church, even with all its flawed members, was founded by Jesus. In fact, though evil in the Church is a terrible thing, the fact that it is present should not surprise us. In the Church, there have always been members who have lived extraordinarily good lives and have been a remarkable force for good in the world. At the same time, there have always been members, sometimes at the highest levels, who have sinned and made terrible mistakes. There will always be weeds and wheat in the Church because of our free will. Jesus wants all members of the Church to be holy and continue His mission. He has given us all the tools necessary to do this. At the same time, Jesus does not force us to follow Him. Why does God not simply crush out the evil in the Church? God allows both the good and the bad to grow so that those who do evil are given time to repent and change. That there is sin in the Church should not prevent us from participating in the life of the Church. As my friend is fond of repeating, “saying you don’t want to go to Church because it is full of sinners is as ridiculous as saying I don’t want to go to the gym because it is full of fat people”. There will always be weed and wheat in the Church because the Church is here to help sinners become saints.

Myth 2: I am too small to make any positive change in the world
When we see all the wars, injustices, broken relationships and difficulties in the world, it can be all too easy to want to give up. We can think that our small contribution cannot possibly do anything to build up the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. Jesus’ parable about the mustard seed shows us how wrong this line of thinking is. As a modern day equivalent to the mustard seed analogy, we can consider the phenomenon of viral internet videos. Take, for example, the music video Gangnam Style by the Korean musician PSY. Before this video came out, hardly anyone had even heard of PSY outside of Korea. When the video was released, however, people watched it and shared it with their friends, who shared it with their friends and so on until the video went viral. Now the video has been viewed over 2 billion times on YouTube. Today it would be difficult to find any young person in Canada who did not know the dance invented by PSY. Viral videos and the parable of the mustard seed demonstrate that regardless of how insignificant you feel, you can make an impact. Our action to continue the mission of Jesus, though small, can spread to have an effect that we never dreamed possible. Consider the situation in which one person chooses two people to disciple for two years. This means that for two years one person helps two other people come to know Jesus better and become more involved in the Church. At the end of these two years, each of the three would then find two others to disciple and so on. In this scenario, growth of disciples would be as follows.  After 2 years there would be 3. After 4 years there would be 9. After 10 years there would be 243. After 20 years there would be 59048. After 30 years there would be over 14 million. Talk about viral growth! Our efforts to spread the Kingdom of Heaven are never insignificant.

Myth 3: Faith is a private thing with no place in the public sphere
We have all probably heard of the expression “separation between Church and state”. Though people interpret this expression in different ways, many promote the idea that though you may be Catholic, these beliefs are private and should not affect the way that you do your job as a lawyer, a doctor or a politician. Recently this opinion has gained prominence in Canada. For example, some political parties are prohibit their members from following their conscience and voting pro-life. Or we can look at the attempts made to prevent Trinity Western University from opening a Law School.  Many Catholics have bought into the myth that faith should be a private thing kept out of the public sphere. Outside of the hour they spend at Mass on Sunday, the fact that they are Catholic seems to have little impact on the way they live. Their friends and coworkers may not even know that they are Catholic. The parable of the yeast teaches us that our faith in Jesus is not a private thing that is to be kept in a separate bubble from the rest of our lives. Our faith in Jesus is like yeast that works to change every part of our lives. We should relate to our friends differently because we follow Jesus. The fact that we are Catholic should change the way that we work. That we are Christian should have an impact on the movies we watch, where we shop and the books that we read. People should know that we are Catholic by the way that we talk and act. If not, we are probably doing something wrong. Faith is not merely a private thing.

Dispelling myths is important because when we believe in them, our view of reality becomes skewed. Our ability to interact in the world is a positive way is severely compromised. The same is true for the three myths we have discussed: 1) evil in the Church disproves its Divine origin, 2) I am too small to make any change in the world and 3) faith is a private thing with no place in the public sphere.  “Bust” these myths in your faith life today so that your effectiveness as a disciple of Jesus Christ is not compromised.

Why thoughts matter

Matthew 13: 1-23 (15th Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A)

When I was younger I thought that anyone who talked to themselves was crazy. In recent years I've come to realize that I am one of these crazy people! Now, I don’t talk to myself out loud - at least not very often. I am more aware, however, that during the day there is a constant conversation going on in my mind. I am pretty sure (and I hope!) that I am not the only one who does this.
During the day we all have an ongoing dialogue with ourselves on the level of our thoughts. Quite simply, we talk to ourselves! For example, try to remember the last time you were stuck in heavy traffic. Did you just sit there passively, not thinking anything at all? No, your thoughts certainly started racing. Stuck in traffic again! Oh no, I am going to be late for my appointment! If only these other people knew how to drive this wouldn't be a problem! Why doesn't the government build some decent roads so that we can get around the city easier?! I wonder what I will have for dinner? We do this all the time. In response to what we are experiencing during the day we “talk” to ourselves in a dialogue of thoughts.

These thoughts are like seeds that can grow to produce fruit that is either good or bad. The Gospel that we heard today about the sower and the seeds is constantly being played out in our minds. Many of these thoughts have been planted by Jesus and lead us closer to God. These thoughts, which we can call “good” thoughts, were sown by Christ in different ways. Maybe it was something we heard from our parents, learned during catechism, read in the Bible or heard during Mass. Other thoughts that we mull over do not come from Jesus and lead us further away from God. These thoughts, which we can call “bad”, were sown in our hearts by our own wounded human nature, the devil, or the media.  Both good and bad thoughts tend to grow and produce fruit. Imagine for example, that someone says something offensive to you. If this happened you would probably feel hurt and your mind would soon be bustling with an internal dialogue of thoughts. Bad thoughts might grow in the following way. What he said hurt my feelings. He doesn't like me. He is always saying things to hurt me. He is a bad person. I hate that person. I want to get even!  Before you know it, the bad thoughts have grown to produce bad fruits: a lack of peace, aggression and condemnation. On the other hand, in the same scenario good thoughts might grow in the following way. Yes, what he said hurt me but he is probably having a bad day. I also can sometimes say hurtful things when I am upset. Let me try to forgive him and pray that God blesses Him. Maybe later in the day I can go out of my way to be kind to that person. These good thoughts quickly grow and produce good fruits: understanding, peace, forgiveness and kindness. Thoughts are like seeds that can grow and produce good or bad fruit.

It is surprising how quickly good thoughts can be choked out by bad ones. In the Gospel, Jesus emphasizes how easily and quickly His word can be silenced in our hearts because of the growth of thorns. For example, a couple weeks ago I travelled to Tijuana, Mexico to attend the priestly ordination of my two friends. After the ordination, the three of us travelled from Mexico into San Diego in order to drop off one of my friends at the airport. It turned out being one of the most eventful border crossings of my life. After waiting in line for close to 2 hours, the border crossing guard greeted us warmly and asked for our passports. After looking at the passports, which were from Canada, Panama and Colombia, it didn't take long for the guard to determine that we were going through secondary inspection. There, more guards asked us to get out of the car and led us into a containment area enclosed by a chain linked fenced. Here we sat on a bench - three priests all in clerical attire -  while a dog searched the van inside and out.  As soon as we sat down, the other people who were waiting saw us and began looking at each other with smiles on their faces. They were probably wondering what these three priests had gotten up to! Eventually the search was completed and we were sent on our way. During this whole border-crossing experience, many thoughts entered my mind. I wish I could say that my thoughts were all in accord with the Gospel, thoughts like I trust God will take care of me or thank God for this opportunity to experience a particular struggle that many less fortunate people go through everyday. Though these thoughts did cross my mind, they were quickly choked out by bad ones: what happens if we miss the flight? What happens if there is a misunderstanding and I get arrested? These other people waiting here must think I am some sort of criminal! These bad thoughts grew and produced all kind of bad fruit: anxiety, frustration and anger. I was surprised how quickly good thoughts can be choked out by bad thoughts.

Fortunately there are practical steps that we can take to ensure that the thoughts which lead us closer to God are able to grow above those that lead us from Him. We can ensure that we are fertile soil for the good seeds that bring us closer to Jesus. Now, if you thought I was crazy when I said that we all talk to ourselves, you’ll find this suggestion ridiculous. My advice is this: when we are aware that our bad thoughts are growing, we need to argue with ourselves! Imagine that you fail at something, perhaps it is at work or school. When this happens our thoughts can often be quite bad. I am such I screw up; I am no good. Why do I even bother trying? Why would anyone want to associate with me? When we find our thoughts going in this direction, we can argue with ourselves, countering these bad thoughts with thoughts more in line with the Gospel. Sure, I made a mistake, but its not the end of the world. I can do many other things well, for example (remind yourself of your particular talent here!). I am good; God does not make junk. When we try to argue with ourselves in this way we find that our thoughts that lead us away from the truth about who God is and how He has created us are kept in check and do not grow too large. These bad thoughts are also not allowed to produce bad fruits. The good thoughts are able to grow and produce good fruits. We are better able to maintain a sense of peace and calm.

As followers of Jesus, it is important that we be aware of the internal dialogue that is always happening in our mind. Our thoughts are very important because they affect the way we feel and how we act. We need to “evangelize” our bad thoughts so that our thoughts can become more and more in line with the way that Jesus would want us to think. When next you realize that bad thoughts are growing in your mind try to argue with yourself. You will probably find that it gives you more peace and happiness in your life. You will probably discover that its not that crazy after all!

Why work?

Matthew 11:25-30 (14th Sunday OT, year A)

I hate to dampen everyone’s mood, but today I want to discuss a subject that is not a favorite of many: work! Whether it is a job or simply chores around the house, work is part of each of our lives. The Gospel of today, in which Jesus speaks about burdens and yokes, points to the subject of work. It is a good opportunity for us to consider the purpose and meaning of work in our lives as Christians.
© Sailko / Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0
A Light Yoke, an Easy Burden
Jesus’ promise to give us a light yoke is incredibly appealing. Often we do not view work in a positive light - we see it as a heavy yoke. When I am driving, I enjoy looking at bumper stickers. Recently I came across the following bumper stickers, all work related:
I HAD a life... but my work ate it.
I owe, I owe, its off to work I go.
I'm in no hurry... I'm on my way to work.
Work is that annoying time when I am not fishing.
Hard work never killed anyone, but why take the chance?
Beneath their humor, these bumper stickers reveal how we view the reality of work. Our job and other work can often seem like a necessary evil or something that we need to do to get on with our “real” life. At many times we feel heavily burdened by our work. In the Gospel Jesus tells us that in place of our difficult yoke He will give us yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. This is a very attractive offer.

Giving Work a Deeper Meaning
How is it that Jesus will give us a light yoke? Jesus is not saying that He will remove work from our lives so that we can spend our lives fishing or on the beach! Jesus is also not telling us that we should all quit our jobs so that we can spend all our time directly serving the poor and sick. This is the call for some, but not for all. Jesus is telling us that He will lighten our yoke and ease our burden by helping us to infuse the work that we are currently doing with greater meaning and purpose. It is not enough that we work simply to get a paycheck. If we only ever see work as a necessary evil, it will always weigh us down. One book which had a great impact on me is Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl who was a psychologist and holocaust survivor. This book is a reflection on his time in a Nazi concentration camp. While observing the other captives, all of whom were subjected to the same brutality, Frankl wondered why some would fight each day to survive while others would lose the will to live and soon die. He concluded that those who were able to cope best throughout their sufferings were those who had the greatest sense of meaning in their lives. Those who were living for someone they loved or for some cause, were those who survived. Those without a strong sense of meaning in their lives soon gave up. Though the hardships of our work cannot begin to compare to what Frankl and others suffered, the principle holds. If we cannot perceive a deep meaning and purpose in our work, then it will be nothing other than a heavy burden. If, on the other hand, we are able to see a deep meaning in our work, then our yoke becomes lighter. It is in this way that Jesus can transform our work, making it an easier burden.

Meaning #1: Work as Co-creation
In order to help us give deeper meaning to our work, we first need to realize that work is a good thing because it is one way in which we are made in the image of God. Let me ask you a question. Do you think that Adam and Eve were meant to work from the beginning or did they have to work because of fall? In fact, Adam and Eve were always meant to work. After the fall we learn that work becomes much more difficult, but work was always a part of the plan. It is precisely since we are made in the image of God that work is an integral part of our lives. Through work, we become co-creators with God. Regardless of how simple or routine our work is, we have all probably experienced this creative aspect of work.  When we are able to make something new we are co-creating with God. When we use our ingenuity to find some new, better way of doing things we are co-creating with God. Being co-creators gives our life great meaning and satisfaction. Now, since the fall, work has also become a burdensome, repetitive and tiring exercise. It remains however a good thing. It is not a necessary evil. One way we can lighten the burden of our work is to remind ourselves that work allows us to imitate God. When we remember to use our gifts to be creative work becomes more satisfying; our yoke becomes lighter.

Meaning #2: Work Continues Jesus’ Mission of Love
In order to infuse our work with even deeper meaning, we need to remember that work in one important way in which we spread Jesus’ love, mercy and compassion to other people. I once visited a chapel that had a very unique crucifix. On this crucifix, the body of Christ had no arms. At first I thought that the crucifix was very old and that that the arms had somehow fallen off over time. When I looked closer, I saw that crucifix was made this way in order to make an important point: Jesus has no arms in this world except ours! Work is one way in which we get to be the arms of Christ. At work we are in contact with so many different people. When we stop and think about it, we realize that each of these individuals is carrying their own burdens and difficulties. If we are attentive to the needs of whoever the specific person is in front of us, we can really communicate to them the love of Jesus. Perhaps it is simply a matter of serving them well. Maybe we can greet them kindly with a smile. When we do this, we imitate Jesus who was “meek and humble of heart”. Work is not just about doing something. Work is about being something: the love of Jesus. When we are aware of this profound meaning of work, our own burden becomes less difficult. Our yoke is lighter when we realize that work in an important way in which we are the arms of Christ, bringing love, mercy and compassion to others.

Work will never be free from difficulties. At times in will be routine and very burdensome. However, the more we are able to realize and live the deeper meaning of work, the lighter our burden. Perhaps we need to make up some new bumper stickers:
Work is how I imitate God’s act of creation.
Work is where I am the arms of Christ.

Admittedly, these bumper stickers are not as funny as the other ones. However, if we remember these messages, and try to live them, we can experience in our life the promise of Jesus that He will give us a lighter yoke.