Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Light and The Occult

I am out of town for a few days, so I will not be giving a homily this weekend. However, many have asked that I write something on the nature of the occult. This won't be a systematic treatment; more of a few reflections from my experiences as a young priest. This topic always generates the most conversation and question. There is a fascination in it-- seen most clearly in the proliferation of TV shows dealing with this-- that I find rather unhealthy. Hopefully, after reading this article, you will be quick to leave hornets' nests alone and be quick to cling to the Almighty-- Almighty!-- God.

There are many reasons why I believe that the Catholic Church is true. But recently I have come to another reason—and from an unexpected place.

I was standing in the checkout line at Kohl’s, buying what priests buy at Kohl’s: black pants and black socks. My turn came to check out and, as I handed the clerk my items, I could tell he was visibly taken aback at the sight of me. With a kind of surprise in his voice, he stammered: “Are you a priest?” I sure am. “You do exorcisms, right?” Um, sure, kind of. Why? “Because there is something dark in my apartment and I’ve tried everything. I think I need a priest.”

Now, I’m at Kohl’s. Kohl’s. There are other people around me. And here we are, talking about exorcisms. Not about whether or not I want 10% off my purchase by signing up for a free Kohl’s charge account. We’re talking about exorcisms.

I’m not quite sure what to say. After all, I just came in for black socks. So, I ask him if he is a Catholic. “No, I’m a Baptist. But I know that you guys can take care of things like this.”

Ok, sure. Yeah. Um, ok. I pull out my business card—which does not have the word “exorcist” anywhere on it—and I hand it to the clerk. Call me and we’ll talk about it. He thanks me and I exit stage left.

Now, this encounter alone provided me much material about which to think. And it would have been enough. But this has happened to me several times. A phone call to my office from a non-denominational believer, talking about things that you would only see in horror movies: an unknown blackness in the house, doors forcibly closing and inexplicably locking shut, pictures moving. And I’d get another phone call and another. A random conversation at a youth sporting event. Time and time again, people saying, “You’re a priest, right? Certainly, you can help me…”

And so, the reason—another reason—why I am convinced of the Catholic faith: when push comes to shove, where do people go for help? The Catholic priest.

Catholics, non-denoms, Baptists, agnostics—when they are face to face with the reality of such darkness, they may try neo-Christian and New Age remedies, but without fail they come (and often with embarrassment for not having come sooner) to the Catholic priest. And I wonder: Isn’t that odd? They turn towards the Catholic priest.

I have found it the case, many times in fact, that a person might not believe in God or Jesus or religion, but so often they do believe that there is a devil. And I’ve also found that it really scares them. Usually, it’s a joke at first—a picture moving or a feeling of something being haunted—but then it’s not a joke anymore. And they want out. They want to be done with whatever it was that has been causing this whatever-you-want-to-call-it. And so I get the phone call.

When I get a phone call, I ask a series of questions—about family history, history of the place, mental state, actions that may or may not have been done. Now, I am not an exorcist, but I was told in the seminary to ask some basic triage questions and, if the situation was beyond my knowledge and ability, to seek out a more senior priest. But the triage questions would alert us to a basic understanding and give us an ability to accurately evaluate.

This is because behind the questions there are themes, patterns – doors, if you will—that exorcists have time and time again witnessed that, when such doors are opened, almost always lead to some serious problems. These have been confirmed again and again in my confessional when people come with all of the hallmarks of demonic influence and I ask them if they have opened any one of these doors. 100% of the time—yes, 100%-- they have opened at least one of these doors. And 100% of the time, they had no clue that opening the door would lead them to the point now where they are a mess in my confessional. For most people, they thought that what they were doing was just a game, just funny stuff that kids, teenagers, or 20-somethings do. But in the confessional, they aren’t laughing anymore. It wasn’t a game. It was real. Really real.

So, what I am about to say is not intended to scare you, nor to glorify evil. But I do want to let you know some of the biggest pitfalls out there with the hope that you will inform yourself and others and thus steer clear of some really nasty stuff. There are some who, in arrogance or in disbelief, will dismiss all of this. My experiences—and the experiences of many priests and also the possessed—testify that such disbelieving positions are not only naïve, but dangerous.

I say dangerous because when we are dealing with spiritual things, we are dealing with powers greater than us—angels and demons (ie, fallen angels) are both stronger than humans and should never be trifled with as like a game or a toy poodle. There is a reason why Jesus Himself tells us to pray: “Deliver us from evil.”

All of this does have a positive consequence: if we agree that the demonic has power, then so too—and to a greater extent—does the godly. The demonic is a perversion of the godly—an attempt to sell what seems godly (secret knowledge, power, riches) at the expense of the real thing.

That said, I am going to describe three doors and my experiences of them—and provide what it is that these doors try to pervert.

The séance and the Ouija board. My first experience where I realized that a séance was not a game came when I was in high school. A good friend of mine was going to have a séance at his house. It was in good fun and in experimentation. A lot of things happened during it—some things about death, which the guys joked about and simply dismissed. After the séance, however, one of the participants was in a car accident on the ride home that could only be described as a “freak accident.” I myself have witnessed things being spelled out, secret knowledge being made known, and things like Ouija boards unable to be burned. During my questions to those who deal with demonic problems, this is one of the most prolific doors being opened—often because it is seen as just a game or something sensationalized by TV but something portrayed as not really real. They wonder where this "tired weight" or "clinging dread" has come from, or why they slowly became unhappy or turned to drugs-- This was often at the start.

I was horrified when, just this week, I was alerted to a séance being done by some local high school students as part of a party. A religious sister found out that it was going to happen and gave one of the parents holy water to pass on. The sister was right to do this, but the reality is that holy water doesn’t help when a door like this is being opened. Once this door has been opened, it's open. Anything can come through and often does. Those who have used Ouija boards or participated in séances need to see a priest immediately so that the door can be closed and the wounds healed.

What does this attempt to pervert? Prayer and the Intercession of the Saints.

A second door: Horror movies, violent video games, and pornography. The fact is that some things cannot be un-watched. The mind is to be filled with and contemplate the True, Good, and the Beautiful. Horror and porn do precisely the opposite. Study after scientific study is showing how these things alter the brain. Exorcist after holy exorcist keep on telling how these things also affect the soul’s perception of reality and ability to love. Constant contact with the dark makes the soul dark. Once again, I cannot even begin to tell you about how much damage this causes. It is the sin most confessed and the sin most regretted: for the destruction to marriage, to the family, to the person’s livelihood, for the destruction to their imagination, to their ability to love, to their ability to hope and to think and to see beauty. It opens the soul to so many other terrifying problems. To walk through this door—even casually—is to step out on a precipice from which a fall would mean a slavery worse than Pharoah's and quite possibly the destruction of the soul. Seek out a priest for help immediately!

This door attempts to pervert Holy Adoration, The Cross, and Nuptial Love

A third door: tarot cards, curses, Masonic involvement, witchcraft, horoscopes. Two of my absolute worst cases came from those who used tarot cards and whose relatives were performing witchcraft. There is a whole culture here and the stuff that I encountered was horrifying—it was so frightening that I immediately contacted the holiest and most seasoned priest I knew. Second to this was those who were involved in Masonic lodges and, more, those involved in their rituals. St. Maximillian Kolbe, a great martyr saint of the 20th century, witnessed firsthand what the lodges were really about; he tells how when they marched against the Catholic Church in Rome, they would carry banners where Lucifer stood with a sword over St. Michael the Archangel. Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical letter, Humanum Genus (On Freemasonry), diagnosis the issue quite clearly when he says that such things establish their own religion against God. To do so—effectively separating oneself from the power of God—leaves a person naked and vulnerable to whatever vile thing may come. This is tough to remedy for it is the very religion of God that has been spurned. What, therefore, will save the soul? Souls that realize their error here should run immediately to a priest.

This door attempts to pervert the Power and Providence of God, Obedience to Him, and the Power of Blessings.

Much more can be said, but this is the major stuff.

I cannot underscore enough, therefore, the need to go to confession if one has been involved in any of this stuff. Go before the wound gets worse!—before it actually starts to hurt!-- before it is incurable! You may need to renew your baptismal promises (wherein you reject Satan, etc). I once had a person so involved in the occult that while she knew she was hurting from it, she literally could not renew her baptismal promises. She had dabbled in the occult as merely a game, and here she was unable to reject the devil! She was the nearest I have been to a full blown demonic possession.

After confession, the use of blessed salt and the St. Benedict medal is huge. Both involve an exorcism and a prayer specifically for protection against evil. I always encourage having a crucifix at hand—a rosary in the pocket or a crucifix on the bedside table. The Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel is a powerful weapon. The Rosary and Our Blessed Mother is crucial—she who crushes the head of the serpent. The Name of Jesus—just saying “Jesus” over and over—has won for me an incredible number of victories.

Remember: the power of God is more powerful than the devil! How powerful a blessing is over a curse! Two gathered in God's name in prayer is greater than a seance! Adoration over a movie! Jesus over all! 

Stay in a state of grace. Receive absolution often and the Most Blessed Sacrament worthily. Be diligent. Don’t be foolish. This is not child’s play. If it were, why would St. Paul tell you to put on spiritual armor? (see Ephesians 6) or to receive the Eucharist worthily since we "drink judgment" on ourselves? (1 Corinthians 11) There is a battle going on. Don’t be a casualty of war. Don’t go AWOL. Stay close. Get healed. Win.

So, there are some of my experiences. Some may call this sheer lunacy or fanatical. But these are experiences that I know that other priests have had too-- holier and smarter ones than me.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Wheat and The Problem of Evil - Homily for the 16th Sunday in OT

Enemies sowing weeds in another person’s wheat field… It was a passive aggressive revenge not uncommon in Jesus’ day. But the revenge is more sinister than just the annoyance of weeds. The weed which was sown was called “cockle.” Cockle was a weed that even the trained farmer’s eye would be unable to tell from wheat—there was little difference between the two—until the grain, or the fruit, began to show. The grain of cockle would be emaciated whereas the wheat would be full and healthy. The grain of cockle would be worthless, bitter, and—here’s what is so sinister—it would be poisonous to humans. Thus, an enemy who would sow this weed in a wheat field would not only weaken the wheat crop, but he would also poison the food supply. And given that bread was a huge staple—so huge that Jesus warned that one cannot live by bread alone—sowing such weeds would really be disastrous to life itself.

Thus, this parable isn’t just about weeds and wheat. It’s about good and evil, where they come from, and how it all affects our life.

In our modern era (as in the past), there are many obstacles to faith, one of the biggest being the problem of evil. People ask: Why is there evil in the world? If God is a good God and he made everything good, then why is there evil? In other words, where have the weeds come from?

Jesus answers this question. He says, An enemy has done this.

“An enemy.” When Jesus explains the parable, He says the enemy who sows [the weeds] is the devil. Here is the answer to where evil comes from. It comes not from God, but from the devil.

But this does not answer the question of why. Why is there evil in the world?

We must answer this by another route, by considering the nature of evil and by asking how the devil went bad—that is, how did he become an enemy?

Here, a lot can be said, but we must be brief. What it boils down to is that the devil chose to be separated from God. Evil is the result of that separation. This makes sense, for if God is goodness itself and the source of all goodness, then to be separated from God is to be separated from what is good—which is to say, evil. Look at the trees: a branch cut off from a tree is no longer part of the tree; the branch no longer participates in the life of the tree; the branch cannot receive any of the tree’s nourishment. In fact, such a separated branch is no longer identified as part of that particular tree. It is just a dead branch. So too, persons separated from the God who is goodness itself cannot pretend to call themselves good—they are evil—precisely because of the separation that they have chosen. Evil is a carving out. Here we realize that the devil became an enemy by choice, not by creation. God does not create enemies. Enemies create themselves.

So, the really deep question to the problem of evil is this: why does God allow us to choose?

The answer lies in the nature of love. Love cannot be forced; love cannot be imposed. It must be chosen. Otherwise, it isn’t love. Love, therefore, allows a space for that choice—a space whether weeds or wheat can grow. God sows for the growth of wheat; the devil sows for the growth of weeds.

Once again, we are placed face to face with the foolishness of God. Why does God allow this space? Why would God allow evil to grow alongside holiness?

To answer these questions, we again must take another route and consider the nature of God’s kingdom and ask: why don’t we just kick all of the sinners out of our church and make it pristine?

Jesus starts us on our way. He says, because, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. What does this mean?

Firstly (and obviously) it means that there is a connection between the weeds and the wheat.

So, on the one hand, there is a connection in their appearance. As we mentioned earlier, even the discerning farmer may not be able to distinguish between the cockle and the wheat. He is going to have to wait and see for the fruit. So, notice the emphasis on you: if you pull up... If you judge your brother as being a weed, you actually might uproot the wheat [which he may be or may become!]. We may think we have a good grasp on the difference between the wheat and the cockle-- and maybe we do. But Jesus uses this to show that, really, we can’t be the ultimate judge; another’s heart is deeper than our ability to harvest it.

Jesus will pull up the weeds and the wheat at harvest time-- at the end of time. Until then, we have to wait. Wait for the fruit to show.

So, does this mean that we simply co-exist? simply tolerate each other? Wheat and weeds holding hands together until then?

Notice that Jesus uses other parables within this one to describe the kingdom. So, for example, within this very discourse he interrupts himself by telling us of the parable of the yeast: that the people of God are like yeast that are supposed to grow and affect the culture of the dough, not by simply living within the dough and keeping it stagnant, but by living in it in such a way that it makes the culture rise and become something greater than itself.

Only in light of the totality of the parables can we see the meaning of the weeds and the wheat; the other parables round it out, if you will.

The key to unlock all of this is when we consider that Jesus is the Kingdom of God—that Jesus is the bread of finest wheat. Not the bread of cockle; not the bread that doesn’t rise. Jesus is the bread of finest wheat; he is the bread that rises. So too, then, is his kingdom!

If God should allow the holy to live among the evil it is precisely because God wants the holy to be in union with Him who Himself became wheat among the weeds, He who loved the weedy sinner so much that He should dwell among them—and not just simply to walk among them and co-exist with them, but to suffer for them and to make them rise!

If God should allow the holy to live among the evil it is precisely so that the holy, by being in union with such a Love, may as well pray and live and suffer so as to make the culture rise! And, in so doing, the wheat would grow, and grow and mature in love, and then… then bear fruit!

Now we can clearly answer why God allows evil in the world. First, we can say that he allows evil so as to provide a space for the choice of love. Second, we can say that God does not make the world pristine but allows holiness and evil to grow together precisely to offer humanity a chance to grow in that same kind of love that he had for us: a love that dwelled among us and suffered for us so that we may rise.

There will come a time for the harvest, when the world will be made whole and prestine-- the burning of weeds and the rejoicing of the wheat. For now, there is time... time which exists precisely for the growth in love.

All of this, like an ear of grain, is pregnant with hope.

If God had no hope for us, he would have just burned the whole thing up. The very fact that God creates a space for such a choice and for such living itself bespeaks the reality that he has hope for us—hope that we will choose well, hope that we will bear good fruit.

I hope this strengthens our faith. I hope it strengthens our patience with ourselves and others—for God has not yet pulled up the weeds and wheat—so why should we?

I hope this increases our resolve to ask the Lord to give us growth and to turn our soul into the kind of soul that bears good fruit in the world.

I hope this increases our desire to be carried into the heavenly kingdom at harvest time….

I hope it turns our hearts away from the enemy, but to God...

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Foolish Sower & The Foolish Soil - Homily for the 15th Sunday in OT

Where does the Sower sow the seed? Is it just on the good soil? We hear that he sows everywhere—on the good soil and on the bad. This strikes me as odd… wasteful… foolish.

Usually when I hear this parable, I firstly think about what kind of soil I am and what I must do to become rich soil. But today I am struck by the foolishness of the Sower. He is sowing everywhere and I am tempted to say, “Golly, what a waste of good seed. What a foolish Sower. Why would he do such a thing?”

It’s a rhetorical question. But it does have an answer. And the answer comes when we ask God a simple question in return: Who or what is the seed?

The Seed

Jesus responds by saying that the seed is the Word. Ummm, ok. The Word. … Does that mean the Bible? The Gospel of John helps clear things up. In the first chapter, first verse we read:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God….

The Word was God! So, wait: the seed is the word and the word is God. This means that the seed is God. Is this right? Is the Sower sowing…God?

Well, yes.

And John further qualifies and tells us who the Word is. He says:

 the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… (Jn 1:14)

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us? God becoming man… that’s Jesus!  So, let me get this straight: the seed is the word, the word is God, God became flesh… So that means…. the Seed is Jesus!

So when we hear about the Sower sowing seed into various kinds of soil, what is happening is that the Father is sowing Jesus into various kinds of hearts throughout the world.

The Sowing

That’s pretty helpful when we try to understand this parable. But I have an another question now: what does this word “sowing” really mean?

Well, what happens to seed when it is sown? What must happen in order for it to bring forth fruit? Jesus answers this at the beginning of Passion Week when He says, Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (Jn 12:24).

This means that the Sowing is the Father pouring forth His Son even unto death. Jesus is the grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies—and by dying, bears much fruit.

This actually leads us to our first reading today. It said:

Just as from the heavens the rain and the snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be [that is, Jesus] that goes forth; my word [Jesus] shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent [Him].

The Father sends the Son like water from the heavens to make the earth fruitful; He sends His Son to give seed to the Sower, and bread (bread! Eucharist?) to the one who eats. And why? “to achieve the end for which I sent him” And what is the end which Jesus is sent to achieve? That at the harvest, you may have eternal life.

The Fool of a Sower

So, let’s return to the beginning. Does that Father sow only in the good soil? – in only those good souls who are like, “yeah, yeah, give me Jesus?” No, He sows everywhere!—even on the rocky soil where others tell Him that he won’t get anything out of sowing there. He pours forth His Son there too.

Let that sink in a for a moment….

God pours out his Son, gives Him up for death, pouring His blood out upon all of us here: both the sinner and the saint, whether you are the busy path or the hard rocky heart. And to what purpose: “to achieve the end for which I sent Him”—to bring you to heaven.

I had started this homily by wondering why God would be so foolish as to do this. It doesn’t seem so foolish anymore—we see that it shows the extent of His love. He wants everyone—every path, every rock, every field with thorns, every person of every kind of soul to have his love.

But… But not everyone responds! So isn’t the Father wasting good seed—in fact the best seed, His Son—by doing this? Yes. God is a fool.

He is a fool in love. And fools in love lavish the most expensive gifts on each other. And what could be more expensive than the Son? What more could God give to you? And if there was more, wouldn’t He give it to you?

What is our response to this?

To Bear Fruit

There was a Dominican Priest—his name was Jean Corbon. He lived in Beruit during the Lebanese civil war. As bombs were shaking his apartment, Father Corbon was doing something: he was writing the entire fourth part of the catechism—the section on Prayer (which really only deepens our appreciation of that section of the Catechism). That all said, Father Corbon was basically a spiritual Arnold Schwarzenegger and very much admired among priests. When I remember him, I remember one of the most powerful things I’ve ever heard a priest say. He said:

 “The most fruitful activity of the human person is to be able to receive God.”

More productive than meetings and work, more productive than investing, more productive than sports practice and getting sleep—more productive than anything: the most fruitful activity of the human person is to be able to receive God. When we receive Jesus into our lives, we are made capable of so much more than would could possibly imagine.

The question is, how? How do we receive Him? How do we transform a rocky heart, or a busy path of a heart, or a heart choked by the thorns of the world?

The answer: tilling and composting. I’m being serious.

Merciful Tilling

This insight came when I spoke with a few friends who had to literally transform their rocky, clay backyard soil into rich soil where they could plant and bear fruit. One of the things they said was a big help was tilling and composting. When they weeded their garden, those weeds and thorns went into the composter. When they had food that they didn’t eat from their table, it went into the composter. Add the heat of the sun, some daily care, and within a few months the composter was yielding rich soil.

Of course, my friends couldn’t just put the rich soil right on top of the clay that they had in their back yard (a good rain would wash the rich soil away). So, they had to till and break up the clay and work the rich soil in.

What does this mean for us? Well, sometimes we have to let God till us and break us up. And sometimes we have to spiritually compost.

God tills us by making us weak enough to receive him. Yes—weak enough to receive Him. It sounds foolish, but there is actually wisdom in this. When I’m strong, I think it’s all up to me. Or when I’m comfortable, I feel as though I have no need for Jesus and I become hard and unreceptive to Him. I need to become weak enough to receive. God’s spiritual tilling does this.

In fact, I once made this my prayer: “Lord, make we weak enough to receive you; break my rocky heart.”

I got a stomach flu that week. But during that flu, I prayed the hardest I had ever prayed. We do that right, when we are sick. We pray, “O God…. Oh…!” Ah, so now when we aren’t comfortable, we realize we need Him! “God, I’m sorry I forgot you… Can you help me now???”

This alerts us to the fact that sometimes when we want our fallen brothers and sisters to return to the faith, sometimes God will have to till and break them too—through an illness or a death or some kind of loss or disappointment. Do not dread this moment; it could be the tilling that opens them up to receive the faith. We call this a “severe mercy.” And sure: we don’t like to see people suffer; but sometimes it is necessary for their salvation.

Sacrificial Composting

The other way to get a good heart is spiritual composting. Spiritual composting is giving God whatever it is that keeps us from Him and saying, “Lord, I love you more than…” I love you more than my money; I love you more than my calendar; I love you more than my being comfortable. I love you more than whatever it is that keeps me from you or which tempts me to sin.” When we give God whatever it is that keeps us from Him and we allow him to break those things down, we are given in return a good, rich soil—a soil that can finally receive Jesus, a soil that can bear the weight of a yield of 30, 60, or 100-fold.

All who have been called to priesthood, religious life, or married life know this. Every married couple must come face-to-face with the decision of choosing either a comfortable lifestyle or a family full of life—which is often uncomfortable. One of these has to go into the composter. And only one will make us rich soil and bear fruit.

As a priest, there came a time when God asked: “Do you love me more than having a family of your own?” Now, I didn’t want to put this in the composter. I wanted to hold on to this possibility—you know, married, having three or four kids.... Eventually, I trusted and I put my plans in the composter and wouldn’t you know it, the Lord has yielded 30, 60, 100-fold in my life. I never expected what would come out. I don’t have 3 or 4 kids who hug me each morning-- when school is in session, I have 3 or 4 hundred.

And it's not just regarding life-decisions. If you’ve gone on a retreat, you know that feeling of going without so much of our electronics and anxieties; there, we realize how much we didn’t need them and how they have kept us from going deeper. Lent does the same thing.

You see, we worry about sacrificing because we believe that thing we sacrifice is lost forever or that we are being foolish. We are even told by others that we are wasteful or foolish.

Well, God promises and indeed shows us today that your sacrifice is not a waste! It will bear fruit! Fools in love will sacrifice anything for their love. And God will honor that foolish love!

So, the question is: for who or for what are we sacrificing? Whether we know it or not, we are already sacrificing some things over other things. Are they the right things? Are they the highest thing? Do they open us up to receive God? Do they make rich soil in your life so that He can plant Jesus in you and bear fruit in you?

"I love you more than anything else” He says. As we receive Jesus in the Eucharist—as He literally plants Himself in us—ask Him to show you how He wants to open your heart and transform you. Maybe He is waiting for your permission to till you; maybe He is waiting for you to compost that which keeps you from going deeper with Him.

Let us turn to Mary, the one who was made pure and holy by God’s love and who is the perfect soil, totally receptive to God, and who bore the most perfect of fruit: Jesus Himself and our salvation. Mary, help us to receive Jesus! Help us to bear great fruit!

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Yoke of Love - Homily for the 14th Sunday in OT

Do you know about the Easy Button? The Easy Button comes from an office supply company commercial and it is supposed to be some magical button that, when you press it, everything is solved and you get what you want—without any work whatsoever. It’s red and it says, “Now that was easy!” The Easy Button.

I mention this because a few summers ago, I had the privilege of hiking Mt. Whitney in California. Mt. Whitney is the tallest mountain in the lower 48, and, at 14,500 feet, you can imagine that the hike kicked my butt in pretty much every way. At the top, there was a special box where you could sign-in and record your accomplishment. Of course, people also leave all sorts of things in the box. And wouldn’t you know it? In this box and next to the sign-in sheet there was… a red Easy Button.

I laughed. “Now that was easy”?  Baloney! That was not easy!

(But, between you and me, I quietly wished for an Easy Button to get me back down the mountain…)

 “My yoke is easy, my burden is light.” Years ago when I heard these words, I did not like them. I thought they were too easy, like an Easy Button: a fantasy and ultimately a flippant response to real and gut-wrenching problems. “My yoke is easy, my burden is light”? – Baloney, Jesus! My dad died of a sudden heart attack. And before that, he had spinal tumors. And before that he lost his job and went through a messy divorce. So, “My yoke is easy, my burden is light”? Baloney!

I thought it was things like this that led people like Karl Marx to say that religion was just an opiate for the masses—we being the druggies and the priest being the drug dealer—a fantasy solution to real-world problems. So it became easy to dismiss this whole Jesus and religion thing.

Instead, I went in search for “real answers.” Marx seemed to be a realist, so why not look to him? And as I studied him and his theories, in books and lived by various nations throughout human history, I realized that Marx’s supposed real-world solutions led to even greater real-world problems and, ironically, many of those problems concerned those whom Jesus addressed today: namely, those who labor and are burdened. I noticed how workers were separated from the fruits of their labor and, worse, because there was no religion, there was nothing to keep men from making other men into machines.

But I wasn’t a machine. I knew I had a heart—a heart that hurt when any one of my loved ones hurt.

Marx told me to just keep working. That was his Easy Button. And I didn’t like it. It was inhumane. It didn’t recognize that I have a heart. Ultimately, I found that Marx’s yoke was heavy—it was slavery. The yoke was on me.

I could continue to tell you the nitty-gritty of my life, but I will summarize by saying that, after Marx, I found myself yoked to so many things, enslaved to so many false promises of an easy life free of suffering. Yoke after yoke brought me deeper and deeper into meaningless suffering caused by slavery: slavery to my phone, slavery to an endless string of days without rest, slavery to seemingly insatiable desires that seemed impossible to fill. Yoke after heavy yoke.

And yet, in that heavy weight of darkness, the voice of the Lord spoke once again: My yoke is easy. My yoke is easy.

I remembered that, historically, Jesus had a life of carrying heavy burdens. He knew suffering, right? He knew what it was like to be under the heavy weight of life. And still he says “My yoke is easy, my burden is light.” What if these weren’t easy-button or flippant words? What if these words came from a God-man who knew suffering and had something deep to tell us?

That something deep came when I remembered that Christians call God “Father.” As a father, I know that when we love our children, we literally feel their burdens. I’m sure all the parents out there know this: as they suffer, we suffer too. And why? Because we love them. So, when I remembered that God is Father, it became very clear to me that God suffers—not only because of the Cross, but because of the love he has for his children.

Love. This is the yoke that Jesus is talking about. This is the yoke that is easy and the burden that is light.

But more than just telling us how he is going to help us with our burdens, Jesus is firstly telling us something about his love for us. When He says, “My yoke is easy, my burden is light,” He is saying: I love you so much that I don’t care how much I have to suffer for you; even the greatest suffering, when it is for you, is light. 

It is really quite amazing—romantic, even—when we hear it this way.

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” Receive my love, learn how it changes everything—even the weight of your suffering.

This was no easy-button answer. It didn’t avoid the suffering nor dismiss it or wish it away. Instead, and for the first time, it took my suffering seriously—it came from someone who knew my suffering deeply. Jesus was reaching into the very depths of my suffering and fears and was saying: you know what, your life is not absurd; there is meaning here and it goes straight to the deepest longings of your heart.

Jesus was saying: “Come to me.” Come to me. Come to me and I will give you rest. I have suffered for you. Let me help you with my love. Come to me. When you’re feeling worn down by the world, don’t go to the TV. Come to me. When you feel stressed out or anxious or frustrated, don’t go to the old yokes of alcohol, porn, gossip, or wrath—they just make things worse and the burden heavier. Come to me. And I will give you rest.

When I got down on my knees in prayer, coming to the Lord, I will admit that I didn’t feel this rest at first. All the other yokes had left me restless, searching, enslaved—life was totally up to me, every day had become a work day, I couldn’t sleep, I was overwhelmed, then burned-out, then cynical; everything had become a burden… It was going to take a little time to turn my ship around.

In time, when I trusted and opened my heart more to that Someone beyond myself, this God who suffers because He loves, I gradually found rest. Sure, I still had responsibilities to keep and I still would suffer—God does not pretend to take those away—but they finally had meaning, and not an easy-button or flippant meaning, but something deep and which responded to the reality and oftentimes messiness of life.

In fact, as I look back, I realize that when I dismissed this Jesus and his words as baloney, I realize that I was the one who was flippant: I was the one who had minimized his suffering and thus I had minimized his love. And because of that, I had minimized his power to reach into the depths of my greatest fears and sufferings and longing. I had to ask myself: where was my heart? where was my love?

Let us hear his words with new ears, attuned to his suffering for love of us: “Come to me, all you who are labored and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for my yoke is easy, my burden is light.” Let us come to Him now in trust and in love.