Of Plenty, Population, and Trust: A Further Reflection on the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes

blog7-24The multiplication of the loaves and fishes that we read about at Sunday Mass this week was a miracle so astonishing that it is recounted in all four Gospels. And a second, similar instance is recorded in another Gospel. In other words, this sort of miracle by Jesus is recounted five times within the four Gospels.

There are many theological reasons for this. Clearly, Jesus was fulfilling the promise of Moses: that after him a greater One would arise who would also feed the people mysteriously with bread. There are also many Eucharistic and spiritual dimensions to the miracle.

But in this reflection I would like to ponder the notion that this miracle of satisfying our physical hunger is one writ large in our times. While many wish that the astounding miracles of the Scriptures were more evident today, I would like to argue that the miracle of the loaves and fishes and God’s promise to care for His people is right before our very eyes.

And while there is hunger in the world today, it is not due to God, but to human struggles and human sinfulness.

More on the question of hunger in a moment. But first, let’s ponder the work of God to feed us and see how He has multiplied our loaves and fishes.

In the Book of Genesis, God blessed Adam and Eve and said to them,

“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant-yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit-yielding seed; it shall be food for you …” (Gen 1:28-29)

God would repeat a similar blessing and instruction to Noah, adding meat to the diet as well.

So note that God wanted the human family to grow and promised to supply food for us. Even after the fall of Original Sin, although God told Adam that his harvesting would come “by the sweat of your brow,” there would be a harvest.

In the first reading from Sunday’s Mass, Elisha said, “For thus says the LORD, ‘They shall eat and there shall be some left over.’”  And when they had eaten, there was some left over, as the LORD had said (2 Kings 4:43-44).

So God did establish the general truth that the earth would provide adequate food for His people. And while there might be local famines or droughts, on the whole, the earth would provide.

In more recent times, as the world’s population has continued to grow, some have cast doubt on the capacity of the earth to supply food for us. In 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote an influential essay in which he predicted that our population was approaching a critical stage and that it would soon outdistance the food supply, bringing on mass starvation. Since that time many others have posited similar doomsday scenarios, and though the projected date of the crisis varied, they predicted that the scenario would surely come.

But although the world’s population is now more than 7 billion people, there remains a remarkably stable, even increasing, food supply.  So abundant is agriculture here in the U.S. that the government actually encourages, through subsidies, farmers NOT to plant certain crops. We even burn a lot of corn for fuel. I do not report these things because I necessarily approve of them, but only to show that basic foods are produced by this earth in abundance.

Now there are some who will want to dispute the claim that our earth is producing in abundance. They will point to declines in arable land, desertification, etc. But for centuries now, one doomsday scenario after another has failed to materialize. The population continues to grow, and yet there is still food in relative abundance.

And though many (perhaps understandably) like Phillip and the Apostles cry out, “How can we ever get food to feed this multitude?” the Lord and His earth continue to provide for us. In a way, the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes is writ large by modern agriculture.

Surely, though, just as the Lord used the five loaves and two fishes in the lakeside miracle, He involves us in the solution to feeding the planet today. The miracle of multiplied food sources comes from God, but interacts with human ingenuity. Consider the human role:

  1. Agricultural technology, soil management, insect control, etc. have all increased the yield of crops many times over. God has given us intellects and blessed our capacity to learn what works to increase the harvest.
  2. There is the emergence of a worldwide economy and the transportation to be able to harvest crops from all over the world. Localized droughts and even just the change of the seasons no longer have the impact on the food supply that they once did. Trouble in one area can be mitigated by supply from another area. Winter in one area can be covered for by summer in another.
  3. Animal husbandry, fisheries, and other technologies also foster a great increase in meats, fishes, and dairy products.

So our five loaves and two fishes do matter!

Granted, some of these technologies are controversial from an environmental point of view. If we can make the desert bloom, should we? Should we genetically modify things, and if so, how much and how often? What pesticides are OK to use and what are their side effects?  How much water can and should be used for agriculture? Is building dams helpful or harmful?

This is not a blog to debate such matters. But without suggesting either blanket approval or blanket condemnation of such technologies, the fact remains that the earth continues to provide abundant food. And it does so in a way that the ancient world, or even more recently Thomas Malthus, would consider astonishing (and I would say, miraculous). As atomic physics has shown, even tiny amounts of matter contain enormous energy locked within them.

God’s promise to provide food for the human family, whom He told to “multiply to fill the earth,” remains stubbornly true, despite the doubters and the doomsday predictions of recent centuries.

But what of hunger? Clearly there is not an even distribution of food on our planet. There are areas where people go relatively hungry. Often, the poor do not have adequate access to good food supply. As food sometimes rots in American silos, is burned for fuel, or is even deliberately not planted, other regions struggle. As many Americans blithely cast food into the trash after meals, others would pine for the scraps from our tables.

Yet note that this is not a lack on the part of God. The earth supplies what we need, but that does not preclude human sinfulness or other factors from allowing hunger to continue. Consider that hunger in the modern world is often caused by things like

  1. war,
  2. local corruption that blocks food from reaching the poor,
  3. poor infrastructure (e.g., roads, landing strips) to bring food in, and
  4. greed and hoarding.

How to best address these factors is a matter of controversy, and is beyond the scope of this blog post and my blog as a whole.

But the point I wish to emphasize is that the miracle of the loaves and fishes, even from the standpoint of merely physical food sources, is writ large today. It is a miracle the way this earth, as God has given it, supplies our needs even as we “fill the earth.” God did not command what He could not provide for. If He told us to multiply, fill, and subdue the earth, then He also asks us to trust Him. Bringing the loaves and fishes of our minds and our ingenuity to the table, with God’s grace and the earth He has given us, we have partnered to produce an abundant harvest!

Are there hungry people? Yes. And this is a disgrace rooted not in God, but in us. God Himself counsels us not merely to build bigger barns so as to hoard our excess food. Rather, He advises that we should “store” it in the stomachs of the poor and needy (cf Luke 12:13-21).

God is faithful and true to His promise. The earth has yielded its fruit, God our God has blessed us (Ps 67:6).

An even more widespread problem today is spiritual starvation. I’ll address that topic in tomorrow post.

Three Words That Can Change Your Life

Move, Breath, Trust

Move, Breath, trustSometimes we like to complicate things. Every now and again it is good to simplify, to make it plain and simple. The other day it occurred to me that three words describe the well-being I have discovered in my physical, emotional, and spiritual life. They are, respectively, move, breathe, and trust.

Let’s look at each in turn. “Move” pertains to the physical, “breathe” to the emotional and psychological, and “trust” to the spiritual.

I. Move – Some years ago, my doctor told me that the secret to good health, strength, and longevity, comes down to one word: “move.” A sedentary lifestyle can cause innumerable problems: weight gain, lethargy, fatigue, boredom, depression, muscular atrophy, weak and/or brittle bones, shallowness of breath, poor posture, a weakened heart, an increase in the likelihood of pulmonary issues such as asthma, less-oxygenated blood, and less-clear thinking … just to name a few.

Well, you get the point. Move! Walk every day. Except for swimming, there is almost no better exercise. If your joints are already arthritic or problematic, an elliptical machine is a good low-impact option.

I was a runner earlier in life but my knees suffered. I don’t personally think that the human body was designed for sustained distance running; there’s just too much impact on the joints. Injury is common and some of the damage to the joints can be permanent. Because of this, I took up walking about fifteen years ago and walk at least two miles a day, six days a week.

Walking is low impact and easy on the body. It promotes aerobic breathing rather than the anaerobic panting of running. It requires little or no equipment, and provides time for praying, listening to music or podcasts, talking with a walking partner, or chatting on the phone (I recommend a hands-free device so the arms can swing naturally). I really look forward to my evening walks!

The people of the Bible were amazing walkers. Our Mother Mary, St. Joseph, Jesus, and all the Apostles made the annual trek to Jerusalem on foot, 70 miles each way. They walked nearly everywhere they went, through very hilly and mountainous regions. Mary walked 70 miles to Bethlehem when she was nine months pregnant. She and Joseph walked hundreds of miles to Egypt, carrying Jesus, and then back again. The people of the Bible were hardy; they walked nearly everywhere, often carrying heavy loads.

Move! Walk every day if you can. If you need to, start by just walking one block; then try to increase the distance a bit every day. But move. When you can, take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk instead of driving, but get off the sofa. Some people even have standing desks to work at in their offices. (See photo above right.)

There’s a handy little device called the “UP” bracelet that actually counts your steps for you each day. The goal for the average adult is 10,000 steps per day. Yours truly averages 12,000-15,000 thousand a day. There’s a video at the bottom that describes the “UP” system. (And, no, I’m not getting a kickback!)

Move; it will change your life, improving not only your body but your soul as well.

II. Breathe – My psychotherapist has a plaque on her desk that reads, “BREATHE.” Most of us don’t know how to breathe properly. We breathe with our chest and only fill the top of our lungs.

It isn’t hard to learn how to breathe better, using the belly. Babies do it naturally, but as we get older and more self-conscious about the appearance of our bellies, we tend to breathe less deeply. There is a video below that demonstrates the proper way to breathe deeply.

To breathe is to get in touch with our innermost self and also our body. Breathing is very spiritual. As we breathe in, we receive the blessings of God. As we breathe out, we let go of inner stresses and struggles. Exhaling is a form of release, inhaling a form of receiving.

Deep breathing can be very relaxing; it reduces stress and is a wonderful way to prepare ourselves to pray. Too many of us are out of touch with our body and our very self. Breathing can reconnect us to our own self and to God. Too many of us store up a lot of stress. We need to learn how to exhale. Too many of us live on fumes. We need to learn how to draw more deeply from the life breath God offers.

III. Trust – My Spiritual Director has often reduced his advice to one word: “trust.” The root of all the anxiety I have ever experienced is the fact that I did not trust God. To the degree that I have learned to trust God, I am less anxious. In fact, I rarely get anxious anymore. It is the result of a fifteen-year journey out of panic disorder and into trust.

I cannot write a whole article here on trust, but two things ought to be emphasized.

First, the illusion of control is a big enemy of trust in God. Control is ultimately an illusion. You may have a few things under your control, such as what you will eat for dinner, where you will shop for clothes etc. But even those things you think you can control are based on innumerable things that you cannot control: the next beat of your heart, whether or not there will be an accident that backs up traffic on your way to the store, whether or not your car will break down, etc. You also have no control over whether the store burns down or the item you want is to buy is actually in stock.

Thus, control, in any thorough sense, is both illusory and limited. Thinking we can and should be in control is to live under an illusion, and living under such an illusion is stressful and frustrating.

We often think that if we could just be in control we would be less anxious; but this is not so. The great paradox about serenity is that acceptance of the fact that there are many things we cannot control reduces anxiety and brings peace. The fact that we are not in control is a “hard” truth that brings great serenity and induces trust if we come to accept it.

Second, a central way to open the door to trust is to remember to be grateful. In the spiritual sense, to remember means to have deeply present in my mind and heart what God has done for me, so that I am grateful to Him and different because of it. To remember is to discipline my mind and heart to ponder how good and faithful God has been, to spend time every day considering the gifts and graces of God and how He has sustained and provided for me. This makes me grateful and different.

It also builds trust, and trust drives out our fears, resentments, and all forms of anxiety. Through gratitude I become a man of hope. That is, I confidently expect God’s help and providence to see me through to my goal of being with Him in glory.

An old song says, “Through it all, I’ve learned to trust in Jesus, I’ve learned to trust in God … I’ve learned to depend upon His Word.”

That is my story; I’ve learned to trust. And over the years, in the laboratory of my own life, I have proved God’s Word and His promises and found them to be true. Learn to trust, to lean, to let go. God says, “I’ve got this, so you let go.”

These are three words that can change your life: move, breathe, and trust.

Of Our Guardian Angels and the Care of the Father – As Seen in a Commercial

102414With Father’s Day approaching, the commercial below seems very appropriate. God the Father is surely the origin of all fatherhood here on Earth.

And yet most of us struggle with the fact that God allows bad things to happen. Why does he not intervene more often to protect us from attacks of various sorts and from events that cause sadness, setbacks, or suffering?

While the answer is mysterious, the clearest response is that God allows suffering in order that some greater blessing may occur. To some degree I have found this to be so in my life. Some of my greatest blessings required that a door slam shut or that I endure some suffering. Had my college sweetheart not dumped me, it is not likely that I would be priest today. Had I gotten some of my preferred assignments during my early years as a priest, I would not have been enriched by the assignments I did have. Those assignments helped draw me out and grow me far more than the cozy, familiar places I had wanted. Had I not entered into the crucible of depression and anxiety in my 30s, I would not have learned to trust God as much as I do, and I would have missed learning important lessons about myself and about life.

So despite that fact that we (understandably) fear suffering, for reasons of His own (reasons He knows best), God does allow some degree of it in our lives.

Yet I wonder if we really consider the countless times God did step in to prevent disasters in our life. We tend to focus on the negative things, overlooking an enormous number of often-hidden blessings: every beat of our heart, every proper function of every cell in our body, and all the perfect balances that exist in nature and the cosmos in order to sustain us.

Just consider the simple act of walking and all the missteps we might make each time but do not. Think of all the foolish risks we have taken in our life, especially when we were young, that did not end in catastrophe but surely could have. Think of all the poor choices we have made and yet escaped the worst possible consequences.

Yes, we sometimes wonder why we and others suffer and why God allows it. But do we ever wonder why we don’t suffer? Do we ever think about why and how we have escaped the consequences of some foolish things we have done? In typical human fashion, we minimize our many, many blessings and magnify and resent our sufferings.

One of the expressions I have picked up over the years, and that I use in response to people who ask me how I am doing, is this: “I’m pretty well blessed for a sinner.” I have heard others say, “I am more blessed than I deserve to be.” Yes, pretty well blessed indeed!

I thought of all these things as I watched the commercial below (it aired during the Super Bowl). And while it speaks of the watchfulness of a father, it also makes me think of my guardian angel, who has surely protected me from many disasters.

As you watch the commercial, don’t forget to thank God for the many hidden rescues He has executed for you through your guardian angel. Thank Him, too, for the hidden blessings—blessings you know nothing of—that He bestowed upon you anyway. And finally, think of the wonderful mercy He has often shown in protecting you from the worst of your foolishness.

What CATegory are you in? A Meditation on why the Lord”needs”our faith.

“Kittyply edit1” by David Corby, Edited by: Arad – Image:Kittyplya03042006.JPG. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

One of the main threads that ran through Sunday’s Gospel about the raising of Lazarus was faith, the need for faith and the Lord’s desire to draw others to a deeper faith. Jesus permits the illness and subsequent death of Lazarus, and even delays coming in order to increase their faith. He persistently questions both Martha and Mary about their faith and prays aloud that the crowd will come to come to greater faith. Yes, Jesus wants to grow everyone’s faith. This is something about which he is passionate – but why?

Simply put, faith is the door that must be opened by us in order for the Lord to go to work. And while faith itself is a grace – a gift – it is a grace that interacts with our freedom. Faith is the supernaturally granted, assisted, and transformed human element that opens the door for every other work of God.

Over and over again, the Lord Jesus links faith to his saving work. Either it is something he inquires about before a miracle, or he announces it after a miracle. Sometimes, due to the lack of faith, he “cannot” work a miracle. Consider some of the following texts that link faith to the work of Jesus:

  • When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you.” (Mt 9:28-29)
  • But Jesus turning and seeing [the woman who touched his garment] said, “Daughter, take courage; your faith has made you well.” At once the woman was made well. (Matt 9:22)
  • Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment. (Matt 8:13)
  • Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” (Matt 9:2)
  • Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Matt 15:28)
  • • “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road. (Mk 10:52)
  • Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (Lk 17:19)
  • Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” (Jn 11:25-26)
  • • Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household.” And He could do no miracle there except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. And He wondered at their unbelief. (Mk 6:4-6)

So in these and many other places, the Lord is absolutely insistent upon and needful of our faith in order to go to work. Faith is our “Yes.” Faith is our opening of the door to the Lord, who stands outside and knocks (cf Rev 3:20).

But why is this so? Perhaps an image or analogy will work. It is a humble one to be sure, but it may help to illustrate why the Lord “needs” our faith.

I have lived in the city for most of my twenty-five years as a priest. Now cities have streets, streets have alleys, and alleys have alley cats. And I have discovered that it is a very good thing to take care of the alley cats. It is because of them that there are very few if any rats in our alley. And this is a very great blessing. In gratitude, I take care of the alley cats – or at least I try to.

I say “try” because I have learned that there are three different categories of alley cat (get it? “CATegories…?). And depending upon which category they fall into, I am more or less able to help them.

The first category contains those alley cats that greatly trust me. They are the ones who come up onto the back porch when I return home and greet me. They rub up against my leg and arch their backs. They let me rub their necks. Among these alley cats have been Ellen Bayne, Jenny June, Katie Bell, Gracie Allen, and Oscar Wilde. (Yes, I name them all.) So trusting are these cats that I’m able not only to feed them, but often to get them necessary medical help. Because of their trust, I am able to help them greatly. Their trust, you might say their “faith,” opens the door and allows me to be a great help to them.

The second category contains those alley cats that stand at a distance and will not come close to me. They will allow me to put food out on the back porch, but they wait until I close the door to come up and partake of it. However, they usually only get the leftovers after Ellen Bayne and the others have already had their fill. This second type will not allow me to touch them, so they never get their necks rubbed, nor am I able to help them when they are injured or need medicine. Because they trust me less, I am able to do less for them.

The third category contains those that will have nothing to do with me simply because I am a human being. The very scent of a human being means that they will have nothing to do with anything carrying that scent. These cats will never come up the steps of my back porch, and any food that I would put out would go uneaten because it carries that human scent. Because they do not trust me at all, there’s nothing I can do for them, absolutely nothing.

And in all of this, there is a lesson. Trust opens the door, and then I can help the cats. A lot of trust yields a lot of help; a little trust yields a little help; no trust yields no help. And it is this way with us and God. Jesus needs our trust and our faith in order to be able to go to work, in order to “be able” to help us. What CATegory are you in?

While it is true that God could simply overrule us and force his help upon us, he does not generally do this. He needs our faith, our opening of the door, our trust to be able to go to work.

And this is why Jesus is so insistent in yesterday’s Gospel, on drawing out faith from those who lament Lazarus. This is why, all throughout the Gospels, the Lord connects his greatest works with faith and trust. He looks for faith, demands faith, needs faith in order to work miracles. And when he works them, he commends the faith of those who receive them. It is faith that opens the door.

Yes, what CATegory are you in? See how important faith is and how it opens the door? Lord increase our faith! I do believe Lord; help my unbelief!

Photo at upper right: “Ellen Bayne”