A Foundation of Faith, Hope, and Love

Posted on May 31, 2016 by - Connect! Sunday Reflection

For Sunday, June 5, 2016, 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Black pebble with engraved message "love, faith, hope."Our readings this weekend put faith on center stage. As one of the theological virtues, faith is a gift given to us by God along with hope and love. Working together with hope and love, faith puts our lives and relationships in proper order and orients us toward Truth. I recently found myself moved by a YouTube video I stumbled upon entitled: “Young Man Battles Cancer With A Smile.”  The young, twenty-seven-year-old father featured in the video is certainly a person who has opened himself to his relationship with God, receiving all of the blessings and gifts these virtues can bring.

This young dying father is not afraid of death and is grateful to God for the blessing to live every day in peace with an appreciation for the present moment. He remarks that he gets to spend every day with people he loves and that he is inspired to try to help people, confident that the Lord has big plans for his little baby girl. We so often see death as the enemy and allow its sting to bring us into bitterness and resentment rather than allowing death to transform us and put things into perspective. The widow in our first reading from the Book of Kings exemplifies this. Her journey with her son leads her from a place of doubt to a place of faith.

In his encyclical Spe Salvi Pope Benedict remarks that “the one who has hope lives differently.” How true those words are! The young father in the video has the faith to look two seemingly opposing things square in the eye … his impending death on one hand and his baby’s smiling face on the other … and still find peace. Underneath all that is happening to him is the foundation built of faith, hope, and love upon which he sits.

We get disappointed because we want God to fix things our way. A person without a strong faith can easily look at this young father with cancer as proof that God does not exist. After all, why would a loving God allow such a thing to happen? To many, it is inconceivable that God does not heal all ills, wipe away all tears, and correct all injustices. This “surface” approach to faith fails to see the deeper mystery that undergirds all things and the deeper truth about who we are.

There is an ironic twist to life, especially to a life of faith. When we become less concerned about ourselves, we actually find our true selves. When the center of our focus shifts from a narcissistic glance to a perspective that is “other focused,” things change and doors open. The widow from Nain in today’s Gospel never requested a healing or intervention from Jesus. Jesus entered her life and was moved with pity. The miracle that resulted was done at his request not the widow’s.

At the basis of discovering the first theological virtue, faith, is the realization and trust that God always has our best interest in mind. He knows our needs better than we do and can see the larger picture of life in a way that far exceeds ours. Once we let go of our need to cling to ourselves, we begin to see these miracles happen. We discover the right words to say in a situation where we may be at a loss; we may find ourselves crossing someone’s path and feel moved to reach out to them; a wise decision may come forth from our lips in spontaneous fashion or we may instinctively know which decision is best. These are just small ways in which we can see that we are being led to something greater just like the young father who realizes that life will soon ask that he, his wife, and his baby daughter now travel down different-though linked-paths.

It is important to truly love another human being. Unless we do so we will never escape the trap of self-focus. Yes, loving brings pain but it also brings a sense of joy and fulfillment found in no other place. Spiritual master Richard Rohr often speaks of the need to lose yourself and even speaks of parents having children as a way of outgrowing their “youthful narcissism.” The key to true happiness is locating your center outside of yourself. Our young father did precisely this. Rohr states: “The more you become yourself, the more capable you are of not overprotecting your false boundaries. After all, you really have nothing to protect. That’s the great freedom and the great happiness of truly converted people. There’s no longer a little self here to fuss over or pander to. The little self which you thought you were has passed away.”

St. Paul knew this well too. His Letter to the Galatians this weekend is a beautiful passage describing his own coming to faith. Paul could have continued to be self-focused and pursuing his selfish ambitions but he did not. His journey brought him from persecution to belief. He knew that his decision would involve living with suffering, not avoiding it. Faith, hope, and love brought him not only deeper into life’s difficulties and heartaches but into its glory as well.

Faith and confidence go hand in hand. Leaving the familiar and venturing into the unknown is always scary. Even our psalmist this weekend realizes that suffering and despair are never the end for the person of faith. “Hear, O LORD, and have pity on me; O LORD, be my helper. You changed my mourning into dancing; O LORD, my God, forever will I give you thanks.”

Now, take a moment to look at your life. Consider your joys, your struggles, your sorrows, and your fears. Do you really believe that God has your best interest in mind and will help you achieve what is best for you? Once we realize that we are not the center of gravity and that our true center is really found outside of ourselves, then we will no longer feel compelled to pray for what we think we need or want. We will realize that prayer is about deepening a relationship with God, receiving and being surprised by God’s three special gifts of faith, hope, and love, and meeting what life brings each day. There is always life; there is no death.

Rev. Mark S. Suslenko

PRAYER

O my God, I firmly believe
that you are one God in three divine Persons,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I believe that your divine Son became man
and died for our sins and that he will come
to judge the living and the dead.
I believe these and all the truths
which the Holy Catholic Church teaches
because you have revealed them
who are eternal truth and wisdom,
who can neither deceive nor be deceived.
In this faith I intend to live and die.
Amen.

—Act of Faith from the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, © Copyright 2005 Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

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As Jesus Loved

Posted on April 18, 2016 by - Connect! Sunday Reflection

For Sunday, April 24, 2016, 5th Sunday of Easter

Painting of Jesus paired with John 13:31a.

For those old enough to remember, there is a popular Beatles song released in 1967 called “All You Need Is Love.” The song quickly became popular and still holds some measure of popularity even today. The point of the song is as clear as its title suggests, all you need is love. The message is attractive and is often pointed to by many as an easy way to make the complicated, simple. If everyone would just love one another, what a different world this would be. Even those seeking a more Christian spiritual approach can add that “God is love” and that Jesus’ great commandment is focused around love of God, neighbor, and self. So, how wrong can we go in adopting this type of philosophy? It is really that straightforward; or, is it?

John’s Gospel this weekend even appears to reinforce the simplicity of this argument by alluding to Jesus’ new commandment. St. John tells us: “I [Jesus] give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” There you have it. John Lennon, St. John, the early Christian community, and Jesus all had the same idea in mind: all you need is love. If that is all that is really required, then why bother with the often complicated and weakly human institution of the church, sacraments, prayer, Sunday worship, and other practices?

If we carefully read what St. John wrote, there is a brief but often overlooked piece of Jesus’ teaching that turns the tables a bit. Jesus tells his disciples, “As I have loved you, so you should also love one another” [emphasis added]. Jesus points us and his followers to a particular type of love. We are called to love as Jesus loved. In theory and practice this is far different than many of our ways of “loving.” At its core, Jesus’ love is rooted in his relationship with his Father. Jesus’ love mirrors the love that the Father has for his children, which overflows with compassion and mercy. To love as Jesus loves means that I must work at establishing for myself the same type of relationship Jesus had with his Father. In fact, through baptism we all share in that very same relationship. I must also be willing to allow myself to be transformed into the very same divine image that consumed Jesus’ being. Therefore, Christian love is not just love in all of its forms. It is a particular type of agape love that abandons itself of self-interest and concern and focuses on the needs of the other. This higher love is not found every day and it is not easy to do. It is loving myself and others as God loves.

The world can distract us and color how we love. Sometimes our attempts at loving are really nothing more than backdoor attempts to legitimize our need to placate ourselves. In short, I love you not purely for your own benefit but for some benefit that can come back to me. While seemingly justifiable on the surface and not immediately harmful, it is not loving as Jesus loves. It is easy to get distracted from this type of love and become discouraged. The early Christians found this out as well. Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows Paul and Barnabas had to offer support to the disciples who were finding the road of true love difficult to tread. “They strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying, ‘It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.’” In short, we need the support of the Christian community to do the work of the Gospel, to love as Jesus loves us. We cannot accomplish this work on our own. Inevitably, we will be blinded by our own concerns, needs, and biases and our ability to love as Jesus loves will be compromised.

In order to develop the same kind of relationship Jesus had with his Father that allows us to love as he loves, we need our Christian community. We need our leaders, the sacraments, and the greater institution of the Church (however imperfect), prayer, Sunday worship, and a deep spiritual life. We cannot do this on our own! The type of love required carries a divine power and is guided by Someone much greater than ourselves! This is why it is more imperative today than in days past to have local and global leaders who are not just administrators of the business of the Church and guardians of the faith and orthodoxy but also examples of what it means to love as Jesus loves. It is no wonder that Pope Francis insists that leaders leave their chanceries and rectories and go out and get dirty. We cannot expect people to come to us to receive the Gospel; the Gospel must be brought to them! We need to see in our leaders and indeed in the entire Christian community people who are striving to model Jesus’ relationship with the Father and seeking to be transformed into the very image of God. After all, is not the Eucharist meant to transform us into what we consume (St. Augustine, Confessions, VII, 10, 18)?

I believe that a profound understanding and embrace of this truth gave Pope Francis the impetus to have a frank conversation with Andrea Tornielli who penned the wonderful book, The Name of God Is Mercy, and then for Pope Francis to produce his latest apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).

To love as Jesus loves requires much more than what popular songs and notions, romantic feelings or even common humanitarian bonds with our brothers and sisters suggest. It is a radical and true self-emptying that lives by a different and sometimes illusive logic than what makes worldly sense. It permeates not only how we treat each other in our daily affairs but how we respond to issues such as euthanasia, abortion, assisted suicide, immigration, and family life. In short, it motivates us beyond what we may want to do to what we are called to do. Following a call requires sacrifice.

Prayer and reflection are powerful tools that can help us love as Jesus loves. While our own needs and desires, concerns and anxieties certainly have a place in our approach to God, contemplating God for the sake of God and offering praise places our focus on him, lifts us from distractions, and helps us love as Jesus loves. Our psalm says it so beautifully. “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness. The LORD is good to all and compassionate toward all his works… Your kingdom is a kingdom for all ages, and your dominion endures through all generations.”

We must remember that God not only created all that we see but recreates it as well. All is destined to one day be in Christ. The Book of Revelation reminds us: “‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.’ The One who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’” Loving as Jesus loves positions us to be ministers or helpers in God’s reconciliation or recreation of the world. It calls us and those who witness what we do to see that something greater is yet to come, that the wisdom of the world is not rooted in God.

We need each other and we need the Gospel if we are going to love well. Even more, we need to share in that same relationship between Jesus and his Father and draw from that intimate wellspring of love and mercy. “I will praise your name forever, my king and my God” are words that can be found on our lips today and remain there for all eternity.

Rev. Mark S. Suslenko

PRAYER

The LORD is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in mercy.
The LORD is good to all,
compassionate toward all your works.
All your works give you thanks, LORD
and your faithful bless you.
They speak of the glory of your reign
and tell of your mighty works,
Making known to the sons of men your mighty acts,
the majestic glory of your rule.
Your reign is a reign for all ages,
your dominion for all generations.
The LORD is trustworthy in all his words,
and loving in all his works.

Psalm 145:8-13. Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

NOTICES

LITURGICAL NOTE—Vigil of the Ascension
The revised Roman Missal contains a vigil Mass for the Ascension that can be used for evening Masses preceding the feast. This applies to both Wednesday, May 4 (for dioceses in which the Ascension is observed on Thursday as a holy day of obligation), and to Saturday, May 7 (most dioceses in the United States).

POPE’S MESSAGE FOR WORLD COMMUNICATIONS DAY [May 8]
Pope Francis’ message for the 50th World Day of Communications—“Communication and Mercy: A Fruitful Encounter”—was released on January 24, the memorial of St. Francis of Sales, patron saint of communicators. The full text of the message can be viewed at: https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/communications/documents/papa-francesco_20160124_messaggio-comunicazioni-sociali.html.

ICSC REGIONAL STEWARDSHIP CONFERENCE, April 30
The annual ICSC Atlanta Province Regional Stewardship Conference will be held on Saturday, April 30, 2016 at the Hilton Charlotte University Place in Charlotte, NC. For more information and to register, visit http://sestewardship.weconnect.com.

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Our Ministry of Reconciliation

Posted on March 1, 2016 by - Connect! Sunday Reflection

For Sunday, March 6, 2016, 4th Sunday of Lent

Photo of The Return of the Prodigal Son.

Pope Francis’ latest book, The Name of God Is Mercy, provides some wonderful reflections on mercy and forgiveness as we celebrate this Jubilee Year of Mercy. Pope Francis tells us that “Mercy is the first attribute of God. The name of God is mercy. There are no situations we cannot get out of, we are not condemned to sink into quicksand.” This weekend we are presented with Luke’s incredible story of the prodigal son. Every human being can relate to some aspect of this parable as it opens us to deep reflection about all of the relationships that comprise our lives: our relationships with God, self, and others.

Regardless of what, if any, creed a person professes, all can agree that our world suffers from disordered relationships. It appears that after all these generations and centuries we still cannot figure it out. Power and domination, retribution and punishment, control and self-advancement, along with many other self-preserving philosophies detail how our daily relationships around the globe unfold.

In the midst of all of this craziness is a voice, sometimes uttered as a whisper, that is calling us to reconciliation, mercy, forgiveness, and love. We can all hear it, see it, and desire it. However, we are absolutely at a loss as to how to obtain it! Why? These realities that are in the very core of every human heart are not found in systems, ideologies, intellectual constructs, political maneuvers or positioning, or in wars. They are found in God. And only when we all figure out that our genuine happiness can only be obtained when all things—all political structures and ideologies, all nations, every people, all science, and all human endeavors and possibilities—see God and his mercy as their ultimate end, will we obtain it. As believers, we can hope and we can point to this, can’t we? After all, St. Paul reminds us this week that our primary ministry is the “ministry of reconciliation.”

This may not be something we can fully achieve in this life and perhaps God already knows that we may not. But, he puts the small examples and voices in front of us to light our way and provide reason to pause and wonder. Pope Francis tells us that “‘mercy’ derives from misericordis, which means opening one’s heart to wretchedness. And immediately we go to the Lord: mercy is the divine attitude which embraces, it is God’s giving himself to us, accepting us, and bowing to forgive.” Wow! This is nothing about power, domination, control, punishment, retribution, or anything else we associate with admitting our wrongs! It is not even God saying that we must bow down to worship him. It is quite the contrary! God bows to forgive us!

The prodigal son took a big chance but he bumped right up against his wretchedness and had nowhere else to turn. I am sure that what he met in his father may have surprised him. It certainly surprised his brother! (We’ll leave that for another reflection!) What the son met in his father is mercy. We can even go so far to say that what he met was unconditional, unreserved love! God’s name is mercy because mercy is love! And, the father’s reaction in the parable is God’s reaction to us when we go to him and square off our relationship with him and put him first: celebrate and rejoice! Then, what happens after that moment remains to be seen. If it is an authentic genuine return, we will encounter that next moment reconciled and live the rest of our lives and all the rest of our decisions with the proper perspective. We will always bring ourselves to taste God’s mercy. After all, the psalmist today reminds us of that as well: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”

Last week we mourned the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. He had his feet in two worlds, the secular and the religious. He felt the tension but moved forward with his relationships intact. We cannot figure our relationships out by simply giving a cordial nod to a belief in God’s merciful presence. Being a Christian is much more than that. It is not about associating with one church or another or whether one holds the letter of the law as stipulated by one’s faith. It is about an active, real relationship with God and a profound belief and acceptance of the faith that Jesus had it right when showing us the path of love and how to live with one another. Jesus showed us God’s mercy.

Our first reading from Joshua shows us what happens to the Israelites when they enter into their true homeland and the manna ceases. They are able to eat abundantly from the land they now occupied, the land they called home. We too shall eat abundantly when we come home to God. No longer will we be wandering, wondering where to find interior sustenance to fill our hunger or rest from the weary burdens of life. We will be focused, centered, and embraced by love, God’s merciful love. God’s name is love.

Pope Francis aptly quotes G. K. Chesterton: “When Man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.” It seems that this is where many in our world have gotten themselves. Pope Francis also remarks that Pope Pius XII said, “The tragedy of our age was that it had lost its sense of sin, the awareness of sin.” Too many of the things we have created are used as cushions that keep us from experiencing the truth of our wretchedness, our sinfulness. It is harder today to “hit that brick wall” that can awake us. The simplicity of the day may have made it is easier for the prodigal son to do so. Pope Francis also states that humanity is in need of mercy “because humanity is wounded, deeply wounded. Either it does not know how to cure its wounds or it believes that it’s not possible to cure them.” I would add that an even sadder possibility is that many human beings don’t even know that they are wounded or don’t want to know! This is the stumbling block and the reason why our ministry of reconciliation and commitment to preaching by our lives are so important. Many in our world need to learn what it means to be human and how to stay on course.

Have you thought of going to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation lately?

Rev. Mark S. Suslenko

PRAYER

Lord Jesus Christ,
you have taught us to be merciful like the heavenly Father,
and have told us that whoever sees you sees Him.
Show us your face and we will be saved.
Your loving gaze freed Zacchaeus and Matthew from being enslaved by money;
the adulteress and Magdalene from seeking happiness only in created things;
made Peter weep after his betrayal,
and assured Paradise to the repentant thief.
Let us hear, as if addressed to each one of us, the words that you spoke to the Samaritan woman:
“If you knew the gift of God!”
You are the visible face of the invisible Father,
of the God who manifests his power above all by forgiveness and mercy:
let the Church be your visible face in the world, its Lord risen and glorified.
You willed that your ministers would also be clothed in weakness
in order that they may feel compassion for those in ignorance and error:
let everyone who approaches them feel sought after, loved, and forgiven by God.
Send your Spirit and consecrate every one of us with its anointing,
so that the Jubilee of Mercy may be a year of grace from the Lord,
and your Church, with renewed enthusiasm, may bring good news to the poor,
proclaim liberty to captives and the oppressed,
and restore sight to the blind.
We ask this through the intercession of Mary, Mother of Mercy,
you who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever.
Amen.

——Pope Francis’ Prayer for Jubilee Year of Mercy.

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The Cost of Discipleship

Posted on February 2, 2016 by - Connect! Sunday Reflection

For Sunday, February 7, 2016, 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Person carrying a cross on abstract background. Image © LPi.

Choosing to follow Jesus may on one hand appear to require a yes or no response. For some it boils down to simply a matter of belief. It could center on whether one believes that Jesus is, in fact, God, whether he really has shown us the way to eternal life, or whether the image of God he shows us is, in fact, true. In today’s Gospel, Simon, James, and John “left everything and followed him.” Why?

We get an indication that there must have been some apprehension in saying yes to this call because Jesus had to tell Simon directly, “Do not be afraid.” They knew it was Jesus so this apprehension could not have come from a doubt of faith. They saw the risen Lord himself so they knew that what he said about rising from the dead is true. And during their time with Jesus they were enamored by the way Jesus spoke of his Father and the mercy, compassion, and forgiveness God desired to shower upon all his people. Why the hesitation?

I suspect that they realized that saying yes came with a price. This price is what has always been known as the “cost” of discipleship. It is all well and good to walk through life with an “oh what a friend I have in Jesus” approach to our faith as if Jesus in rewarding our good behavior will shower all these blessings upon us. It’s nice to think that way just as it is nice to think about Santa Claus and the North Pole when Christmas rolls around each year. Each contains a certain amount of truth but misses the bigger picture.

These disciples were asked to go out into unknown places to preach the good news. They didn’t know what they were going to find and they were afraid! They had to leave the safe and familiar and go. The world was much simpler then too. In spite of the fear generated by the intolerant leadership of the day and the unsettled defensiveness from challenged priorities, there was also a greater ease in encountering the “stranger,” especially a stranger to the good news.

Our world today is tricky. We as contemporary disciples are called to realize that following Jesus requires more than just an affirmation of who Jesus is and what he has done. We need to consider, very carefully, the cost. For many, contemporary life is producing an increase in what we can call “common daily fears and anxieties.” As an example, consider this reflection regarding residents of New York City and the new type of violence many are facing. These latest “slashings” and other forms of terrorism are putting people on edge, causing them to look over their shoulders, become more self-protective, trust less, feel less at home in the world, and change the way they see their relationships. To the Christian, a true follower of Jesus, we are all brothers and sisters. Where does this leave discipleship? For many, the potential cost may be too high and Jesus’ words of reassurance to not be afraid may not be enough.

The world is rapidly changing. We see this every day with the volatility of our world economies, the instability of stock markets, the rise and fall of oil prices, employment instability, and the rise of terrorism throughout the world. Even technology is changing the way we conduct our personal affairs, do business, and perform our tasks at work. It is even redefining the words “job” and “work”! Change is in the air and this already produces an unsettled feeling of anxiety and apprehension. Add to this the real possibility that my life can change at any moment. We now have a situation a bit different than the one Simon, James, and John were looking at when they got out of their boat! Maybe Zebedee was the lucky one here … he got left behind! Now, while in many ways we can probably all agree that this is true, we also must acknowledge that, while radically different, the “cost of discipleship” is essentially the same. Their fears are essentially our fears … it’s essentially the same church, just a different pew!

But all of this is really nothing new. Our first reading from Isaiah this weekend speaks of his call. Do you think he simply proceeded into the unknown without fear or hesitation? I think not. But in the end, who is going to do the job? Who is going to go? Isaiah listened to something other than his fears and reservations. He listened to the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” “Here I am; send me!” Have you ever felt the urge to respond to a situation and found yourself questioning whether you “should” do so? There is a voice beyond our fears and our self-concern. Do we listen to it?

Sometimes this voice beckons us in a surprisingly radical way. There was a principal of a school in Indiana who sacrificed her own life to save the children under her care. I am certain that she did not rise that morning knowing that this heroic act would be asked of her that day. She did not need to respond the way she did; that came from a different place. Do we listen to that voice when we get on the subway, walk into a building, drop our kids off at school, board an airplane, go to the supermarket, participate in a marathon, or go to work? Or do we listen to the voice of fear?

Psalm 138, which is presented to us this week, and the one immediately following (139) provide us with the proper seedbed for increasing and obtaining the trust we need in God. In this way we can find the strength to pay whatever cost discipleship asks of us and the peace that allows us to embrace those tasks with joy. St. Paul does a marvelous job, as he does again this weekend, when he addresses the Corinthians; he shows us that all that Christ said and did is true! He has an incredible gift, inspired only by the Holy Spirit, of making concrete and understandable those things that are really beyond our comprehension.

Lent begins next week. Maybe pondering the cost of discipleship, the presence of fear and anxiety in our hearts, what concerns us most, what we truly believe to be important, the simple things we can do to tear down walls that divide, ways to find peace in this world God has given to all of us, and whether we are really ready to follow and become fishers of people are some possibilities for our Lenten discipline. The world is changing. We are changing. God never changes. And, as St. Paul tells us: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective.” You are reading this reflection because in one way or another you have been touched by God and have made the decision to follow him. Now, trust that decision and the God behind it and go!

Rev. Mark S. Suslenko

PRAYER

Almighty and Everlasting God,
You have given the human race
Jesus Christ our Savior as a model of humility.
He fulfilled Your Will by becoming Man
And giving His life on the Cross.
Help us to bear witness to You
By following His example of suffering
And make us worthy to share in His Resurrection.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son.
Amen.

—A Prayer for Lent

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Filling the Water Jars

Posted on January 12, 2016 by - Connect! Sunday Reflection

For Sunday, January 17, 2016, 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Heap of many terracotta clay pots

The Second Sunday of Ordinary Time presents us with the wedding miracle at Cana in John’s Gospel, continuing to center on the manifestation of the Lord, which was celebrated on the solemnity of the Epiphany. The feast of the Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord, and the wedding miracle at Cana all clearly show us that Jesus is, in fact, the Son of God. The fact that divine power flows through Jesus, blessing humanity with God’s presence and acceptance, is paramount in all three of these celebrations.

God blesses humanity. This is really the point of the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh. God is not apart from human beings but one with them. This is an awesome point to ponder. God does not necessarily come through extraordinary or “beyond” human experiences but in the very stuff of life. He blesses us with his accepting presence and uses all that is authentically human to show us his divine love.

Our first reading from the prophet Isaiah really hits the point home! Isaiah speaks of God’s relationship with his people using the language of endearment, tenderness, and love. Isaiah tells us: “No more shall people call you ‘Forsaken,’ or your land ‘Desolate,’ but you shall be called ‘My Delight,’ and your land ‘Espoused.’ For the LORD delights in you and makes your land his spouse… so shall your God rejoice in you.” What beautiful imagery is used to describe God’s relationship with us! This tender, caretaking, loving, and embracing God wants to show us something special about our human selves that may go unnoticed to our naked eyes. Using the eyes of faith, humanity bursts forth with divine life! All of those promptings toward life, love, joy, peace, hope, forgiveness, union, compassion, tenderness, and such are God trying to convince us that we are his delight! We are meant to rest in him.

I read a brief, almost unnoticed, article this past week about Gov. Andrew Cuomo signing an order requiring communities throughout the state of New York to take homeless people from the streets to shelters when temperatures reach freezing. In pondering this gesture, one can wonder if the homeless know that God rejoices in them. When starving, cold, empty, lonely, hurting, feeling forsaken and desolate does an individual think that anyone, let alone God, delights in him or her? The situation of homelessness throughout the world is a complicated one. Sadly, many truly believe that the problem would really correct itself if they only found a job.

One thing many don’t realize is that many homeless people do work! The work they can find and the work that they do certainly pays them an income but it is not sufficient to cover the cost of living effectively. Do we really believe the myth that a minimum wage job will provide an individual with housing? (For a more detailed analysis of this issue see: www.attn.com/stories/4920/united-states-minimum-wage-and-rent.)

Add to this problem issues with alcohol and drug addiction, mental illness, depression, lack of resources and support, and the “problem of homelessness” doesn’t look so simple anymore. But who is going to tell these folks that God delights in them? That is the task of folks like you and I who know and believe that God delights in all of his children! And, guess what? Here is the other best kept secret! The Incarnation tells us that as divine power and love flows through and out of Jesus it also can flow through and out of all of us! We need to roll up our sleeves and walk with the homeless for a while and share, not judge, their story! God shares all of our stories and does not judge.

But what can I do? What gifts do I have to share? St. Paul answers that very question for the Corinthian community in what is part of a very long response he gives to their questions. He tells us, “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” The Spirit is given to each individual. St. Paul does not say “some”! What gifts has the Spirit given you? And, the greater question to be asked is: how can you use those gifts to show all of God’s children that God delights in them and rejoices in them? No one person can resolve the situation of homelessness in our world. But if the issue can find its way on the agenda of every church in the world, we could certainly find ways to at least chip away at it!

We need to ensure that people’s needs are met before Psalm 96 can be found on the lips of all God’s children. “Sing to the LORD a new song… Sing to the LORD; bless his name… The LORD is king. He governs the peoples with equity.” When people are in pain, the pain robs them of their ability to see anything other than what has their attention. When a person is cold, one searches for warmth. When a person is hungry, one searches for food. People are not dispensable and everyone is worthy of the dignity given to them by God… it is their right.

Jesus could have ignored his mother’s intervention regarding the need for wine. “Woman, how does your concern affect me?” But he did not. Jesus did not allow the guests to go without and he took something ordinary and simple and made it into something extraordinary and beautiful—just like he does with each human soul and all God creates! But he asks for our cooperation because that is how the Spirit works. As we are told by St. Paul: “there are different forms of service but the same Lord.” Jesus needed people to fill the water jars and he needed servers to distribute the water made wine.

Not much has changed since that day and the desire and the request are the same. Jesus wishes to share God’s delight with all of his children in whatever way is necessary using whomever wishes to come forward and help. He needs some to fill the jars and others to distribute what is in them. We all have a part to play, even if it is being the one to request (or pray) for intervention. For many, life is too cold and it is too hard. It is not always their fault and there is no reason to condemn to a life on the street or a life without shelter. This is not God’s desire and it does not need to be… not here, not anywhere.

If life ever affords you the opportunity to truly look a person who is desolate or homeless in the eye, remember what you see. You will see the same thing you see when you look in your mirror. And if you see the same thing when you look at and receive the Eucharist in your parish, then you will know you are espoused and that we are connected with one another and with God in a most incredible way.

Rev. Mark S. Suslenko

PRAYER

God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory,
may you give to all Christians,
and especially to those entrusted with leadership in your Church,
the spirit of wisdom and revelation,
so that with the eyes of our hearts
we may see the hope to which you have called us:
one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and Father of all,
who is above and through all and in all.

Amen.

—Prayer for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute, www.geii.org.

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Shout for Joy

Posted on December 8, 2015 by - Connect! Sunday Reflection

For Sunday, December 13, 2015, 3rd Sunday of Advent

Photo © Reuters. Pope Francis blesses children during his visit to the Central African Republic.

This weekend the church celebrates Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday. Our Advent themes of expectation and hope are quickly turning into the anticipated joy that meeting Christ will bring. Merriam-Webster defines joy as “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.” The Lord is near! Our first reading from the Prophet Zephaniah sets the stage so well! “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!” “The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear.” “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior.”

We are called on this Gaudete Sunday to focus on what is soon to come, what will complete us and mend the wounds of our hearts. What we experience now is imperfect and incomplete. Inwardly, we know that there must be more, that there is a greater happiness to be achieved. The gift has come in Jesus Christ when he was born in time. And with his birth the words of the Prophet Isaiah found in today’s psalm find fulfillment: “Shout with exultation, O city of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” In Christ, God visits his people, shows us the way, and provides the path to joy.

On one occasion when addressing his disciples Jesus proclaimed, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see” (Lk 10:23). This really summarizes our whole Advent journey. It is the task before us to ask God to help us, through this special time we have been given, to develop the “third eye” of contemplation so that we can see the truth. As we look upon the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, we do not witness an ordinary birth in time or the birth of another prophet. We witness and welcome, again, the Holy One of Israel and cry out with joy and gladness that he is among us! The incarnation of Christ is what shows us the divine in the secular, the holy in the mundane, the extraordinary in the common, the light in the darkness, the hope in the despair, and the joy in the sadness.

Recently, Pope Francis made a historic visit to the Central African Republic, which is the first time a pope has ever visited an active conflict zone. He exhorted those who listened to find their way to peace. As a leader and as a witness, Pope Francis exudes joy! You can see it and experience it in the fiber of his being. He is a living example that St. Paul’s words to the Philippians are possible to achieve: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.”

Pope Francis realizes and understands that true power is not earthly power. We have a King who has already come and who promises to come again who has a different vision of things than we sometimes do. This King brings good news. John the Baptist in today’s Gospel maps out this vision perfectly. “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” He told the tax collectors to “stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” And to the soldiers he said, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.” God’s kingdom becomes realized when we are able to see the truth about Jesus, born in Bethlehem, and see that true power is found in finding our way to peace with one another. When we realize our proper goal, joy will come to our hearts!

All of our readings this weekend clearly draw us away from fear and to joy. So many things cause us to be anxious and fearful. Faith is a powerful thing. It casts out fear, dispels darkness, relieves anxiety, gives us focus, clarity, and direction, grounds, secures and assures us, and points us in the way we need to go. Our lives are complicated and ever changing. With our world struggling the way it is, what is one way today can be much different tomorrow? What we have come to depend upon today can be taken away tomorrow. Change is inevitable and change is not always positive. Given all of this the question directed toward us today is this: do we really believe that the King of Israel, the Lord, is in our midst?

Pope Francis does and he exudes great joy! He does not succumb to fear. The message of Advent is real and tangible. We affirm our faith in the God who came among us as Jesus in history. We affirm our faith in Jesus who was raised from the dead and is Christ with us. We look to Jesus the Christ to come again in glory. God is ever present through all times and ages calling us to trust and have no fear. If we can embrace this truth this Advent season and realize that we are called to live in solidarity with our sisters and brothers then “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard [our] hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Peace. Pope Francis called the Central African Republic to be at peace. Christ our savior calls us to be at peace. Rejoice, for we possess what we desire, God our savior!

Rev. Mark S. Suslenko

PRAYER

Your light will come, O Jerusalem.
The Lord will dawn on you in radiant beauty.
We shall see the glory of the Lord,
the splendor of our God.
The sign of the cross shall appear in the heavens,
when our Lord shall come to judge the world.

Excerpted from A Prayer Book of Catholic Devotions.

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Embracing Life

Posted on November 3, 2015 by - Connect! Sunday Reflection

For Sunday, November 8, 2015, 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sign on dairy farm truck reading “Got Patience?”After reading the story of creation in Genesis, what images come to mind? We hear of a God freely and intentionally choosing to create something out of nothing motivated by the pure power of love, of which he is the author. God pronounces all things good at the end of his creation and everything is ordered as it is intended with each creature and thing in its proper place. Everything has its place and everything has its purpose. Images of harmony, peace, happiness, contentment, and mutual love and acceptance immediately flood our senses. The First Letter of John in the New Testament tells us that God is love. We are ordered toward love, not violence, negativity, discord, discontent, and malice. Those things speak of a life not based on order but disorder.

Yet, so much around us today speaks to our disordered selves. There is so much unnecessary and extremely traumatic violence occurring way too often. Recently we witnessed another act of road rage that pulled at the heart strings of many across our country and perhaps even our world. This one was more poignant because it claimed the life of an innocent four-year-old girl. An innocent, four-year-old, happy, full of life girl simply driving home with her dad on her second day of preschool has her life cut short because of a mindless, aggressive, power-driven, rage-fueled driver hell bent on making a point! What is happening to people that is driving them to such extremes?

I would suspect that no longer motivated by false motivators like fear, punishment, fear of embarrassment, and with long-standing social mores now called into question or discarded, many no longer have possession of a center of self-knowledge from which to act. Impulse and passion all too often reign supreme. Richard Rohr aptly points out that “before conversion… we don’t know who we are or what we are for.” Many do not know who they are or what they are for because they have not experienced conversion. He also rightly states that their “small self cannot radically connect with Being because it’s always defining itself in terms of comparing, competing, analyzing, critiquing, judging, labeling, and positioning.”

Hence, there is a valuable lesson that can be learned from the poor widow in this week’s Gospel. She has been converted. Her loss and suffering were allowed to teach her incredible lessons and they did not lead her down the road of negativity, despair, or frustration. She learned that life is much more that what someone “has” and all about what one has “become.” Trust and faith in God are paramount over anything one can acquire, own, or become. Developing patience, which is rooted in suffering, is what will ultimately bring people happiness. For the widow, life is a precious gift. She has also learned that God is the One who provides this gracious gift of life.

Our first reading this week from the First Book of Kings underscores this same virtue of trust and demonstrates what happens when it is embraced. For this widow, “the jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, as the LORD had foretold through Elijah.” “Praise the Lord, my soul,” echoes our psalm refrain. It is God who gives sight to the blind, raises up those who are bowed down, who loves the just, and protects strangers! The author of Psalm 146 discovered the same mystery as did our two widows.

We have a choice whether to allow life to bring us to an embrace or engage us in battle. Granted, we are psychologically complicated. But in most cases, except perhaps with extreme mental illness, it’s all about a choice. If we’ve chosen the path of game playing, proving our point, getting ahead, teaching someone a lesson, showing someone who’s boss, and being defensive then we are engaging in battle. Sometimes, as in the case of our beginning story, this battle has an incredible outcome. In attempting to win, we lose.

Whether we like to admit it, we are all at the ground and foremost point of our being a “poor widow.” This is what we are created to be, what we are meant to discover, and where love ultimately leads us. We resist this calling because we falsely believe that being a “poor widow” is perceived as a negative, evoking images of excessive want, need, or helplessness. Therefore, we pursue a stronger self-image to acquire, one that is seemingly more secure, powerful, dominant, and aggressive. It is a self, false though it may be, that can overpower, overcome, bully, and conquer. In attempting to secure something, we lose our truth.

Whereas there is nothing negative, weak, needy, or pathetic in either the widow from Kings or the widow from the Gospel. In fact, the opposite is true. Their ability to trust makes them strong! It gives them courage, centers them, provides confidence, brings contentment, gives example, and speaks of abundance! By their choices, these two widows balance the scales and bring order to disorder. They chose to embrace what life has given, graces and hardships, and learn from the lessons they teach. In short, they act out of love.

And this is where our perpetrator of road rage and aggression misses the point. He does not know how to love. To do so means that he would have embraced the journey his life has brought him on and refused to do battle. He has literally taken up arms and brought down a most innocent victim, all in service of his distorted need to prove a point. Where would the world be if throughout history it followed his example? It would be in total ruin and I would not be here writing this reflection and you would not be reading it. This I know for certain. It takes the example and courage of those who show us a better way to keep humanity on course, at least as best they can. They show us that love is what really matters and a life of peace and justice the only one worth pursuing.

In the end, we are all destined for love but it takes an embrace of life and whatever it brings to discover it. Sadly, for many the battle continues. We can only hope and pray that by giving good example ourselves they can see the light. Only then will we find our path back to God.

Rev. Mark S. Suslenko

PRAYER

God, teach me to be patient, teach me to go slow—
Teach me how to wait on You when my way I do not know.

Teach me sweet forbearance when things do not go right
So I remain unruffled when others grow uptight.

Teach me how to quiet my racing, rising heart
So I might hear the answer You are trying to impart.

Teach me to let go, dear God, and pray undisturbed until
My heart is filled with inner peace and I learn to know Your Will.
Amen.
—Helen Steiner Rice

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Built to Last

Posted on September 29, 2015 by - Connect! Sunday Reflection

For Sunday, October 4, 2015, 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Old refrigerator in cozy room. Photo by TaraPatta/Shutterstock.com.It seems today that nothing is built to last. I remember as a child the first refrigerator housed in my childhood home. It was by no means new, and back in 1958 when the house was built and it moved in, it was already ten years old! That refrigerator still runs today. In fact, many things around the house would break in one way or another. These were rarely discarded but carefully repaired by my father or a professional who knew how. How many cell phones has the average individual already been through? Computers? Other devices?

Most things are designed and intended to be temporary. With technology advancing so quickly, things do not need to last and usually don’t warrant repair when they are broken. If most that is around us in the material world has a short life expectancy, how do we learn to make something last? I even heard the other day about an app that can assist a person with “breaking up” with someone else. Send a text and the relationship is over! After all, all you have to do is find another one. Business operates like that, as attested to at DNEWS headquarters. One day Skype was down, which could have spelled disaster for the company. No worries here, all you have to do is Google your way to a different communication system.

Most of what we make today from work systems to cars to appliances to buildings to clothing is made with a short life expectancy in mind. From all that is around us, where do we learn the virtue of permanence? Fewer and fewer people understand the need for something to last a long time or appreciate its value. Our readings this weekend are all about the principle of “forever” and the importance of lasting human relationships. Relationships have value and require the full investment of two people in those relationships. The stirring and feeling of a human heart cannot be delegated to an app or treated as something that is replaceable on the road to “new and improved.”

Genesis this weekend reminds us that God values relationships and sees them as necessary for human happiness. Intimacy, as found only in a deep, lasting, and permanent relationship is something that makes human beings thrive. Our reading clearly places marriage in full view here and in particular the exultation of joy found on the lips of the man: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” speaks of its primacy in God’s design.

Intimacy is so incredibly important. Without it, we suffer. Even Jesus according to our second reading from Hebrews established an intimacy with God’s children. Hebrews reminds us that “he is not ashamed to call them ‘brothers.’” Intimacy is built into the system and is intended to be permanent, not disposable. From the beginning, human beings were intended to nurture an intimate relationship with God, one another, creation, and in particular with their spouse. These are sacred relationships that get at the heart of not only how God reveals himself to his people but where he can be found and embraced.

The Gospel from Mark this week does not mince words either and makes very clear that Jesus has other ideas in mind than that which happened with Moses and the bill of divorce and dismissal of a wife. Jesus sees these bonds not in contractual terms but in sacred terms. What God has joined together ought to be nurtured, treasured, and celebrated! If we do not share our lives with another, our lives are incomplete.

Now, given the teaching we hear in this weekend’s Gospel, it has to be tempered with the fullness of the teaching on marriage found in the Christian Scriptures. Hence the reason the Catholic Church has a developed teaching on divorce and an annulment process in place and an understanding that there are some circumstances that simply nullify a marriage. At the basis of all of Jesus’ teaching is mercy and compassion. We are called to see all things with mercy and compassion. Life is rarely black and white. And we cannot always understand with full consent and freedom all of the variables that will impact behavior and our ability to sustain a commitment. That being said, we must understand that God desires people to live in marriages that are nourishing, free, intimate, and mutually supportive. He does not expect anyone to endure a situation of abuse, neglect, or one where heavy burdens must be carried.

The psalm this week beckons us to “eat the fruit of your handiwork.” Our marriages, our relationships, must bear fruit. In order to be true and real they must be life giving, not life taking! Relationships that are most sacred and truly intimate, especially that of husband and wife, are called to model themselves after the very relationship Christ has with the church. Relationships, especially marriage, require an incredible amount of self-investment, time, commitment, and sacrifice. Given what is required to nurture and sustain them and the personal investment involved, they cannot be easily dispensed with and exchanged for another when it no longer suits us or appeals to us as it once did. Marriages are not contracts but sacred encounters and sacred bonds.

Lastly, it needs to be said that most of the people I have encountered in my years of ministry who have found themselves in divorce did not make that choice easily or with disregard for the permanent intent of their marriage vows. In most cases, divorce is a grueling experience that is encountered with tremendous pain, heartache, fear, anxiety, and feelings of true and genuine loss. God understands this struggle and does not look with disdain upon the person who finds him or herself in this place. Those who have struggled with this type of loss can find hope and comfort in the very passion of Christ himself.

“Blessed are you who fear the LORD, who walk in his ways!” Jesus always blessed children and encouraged everyone to develop a childlike wonder and innocence. The wonder, awe, trust, and self-abandon that come with such a grace would serve us well as we live in and through all of our relationships, especially the sacred bond of marriage. The younger generation does not understand the purpose and significance of maintaining a working old refrigerator nor the point of taking the time to repair something that is broken. These practical, everyday activities taught us life lessons that are only learned by example. With the past viewed as archaic, irrelevant, and antiquated by many, what then is life in our contemporary disposable culture teaching us?

Rev. Mark S. Suslenko

PRAYER

O God our Father,
in Jesus you call all Christian families and homes
to be signs of living faith.
By the light of the Holy Spirit,
lead us to be thankful for the gift of faith,
and by that gift
may we grow in our relationship with Jesus, your Son,
and be confident witnesses to Christian hope and joy
to all we meet.
In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.
—A Family Prayer for the Year of Faith, © USCCB.

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Dialogue at the Table

Posted on August 25, 2015 by - Connect! Sunday Reflection

For Sunday, August 30, 2015, 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

A cross lying on a wood table.Over the past several years, we have heard the term “cafeteria Catholic” employed in a variety of ways. In a recent issue of U.S. Catholic, Isabella R. Moyer contributed an insightful article entitled “Proud to be a Cafeteria Catholic” that is worthy of attention. Often, when people want to stay minimally connected to something, they find ways to do so. In that vein, there are “Catholics” who are marginally connected to the church and remain that way because of issues with church teaching and practice. These “cafeteria Catholics” have a self-preserving agenda behind their position and use their opinions to justify their occasional practice. But there is another kind of “cafeteria Catholic” who is not marginalized and very much in our pews. In fact, they can be found in some bishops, priests, deacons, religious, lay leaders, and committed lay parishioners. They are not marginalized nor serving a self-preserving agenda. They are simply struggling with reality as it presents itself and Church teaching as it is taught, finding difficulty if not with “what” is taught then with “how” it is taught. It is to this group of “cafeteria Catholics” to which we can turn our attention as they are motivated by devotion and love.

If our association with the Catholic Church is heavily sided on the dos and don’ts, then we most assuredly will miss the real point of all of this business. While there is no doubt a timeless permanence to many of the teachings held to be true by the church (Jesus Christ is both God and man) there are some that are open to discussion and evolution. Even with those that are indelible and permanent, each new unfolding age requires that they be taught and communicated in new and engaging ways. As Moyer points out, “gone are the days of conversion by fear.”

How do we feel about Jesus and his relationship with his Jewish community? We have seen him defiantly cure people on the Sabbath, exalting a Samaritan for doing what a Jew would never think of doing, and in today’s Gospel from Mark challenging the Pharisees with their longstanding tradition- and Scripture-based purification rituals to consider that they may be missing the point. We often judge and label people who are closely and intimately associated with the Catholic Church who struggle, question, and find themselves distanced from certain Church teachings as heretical “cafeteria Catholics.” Is Jesus a heretical Jew? It can be assumed that his death on a cross had something to do with folks who thought precisely that!

In his simple yet delightful encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis calls for dialogue among all parties of interest in this discussion. Whether one agrees with his opinion is of little consequence to his rightly promoted challenge that the Church has a place at the table of this discussion. Dialogue. Questioning produces growth.

The statutes and decrees of which Moses speaks in our first reading from Deuteronomy serve as a baseline for believers. These must not be added to or subtracted from. They are the basic guidelines necessary to maintain proper order in our relationships with God, ourselves, and one another. However, generation to generation must revisit them and discuss them in light of the learning that has occurred and advancements made. This whole law is based on “justice” and discerning that for a particular community requires sincere dialogue not on the part of just a few but the whole. Psalm 15 gives us a great measuring stick with which to assess our behavior. “Whoever walks blamelessly and does justice; who thinks the truth in his heart and slanders not with his tongue” is the one who is just. We must remember that we always stand before the truth and can never fully possess it in any human precepts. We are always evolving toward the one Presence and universal unifying Godhead.

Religion needs rules and regulations for organization and structure. Whether we like it, we need rules too for guidance and direction. But religion is never just about the rules. St. James tells us this clearly today: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” There is the litmus test for one who claims to be Christian. Ours is a mission journey as Pope Francis consistently tells us. It is not just about my personal salvation. We live in the world but also apart from it and must constantly be reminded of where our true home is. The values we are meant to cultivate and teach are not secular in nature but directed at those things that help us along the road of conversion, keeping us from falling victim to the things that can defile.

For those who love the church and want to see it grow and become simpler and focused, know that you stand with One who understands, our founder Jesus Christ who himself sought a purer and simpler understanding of God. Moyer reminds us of this teaching: “God loves you. What does God expect in return? Love God and love others. It seems so simple.” It seems simple because it is. Pope Francis gets it. Let us offer true compassion to others, especially the prophets in our midst, giving them a respectful ear and a full voice as we all accept the invitation to dine at the great table of love.

(For further reflection on this topic see: http://www.uscatholic.org/church/2008/07/cafeteria-catholics.)

Rev. Mark S. Suslenko

PRAYER

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. Nor do I really know myself.
And the fact that I think I am following your will
Does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
Does in fact please you.
And I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this,
You will lead me by the right road
Though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always
Though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death
I will not fear for you are ever with me.
And you will never leave me to face my struggles alone.

Prayer by Thomas Merton from Thoughts in Solitude.

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Gospel Relationships

Posted on July 7, 2015 by - Connect! Sunday Reflection

For Sunday, July 12, 2015, 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Family holding hands together closeup.Every day we become aware of circumstances and issues that perk the interest of Christian consciousness. Whether they are issues surrounding human life, political agendas, morality, or our responsibility to the earth, we must realize that the Gospel has much more to do with how we live each day than influencing acts of piety and devotion. The Gospel is very much about organizing both our divine and human affairs and does require political sensitivity and awareness.

Just this past week, there was a plethora of things happening in our world that ought to have grabbed our interest. Three such examples are a story about a Texas Immigration Center, doctors in Belgium granting a healthy twenty-four-year-old woman who is suffering from depression the right to die, and a group of up to fifty teenagers bent on destruction who raced into a Walmart in Georgia. While each of these come from totally different venues and deal with very dissimilar circumstances, they all have a bearing on the mind of the Christian and the Gospel we hold to be true.

It is safe to say that many folks in our world today have lost their connection with their Creator. Whether due to doubt, neglect, worldly attraction, or an inability to find a meaningful path, understanding oneself as a child of God is crucial to plugging the vision of the Gospel into our daily lives. It is not just about having sensitivity for and mission to the poor or living just lives or being responsible to our environment or one another—it is about relationships! Who am I? I am a child of God. When those words are found on our lips profound implications calling for a change in priorities and actions will follow.

Paul knew this well when he instructed the Ephesians. God chose us “before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him. In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ.” Every single person who walks the face of this earth has been chosen by God to share in a relationship of love and intimacy! This is an essential part of the good news to be shared! St. Mark tells us that Jesus summoned the Twelve and sent them out two by two. They went off preaching repentance and if they listened at all to what Jesus taught, they also spoke of a God of love, mercy, and forgiveness who hears their cries and wishes for them to live a different world, one characterized by love, justice, and peace.

An anonymous fourteenth-century English mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing and greatly influenced the development of spirituality took great efforts in emphasizing the need for self-knowledge and understanding the intimate love relationship we have with God. When people are able to fall into and embrace the truth of who they are then the way they live and see life will automatically change. It is not about obeying rules and precepts or having one ideology win over another. It is about relationships.

Each of the contemporary examples cited at the beginning of this brief article has everything to do with relationships. Each in their own way has something to do with a relationship with God, a relationship with self, and a relationship with others. We can debate immigration laws until we turn blue and every philosophy most certainly has certain truths it wishes to advance, suggesting its own as the one to adopt. This is a worthy and necessary discussion. The Christian, however, must step back and ask a further question, one that secular society either does not think to ask or fears asking. Why has immigration become a problem in the first place? Building walls around a country, while attractive to some, is an irresponsible and immature response. Instead of further dividing ourselves from countries whose people are trying to find refuge within our borders maybe greater success can be had in establishing partnerships with the powers of those countries to discern ways of helping each other solve problems. Of course, this would mean that we must abandon our preoccupation of entering into relationships with other nations purely for reasons of self-advancement, security, or need. People coming to our borders are not just drug addicts and felons. They are fathers, mothers, and children who are afraid. What would it take for you to leave your home and family and venture elsewhere with little more than a few belongings? One would have to think that they would prefer staying in their own land if they felt they could! Our psalmist proclaims: “I will hear what God proclaims; the LORD—for he proclaims peace. Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him, glory dwelling in our land.” Glory is meant to dwell, not fear. Peace is meant to reign, not strife.

Violence is increasing and violence for the sake of violence is most disturbing. The victims of senseless violence always hurt the most. The fact that people use others for their own selfish end is a problem throughout our world that raises its head in a variety of ways. Our young people are so lost. They are looking for something to make sense out of their lives and perhaps the wounds and emptiness they carry are causing them to act out in vengeance. Do they have hope? They need the message of the Gospel preached to them. But the message cannot be old and irrelevant. A word capable of causing change and transformation has to be able to ring true and connect! Someone speaking elegant English, using the fanciest and most proper of words, will face the wall of irrelevance if speaking to one more simple. Jesus called the Twelve to preach a simple Gospel to simple people using simple words. The effectiveness and power of those words were determined by the conviction and example the Twelve brought to them!

Depression is a scary disease. We know so little about the human mind and there is so much more to learn. Those facing fear, darkness, emptiness, and despair live without joy, hope, and a transforming sense of love. To be caught in this cycle is frightening and to believe that one is powerless over the pain is overwhelming. People in this place of desperation have a difficulty trusting in a God who loves them when what they see and know is so miserable. But with all that there is still to learn and treatments yet to explore, is choosing to end one’s life the only option or even one to consider? The global community has always treated mental illness with suspicion. Those struggling with this disease were treated like lepers and still are. Because we do not understand it, we cast it aside and label those struggling as bizarre or crazy. Perhaps the call here is for humanity to take greater responsibility and for those preaching the Gospel to not only tell but show people that they are loved.

There are no simple solutions to the very complex problems of the world and I do not pretend to even suggest that there are. But each of these examples noted above speak of the tremendous need that still exists within our world for people to hear the good news and for prophets. We need those creative, exciting, out-of-the-box type of folks who are willing to put it on the line and be a different voice. They need to translate the love of which Jesus spoke and died for into real words and real meaning. It requires letting go of anything that would prevent this work, this ministry, from being effective. And, it requires broad shoulders because rejection is sure to come. Amos trusted that God knows better than we do. Do we? Maybe God is calling you to have a prophetic voice if only by being a catalyst for communication in your community and initiating dialogue by how we can effectively spread the message of Jesus Christ, using contemporary words and actions, to those most in need of hearing it.

Rev. Mark Suslenko

PRAYER

Father of all,
Creator and ruler of the universe,
You entrusted your world to us as a gift.
Help us to care for it and all people,
that we may live in right relationship—
with You,
with ourselves,
with one another,
and with creation.

Christ our Lord,
both divine and human,
You lived among us and died for our sins.
Help us to imitate your love for the human family
by recognizing that we are all connected—
to our brothers and sisters around the world,
to those in poverty impacted by environmental devastation,
and to future generations.

Holy Spirit,
giver of wisdom and love,
You breathe life in us and guide us.
Help us to live according to your vision,
stirring to action the hearts of all—
individuals and families,
communities of faith,
and civil and political leaders.

Triune God, help us to hear the cry of those in poverty, and the cry of the earth, so that we may together care for our common home.

Amen.
—Prayer To Care For Our Common Home, © USCCB, based on Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’.

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