Monday, February 3, 2014

Devotion for today: Set the goal, have a team, overcome the obstacles

2 Timothy 4:7: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith;

One of my favorite television shows is Ultimate Survivor Alaska, a National Geographic program. In this show teams of men try every week to be first in reaching a certain destination in order to pick up a victory for that week. Now, they are in the back country of Alaska, so the challenges that face them are enormous. If they do get to the weekly destinations, however, they are one step closer to winning the huge prize at the end reserved for the team with the most wins.

I love this show. First of all, the incredible beauty of Alaska makes this show worth viewing. But more importantly, this show reminds me so much of our struggle to get to heaven.

I see three similarities in our struggle and the struggle facing these men: the desire to reach a goal; the need to overcome obstacles, and the necessity of a team.

The goal for these men is simple. Each week they must get to a preset destination before the other teams. The ultimate goal is to be the best, or ultimate.

Their obstacles are unbelievable. I have watched them as they scale mountains, kayak across raging waters, bushwhack though thick foliage, and pull themselves out of quicksand. They have had to swim through ice, dodge rock slides and distract wild animals.

The amazing and beautiful part of all this is how they work together as a team. Each member totally respects the specific and special talents and abilities of his teammates. They defer to each other’s knowledge and experience to plan their attack against the elements and reach the goal. They need each other to stay alive in this battle against nature. One man falls into the ice and other two are there to get him out. One man is swept away by the current and the others are there to rescue him and pull him to safety. One man broke his ankle, and although it could have cost the others the entire race, they would not leave him behind just to win that day’s challenge.

That is how it is for us in our spiritual lives. Ultimately, we want to get to heaven. To do that, however, we must overcome many, many challenges along the way. Society is filled with dangers that can trap us at any time, that can cause us to lose our way or start to sink. We cannot fight through the distractions and temptations that surround us if we do not have our eyes firmly fixed on the goal. Each of us must have a plan, of course and the means to fulfill it, just like the teams have a map and food for the journey (our Bible and Eucharist) but we must recognize that we cannot do it alone. Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis I all speak of the New Evangelization as the only hope for a world that closely resembles the wilds of Alaska. None of us can battle today unless we have a good team to support us. We need each other in order to survive.

In every show I watch, at least one team member states that he would have died had it not been for his teammates. So it is with us. We have to have people in our lives who will show us when we are on the wrong path, or sinking in the quicksand of sin, or trying to follow a dangerous path that takes us away from our ultimate goal. The call is for us to put ourselves out there in the world as well and be the special team member to others: to youth who have no direction; to young adults who may not see how God fits into the picture anymore, to the engaged couples in our parishes who may need examples of what good holy marriage looks like. The list goes on and on.

 We are really crazy if we think we will make it today without a support group. We cannot see the dangers and snares that await us at every turn. We must join parish groups, prayer meetings, attend good lectures, help out in shelters and homes for the elderly and find like-minded people who will save us when we fall. Jesus came for everyone, but He surrounded Himself with 12 really good friends. That is the example we must follow. Make a friend, be a friend and bring a friend to Christ is the motto of the Cursillo movement in the Church. It applies to us all. Let’s start today to be a team member in the struggle to get to heaven, and let’s just be thankful every day that we don’t have to swim through ice to do it!!!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Devotion for today: Use them or lose them

Matthew 25:14-30: “For it is just like a man about to go on a journey, who called his own slaves and entrusted his possessions to them.  To one he gave five talents, to another, two, and to another, one, each according to his own ability; and he went on his journey. Immediately the one who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and gained five more talents.  In the same manner the one who had received the two talents gained two more.  But he who received the one talent went away, and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
 “Now after a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. The one who had received the five talents came up and brought five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you entrusted five talents to me. See, I have gained five more talents.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
 “Also the one who had received the two talents came up and said, ‘Master, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more talents.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 
“And the one also who had received the one talent came up and said, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you scattered no seed.  And I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’  “But his master answered and said to him, ‘You wicked, lazy slave, you knew that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I scattered no seed.  Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest.  Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.’
“For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. Throw out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Footnotes:  A talent was worth about fifteen years’ wages of a laborer

I helped an elderly aunt of mine move out of her house into assisted living. When it came time to clean out her “medicine pantry” I found seven beautiful lotion bottles that were given to her as gifts throughout the years. “Auntie,” I exclaimed, “why didn’t you ever use these?” Most were so old that the lotion inside had turned to some indescribable liquid, not pleasant, or else had just dried up. Auntie explained that she was afraid if she used them they would be gone and so would the memory of the people who gave them to her. They were her little treasures. She didn’t see that they were given to her to make her life better, to increase her joy in living by having soft, creamy skin and that every time she would have used them she would have thanked the person who gave her the gift. Now they were stale and useless and had to be thrown away without any benefit to her or anyone else.

This is how it is with the gifts God gives us. Everyone one of us is as unique as a snowflake. Our physical features, our laugh, our personalities, all have a “one of a kind” stamp on them. The Creator, our good God, did that for a very special reason. We aren’t able to see it, but the world God created is like a wondrous mosaic, with each tiny piece fulfilling a purpose. It is cut to a specific size, chosen for its unique color, and polished to brilliance. Then it is carefully laid in the exact spot where it is needed. Voila! We now have the fulfillment of a purpose.

If we take inventory and work to discover the unique qualities and gifts God has given to us, we will see that He has a very specific purpose for us in the world. It doesn’t have to be grand or recognized by society, but it is important to God nonetheless. Are we compassionate? Do we have the rare gift of being a good listener? Are we able to explain truths without arguing? Can we make sense of a mess, either in someone else’s personal life or in the real world? Can we discern spirits and know immediately what is of God and what is not? Whatever gifts we have, we must find a way to use them for the purpose God had in mind when He formed us in our mothers' wombs. We must be centered every minute of every day on God’s will for us at that moment, and always begin and end every day in prayer. We must also learn the St. Michael’s prayer whenever we hear a voice inside of us telling us to back away from our special gifts and just coast through life. That can never be God telling us to do that. Be tough, be determined, and be without fear. If God gave you the gift, God will open the opportunities for you to use it. You, in turn, must develop the ability to hear and see Him in the world around you.

Don’t let your gifts go stale and turn into something unusable. Don’t let them be thrown away on worldly matters only, and not for the purpose of evangelization.  Pull them out, dust them off and get to work. Using them will only make you a much better person and the world a much finer place to live. Think of my dear Auntie. She could have used her lotions for the purpose for which they were intended. Instead, they had to be thrown out. If God can’t use us, He most definitely will find someone He can. Remember my favorite explanation of the personal judgment. We stand before Jesus with the report card of our life and say, “Here Lord, this is what I did with what You gave me.” Hopefully He will look at it and say, “Well done my good and faithful servant. Now enter into the home of my Father.” God bless us as we do our part in the work of evangelization so desperately needed in the world today. 
As St. Francis of Assisi once said: "Remember when you leave this earth, you can take with you NOTHING that you have received, only what you have given: A heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice and courage."  

Friday, January 17, 2014

Devotion for today: Sometimes we have to change direction

John 21:1-6: After these things Jesus manifested Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and He manifested Himself in this way.  Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will also come with you.” They went out and got into the boat; and that night they caught nothing.
 But when the day was now breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. So Jesus said to them, “Children, you do not have any fish, do you?” They answered Him, “No.” And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch.” So they cast, and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish.

So many times in life we find ourselves stuck in a rut. We are doing what we always do. Or we are following a plan we feel is right for us, although we are not realizing any success. Sometimes we honestly believe we are doing what is necessary to survive or even complete God’s will, yet things are not going well. Maybe we are trying to care for others and putting our own needs aside, yet the joy and satisfaction of living are long gone from our daily routines. Just like the apostles, who caught nothing, we are frustrated.  What to do?

In the above passage, Jesus has already risen from the dead. Many scholars ask why the apostles are fishing at this point. They are aware that Jesus has miraculously returned to them, and they were told to wait for Him. Yet here we see Peter leading the others into the sea. Maybe they were hungry and this is how they obtained food. Maybe Peter was tired of waiting, or confused or frustrated and needed to do what was familiar. I think this is a key point. God reaches out to us wherever we are in life. He comes to us in the ordinary aspects of our lives. We do not necessarily find Him secluded in a church or during prayer time. God wants us involved in life, and that is what happens here. I am reading a wonderful, short but powerful book entitled, “Abandonment to Divine Providence.” It is attributed to Jean Pierre de Caussade and this was a favorite book of St. Therese of Lisieux. In every chapter the author reminds us that simple daily living performed completely in abandonment to the will of God is the only requirement for life. Easy to say, but how do we know the will of God?

We see in our passage that Jesus is standing on the shore but they do not recognize Him. I thought it was strange that He called them children since these were His closest friends, so I read some commentaries and it really is odd to use that expression here. The word John used was paidiai and literally means little children. No wonder they didn’t know who was talking to them! Jesus never called them that before. Plus, we are told many times in the other gospels that the apostles didn’t recognize Jesus once he rose from the dead since His body had undergone a miraculous change. It is for our benefit, I think, that Jesus used the term for little children. What is a better description of us when we are lost and confused and frustrated? How many times has Jesus reached out to us in our lives in varied and unusual ways, and because it was “different” from what we expected we didn’t listen. We need to learn to expect a God of surprises to lead us in our daily lives.

Jesus offers the apostles advice. He tells them to throw their nets off the right side of the boat, and they do. What a difference! Before their very eyes, the nets are filled to the breaking point. That is what happens when we listen to Jesus. That is what happens when we are humble enough to acknowledge that the plan or idea we thought was so great, really isn’t so great because it isn’t the one God had in mind for us. Repeated disappointments and failures in life are sometimes the result of just not casting off on the other side of the boat. If we follow the voice of God, we will always be successful in the will He has for us. Don’t be afraid to change directions, or intentions. Don’t worry if at first you can’t hear God speaking to you or you don’t recognize the voice as His. Keep praying, and keep thinking about God. Make your life a prayer to Him, every thought word and deed, and soon you will hear Him whispering in your ear. God is always near us in our repeated failures and disappointments, ready to turn them into successes. Pray without ceasing by making your life a prayer; be humble, obedient and faithful to God, and then get ready for the big haul.

I will not be doing a daily blog for awhile as I have decided to go back to work full- time. I have been praying for a way to financially keep my mom and aunt in the nursing home we chose for them. I really wanted a very rich uncle from Italy that I didn’t know existed to write me a letter and send me a check for a huge amount of money since he discovered I was his only living relative. So, ok, this was not realistic, but I really had fun with the idea as I prayed for a solution. Then out of nowhere I was offered a job that I couldn’t refuse. Still sounds very Italian, I know, but hey, I am the descendant of Italian immigrants, so I pray, dream and live the Italian way! I will write my blogs as this new schedule permits. I love writing these, and I thank all of you who gave me encouragement and kind comments. Just keep checking, I’ll be posting, and let’s all keep casting our nets into the unknown.

 Love you and God bless, or as they say in Italy, "Ti amo e che Dio benedica",