Only in God

(February 27, 2011)

Bottom line: Our hearts are restless because we worry about tomorrow, we fear what might happen or we think that only in some future time we will be happy. Jesus invites us to trust in God, to serve him now. "Only in God is my soul at rest..."

A few years ago, a website called "Listopia" asked people to vote on "1000 Books (Besides the Bible) Recommended for Christian Readers." I was happy to see that one of my favorite books - the Confessions - came out as number 13.* In that book a young man from North Africa tells about his search for meaning. At first he sought happiness in the pleasures of drinking, eating and sex. When those things left his soul empty, he began to pursue oriental philosophies. They seemed more sophisticated than the Bible he had listened to as a child. But something about those philosophies did not ring true, so he decided that he spend his life making money - and making a name for himself. At certain point - it was like a divine intervention - he experienced a conversion. He wound up dedicating himself totally to God. The young man's name was Augustine - and after St. Paul he is considered the Church's greatest theologian. St. Augustine summed up his quest for meaning in these words: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."

St. Augustine has spoken to Christians through the centuries because we identify with his experience. Our hearts are restless - and nothing in this world can give us enduring peace. Today's Psalm says "Rest in God alone, my soul..." In the Gospel Jesus tells us how to find peace in God.

Jesus lays it on the line. "No man can serve two masters...You cannot serve God and mammon." Mammon means more than simply money. The word comes from a Hebrew root that means "to entrust" - like today we speak about credit, trust funds and bonds. Mammon came to mean "that in which a man places his trust." (cf. Barclay's commentary on Matthew) It became a substitute for God, an idol, a false God.

In today's Gospel Jesus identifies one of the signs of clinging to a false god: worry. A person devoted to an idol becomes consumed with worry. What will happen if I lose the thing that gives my life meaning? I have talked to people who know that alcohol is ruining their lives - but they cannot stand the thought of living without alcohol. It has become a false god.

Jesus invites us to turn from idols and to trust in God. He uses the example of a wild flower. Palestine has a scarlet poppy that blooms in a single day. No ancient ruler, no Hollywood actress could dress so beautifully. If God can do that for an insignificant flower, why do we worry so much?

Regarding freedom from worry a story is told about a German mystic named Tauler. "God give you a good day," Tauler said to the beggar. "I thank God, sir, that I never had a bad one." said the beggar, "I thank God that I am never unhappy."

In amazement Tauler asked him what he meant. "Well," said the beggar, "when it is fine, I thank God; when it rains, I thank God; when I have plenty, I thank God; when I am hungry, I thank God; and since God's will is my will, and whatever pleases him pleases me, why should I say I am unhappy when I am not?"

Tauler then asked the man, "Who are you?" The beggar replied, "I am a king."

"Where then is your kingdom?" asked Tauler. The beggar answered quietly: "In my heart."

The beggar was a king because he had learned how to live in the present moment.** The devil is constantly trying to get us to live in the future - either fearing something that might happen or dreaming about a time when everything will be perfect.*** God wants us to live in present moment. Jesus tells us not worry about tomorrow. For sure, we need to spend some time preparing - that is part of love and it is today's duty.**** But none of us own tomorrow. The only moment we have is now. Jesus assures us that if we ask for our daily bread, if we try to love the person God has placed in our lives today, well, "tomorrow will take care of itself."

So we are back to St. Augustine. Our hearts are restless because we worry about tomorrow, we fear what might happen or we think that only in some future time we will be happy. Jesus invites us to trust in God, to serve him now. Only in God is my soul at rest.****


*Since 867 people voted, the list reflects a variety of tastes (including several anti-Christian books). No surprise that a lot of C.S. Lewis books made the top 100, but I was also pleased to see Thomas A Kempis, Brother Lawrence, Dostoyevsky and Chesterton on the list. I was, however, amazed that Dante and St. Therese did not make the top 100.

**This story, which goes back to the fourteenth century, illustrates the similarity and difference of the Christian and Buddhist approach. Both recognize that this world does not offer salvation - that inner peace requires detachment. For a Christian detachment means aligning one's will with God's. For a follower of Buddha - as best as I understand - detachment means to overcome desire itself.

***Here is how C.S. Lewis expressed it in The Screwtape Letters:

To be sure, the Enemy [that is, GOD] wants men to think of the Future too—just so much as is necessary for now planning the acts of justice or charity which will probably be their duty tomorrow. The duty of planning the morrow's work is today's duty; though its material is borrowed from the future, the duty, like all duties, is in the Present. This is not straw splitting. He does not want men to give the Future their hearts …. We do.… We want a man hag-ridden by the Future—haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth—ready to break the Enemy's commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow's end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.

****A teacher shows love by preparing her class. A pastor shows love by preparing his homily.

****Archbishop Sartain wrote a letter to priests in which he describes what it means for us to entrust ourselves to God and his people. What he says could well be incorporated into this Sunday's homily. Here is a lengthy quote from Archbishop Sartain's letter:

Jesus forever set the standard for sacrifice by giving himself, not something to represent himself. He did so willingly, whole-heartedly, completely, to let the Father's power be known.

The Father loves me for this: 
that I lay down my life 
to take it up again. 
No one takes it from me; 
I lay it down freely. (Jn 10,17-18a) 

Just as Jesus held nothing back from his Father, neither did the saints who followed him, nor do the saints we know in our parishes. Their whole-hearted gift of self was accepted and transformed by God. They discovered that they were refreshed and revitalized, even given strength to do what they thought they could never do. They surrendered their all, and their emptiness was filled with God’s All. I often look to the saints for inspiration when I find that I am letting my all be wrenched from me rather than giving it freely. “He who brings himself to naught for my sake discovers who he is” (Mt 10:39).

It is quite possible that some day our all will be taken from us by illness, tragedy, or even by assignment, in a way we never anticipated. During a symposium in 1995 marking the 30th anniversary of the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, Presbyterorum ordinis, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk of Prague said that in order to survive and thrive, priests must keep themselves focused on their identity as men chosen and changed by God.

Cardinal Vlk had once been suspended from public ministry by the former communist government of his homeland; he took a job as a laborer and was not allowed to associate with other priests. He said,

Despite the awareness of being ordained for service, the priest expects to be a leader because of his position (but he often finds he is neither listened to nor followed)... What frequently follows is an attempt to compensate with a quantity of activity in order to feel useful. But when he realizes he is spending 100 to produce one, discouragement and stress and the doubts begin: Was I wrong about my vocation? Is celibacy really a value? Why aren’t priests allowed to have a family? All of those thoughts passed many, many times through my mind and my heart during the time when I lost all of my public activity in the church and became a layman in the eyes of many. My situation forced me to find once again my priestly identity – without a ministry, without any apparent usefulness, without being a leader. [With the help of an underground community of priests, he realized that] Jesus reached the height of his priesthood when, fixed to the cross, he could not walk, do miracles or preach.

Lifted on the cross, Jesus could do nothing – nothing but abandon himself to the love and power of his Father. That’s what we say we are doing – whether we are conscious of it or not – every time we kiss the altar.

A Presbyterian minister friend once gave me a copy of The Art of Pastoring: Contemplative Reflections by William C. Martin (Vital Faith Resources, 2001). One chapter asks:

How would you pastor 
if you could not speak? 
How would you love the parish 
if you were immobilized in bed? 
If you can answer these questions, 
you know the truth of your calling. 
If you can do these things, 
you will overcome all obstacles. 

The power of the priesthood rests in our participation in the Lord Jesus’ self-emptying self-offering on the altar of the cross.

Spanish Version

From Archives (Eighth Ordinary Sunday, Year A):
This is the first time these readings have come up in the years I have been posting homilies on this website. For those who do long range planning, the years 2014 and 2017 will also have late Easters.

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Obama distances himself from Planned Parenthood

Here is some background on how this happened:

Before there was a House vote to potentially begin to end funding of Planned Parenthood, as there was Friday; before there was a 22-year-old girl named Lila Rose leading private investigations exposing Planned Parenthood as a safe haven for pimps of underage girls; before there was a Philadelphia prosecutor exposing a “house of horrors” too long protected by abortion politics, there was Phill Kline, a law-enforcement official doing his job. Today Kline remains the only prosecutor in the United States to have brought charges against Planned Parenthood.

And we also owe gratitude to and prayers for Abby Johnson

Bernard Nathanson Dead at 84: "I am one of those who helped usher in this barbaric age." After putting thousands of unborn children to death, he became one of the great leaders of the pro-life movement.

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