Sunday, May 15, 2016

Mercy Remembered

In this post, we look at what happens when we forget God’s love, and how we may be restored to relationship with our Father in Heaven.

Deep Wisdom from Kindergarten

A kindergarten teacher asks the kindergartners: “What happens when we forget that God loves us?”

The kindergartners respond, “We sin!”

The teacher is helping the little ones understand the mindset conducive to sin: forgetfulness of whose we are and who we are.

When we lose sight of our identity as God's beloved children, which flows from our relationship with the God who is love, we tend to fall into sin.

The word “fall” is used intentionally because that’s what it’s like: sin has a certain gravity that pulls us down into the pit whenever we let go of our relationship with God and forget who we are. 

Children give us a good example of this. I've noticed that little children tend to act up more when they are not receiving the attention from Mom and Dad that they long for. If they are not being affirmed in their parents' love, they get rebellious. They'll take any attention they can get whether it's good or bad. Are we like that, too? Do we tend to "act out" when we have forgotten or seriously doubted the love of God? 
Copyright 2016 by R. L. Drake

Memory Issues

My grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. His mental, physical, and emotional degeneration was tragic.

Granddad reached a point where he couldn’t remember my grandmother, his beloved wife of over fifty years, or any of his children. Granddad sometimes forgot who he was, too, his own identity seemingly lost in some dark closet of his brain.

On my visits, he often mistook me for my father, which was a bit awkward as he was not fond of my dad at all. He would say, gruffly, “Hello, Bob.” I found it best to just play along, because when corrected, he sometimes got agitated. So I’d respond with a hearty, friendly, “Hiya, Tom,” and hope for the best.

And yet, whenever he saw my little girl (now grown), he lit up and called her by name. It was amazing to see that recognition. Her face brought clarity to his mind, if only for a moment. Somehow, he would remember.

As I get older, I get nervous when I forget things. (The truth is, I’ve always been a little spacey! I have misplaced keys and papers for as long as I can recall). I worry that I will get the disease and forget myself, my family, and my friends.

When We Forget

The Israelites had memory issues, too. They had a tendency to forget who they were, and whose they were. After grand theophanies in which God would reveal his presence and do amazing deeds in their midst, they would be devoted to the Lord for a time, and then forget him, at least in practice. Consequently, they would also forget who they were. Then they would get themselves into all kinds of trouble.

The Israelites loved God, and they knew he loved them. Their very faith celebrated this reality. After all, God had said, “You will be my people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7). But they tended to be forgetful. They sometimes forgot his warnings: “But if you do forget the Lord, your God, and go after other gods, serving and bowing down to them, I bear witness to you this day that you will perish utterly” (Deuteronomy 8:19). 
Copyright 2016 by R. L. Drake

At different points in their history, the Israelites replaced their allegiance to the Lord with the worship of “foreign gods,” the gods of the pagan tribes they shared land with, or of the lands they were exiled to. They forgot the covenant they shared with the Lord, which was their greatest source of security. They sacrificed to these pagan “gods” and made a mockery of their own religion by their misdeeds (cf. Deuteronomy 4:23, 8:19).

This is the narrative of the entire Old Testament. It’s a love story gone bad. And then good again, and then bad again, and so on.

Sometimes we Christians struggle with our own form of spiritual memory loss. We forget who God is, and so we begin to forget who we are. We replace God with gods of our own making: wealth, security, status, relationships, human respect, success, and so on. When these “gods” let us down, we find ourselves lost and confused. We become disoriented.

An acquaintance told me that on a motorcycle course his friend was counseled, “Don’t look where you don’t want to go!” When we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we seem to do all right. When we forget Jesus and focus on other “gods,” we risk getting off course, sometimes tragically.


There’s that wonderful scene in the Lion King in which Simba, heir to the throne, fully grown physically, but not quite ready to take his place in the adult world, encounters the reflection of his deceased father, Mufasa, in the pond. His father emerges from the clouds above, and his deep, guttural voice lovingly but authoritatively commands his son, “Remember who you are. Rememmmberr!”

Simba would not become an adult until he claimed his identity as the Lion King, which carried not only privilege but responsibility. The only way to claim his identity was to acknowledge his filial relationship with his father.

Our true identity comes from our filial relationship with God.

In fact, two of the most important questions we will ever ask ourselves may be: Who am I? Who is my God? 

In a certain sense, the Israelites were relegated to spiritual childhood until they could truly claim their identity as God's Beloved People. They struggled to be who they were meant to be, day in and day out (as we do, too). As a result of sin, they experienced slavery, serious family dysfunction, humiliating defeats in battle, and exile from the land they loved. They lived the life of the Prodigal Son. They did what we tend to do. They wandered far from God, into “distant countries” (cf. Luke 15:13). They squandered their inheritance. They found it impossible to be faithful to the covenant. It must have seemed that there could be no hope for restoration.

Until the Lord sent the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, in whom God would offer a new covenant, once and for all.

By baptism, we entered into this new covenant. We became adopted sons and daughters of God.

In Jesus, we know whose we are and who we are. We are God’s, we are His children.

Whether we have come to Jesus for the first time or have returned to him through the sacrament of Reconciliation following a painful sojourn into the “distant country,” we can be assured that when we are in friendship with Jesus Christ, we share in his filial relationship with God the Father.

Divine Forgetfulness

But there’s another aspect to the story of forgetfulness. That of God's forgetfulness.

When we repent of our sins and turn back to the Lord with all our hearts, he casts our sins behind his back (cf. Isaiah 38:17). It can even be said that he “forgets” our transgressions: “It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more” (Isaiah 43:25, NABRE). He always took Israel back. His love never faltered. And this is true for us, as well.
The sacrament of Reconciliation restores the relationship we neglected in our forgetfulness. And when our sins are absolved, God effectively remembers them no more. 

With the psalmist we can pray, “But I trust in your mercy. Grant my heart joy in your salvation, I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt bountifully with me” (Psalm 13:6, NABRE)!

God’s mercy is so much greater than our sins.

That’s something very important to remember.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Trying to Grow Up!

In this post, we’ll examine the healing power of forgiveness. And the importance of keeping sharp objects out of small children’s reach.

I Just wanna Grow Up!

My son came down the stairs with a hefty Band-Aid lodged between his nose and upper lip, looking like a seven-year-old version of Groucho Marx.

When his mother asked him what he’d done, he casually replied, “I cut myself shaving.”

Joshua had borrowed his sister’s razor, having decided he is too big for the plastic toy razor we gave him last year.

My wife, nervously peeling the Band-Aid away to make sure there was no need for stitches, scolded Josh, “How many times have I told you to stay away from your sister’s razor!?”

But Josh just wants to be a man. Now.

Aren't we all like that when it comes to the spiritual life? We want to grow up NOW.

We sincerely desire to move from spiritual kindergarten to spiritual adulthood. We want, and rightly, to walk with the saints, God's spiritually mature children. But we fail. We forget it's a journey that takes time.

We can understand the frustration that Saint Paul articulated when describing our wounded human condition,
“For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if [I] do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me” (Ro 7:19-20, NABRE). 
It can be quite frustrating! What in the world is wrong with us?

I Want to be Free!

Sin is the failure to meet the demands of authentic love. In order to love, we have to be free. We want to be free. But we often entertain a false notion of freedom. We, like Adam and Eve, want to be captains of our own destiny, have it our way! We think we know the best way to achieve happiness (usually a shortcut), and we forget that exercising self-will tends to lead us into moral chaos, which makes it harder to love and to receive love.

Father Jacques Philippe put it this way:
“We have this great thirst for freedom because our most fundamental aspiration is for happiness; and we sense that there is no happiness without love, and no love without freedom. This is perfectly true. Human beings were created for love, and they can only find happiness in loving and being loved. As St. Catherine of Siena puts it, man cannot live without loving. The problem is that our love often goes in the wrong direction: we love ourselves, selfishly, and we end up frustrated, because only genuine love can fulfill us… There is true love, and therefore happiness, only between people who freely yield possession of the self in order to give themselves to one another” (Interior Freedom, pg. 13).
“Missing the Mark”

"Sin” originally meant “to miss the mark.” That makes so much sense! When we sin, it is usually because we strive for the good, for happiness, but aim poorly. For example: It is good to want to feed your family. But if you rob a bank to get money to do that, you are seeking a good in a very bad way.

We all sin. We have to get over that reality. The pope tells us time and again: we are sinners. Even a pope is a sinner in need of God's forgiveness. 

Sometimes we sin in small ways. Sometimes in big ways. Sometimes in really big ways.
That's where forgiveness comes in.  

Unleashing the Power of Forgiveness

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the meeting place of God’s infinite love and our miserable condition.
Spiritually speaking, we enter the confessional hunched and broken, shouldering a thousand pound bag of sin-stones; we exit the box, springing burden-free like a gazelle. People look at us strangely: What the heck happened to that guy/gal?


Someone was just released from the bondage of guilt and shame through an encounter with Christ in the confessional. Sin binds us. Christ frees us. And what does he free us for? Love! Love can only be lived in freedom.

The True Love Story

I wonder if one of the reasons our modern world is a mess is that we don’t appreciate the importance of mercy. Love Story, a popular movie from my childhood, had the main character say to her beloved, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Really? Heartstrings aside, good luck with that attitude!

A man I knew refused to speak to his own daughter for eighteen years after a disagreement they had when she was about twenty. A father and daughter estranged for eighteen precious years. Eighteen years, wasted!

They finally reconciled when she was nearly forty. They deeply regretted the long gap in their relationship. But, through mutual forgiveness, which freed them from the chains of resentment, guilt, and shame that they had carried for all those years, they were able to experience a beautiful, life-giving relationship for twelve years before the father's death.

The true Love Story is the story of God's mercy unleashed.

We see this truth demonstrated through the acts of giving forgiveness, asking for forgiveness, and receiving forgiveness.

Giving Forgiveness

Giving forgiveness is an expression of mercy.

When we forgive someone who has harmed us (as we recognize we must do in the Our Father), we open the door to deep healing, not only for the forgiven but for ourselves. Recently, a priest said that refusing to forgive is like continually picking at the scab of a wound. The wound never heals.

With forgiveness, healing begins. Forgiveness calls Christ, the Divine Physician, into the picture.

Asking for Forgiveness

To seek forgiveness from a person we've harmed is an act of mercy, too, because it often initiates the healing process. This act of humility on the part of the transgressor can relieve emotional pain for the injured person. Actually, it can bring healing to both parties. It is a win-win situation.

And if the injured party is not ready to forgive, at least we may rest assured that our side of the street is clean, and we see that have further opportunity to pray for the other to find healing.

Receiving Forgiveness

But there’s another important aspect of forgiveness: We have to practice the humility it takes to receive forgiveness--- from God, from one another, and even from ourselves (sometimes we are our harshest judge and jury).

Sometimes we go to confession, lay the bag of sin-stones at the priest's feet, and then on the way out the door, reclaim the bag and begin to lug it around again. The bag is like a phantom limb that we feel, but that isn’t really there any longer. Why? Because God forgave it. He took it and vaporized it. It no longer exists. It’s gone!

Jesus told St. Faustina that Judas' refusal to trust in God's mercy was a more grievous sin than his betrayal. St. Therese of Lisieux came to a similar conclusion, writing to a cousin, "What offends Jesus, what wounds his heart, is lack of trust" (quoted by Fr. Jacques Philippe, The way of Trust and Love).

We have the choice to either receive forgiveness and let our sins go, or to allow them to burden us for the rest of our lives (which makes it difficult at best to be of service to others).

Forgiveness helps restore us to wholeness.

Growing Up

The saints, our treasury of spiritual big boys and girls, teach us that a huge part of being a spiritual grown-up is to live a life of mercy. Mercy is an almost infallible sign of spiritual maturity.

Showing and receiving mercy is far more important than impressing others with the way we pray, or how devoted we appear at Mass. Mercy is what Christianity looks like when it's working out in the field.

Jesus was all about mercy. Look at the lives that were (and continue to be) completely transformed by his mercy. Mercy is his calling card. As Christians, it's supposed to be ours, as well. We are called to demonstrate mercy by how we forgive, how we ask for forgiveness, and how we receive forgiveness.

As the song says, they will know we are Christians by our love.

Will they? 

I suppose that's for us to decide.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

"Pull Yourself Up" Won't Work Here!

A Time for Mercy

When Pope Francis called for a Holy Year of Mercy, I found his timing providential in view of rampant violence, suffering families, and individuals afflicted with addictions and the burden of emotional pain.

Pope Francis challenged us to not only receive and rejoice in God’s mercy but to show that same mercy to others. It’s high time, he seemed to be saying, that we Christians practice the mercy that God has given us. We have the opportunity to do this in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and in our dealings with one another every day.
Copyright 2016 by R. L. Drake

In order to understand mercy, we have to recognize, first, I suppose, our need for mercy on a personal level. So we have to use some culturally unpopular “s” words. We are all sinners. We all need a savior. To put it bluntly: without a savior, we are sunk. We are like a drowning man, with no hope for salvation but for the man on the boat with the life preserver. We recognize that the man on the boat is Jesus Christ.


What is sin? I think it was St. Pio who said, in simplest terms, that sin is infidelity to love. 

God is love, and so, when we act against God, we act against love. Sin, in essence, is the betrayal of a relationship, the most important one we could ever have, that with God. “Against you, you alone have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your eyes” (Ps 51:6, NABRE). As Pope Francis has reminded us, we all fall at some point in our lives.

Copyright 2016 by R.L. Drake
Sin is a kind of disintegration. We start to fall apart under the weight of our sin. To be integrated is to be whole, complete. Sin shatters us. It breaks us into pieces, into fragments of ourselves. Love, on the other hand, brings integration, wholeness, unity. After all, what else is a saint but a fully integrated human being? A saint lives in unity with God, unified in himself.

We all crave unity within ourselves and unity with God. In Catholic terms, we call this unity communion. We yearn for the perfect happiness of heaven. We were made for communion with God and with one another. Really, we were made for love, which only happens in the context of relationship. When we sin, we undermine our relationship with God and each other because we act against the demands of love. Saint Pope John Paul II said that the only proper response to a person is love.

When I sin, I not only betray love but I diminish my capacity for love. I compromise my integrity by denying my own meaning and purpose, which is to love. If love is selfless self-giving, then sin is a selfish self-seeking at the expense of others. Through sin, I deny my identity as a child of God.

Sin that is deadly, which we call “mortal,” takes me all the way to the “distant country” that the prodigal son ventured into (cf. Lk 15:11-32). Deadly sin is a squandering of my inheritance as a child of God (cf. Lk 15:13). When I commit deadly sin I, in effect, orphan myself.

Sin that is not deadly, what we call “venial sin,” weakens my bond with God as Father, but it doesn’t sever it. Venial sin may be a wandering off the porch of my Father’s house, but it isn’t a decisive cleaving of my relationship with the Father and His family (the Church) by going all the way to the distant country.

Still, venial sin can begin to blind me to reality and the demands of love, and mortal sin becomes more likely “[E]vils surround me until they cannot be counted. My sins overtake me, so that I can no longer see. They are more numerous than the hairs of my head; my courage fails me” (Psalm 40:13, NABRE). Before I know it, I can cross the property line, make the trek into the distant country, and find myself far from the Father's house. For those of us who have made the trek at some point, or points, in our lives, we know the desolation of being in that land of famine.

Bootstraps Won't Work Here

We need a savior to restore the relationship. In the economy of salvation, there is no room for the All-American, “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality. In fact, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re the ones who made the mess we need salvation from. Do we honestly think we can make our way out of our messes, using the same mind and will that created them in the first place? Left to our own devices, we usually make things far worse.

The Good News is, God’s love is so much greater than our sins. “He has not dealt with us as our sins merit, nor requited us as our wrongs deserve” (Ps 103:10, NABRE). In Jesus, we experience redemption. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us” (Ps 103:12, NABRE).

God hears our cries for mercy and heeds them with tender compassion and love. We cry, with the psalmist, “Look upon my affliction and suffering; take away all my sins” (Ps 25:18, NABRE). And God responds with the Word who was made flesh, Jesus. We encounter the merciful Lord in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance. In Jesus Christ, God reaches down to extend his hand of friendship in the midst of the messes of our lives. To borrow a line from Robert Browning, "Such ever was love's way: to rise, it stoops” (A Death in the Desert). 

Such is God's merciful way.

In the next post, we'll look at the power of forgiveness, one of the most powerful defenses against the Enemy who seeks to destroy our relationship with God and one another.