Expanding Our Hearts

In these difficult times, it can be very challenging to think of others and not just ourselves. Our personal struggles often keep our focus inward and not outward towards our brothers and sisters in Christ.  If these words resonate with you, I would like to provide some encouragement to break out of this inward focus and consider our Christian obligation to love and serve one another. As Francis Fernandez wrote in In Conversation With God, “Our earnest determination to help others will bring us out of ourselves.  It will expand our heart.  We cannot excuse ourselves from serving others for lack of time, through fear of becoming involved, or because of worries of one kind or another.”

Much has been written of the earliest Christian communities and how they showed love and charity towards each other.  They lived the teachings of Christ in a way that serves as a model for how we can and should live our lives today.  Our problems would not seem so great if we could count on the love and help of our brothers and sisters and they, in turn, could count on us.  In St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians (Gal 6:2), he wrote: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

Sharing the burdens of those around us is vitally important, but so is encouraging them to remain strong in the Faith.  Often adversity can weaken a person’s relationship with Christ when these very obstacles should bring us closer to our Lord.  He is the great comforter to anyone who is struggling and offers love and a sense of peace to anyone who calls on Him for help.  As Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

I would like to pose a challenge to all of us, myself included, to think carefully about five powerful words that will serve as a catalyst for helping others the way our early Christian predecessors did: seeking, listening, loving, prayer and charity.

We often don’t know the people in our community who need our help.  Seeking them out will require us to observe more carefully and show a genuine, deeper interest in other people’s lives.  Let’s transform “How are you doing?” from a surface greeting into a sincere desire to truly understand what is going in the lives of our co-workers, friends, family and fellow parishioners.  Also, if we are sincere and transparent about our own challenges, we will likely see people open up to us.

Listening is very important.  When someone is willing to open up to you, don’t interrupt with solutions right away.  As a man, I struggle with this one!  I have personally experienced some wonderful conversations with people in need of help who were anxious to unburden themselves to someone who genuinely cared.  Listening patiently and just being a friend can be a great source of comfort.

Our loving actions as Christians should always be motivated by a desire to encourage and help others and place their needs before our own.  Love also precludes acting in a judgmental way towards others.  Jesus gave us the New Commandment in John 13:34-35 when he said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  In the early days of Christianity, it was observed that Christians set themselves apart by how much they loved each other.  Can the same be said of us today?

Praying for others is an absolute necessity.  I encourage all of us to make sure we pray daily for those in need of help and that God will work through us to provide that help.  I often feel like such a novice at prayer, but I can’t help but feel that it is pleasing to God when we pray in earnest for others and their needs. 

Charity is the best way to sow good all around us.  Charity is one of the three theological virtues (along with faith and hope) and as the Catholic Catechism #1827 says, “The practice of all the virtues is animated and inspired by charity, which ‘binds everything together in perfect harmony’; it is the form of the virtues; it articulates and orders them among themselves; it is the source and the goal of their Christian practice.  Charity upholds and purifies our human ability to love, and raises it to the supernatural perfection of divine love.”

As important as it is to reach out to those we see every day, it is just as important to reach out to the countless jobless, hungry, homeless, addicted, abused and faithless people who don’t live in our neighborhood, work with us or attend our parish. Giving money is important, but showing up to help is an even more priceless gift-not only to the recipient of our generosity, but to us as well.

In closing, I would like to challenge all of us to sincerely attempt these 10 actions as we near Thanksgiving and Advent:

1. Help 2 people looking for a new job to meet people in your personal network who may be helpful.

2. Visit one sick person at their home or in the hospital over the holidays.

3. Call or send a card (or both!) to those people for whom you are truly thankful and share with them how grateful you are to have them in your life.

4. Adopt a needy family and make their lives better with what you can share this Christmas.

5. Work at a soup kitchen or visit a retirement home with your family.

6. Make a donation of used clothing, toys, books or other old, but useful items over the holidays.  Our discarded items may be treasures to someone in desperate need.

7. Practice “active listening” with your friends, fellow parishioners and work colleagues.  Get beneath the surface and understand their personal challenges a little better.

8. Pray every day for those who are struggling.

9. Let’s take the time to teach our children about stewardship and helping others.  One day they will do as adults what they learn in these formative years.

10. Invite someone who has fallen away from the Church to mass or any of the numerous special holiday events being held in your parish community.  Please remember to extend the invitation with love, not judgment!

Thanksgiving is drawing near and soon after we begin Advent.  It is a time to gather with family and friends, be thankful for what we have and celebrate the birth of Christ.  As many of us work through personal struggles, it is a good time to keep the focus on the Lord and helping others.  Do not succumb to the retail and media fueled materialism that is so rampant-buying things we can’t afford will only bring short lived happiness and more debt!  Let’s all keep it simple this year, make the holidays about Christ, spend time with family and friends and absolutely expand our hearts by helping those in need wherever we may find them.  In the end, the help we provide to others becomes a grace filled gift…to us.

God bless you, Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas!

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