Pray, Pay, and Obey?

This reflection is for the 5th Sunday of Lent, Cycle B, 3/18/2018.

I’ve often see young people wearing this logo. You may have seen it too. Ironically, (or sarcastically) it doesn’t mean to obey at all! Instead, it stands for a movement that makes a mockery of obedience. And, of course, their poster children are some of the worst dictators in history–not a hard sell when it comes to arguing for disobedience against tyrannical dictators! But surely we haven’t decided to disobey just for the sake of disobedience…have we? Yikes! I’m afraid maybe we have thrown the baby out with the bath water. Today’s Gospel, far from teaching us to disobey, instead reveals the wonderful fruit of obedience, namely the resurrection and the hope of salvation for all who believe.

I was once told by a less-than-devout Catholic, “Pray, pay, and obey! That’s what the Church is all about!” She went on to say that God has given her a conscience, which means that she doesn’t have to listen to anyone but herself! She confidently told me that she doesn’t have to learn any of the Church’s teachings because she doesn’t need anyone telling her what to do! (I’m pretty sure she has an OBEY sweatshirt in her closet!) Incidentally, she really was on to something. The Church DOES teach that we have a conscience, and that we must listen to and obey our conscience. The C.C.C. teaches, “By his reason, man recognizes the voice of God which urges him ‘to do what is good and avoid what is evil.’ Everyone is obliged to follow this law, which makes itself heard in conscience and is fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor” (1706). As I mentioned in an earlier post, each of us has the law of God written on our heart, and the Church teaches in the verse above, that we must obey that! The revealed law and church law do not seek to undermine or supplant that law written on our heart, but instead seek to clarify it, purify it, and apply it to the concrete situations in which we live. Listen, obedience is not bad! Obedience is very good! Obedience helps us to live undivided, fragmented, and broken lives. When we are whole, we can most easily love–and that’s Jesus’ great commandment!

Obedience in the Bible is all about love! Obedience is the fruit of love! Jesus himself, in John 14:15 says, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (emphasis mine). When we know how much God loves us, and we love God in return, then we obey. In fact, to disobey is almost always a revolt against the good. It is a revolt against God. We are in effect saying, “God I know what I should do, I know what your Church teaches, law teaches, and my own conscience teaches, but I’m not interested. I want to do my own thing!” And at that point we are divided within ourselves, between ourselves and our neighbors, and between ourselves and God. That is what we call sin. Sin is not breaking the law, it is breaking the most important relationships we have. Sin is a failure to obey God’s law of love. Love God and love our neighbor as our self. All sin is personal, but no sin is private.

With a life of disobedience, we cannot please God. If God’s commandment is to love, and we refuse to do so (disobedience) then we simply cannot share in the Kingdom of God. God does not kick us out, we choose not to live there! At the point of disobedience we are actually doing violence to God’s kingdom. Sad. Jesus came to show us a better way. Jesus’ whole life is a testimony to what the undivided heart can accomplish. Jesus teaches us that a human soul perfectly united to God has amazing power! Power to forgive, to heal, to feed, to show mercy, and to offer oneself entirely to another. From beginning to end Jesus teaches humanity how to properly love and obey God. The C.C.C. teaches, “The Son of God, who came down from heaven, not to do his own will, but the will of him who sent him.” (606) Jesus himself affirms, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.” (JN 4:34). In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “The Father loves me, because I lay down my life, for I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.” (JN 10:17) He shows us that it is possible to love and to sacrifice–not easy, but possible. If we find it too difficult to obey, we need only to draw closer to God.

Jesus’ whole life is marked by obedience to the will of His father on behalf of others. Do not think that this was not difficult for our Lord. We often excuse ourselves because we “are merely human” as though that somehow gets us off the hook! Jesus was human too…and he obeyed! He suffered and still obeyed. The letter to the Hebrews teaches very clearly that Jesus was entirely human and suffered greatly. We read, “In the days when Christ Jesus was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (HEB 5:7-9) In other words, in spite of the difficulty, he obeyed. In fact, it was through his suffering, that he was made perfect in his humanity!

Jesus knew something that many of us fail to ever truly discover, that the struggle, the suffering, the hardship, the dying to one’s own will, is precisely what is necessary for salvation. Jesus looked forward to the test. Jesus confronted to obstacle because he knew that it was only in the crucible of this earthly life that we are able to bind most perfectly to God. He knew that in the test our testimony comes to life. He knew that only in dying are we born to eternal life. Jesus teaches us in today’s Gospel, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” (JN 12:24-25)

Therein lies the secret to obedience. Obedience recognizes something greater than oneself is at stake. Soldiers obey orders because they know that when they agreed to serve that there comes a time when their commanding officer gives orders that they may or may not like, but they do them anyway–because it is what must be done. Obedience means that you’re not in charge, but are instead part of something much greater and that each one of us has an important part to play. Jesus admitted that he wasn’t looking forward to the cross–but that his obedience to the will of his father revealed his love for the father, and that through his obedience others would come to know life as well. He continues in verse 27, “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

Jesus’ obedience brings life…and so does our own. When we obey God’s will, as difficult as that can sometimes be, we become a source of life for others. When we choose to love, choose to be generous, choose to sacrifice for our children, our spouse, our neighbor, we share in God’s work of salvation. What an honor. What a privilege. We should have the words of our savior always on our lips during difficult times. Every time we are challenged to obey God’s will to love, we must pray, “I am trouble now. But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Obedience is not a bad thing. Obedience saved the world from sin and death 2,000 years ago and every moment since. What will you say when hard times come your way? Will you

Blessings, Stephen




By Deacon Stephen Valgos

Climbing the Mountain

This reflection is for the 2nd Sunday of Lent, Cycle B, 2/25/2018.

You may have heard the expression “a mountain top experience” before. What exactly is a mountain top experience, anyway? Well, if you’ve ever been on a mountain top, you won’t need my explanation, but if you have not…well, you won’t get it anyway, as the saying goes, you’ve just got to be there! And I soooo want you to be there. It’s amazing.

Today’s gospel begins with, “Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.” Much ink has been spilled on why Jesus took Peter, James, and John, up the mountain instead of others, but today my point is not who Jesus took, but where he took them, as the intro suggests.

Let me just start by saying, if you’ve never climbed Half-Dome, in Yosemite National Park (it’s the picture above), you need to add that to your bucket list! It’s amazing! I have climbed that mountain many times, and I keep going because it still amazes me each and every time. The last time I went, we went as a family. I just wanted my sons, Mark and Luke, to know how amazing it is. As you might imagine, there was no small amount of complaining both on the way up and on the way back down! Blisters, sore feet, not enough water, not enough snacks, dangerous cliffs, the Merced River gorged and overflowing! Let me just tell you that we took a lot of breaks, shed a lot of tears, and someone may or may not have called C.P.S. on more than one occasion! But my wife, two boys (9 and 11 years old), and I made it safely up and back. It was amazing…again.

“Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain,” the Gospel teaches. Funny that the Gospel writer never talked about what we all know is true of getting to the top of high mountains! Did they have granola? Where did they carry their water? Did they have walking sticks? Who complained the most–Peter, James, or John? Did they get blisters? I had hiking boots, and I’m pretty sure wearing sandals must have been considerably harder on the ‘ol Harley Feetersons. Listen, mountains haven’t changed! It was hard. They suffered getting up that high mountain! It took a long time. It was dangerous. And it was no doubt unpleasant. I’m quite sure the disciples kept asking, “How much farther, Jesus? Are we there yet?”

But then they arrived! That must have been a very good feeling! The air is fresher on the mountain. The view is beautiful. Things that seem so big and overwhelming when you’re in the valley look small and almost insignificant when you have a higher perspective. Being on the mountain puts everything into perspective. To top it all off, Jesus gave his disciples a most wonderful gift while up there–he revealed the fullness of his glory to them. He conversed with Elijah and Moses, and things were so good that Peter offered to set up a few tents so that they could stay a while. Yes, it’s good to be on the mountain! But that’s not where they are to stay. Just like that, Jesus and the disciples are alone on the mountain, the transfiguration is over, and it’s time to head back down the hill to the valley below with its dirty air, the stench of cities, its overcrowding, poverty, and brokenness.

The truth is that some of us have in fact been on “the mountain top.” There are no words that could ever express the feeling of being in the presence of God. The rest of the world seems to disappear, and we have but for a brief moment while on earth, a foretaste of the eternal glory for which we hope to enter into fully one day. And this is why we share the Gospel, share the truth that we have come to know and experience about God. It’s amazing. And we love it. And we want to share what we love with others so they too can experience it and know it. And here is the rest of the truth: it takes courage to begin, commitment to see it through in spite of the difficulty and discomfort, and discipline to stay focused on the prize.

To climb the mountain to God requires courage to pursue a life of virtue, a life of holiness, and a willingness to be a bit different than others around us. Discipleship is not for the weak of heart. Discipleship requires commitment to begin over and over again. We must be humble because we will stumble, we will fall, and we must continually get back up, brush ourselves off and begin again. We become acutely aware of our weakness and failings. We must also be disciplined in our moral life, our prayer life, and our family life. We know that the prize is great and so we willingly endure great suffering and sacrifice much to purify our will and align it with God’s. There will be blisters, some tears, and some aching spiritual muscles, but, oh, the view! To be on the mountain with God is AMAZING and makes the effort worthwhile.

We’re not about “saving souls for Jesus,” as though that were our job. No, that’s God’s job. Our job is to share the joy that we’ve found in being Jesus’ disciple, invite others to join us on a journey up the mountain, enjoy the moment, and get back down into the trenches again. Jesus’ mountain top experience with his disciples didn’t end on the mountain. They went down the mountain, and so must we. We help with the poor, the broken, and the needy. We volunteer our time at juvenile and adult detention facilities. We advocate for those who have no voice–the marginalized, the incarcerated, the homeless, the unborn, the elderly, and the earth itself. We choose the poor and powerless as our companions, bind ourselves to them, and lift them up. This is what Jesus did, and it’s what we are called to do.

Ironically, it is in these trenches that we climb our mountain, and it is in these trenches that Jesus is transfigured before us in the poor and needy. So a wonderful gift to see Jesus in those we serve. Thank you, Jesus. And if we continue “to climb” while in these trenches, we will indeed spend eternity on the mountain. I hope God’s mountain is on your bucket list too. Join me.

Lenten blessings, as you climb your mountain this season.


By Deacon Stephen Valgos

A Second Helping of Desert, Anyone?

This reflection is for the 1st Sunday of Lent, Cycle B, 2/18/2018.

Today’s Gospel begins with St. Mark telling us that, “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts…”

Is it just me or…I mean, what the heck was the Spirit thinking?! No sooner is Jesus baptized, whereby God says “Yep! That’s my boy! He makes me so proud!” (I’m paraphrasing there) than does He have the Spirit drive his beloved son right out into the desert to drink only water, be surrounded by wild beasts, and tempted by Satan for 40 days! Someone call CPS!

FYI: Just because you’re a child of God, doesn’t mean that you won’t be surrounded by beasts at times, go through struggles at times, and be tempted by Satan all the time! In fact, I will submit that it is precisely because you’re a beloved child of God that Satan takes a particular interest in you. Have you ever been doing everything right and hardship comes your way? Yep. That’s the way that sucker works! When (not if) this happens, you just keep doin’ right and spurn the devil at every turn!

But before we go there, why would the Spirit drive Jesus out to the desert anyway? And why for so long? The “desert” is always a place of difficulty, of struggle, and of testing. Difficult times not only test our resolve, but they also change us in very important ways.

Not unlike steel that is placed into the furnace, hammered, and folded, and hammered again, God uses the desert to prepare us, to mold us, and even to save us by drawing closer to him in our times of trial. God loves us too much, and needs us too much to leave us as just hunks of steel.

No, God wants to transform us into weapons of righteousness, bringing light and love, and truth and goodness wherever we go and to whomever we meet! Let us never run from the deserts nor from the wild beasts that live there. When beasts come into our life, know that you are entering the crucible. God has important training for you there.

Let me be clear though, God is in no way the cause of human suffering. The Church is quite clear on this point. God does allow it, however, and is able to bring immeasurable good from it. Below I’ve referenced the Catechism of the Catholic Church on Providence and the Scandal of Evil paragraphs 310 (physical evil) and 311 (moral evil). For the full context click here.

310 But why did God not create a world so perfect that no evil could exist in it? With infinite power God could always create something better. But with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely willed to create a world “in a state of journeying” towards its ultimate perfection. In God’s plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature. With physical good there exists also physical evil as long as creation has not reached perfection.

311 Angels and men, as intelligent and free creatures, have to journey toward their ultimate destinies by their free choice and preferential love. They can therefore go astray. Indeed, they have sinned. Thus has moral evil, incommensurably more harmful than physical evil, entered the world. God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil. He permits it, however, because he respects the freedom of his creatures and, mysteriously, knows how to derive good from it:

For almighty God. . ., because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself. ~St. Augustine

Jesus’ time in the desert from today’s Gospel illustrates all of the above perfectly. Jesus went into the desert a carpenter’s son beloved by God. He is tempted there, suffers there, remains faithful to God there, rejects Satan time and time again there, and ultimately, is consoled there, as the Gospel says, “and the angels ministered to him.”

God takes no joy in our suffering, but know this, he WILL use it to strengthen, prepare, and make us more effective witnesses of the power and greatness, love and mercy of God our Father.

Jesus returns from the desert after forty days, the king of Israel, the king of the universe and savior of the world–but it started with the desert.

Like Jesus, God has amazing plans for our earthly life. He knows our future and what it holds. He knows the trials that will inevitably come our way, and knows the kind of person it will take to get through them. And he knows also that you will come to the aid of others in their trial and pain, because you have been perfected through your own sorrows.

Let us never be afraid of, nor shy away from the discomforts life brings. Especially during this 40 days of Lent, pray that God transforms our weakness into strength, our strife into service, and our weeping into joy. And always be thankful for the angels He brings into your life–they bring a kind word, offer consolation, and help to mend our wounds. Thank you.

Lenten Blessings, Stephen

By Deacon Stephen Valgos

The Harder Way

This reflection is for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B, 2/11/2018.

Expelling the leper from our midst is certainly easier, but Christians have never been promised an easy row to hoe, now have we?

Today’s reading really challenge us to creatively and lovingly find a way to deal with those we’d rather just not have to see, those we’d rather just push to the margins, or maybe even lock up and throw away the key!

In the first reading, from the Book of Leviticus, we see a very sensible and easy solution to the problem with Leprosy in the community; 1. confirm the person is indeed unclean, 2. label them/publicly identify them as unclean, 3. keep them far away so as not to infect the rest of the community. Sounds a lot like our penal system doesn’t it? Or is it a correctional facility? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. No wonder Jesus taught his disciples to visit “him” there! (MT 25:31) If we don’t do anything, nothing is going to change!

The “Get ’em outta here!” approach makes PERFECT sense! It is indeed very difficult to argue with this approach, and I have argued for it many times in my own classroom. When someone in the community has the potential to infect the rest of us get rid of them! We even have some sayings to help reinforce this truth. Things like, “One bad apple spoils the bunch,” or in my case with Cuties from Costco, “One bad cutie ruins the bag.” It’s true! That’s why its so popular. If it’s cancerous, cut it out!

We love these idioms because they are so true. However, we have to be very careful when applying truthfulness about fruit (or infections, or cancer) to truthfulness about people. Said in another way, what we do with fruit might not be so effective when dealing with people. After all, rotten fruit has no possibility for transformation, renewal, and redemption–but people do.

As Christians, we have to look to Jesus–not stock phrases, or rely simply on Levitical Law to address our communities. Jesus himself shows us a better way in today’s Gospel. Far from expelling the leper, Jesus shows us that with His power, people can and do change. Really! They do! It’s true of me, many of my students, and maybe even of you. The Church even challenges us to use recourse to the death penalty ONLY in the rarest cases where there is no way to protect innocent life from the unjust aggressor that the sinner may in fact be converted, seek forgiveness and mercy, and be saved! (C.C.C. 2267)

As Christians we hold out every hope, and believe in the power of God to transform lives. We see quite clearly in the Gospels and in the witness over the centuries from the lives’ of the Saints, that God’s forgiveness, mercy, and grace are possible at every moment of ours and others’ life, and often comes pouring in when we least expect it!

I wonder though, do we even expect it at all anymore? Do we still, like a child, pray for amazing miracles? Do we hope beyond hope and pray without ceasing for juveniles in our youth prisons? Are we working toward real change in the way we, as a society, deal with the homeless, the unemployed, the addicted, and/or the incarcerated? Or have we lost hope? Have we become no better or different that the haters and nay sayers that surround us at work and in the market place? Shame on us (I’m included in this).

Jesus told his disciples when they were looking for a limit, that his mercy and forgiveness (and theirs too, and ours too) must be limitless. “Not seven times, but seven times seventy,” he tells them. (MT 18:22)

I think if we’re going to call ourselves Followers of Jesus Christ, we must remove from our thought, language, and actions any trace of the throw away society in which we live. We must instead, with everyone and every situation, be open to the power of God to change hearts and minds, to make enemies friends, to make new roads through what appears to be a dead end. We must be always thinking about how God is going to make a miracle out of the mess. We must pray that God will open a way even we don’t see a way. We must be open and seeking for God’s grace. In other words, we must be faithful. Yep. There it is. We must be people of faith in the midst of a perverse and twisted generation. We must be like Jesus–lights in a world of darkness.

It’s a good thing Lent is near! We still have time for God to make an amazing transformation in us, in our families, in our communities, and especially in the least among us.

God Bless, Stephen

By Deacon Stephen Valgos

Life Is Pain, Highness

This reflection is for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B, 2/4/2018.

To quote one of my favorite lines, from one of my favorite movies is always a reason for joy! In The Princess Bride, Wesley (as the Man in Black) tells Princess Buttercup, as she complains about her sadness and suffering, “Life is pain, Highness! And anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” That’s just the truth.

Today’s first reading speaks of Job’s own sadness and suffering. Job (pronounced Jobe) laments that man’s life on earth is a drudgery. He sees himself as nothing more than a slave, with months of misery, troubled nights, and no hope for the dawn (Job 7:1-7). Sounds like Job and I might have the same job!

Once living high on the hog, poor Job begins to really feel the pain, the sadness, and the suffering of the human condition. All was good, Job was good, and then it was not, and he was not. I am often asked by “good people,” as they experience the trials of life, why good people suffer. My answer is clear–everyone suffers. Another one of my favorites is like it, “Why do good people suffer while bad people get away with everything?” Newsflash: Everyone suffers–the good and the bad alike. And every dog has his day. Jesus told the crowds, “The Heavenly Father makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” (MT 5:45) And that’s just the way it is. The sooner we can come to terms with reality the better.

I teach my students (and my own boys) the Law of Reality, “The Cadet recognizes that life is difficult and often unfair. The Cadet refuses to play the role of the victim but chooses to honor the Cadet Pledge even in difficult situations.” The Cadet Pledge is, “I Pledge to respect myself by growing in wisdom and by living by core values, respect others by being kind and unselfish, and respect authority by obeying SMA rules and staff.”

As Christians, Jesus’ own life is a helpful guide here. The Romans nailed Jesus, an innocent man, to a cross while at the same time allowing Barabas, an admitted criminal, go free–life is difficult and often unfair.

Far from playing the victim, Jesus, without grumbling or complaint, endures his suffering and even forgives his persecutors. Crazy. Even the unjust are blessed by Jesus.

As we experience the difficulty of life (and we will) we have a choice to make. We can complain, become bitter, curse others, God, the situation, and make ourselves and everyone around us miserable, or we can choose to not play the victim. We can choose to honor ourselves, and others, we can remain faithful to God, and we can continue to love, forgive, and bless even as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of the dawn!

Psalm 147 promises that God heals the broken-hearted! And says that we should praise in the midst of our broken-heartedness. Easy to do? No. Every bit of suffering sucks, and I’m not trying to minimize or trivialize it here, but suffering is universal to the human condition–and we’re not so special that we should be exempted.

Praise God for the blessings, praise God for the trials, and praise God when they’re over. Peace WILL come to all–sadly, for some, only in the end. So, love, period. Because everyone you know is going through something you know nothing about. Love…that’s it, rain or shine.



By Deacon Stephen Valgos