Sunday, September 30, 2012

Stored Up Treasure

" Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have stored up treasure in the last days. You have lived on earth in luxury and indulgence. You have condemned and murdered the innocent, who were not opposing you." [James 5: 1-6].

The woman was tall and willowy, and she wore her clothes well. Her white silk blouses gleamed against her perfect porcelain skin. Her woolen tweed skirts were woven with many subtle colors. Her fine leather shoes caressed the curves of her feet.

She was not a gentle, soft mother. She never hugged her children, or said, "I love". She ruled with a firm hand. Her children, and perhaps even her husband, were afraid of her; for her firm manner could turn cruel in an instant.

She judged and condemned others, even those whom she did not know, for their religion and their faith, for the color of their skin, for their lack of money, or for their ethnicity. Her sharp judgments condemned those strangers, who had no quarrel in the world with her. The woman's daughter knew in her heart that, in a way, her mother was murdering the innocent with her words. And a part of the daughter's heart died too. That part of her heart was the part that longed for Love.

The daughter grew up and left home and got married. One early spring day, her father arose, gulped down a cup of coffee-- and abruptly died. Maybe there was too much anger in his heart for him to stay any longer in this world.

The daughter immediately got into her car and raced to her mother's side. She found her mother sitting in her chair in the kitchen, looking frail, and thin and small. She was dressed in baggy pants and a stained old blouse. The cotton collar of the blouse was so frayed, it was split open. Her mother looked desperate and stricken. She was shaking visibly. This was not the powerful mother who had always struck fear in everyone's hearts.

Clearly, her mother could no longer live in this house alone. The decision was made to move the mother to a convalescent home.

The daughter's task was now to clear out the old house. In the dining room, she found stacks of silver trays. They had been stored up in the old sideboard. They had not been used since her grandmother's day, when they were put into service serving petit-fours on lace doilies. Now, the trays seemed small and not so grand. They were scratched and dark with tarnish. Their disappointing finish seemed a rebuke to her mother's delusions of grandeur.

The daughter examined the mahogany veneer sideboard closely. This piece always looked so important, with its Federalist style columns and its inset mirror. But the veneer was falling off in big pieces. It looked too fragile to transport.

The daughter took a closer look at the old oil paintings that had once appeared so impressive. But they were marred with alligator cracks and flaking paint. And when she took them down from the wall, there was a dark stain on the wall where the frame had rubbed into the plaster over the years.

In her mother's closet, the daughter found her mother's old woolen skirts and trousers. These were dusty and moth-eaten. And her mother had once seemed so powerful and glamorous in these clothes! The daughter also found boxes upon boxes stacked up, filled with brand new shoes and slippers. These would do her mother no good now. How much footwear would she need in a convalescent home?

In the living room, the daughter took down the damask draperies, with the lovely Jacobean flower and vine pattern that she had so loved. But when she held the draperies in her hands, she saw that the old lining had turned brown, and was rotted and torn into ribbons. She thought of relining the draperies, but as she turned the fabric over in her hands, she saw that the edges of even the fabric were rotting away.

When all the furniture and decorative items had been removed, and the house was finally empty, the daughter looked around. There was dust in the corners of the rooms, and cobwebs on the ceiling. The rooms looked forlorn and small. This was no longer the house that used to strike awe in the daughter's heart. Or that used to so impress its visitors.

The daughter found her mother sitting on the front steps, waiting to be taken to the convalescent home. Her mother appeared tiny and insignificant, like a small child.

The daughter said to her, "Mother, I thought you had all the power? I thought you were in charge in this family?"

And the mother looked down at her hands resting in her lap, said very quietly, "No, I never was in charge. It was all an illusion."

[Related Posting: "Clinging To Human Rules", Sept. 4, 2012].

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2102. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A Child of God

" Jesus and His disciples went on a journey and passed through Galilee. [When] they came to Capernaum, Jesus asked them, ' What were you arguing about on the road?' But the disciples kept quiet because on the way, they had argued about who was the greatest among them. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, 'If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last and the servant of all.'  He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, He said to them, 'Whoever receives one of these little children in my name receives me; and whoever receives me does not receive me, but the One who sent me.' " [Mark 9: 30-37].

Have you ever seen a few children arguing at school about who was in line first; and the teacher says to the worst one of the boasters, 'Now you will go to the back of the line and become the last' ?  Or, a child claims that the biggest piece of cake is his; and his mother tells him, 'Now you will wait until everyone is served, and we shall see how much cake is left for you' ?

Somehow, in our childish sense of justice, this seems to be only fair. "The First shall be last and the Last shall be First."

In this sense, the Humble are exalted. And the Exalted ones are humbled. [Related posting, " The Humble Shall be Exalted", November 4, 2011.]

There is something about us that loves the underdog. And Jesus is the same way! He loves the little children. He loves the meek, the humble, the broken hearted, the crushed in spirit, the "least among us". 

The weaker ones, the ill, the children, the orphans, the widows, all of these need extra special protection. Why? Because they cannot always take care of themselves alone.

But Jesus takes this a step further: He says, not only are we to receive and welcome the "least among us"; if we do so in Jesus' name, we are actually receiving and welcoming Jesus Himself-- and the Father!

How much more do I despair when I see the "least among us" severely mistreated, or simply neglected and forgotten. . . . because those who neglect or abuse the weakest in our world are perpetrating this also against Jesus Himself -- and against God!

I grew up in a dysfunctional and abusive home. I cannot help thinking:

What if a mother refuses to make sure that her child has something to eat, even though there is plenty of food in the home. She is actually refusing to feed Jesus!

And if a mother refuses to get her child the medical attention that she needs, she is actually refusing to care for Jesus.

If a father hits a child, he is actually striking Jesus.

If a mother never tells her child that she loves her-- or never hugs her-- that mother is refusing to love Jesus.

If a mother verbally abuses her child, calling her a failure or worse, then the mother is actually being verbally abusive towards Jesus.

If a mother does not make sure that her child is warm enough, then the mother is being cold to Jesus.

If a parent takes the child away from church, then that parent is actually turning her own back on Jesus.

If a mother abandons her child at a time of life and death crisis, then she is actually abandoning Jesus in His dying hours.

How do YOU treat the littlest, the weakest ones in our world? Do you physically strike them, verbally abuse them, neglect their physical needs, withhold your affection, deny them food to eat, scoff if they are cold, belittle their faith, abandon them in their worst hours, and banish them from your heart?

Or-- do you cherish them as Someone precious and sacred-- as precious and sacred as you would regard Jesus Himself, and God Our Father?

It is a double tragedy when I see the littlest among us treated so shockingly; because whatever we do to the least among us, we also do unto Jesus. How can we be so callous and so cruel -- and still call ourselves human ?

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Show Me Your Faith

" What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no works? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ' Go, I wish you well; keep warm and eat well', but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, 'You have faith, I have deeds.' Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do." [ James 2: 14-18].

There is an age-old argument in the natural world about "Nature vs. Nurture." That is, are we the way we are, because of our DNA, because of how we were born [our Nature]? Or, are we the way we are, because of the sum total of our experiences [how we were nurtured?].

There is a similar debate in the world of theology. That is, are we pleasing in God's eyes because of our innate faith alone? Or, are we pleasing to God because of what we do?

We have seen how good deeds alone, without any faith behind them, are empty. A woman follows all the rules of society, providing her children only the very best of nutrition and education, taking them to the Right Church until right after the very first moment of  their Confirmation; keeping a perfect household by following the perfect housekeeping schedule, allowing no clutter in the home and dressing her children only in the best matching outfits; and spending years in volunteer work, not out of deep faith, but merely to fill the time. But when she passes on and reaches the gates of Heaven, Jesus rebukes her sharply: " I will tell you plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me!' " ; [Matthew 7:23].   [Related posting, Clinging To Human Rules, September 4 , 2012.]

Clearly, good deeds alone, without "God in your heart", are not enough to save you.

I have known people like this! They obey the laws. They seek to follow the Rules for Success. They donate to charity. They volunteer countless hours in the community. But they do not pray or ever go to church-- and they are not even certain that there is a God. They do not "know" God. And so, therefore, He does not know them.

So-- if your good deeds alone are not sufficient, then, is your faith alone good enough? And how is this all really relevant, anyway?

Actually, this Reading, in James 2 above, strikes me as surprisingly modern. [And people say that the Bible is archaic and irrevelant!] The text here that says, "Show me your faith", reminds me of that American movie, "Jerry Mc Guire" a few years ago, in which the football star, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. says, "Show me the money!!" Only here, Jesus is saying, "Show me your faith."

" Show me your faith!" NOT feel the faith! This line is aimed directly at those who call themselves "spiritual", but do not show it by their actions. 

The example that Jesus gives is of the "spiritual", faith-filled person who has benevolent feelings towards the suffering man, but who does nothing to help him. A heart full of love, alone, will not feed the hungry, clothe the destitute or house the homeless. Jesus calls this kind of faith, without action, "dead". 

Again, Jesus asks us to show Him our faith, not solely by the warm feelings inside us, but by what we DO.

So, then-- which came first, Faith or Good Deeds? Jesus answers this in the last line of this Reading: "I show [you] my faith, by what I do". In other words, our faith must be so full and overflowing from our hearts, that we are then compelled to act.

There is a bumper sticker that used to be popular around this country: "Love is a Verb." I repeated this saying to my young son recently, and he said, "Sometimes, I want Love to be just a noun !!"

I know, sometimes it IS easier to have faith-filled hearts and to do nothing. But embodying the idea of "Love as a verb" has the capacity to change the world-- the way Jesus did!

Jesus, I pray that I may always put my Faith into action, and thereby change the world!

[Related Posting: "Five Loaves and Two Fish", July 29, 2012.]

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Open To God

" Some people brought to Jesus a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged him to place his hand on the man. After he took the man aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put His fingers into the man's ears. Then He spit and touched the man's tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, 'Be opened!' (Ephphatha!). At this, the man's ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. The people were overwhelmed with amazement. 'He has done everything well,' they said. ' He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.' " [Mark 7: 31- 36].

Many will read this story of Jesus healing a deaf man, as a matter of Biblical history, relating that phase of Jesus' life when He traveled with His disciples, healing others and performing miracles. Others will see this story as a parable that is more a metaphor for the power of Jesus' Love.

I see this story as a mirror of my own experiences.

I was raised in a family that was cruel and abusive. Gradually, in the house that was not a home, I shut down.

When I was age two, already I did not trust humans to physically raise me. By age two, I was teaching myself to undress and use the wash room. When I was five, I was putting myself down for naps.

Then I went to kindergarten at age five. I remember standing with my back to the wall in the classroom, not trusting who these people were. I decided not to participate.

A sibling was calling me ugly every day. I would stomp my feet and get angry and cry. My mother would tell me that I was "too sensitive". She told me that if I did not cry or get angry, the verbal abuse would stop. I decided to show no emotion.

But still the verbal abuse did not stop. And then things would escalate to my sibling hitting me. I decided that maybe showing no emotion was not enough. Maybe people could see my emotions inside me. I decided not to feel emotions.

By this time, at around age 8, I was avoiding others' gazes and not smiling. It was concluded that I was merely quiet and serious.

But things got no better for me. By age ten, I was giving up. I decided not to speak.

At around that time, I started having trouble sleeping. I would keep myself  up at night reading, until everyone was in bed. If I did sleep, sometimes my mother would find me sleep-walking.

By age 11, I was hoarding candy in my room. I was eating poorly at home, but finding other sources of food at a neighbor's house or at school.

At age 14, the treatment for my chronic lung disease stopped. I was having trouble breathing--- up at night coughing, with no medicine to help me.

That was the year that my family stopped taking me to church. I buried my faith deep inside me. They had taken church away. Could they take my faith away too?

I had become a shell of a human being. No one had ever hugged me and told me that they loved me. I was not interacting with others; not showing or feeling any emotion; not eating; not sleeping; not speaking; breathing poorly. And with the repression of my faith, my shut-down was complete.

How can a child, who is so damaged, ever be healed? How can she ever trust enough to open her heart again?

The miracle of my story is that I never gave up on the possibility of Love. There is a seed of Love inside all of us. We are all born with the deep desire to give and to receive Love. No one in my family had ever shown pure love to me. So how did I know what Love even was?

And yet, it was Love that saved me. That desire for Love comes from God. For God IS Love. [1 John 4:16]. No one can take away from us the innate desire to receive Love, or the capacity to give Love. Love fulfills our destiny as human beings. It is what opens us up to the full range of human experience. One cannot give or receive Love without being open.

I also never lost the God in my heart. As we are born desiring Love, and God IS Love, so we are born longing for A Sacred Being who can bestow on us Infinite Love. Human beings can take church away, but no one can take away your Faith, and your sacred desire for God.

Holding our faith deep inside us as a tiny seed is a start. But, as in the story of Jesus healing the deaf man, we need to ask to be healed! I came to the point that my life was so upside down and painful, that I actually thought that God was gone. I had become blind and deaf -- even to God. In retrospect, that is a ridiculous notion. God is for Eternity. He does not just "disappear."

I went to see my pastor, who told me that God was still there, but I had not made any time for Him. I had to learn to cry out to God. I had to talk to Him as I would to an old friend-- to pray, and to ask Him to make His presence known.

As soon as I cried out for God, He came back to me. Finally, I could hear God again! It was then that I heard, 'Only say the Word and I shall be healed.' That is the call to the Eucharist.

A few years ago, I began to receive the Eucharist again. It is an emotional process for me, but an essential one. I cannot be healed without receiving God and Jesus, and their Love. I cannot receive God and Jesus without being open to them. To fully heal, is to fully receive the Love of Jesus, is to be fully open to the possibility of God in my life.

Yes, when we walk up the aisle to receive the Eucharist, our heads are bowed and our hands are clasped shut. But at the moment that we receive the Body of Christ, we look up, our searching eyes meet the face of the pastor, and we hold our hands open to receive God.   

Healing is a process. For me, it has not been a sudden, miraculous Opening as it was in this Reading. It is an Opening nevertheless, a gradual blossoming, in the same way that a flower unfurls its tiny bud, one petal at a time, until the flower is fully open, turning its face to the sun.

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Clinging To Human Rules

" The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with unclean hands. (The Pharisees and their followers do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding onto the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles.) So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, ' Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders?' Jesus replied, 'Isaiah was right whe he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ' These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.' You have let go of the commands of God and are clinging to human precepts." [Mark 7 : 1-8].

She was preternaturally beautiful, with her porcelain complexion, her dark wavy hair and her scintillatingly brilliant eyes.  She always retained her slim and willowy figure. But she was cool and remote; and no one ever quite knew what was in her heart.

When she sought a mate, it was as if she was studying resumes. Her future husband had to be slim, fit, intelligent, successful, and from a well-to-do family. What did love have to do with it?

When she married, the wedding was more like a coronation than a sacrament. The high and mighty were among the wedding guests. Her gown was fashioned of silk, embroidered with hundreds of pearls. The church was glowing with candles, more for creating ambience than for inviting the Holy Spirit.

When she had children, she had one boy, the older one; and one girl, in that order. It was fitting that the boy was the older one, and he had to be smart, strong, successful.

When she and her husband bought a house, they painted the rooms, planted climbing roses outdoors and even installed a white picket fence.

She kept a perfect house by adhering to a perfect schedule: Monday, she washed the clothes, Tuesday, she ironed the clothes, Wednesday, she cleaned the bedrooms, Thursday, she cleaned the kitchen and went to the market, Friday, she cleaned the living room, Saturday, she gardened and Sunday, she baked. There was absolutely no clutter allowed. When her child entered Middle School, she threw away all the stuffed animals in the house. There was no mercy in her heart.

She kept to a perfect weekly menu as well: Monday, beef, Tuesday, chicken, Wednesday, leftovers, Thursday, pork, Friday, fish, Saturday beef. Each meal was perfectly designed to give her family all the nutrition they needed. When her child refused to eat a detested food, she gave this child nothing else to eat. 'Go to bed hungry,' she told the child. There was no generosity in her heart.

She took the children to church, to be with the Right People. But she never taught her children to pray and she never prayed for anyone. She thought talking to God was a waste of time. There was no prayer in her heart.

She had her children baptized, and made sure that the children received their First Communion. After the childrens' Confirmation, she stopped taking the children to church. She said, 'Been there, done that.' There was no faith in her heart.

She criticized Christians for being losers, who could not make it in life on their own, without turning as a last resort to God. She criticized Christians for being hypocrites, who despite constantly attending church,  made more mistakes than anyone else. There was no tolerance in her heart.

When her children reached high school, she taught them that 'Money makes the world go around.' She firmly admonished them that, as long as they had plenty of money, life would be secure. She warned them against giving to others, saying, "You think of yourself first." There was no charity in her heart.

She found life lonely and empty after her children grew up and left home. To fill her long days, she volunteered severl days a week. She received a certificate from each, for her long years of service, but her volunteering was more to fill time and to keep busy. There was no empathy in her heart.

When her long life began to ebb away, she instructed her children, 'When I die, I do not want a funeral. Just have them bury me and forget it.' There was no longing for Eternity in her heart.

When the woman finally passed from this earth, her daughter mourned her loss. It was a multiple loss. She mourned that her mother was no longer on this earth. She mourned that the mother she had always desired: loving, Spirit-filled, merciful, generous, prayerful, tolerant, charitable, empathetic, and desiring to know God: was not here and would never have a chance now to exist.

Most of all, she mourned over the moment when her mother would meet her Creator, God; and His Son, Jesus. Despite all the Human Rules to which her mother had clung, were these Rules enough to save her? Or, as in Matthew 7: 23, would Jesus say, "I will tell you plainly, ' I never knew you. Away from me!' ".

If there is no love in your heart, if there is no Spirit, no mercy, or generosity, prayer, tolerance, charity, or empathy, then you do not know God. And if you do not know God, when it really counts, He may not know you!

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2012. All Rights Reserved.