Follow Through

The other day I was at Walmart. You know, Walmart: The King of Customer Service. I was looking for something specific in the pharmacy, and because the Walmart Pharmacy area has aisle after aisle of products, I was not having any success finding it. A pharmacy employee walked by clearly headed Someplace Important (his break?), and I called to him and asked the location of the product. He literally didn’t even slow down, but kept walking and shouted back at me, “It’s on the aisle just after the vitamin aisle,” undoubtedly thinking, “My Cup-O-Noodles isn’t going to cook itself, Lady.”

Okay. I found the correct aisle, and yet it took me a very long time to find what I was looking for. I finally did. Hoo-rah!

imgresBelieve it or not, I thought about this situation when I heard the Gospel reading Sunday from Matthew. In the gospel, Matthew tells us that Jesus was walking along beside the Sea of Galilee and came across, first, Andrew and his brother Peter, who were casting fishing nets, and then, two more brothers, James and John, also fishing with their father Zebedee. As Jesus passed them, he shouted out, “Come and follow me, I’ll make you fishers of men.” And so, they all did.

How much nicer it would have been if the Walmart employee had said to me, “Come and follow me, I will show you where your item is located.” There is, of course, no comparison to a Walmart employee demonstrating simple customer service and Jesus asking strangers to follow him and help change the world. Still, that invitation to follow me is welcome in times of trouble and distress.

I have often wondered, and frankly did as I listened to the story this time, if the men knew of Jesus beforehand, if they had heard his teachings, and that’s why they dropped what they were doing and followed him. Or was there just something so charismatic about Jesus that they followed without question? The problem with scripture readings, of course, is that they are snapshots. There is some context to this whole story that we must fill in ourselves. The priest/homilist pointed out that every story we know from the scripture makes it clear that the apostles weren’t crazy about their career choices. Scripture tells us about the frustration of empty fishing nets; the discomfort of rough seas; Peter, Andrew, John and James sitting around mending their nets, a mundane activity for sure. Matthew was a despised tax collector, and he couldn’t have loved that job. So perhaps they had simply heard about Jesus and thought to themselves, “What could it hurt? We can follow him and see what happens.”

As I listened, I also wondered just what Zebedee thought when his sons up and left him to pull in the nets by himself. He couldn’t have been very happy about his sons walking away. And then he had to go home and tell his wife that James and John weren’t coming home because they followed that crazy preacher. A few chapters later in Matthew’s gospel, he tells us that that James’ and John’s mother asked Jesus if her wonderful sons could be on his right and left when they were all in heaven. I bet she thought that was the least he could do after having taken her sons away from she and Zeb.

Nevertheless, follow Jesus, they did. And they may not have been the most reliable of disciples (betrayal, denial, doubt), but their decision to follow Jesus changed our lives as well as their own. Now it’s my turn to say yes to Jesus when he asks me to follow him every day of my life.

This post linked to the GRAND Social

Joseph’s Wonderful Life

Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel. – Isaiah 7:14

Every year, the readings for the fourth Sunday of Advent remind us of the good news that the Jewish people had/have long known because it was foretold by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah – a savior was going to be born of a virgin, and he would be king of all.

And each year when I hear these readings, I immediately think about Mary, and her surprise visit from the Angel Gabriel telling her the shocking news that she was going to be the mother of this Emmanuel. Because I have a granddaughter who is 13-1/2, I can easily picture the look on Mary’s face because I can picture the look on Addie’s face. And I always remind myself that rather than saying, “Let me think about it,” or “Let me look at my calendar and see what I have going for the next nine months,” Mary just said, “Yes.” Oh, she expressed an appropriate amount of confusion about the fact that she was going to bear a child even though she was a virgin, but after getting angel-based clarification, she said, “Yes, I will take on this responsibility.”

But while I use Mary as my model for how to turn my life over to God, I rarely think about Joseph, and his role in this marvelous story of grace.

Last week, I mentioned in a post that I watched the movie It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time ever. In the movie, George Bailey – played marvelously by Jimmy Stewart – had his life planned out. He was going to travel. He was going to make lots of money. He was going to leave his crappy little town and live a rich and elegant life with his wonderful wife someplace new and exciting. But, things just kept creeping up that prevented his imagined life to happen in the way he had planned. And finally, just as he had given up hope, he learned the valuable lesson about what is important in life.

At Mass yesterday, our homilist reminded us that Joseph, too, had quite a rude awakening when he learned that his bride-to-be Mary was pregnant, and he knew HE wasn’t the father. But rather than publicly humiliating her, he quietly set out to end the relationship in a way that would be less embarrassing to her and her family. And then, the Angel Gabriel (who seemingly had quite a busy few days) told Joseph in a dream to not freak out because she is with child via the Holy Spirit, and in fact, she is going to give birth to the Son of God and the savior of all.

Like George Bailey, I would imagine that Joseph had his life planned out as well. He and his young bride would marry, kids would soon come along – maybe some sons who could learn the carpentry business and help him, and a daughter or two who would help his wife with her hard work – and they would live a quiet and joyful life in their community of Nazareth. Maybe he would run for mayor. Eventually their children would marry and have kids, and he and Mary would be grandparents, at which time they could feed their grandkids all of the sugary figs they wanted and send them home on a sugar high, like all good grandparents do.

But just as soon as he had that dream, Joseph knew his life wasn’t going to go the way he wanted it to go. God had other plans for he and Mary. And, like Mary, he didn’t Google flights out of Jerusalem, but instead, said, “Whatever you say, God.”

The children from Wellshire Presbyterian Church performed a living nativity Sunday night in the frigid weather. The little shepherd kneeling in front is Maggie Faith. The shepherd behind her wearing glasses is Dagny. Addie is the wise man wearing the gold robe. Dagny and Maggie chose to be shepherds because, well, live goats were involved.

The children from Wellshire Presbyterian Church performed a living nativity Sunday night in the frigid weather. The little shepherd kneeling in front is Maggie Faith. The shepherd behind her wearing glasses is Dagny. Addie is the wise man wearing the gold robe. Dagny and Maggie chose to be shepherds because, well, live goats were involved.

According to St. Matthew, Emmanuel means God is with us. And so the very name of Jesus means that he is with us always, even when it seems he couldn’t possibly be further away. He is within us. We just need to get out of his way and let him lead us.

This post linked to the GRAND Social

Full of Grace

Nine or 10 years ago, Bill and I went to a movie and dinner with one of my friends who was newly divorced at the time, and very broken. The movie we saw was The Nativity Story, the fairly biblically accurately-told story of the birth of Jesus, and the events before and after. My friend is a cradle Catholic who had been a bit tepid about her faith for a while, but following her terribly ugly divorce, she was nothing short of put-a-fork-in-it-it’s-done when it came to religion. She was asking that age-old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

We sat down after the movie at a restaurant for dinner. As one would expect, we began talking about the movie. I remember clearly that my friend said something like “You guys really believe that story, don’t you? To me, it’s just a fairy tale.”

Well, while as far as I know, no legal documents exist stating that Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, was born on December 25, 0 A.D., there is literary evidence that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea. Read the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew. And I guess you are either going to believe their writings or you’re going to assume they were big fat liars. Many historical scholars take their writings seriously. And I believe.

As all good story tellers, the writers tweaked the story a bit. I’m pretty sure the shepherds didn’t come that same night, nor did the three kings come a couple of weeks later. But I believe the Son of God was born to Mary in Bethlehem, and I’m sure he had humble beginnings, perhaps born in a stable. It is true that Mary and Joseph needed to go to Bethlehem to register, and it’s likely that there wouldn’t be a lot of places to stay, especially if you are a poor carpenter.

Anyway, I’m no biblical scholar, just a believing Christian. All that aside, every year around this time, I begin thinking about Mary, a poor Jewish girl not much older than my eldest granddaughter, going out to gather water or do some chore or another and suddenly being greeted by an angel with the astounding news that she was chosen to be the mother of the Son of God. She was going to bear a child even though she hadn’t been with a man.

Think about that. Think about small towns anywhere. The inevitable gossip would never end, no matter that Joseph agreed to marry her. Think about the fact that her child would never really belong to her. I don’t know if she knew about his inevitable end and I doubt she even came close to understanding what taking on this commitment would entail. Nevertheless, she had to be terrified.

And yet, she said yes. Neither Luke nor Matthew mention a word about Mary saying, “Give me just a minute, I need to think about this.” But I bet she did. Who wouldn’t? In the end, Mary made the ultimate sacrifice and basically gave up her life so that Jesus could fulfill the words of the prophets.

It’s interesting to think how things would be different had she said no.

This past week, I came across these two beautiful nativity prints on Facebook. Gari Melchers is the artist for the first painting. Unfortunately, I don’t know the artist of the second.

Every depiction I’ve ever seen about the nativity shows Mary and Joseph kneeling over the manger worshiping the Baby Jesus. Anyone who has given birth knows how absolutely exhausted Mary would have been, and how terrified Joseph would feel. Doesn’t this depiction of Mary and Joseph right after she gives birth look more accurate? Mary looks totally spent and Joseph looks absolutely stunned and terrified…..

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And words can’t express how much I love this depiction of Mary and Jesus…..

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Evil

142198193.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeIt so happened that the gospel at Mass this past weekend as we near the season of Advent was St. Mark’s take on what Jesus said about the end times.

….the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.

Dang, that gospel – as well as similar words coming from St. Matthew, St. Luke, and let’s not forget the light-hearted Book of Revelation as written by St. John – scared the HELL out of me when I was a kid. Frankly, it makes me squirm even now as an adult. I used to get caught up in all of the predictions about end times until Bill reminded me that Jesus goes on to say But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Oh yeah. I’ll start using up the canned beans stored in my basement in preparation for the end of the world.

Despite becoming so mature, I will admit that I was struck by Mark’s gospel in light of the dreadful circumstances in Paris this past week. I wondered if and how the priest would address all of this in his homily. Is the world, in fact, coming to an end?

The priest who said our Mass retired from somewhere in Minnesota to the warm climes of Arizona and serves our parish during the winter months when the church’s population doubles in size. He is probably in his 70s with a gruff-sounding voice which belies his always wonderful and generally gentle homilies. But it became clear very quickly that he was PISSED OFF. He started off by saying should one of the ISIS members who terrorized Paris walk into the church, if he could make it back to him before he was gunned down by an AK47, he would punch the crap out of him. Not particularly priestly, but certainly an honest representation of the way many of us feel.

But he went on to remind us that it’s pointless to point fingers at God or wonder how God can let something like that happen. No one, said Father O’Neill, can truly understand evil. Probably not even the evil-doers themselves, who claim to terrorize in the name of Allah.

Father O’Neill never once used the word devil in his homily. Instead, he continued to use the word evil. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know how I feel about the idea of a devil. It’s a concept my teeny little brain can’t wrap itself around. But I do know that evil exists in our world – incredibly, horribly, awful evil. But God didn’t shoot those people who went out to hear some music or enjoy a nice meal with friends or family. Evil human beings used man-made weapons to do their evil deeds. And there has been evil in our world since Adam and Eve. The Paris attacks — and all other evil in our world — are not sure signs of the end of the world. Only God knows when that will be.

Father said perhaps God is testing our love, both for Him and for our fellow human beings. “But if I could,” said Father O’Neill looking up at the ceiling and heaven beyond, “I would definitely ask the Holy Spirit to stop the testing.”

Me too.