Heaven is like… Heaven is… How do you describe heaven? We, as Christians, are aware of heaven as the experience where we will come to know as the greatest joy of our existence. We may try to explain heaven as similar to the feelings associated with an extraordinary moment in one’s life – a wedding day or the birth of a child. Or we may attempt to make the connections with heaven through sensory events such as the smell and the beauty of a hillside of colorful flowers or the taste and smell of eating a piece of warm blueberry pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Most of us, on reflection, can give an example of how we would imagine heaven. However, no matter the extent of our imagination and sensations, we cannot easily describe the kingdom of heaven. We will not fully appreciate heaven until we leave our mortal bodies and return the embrace of God’s loving arms.
What then is your greatest desire? This might be a leading question after our thoughts about heaven but if we really think about it, there can only one choice. Unfortunately, there is a growing number of people who question the presence of God in their lives, and their greatest desire may lead to something they can physically experience. For those who have no concerns about the entry into heaven, they concentrate on extracting as much happiness as imaginable in this life. These individuals strive to seek to fulfill all their fantasies, to own the fastest car, to possess the newest electronics, or go on the perfect vacation and their list becomes never-ending. Even after all these experiences, there is still something missing. They race through life and never find the elusive ability to be happy. Often we shake our heads and think how tragic these people are, who live extravagant lifestyles but still suffer from drug abuse, divorces or suicide.
If we consider our lives, how often do we fall into the same trap of “if only …then I will be happy?” TV, radio and online advertisers promise that we will find happiness if we buy their product. Buy this car, and you can enfold yourself in luxury. You will have a more satisfying social life if you lose that extra weight by buying our exercise machine or trying this special diet pill. If you buy these designer jeans, then people will flock to you since you demonstrate such great taste in clothing style.
However, within a few months, the car loses its newness as it gets keyed and dented by door dings or hailstones, and there is that lingering smell from when one of the kids threw up on the backseat. The advertisers did n’t comment that car isn’t afford to drive it as drinks up gas like a camel coming in from the desert. The exercise equipment becomes an extra clothing rack after a month when those extra pounds have not fallen off as promised. The designer jeans end up hidden in a closet, after a few months, because they are no longer in style and they didn’t fit that well. Even after these frustrating experiences, we still watch and contemplate about the newest model car that parks itself, phones with fold-up screens or the clothes the wealthy are wearing this year. We still fall into the trap and make that purchase believing we will finally find satisfaction.
The idea of “If only I get this or do this, then I will be happy” is an illusion, whether we are rich or poor, famous or ordinary. We lie to ourselves that things will fulfill our deepest desires. We lie to ourselves that we can buy happiness. No matter the money or the dreams, heaven will not be found on earth. If we were to achieve all of our desires today, tomorrow will we still not hunger for something? Will, we not still encounter sorrow? Will, we not still experience someone’s hatred?
Suffering, hunger, and poverty whether physical or spiritual are a part of our human condition. We cannot magically make these afflictions disappear. It is easy to say we have faith but is much more challenging to live out our faith. Our trials and tribulations provide us with the opportunities to grow in faith. Only by turning to the saving power of God will we have relief from our daily suffering and realize the only place where there is true happiness is in heaven.

Our soul waits for the Lord;
he is our help and shield.
Our heart is glad in him,
because we trust in his holy name.
Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
even as we hope in you. (Psalms 33:20-22)

Deacon Dan Gilbert

Fith Sunday Ordinary Time 2019

      How often do we come to a crossroads and need to decide which direction to take? How do we chose, flip a coin – heads go left, and tails go right? Or do we stand far too long deliberating on the choice where either direction leads us into the unknown? In our daily lives, we daily encounter many crossroads that may have very lasting effects on our lives.  We chose and sometimes only later realize the positive or negative result of our decisions.  The primary characters in the three readings today Isaiah, Paul, and the Apostle Simon Peter find themselves at such crossroads of choosing the way of the Lord or resume their established lifestyle ignoring the opportunity to serve God.
      In every reading this weekend, the characters are offered a choice to follow God or continue with their safe, predictable life.  God called Isaiah to become his prophet and admonish the Jews to return to the ethical practices of justice and charity and depend on God for deliverance from the Assyrians invaders and not on alliances with human kings. Knowing the stubbornness of the Jews and the size of the Assyrian horde, Isaiah questions his ability to speak God’s message effectively. Instead of being struck down at visualizing the glory of God on his throne, Isaiah recognizes the significance of his calling to prophesy. With the purification of his tongue, Isaiah, at a crossroad of faith, turns toward God with the words “Here I am, send me.” Isaiah would predict God’s judgment of the unrepentant Jews with fall of Jerusalem. Isaiah remained faithful to proclaiming the words of God even after the Assyrians exiled him to die in a foreign land. Today we still hear the words of Isaiah pleading with us to find favor with God by changing our lives, seeking justice and charity for others to avoid the eternal pains of eternal separation from God.
      Paul, comments in First Corinthians, that he also responded to God’s call after experiencing his dramatic conversion. Paul, as a reverent Jew, had used his faith to persecute the followers of Jesus. It was upon hearing the voice of Jesus and his blindness along the road to Damascus that Paul experienced his crossroad of faith. He chose Jesus and began the Great Commission to convert the Gentiles. Paul, supplied by the grace of the Holy Spirit, no longer hounded the non-Jews but embraced them with beliefs of Jesus. In turning down the road to follow Jesus, Paul became the advocate and preacher to the Gentiles. Paul persecuted and eventually martyred, actions he once promoted against the Christians, would not turn away from the charge  Jesus gave him to evangelize the world.
      Simon Peter, in Luke’s Gospel today, too was at a crossroads of choice. This event was only one of many faith crossroads where Peter had to choose between his desires and Jesus, his teacher. Luke describes Peter’s hesitancy of dropping the nets into the water after an unsuccessful day of fishing. Peter, in exasperation, questioned Jesus’ command to reset the nets, a carpenter’s son who did not know about fishing. After being swamped with fish, Peter accepts that his sin of disbelief makes him unworthy to be a follower of Jesus. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus in accepting Peter plea for forgiveness consoles him with words “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” In faith, Peter and the others walked away from their boat and chose Jesus, still another crossroad in their faith journey.  Many more times would Peter make wrong choices, recognizes his wrongdoing, repent, and strive to pick the right road at the next crossroads. It only when Peter turns himself entirely over to the mission of Jesus, that Peter accepts the keys of the Church and confidently take the road to Rome, where he encounters his crucifixion and his salvation.
      What have been our choices when coming to a crossroad of faith?  Do we speak upon the discovery of an injustice? Or do we turn away and pretend we did not see?  Do we remain silent when others describe Catholics as non-Christian or do we boldly speak out correcting errors about our faith? Do we ignore the calls for volunteering and giving for the needs of the parish or do we cheerfully raise our hands and open our wallets? 
  Throughout our daily lives, we must make decisions at our crossroads–God’s way or ours? Committing to God may cause fear; fear of change; fear of being ridiculed; fear of feeling unworthy.  As Jesus says, “Do not be afraid” for God’s grace opens our eyes to the possibilities of bringing his message into the world of disbelief. Although we will not always pick the correct turn at the crossroads, our devotion to God will take us back to the road of salvation.
Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls. (Jeremiah 6:16)

Deacon Dan Gilbert

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Gospel today presents us with the rest of the story from last week’s Gospel. When we left off, Jesus had just proclaimed the reading from Isaiah describing the acts of the Messiah and then identified himself as the one who was to fulfill those words. His statement produced much amazement among those listening in the synagogue for they knew Jesus only as the son of a carpenter.
Then the next words of Jesus brought about an uproar from the people followed by threats to kill him. The Jews of Nazareth became offended because Jesus said that the Jews did not have exclusive rights to God’s love as they had long imagined. Jesus gave them examples from Scripture proving his point. Elijah cared for a widow and child by feeding them for an extended time on a little flour and oil then later restored life to her dead son. (See 1 Kings, Chapter 17) These miracles occurred during a God-induced drought because the Jews were worshiping Baal. The Gentile, Naaman, seeks out Elisha who miraculously cures him of his leprosy. (See 2 Kings, Chapter 5) These two ‘non-believers’ were under God’s watchful care even while Jewish widows starved, and their children died. Many Jewish men continued to suffer from leprosy without God’s intervention although Naaman was cured. God showered the widow and the man with his love even though they were not Jewish. When Jesus commented, that these Gentiles demonstrated more faith than the Jews of the time, the people from the synagogue were insulted by this idea.
The Jewish people did not want to hear Jesus’ words for they had grown complacent in their relationship with God. The Jews believed they had exclusive rights to God’s love and took their position for granted. Jesus challenged them to go beyond their comfort level, to acknowledge that others who were not Jews were also worthy of God’s love. He asked them to grow in their faith. However, their faith threatened, the Jews tried to kill Jesus by shoving him off a cliff. Acting out of love, instead of physically or verbally fighting back, he simply walks through the crowd and away from their evil intentions.
Disbelief is one issue God cannot correct, for he never forces us to believe. Each person must come to him freely. Often we think if only we witness a miracle by Jesus, then we would believe. Then we would know that God is real. However, in reading the Gospel stories, the witnessing a miracle did not guarantee a faith conversion. Many people observed the miracles of Jesus healing and driving out demons but still failed to come to the faith.
What is our response when we do not want to hear words that threaten our perceptions of faith? How often do we pick what we want to believe and dismiss anything that challenges us? If we allow his words to go in one ear and out the other without an effort at comprehension and reflection, we will not come to understand the Lord. His words need to stick with us. How will we understand love unless we hear his words?
We have not progressed much further than the Jews when we chose those ‘worthy’ of our love and lock doors of our heart against those deemed ‘not worthy.’ We then become distraught when Jesus does not restrict his love only to those whom we think are ‘worthy.’ Jesus’ love is universal. It is easy to say the words ‘I love you,’ but that statement must have teeth to it. Whether we want to accept it or not, we often use conditional love as a weapon in our dealings with others withholding until we get the love we desired. We cannot pick a selected few to love, and refuse even to acknowledge those who do not meet our expectations of being ‘worthy.’ Jesus reminds us that love cannot be limited to only those who will love us back.
Jesus, even at his death, loved those who were murdering him. Are we capable of loving those sinned against us? This question is one we must consider as we approach the time of our death. At the Judgment, the Lord is going to be interested in our acts of love and whether our faith was strong enough to love despite the threats of those who want to push us off a cliff.
What will be the rest of your story?
Deacon Dan Gilbert