Gospel for February 13, 2011 — Raising the Bar

Moses with the tablets of the Ten Commandments...
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The Gospel for Sunday, February 13, 2011 is from Matthew 5:17-37.  In this reading Jesus extends the Mosaic law on topics such as murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing oaths.  He challenges people to work even harder to have a loving relationship with God.  For example, while the Mosaic law said “thou shalt not kill,” Jesus “raises the bar” saying that you should not even have grudges and be hateful towards others.  Jesus desires that we build up a strong faith that can endure through any of life’s challenges.  He encapsulates this attitude in the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery of the rosary, The Carrying of the Cross, as He kept moving towards His crucifixion and eventual resurrection despite the pain and suffering.

Jesus extends the Mosaic law partly because the Jews had grown too complacent following the rules.  They were following each law just for the sake of following them and not so much out of a love of God or to improve themselves.  Like someone who had grown too accustomed to a particular exercise routine, the old laws no longer sufficed for building a strong relationship with God.  As Jesus said later in Matthew 19:8, the laws that Moses gave to the Israelites were necessary because they were not ready to accept the full law as God intended.  In technical terms, the original Mosaic law can be thought of as the “beta” version of the law.  It contained many of the essential features but was not completely finished.  And so Jesus’ extensions completed the law as God always intended.

Whenever we feel like God has put a huge burden on our shoulders, let us remember the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery where Jesus took up His cross.  He suffered greatly and fell repeatedly under the crushing weight of the cross.  And yet, God gave Him the strength to get up and keep moving forward.  And although Jesus prayed that God would spare Him such an ordeal, God did not remove that challenge but instead gave Jesus the strength to endure it.  This rosary mystery should show us that we too can endure and ultimately triumph even when it seems like the challenge is too much.  Moses and Jesus did not give us these moral laws with the intent that we will ultimately fail to follow them.  Quite the opposite.  God gave us these laws because He knew we could handle them and that they would ultimately make us stronger in our faith.

Is living according to God’s laws challenging at times?  You bet!  But progress is never made when the road is easy.  Our relationship with God and each other are strengthened when we take up the challenge to live according to His laws.  Only when we take up our crosses and really make the conscious decision to live for Jesus can we truly say that we have a strong relationship with Him.  This idea of challenging ourselves reminds me of JFK’s famous speech about going to the moon.  We didn’t do it because it was easy, but because it was hard.  The same can be said about forging a relationship with Jesus Christ.  View this short video and replace “go to the moon” with “build a relationship with God” to see what I mean

Gospel for February 6, 2011 — Let It Shine!

A lamp in the night
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The Gospel for February 6, 2011 is from Matthew 5:13-16 where Jesus tells His apostles to be a light to the world and not to hide it.  In Mt 5:15 Jesus says, “Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lamp stand, where it gives light to all in the house.”  The Fifth Luminous Mystery of the rosary, The Institution of the Eucharist, reminds us how that sacrament makes us a light of grace and goodness to the world which we must not hide.

As Catholics, we believe that Jesus is actually present in the Eucharist.  When we receive the host in the sacrament of Communion, we literally receive Jesus.  That means that we receive His grace and that is what sustains us spiritually throughout the week.  Much like how our body needs food and water to survive, our soul needs Jesus through the Eucharist.  And we use that grace and spiritual energy to be a “light to the world” as Jesus says in the Gospel.  We must remember that we not only receive a gift of grace in this sacrament but also the obligation to live our faith for all the world to see.

Often we forget our spiritual obligations of receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist.  We may receive Jesus, but we negate any of the sacrament’s benefits when we choose to sin.  Much like the light under the basket in the Gospel, the grace of Jesus Christ can be hidden by our lust, gluttony, greed, envy, or any other sinful behavior.

Our behavior can have a ripple effect.  Jesus calls us to do good deeds so that other will see them and be influenced to do good as well.  This should be easy since, much like how a lamp radiates light, someone in God’s grace should just radiate goodness and love.  For example, we probably all know some good, solid people in our lives who are just a pleasure to be around.  They don’t need to try to be good but instead goodness just comes out naturally from them.  Those people are good examples for us since they are guided by the Holy Spirit to show God’s love.  However, be careful not to mistake living your faith with showing off.  Jesus says later in Matthew’s Gospel that He does not want us to show off good works for the sake of receiving praise from others.  Instead, our good works should always be directed towards giving glory to God.

When you hear this Gospel or meditate on the Fifth Luminous Mystery while praying the rosary, ask yourself if you are glorifying God by living according to His will.  What type of example are you setting for those around you?  Will your behavior lead others to do good or to sin?  Do you proudly proclaim and live your faith publicly or is it something you hide from the world?  And if you do live your faith, do you do it to win the praise and glory of others or to glorify God?  Throughout the week, remember this Gospel.  Do not be afraid.  Go out and be brave by living your faith for all to see.  If you receive God’s grace during the sacrament of the Eucharist, show it off!

Gospel for January 30, 2011 — Challenging Yourself

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The Gospel for January 30, 2011 is from Matthew 5:1-12 most famously known as The Beatitudes or The Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus gives hope to those who feel hopeless and lost in a world that does not always seem good or fair.  He talks about how He will comfort the poor, the meek, and the persecuted in Heaven.  In the Beatitudes, Jesus proclaims the greatness and majesty of His kingdom of Heaven which is the central theme of the Third Luminous Mystery.

Jesus wants everyone to know that there is more to our existence than what we see, hear, smell, and feel.  And it does not matter how successful you are in this lifetime because you worldly successes won’t amount to anything in His kingdom.  This message is hard to fully realize since many times we do not see the light at the end of the tunnel when we suffer or make sacrifices for doing what is good and righteous.  But the entire point of praying and meditating on this rosary mystery is to ask God for the faith to see the glory of His kingdom even when it seems like our good acts have little impact in this world.

Let’s break down the Beatitudes into its core message since it is sometimes lost in Matthew’s poetic language.  If you want to live for God’s kingdom, this is what Jesus asks you to do:

  • Be devout in your faith, but do not show it off for the sake of looking holy.
  • Work towards righteousness by not being afraid to call good things good and bad things bad.
  • Be merciful, especially towards those who make life the most difficult for you.
  • Be pure of heart by avoiding sin and the near occurrences of sin.
  • Work towards peace even if it is just within your own heart.
  • Endure persecution, insults, and attacks against you for doing what is good even if the world considers it bad.

This is not easy.  No one said living for God’s kingdom would be.  But that is the point of praying the rosary; to ask for the strength and guidance to live, not for the world, but for Heaven.  I know that sometimes the Beatitudes can sound a little dry when read during Sunday Mass.  I know I sometimes zone out because I’ve heard it so many times.  But it is so important to not only know the Beatitudes, but to live them.  Ask yourself this in your prayers this week, “Am I living The Beatitudes?”  Listen to them one more time from the movie, “Jesus of Nazareth.”  It is my favorite Biblical movie because scenes like this bring life and energy to Jesus’ message that is sometimes lacking during Mass.

Gospel for January 23, 2011 — What is Holding you Back?

Annunciation, painted by Fra Angelico (1387-14...
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The Gospel for January 23, 2011 is from Matthew 4:12-23 and focuses on Jesus calling Peter, Andrew, and James to be His apostles.  This Gospel has parallels with the First Joyful Mystery of the rosary — The Annunciation.  In that mystery, Mary accepts God’s plans for Her in being the mother of Jesus.  She accepted God’s Will and a drastically altered life much like how the fishermen in the Gospel dropped everything to follow Jesus.

In Matthew’s account of Jesus calling Peter, Andrew, and James the three men drop everything and follow Jesus without question.  They did not ask Jesus if He could come back at a better time.  They did not tell Jesus that they were not up to the task of being “fishers of men.”  They did not ask what the job would entail or what sacrifices they would need to make.  They simply left their old lives behind and followed Jesus.  Now we come to Mary.  She was living a typical village life.  She had a fiance and was maybe was looking forward to being married.  And then, out of the blue, an angel tells Her that She is not only pregnant, but pregnant with the Son of God!  Mary was probably a little shocked or scared.  And although she knew this duty was change Her life forever, She fully accepted God’s Will.

Now we come to you.  Would you be able to radically change you life if Jesus asked you to?  Luckily, the chances of us being called like Mary and the Apostles is very small.  We typically don’t need to make a snap decision to drop everything and follow Jesus.  Even those who accept the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience don’t make that decision quickly but only after years of study and meditation.  Chances are Jesus isn’t asking you to sell your home, car, and possessions and leave everything you know behind and become a missionary.   But this Gospel and rosary mystery raises the question, “Are there things in your life that prevent you from committing to God’s plans for you?”  Meditate on this question this week and take a deep look at what holds you back.  Money?  Your job?  Your social life? Drugs?  Lust?  The things that hold us back from Jesus may not be outright sinful but might be a distraction.  For example, there is nothing wrong with working hard and making a good living.  But you must be careful to strike the right balance and not have your job consume you and become more important than your relationship with God.  Pray and meditate for the knowledge to find those things in life that prevent you from fully following Jesus and for the strength to not let them have so much control over you.

I will leave you with a quotation from a little green friend of mine.  In “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith” young Anakin tells Yoda that he is having dreams about the death of someone close to him. Yoda responds saying that the fear of loss leads to the Dark Side.  When Anakin asks what he is to do, Yoda advises, “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”  While George Lucas probably didn’t have Matthew’s Gospel in mind when he wrote that, I think Yoda’s words relate well to this Gospel and rosary mystery.

Gospel for Janurary 16, 2011 — God’s Plans

St John the Baptist
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The Gospel for January 16, 2011 is from John 1:24-34 and, like the previous week’s Gospel, focuses on Jesus’ baptism.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ baptism takes the role of the Fourth Joyful Mystery — The Presentation in the Temple.  John does not write about Jesus’ birth or childhood but starts with His baptism as an adult.  This Gospel shows John the Baptist as the one who presents Jesus to the world through baptism.  John understands and accepts God’s special role for him and this Gospel and rosary mystery calls us to also reflect on how God calls us to live.

A few verses earlier in John’s Gospel, the pharisees ask John the Baptist if he is the Messiah, Elijah, or another prophet.  Each time John responds, “no.”  When pressed on why he baptizes people, John responds, “the reason why I came baptizing with water was that He might be made known to Israel” (John 1:31).  John’s mission, or vocation, is to prepare people for Jesus’ coming.  God’s plan for John wasn’t an easy one as it called for a life of constant prayer, penance, and fasting.  John’s life eventually ended in his arrest and execution.  I’m sure many people saw John the Baptist as some crazy person who wondered the desert.  After all, how many of us would probably roll our eyes if someone came into town yelling, “repent, repent!”  But John knew that preparing people for Jesus’ coming was so important that he dedicated his life to it.  I sometimes wonder if John, and many of the saints, had other plans for themselves earlier in their lives that they abandoned because it was not what God asked of them.  Maybe John wanted to be a banker, a carpenter, or own a vineyard.  But he knew that his passions wouldn’t amount to anything if they did not line up with God’s plans.

Simeon in the Fourth Joyful Mystery is very similar to John the Baptist.  Simeon spent his entire life in the temple in Jerusalem waiting and praying for the Messiah to appear.  Like John, Simeon was probably ridiculed and dismissed as a fool.  And I’m sure Simeon, as a boy, didn’t think that his entire life would be spent in the temple waiting for God to reveal Himself to him.  He probably imagined a “normal” life of living in a small village and working in the fields.  But that was not God’s plan for him.  And like John the Baptist, upon seeing Jesus, Simeon announced how Jesus was “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” (Luke 2:32).  Both John and Simeon served to announce that God was made man and came into this world to lead us into His kingdom of Heaven.

When you read or hear this Gospel or meditate on the Fourth Joyful Mystery of the rosary, ask yourself:

  • Are you living according to God’s plans or your own?
  • Are you looking for how Jesus presents himself to you in your life?  Do you search for Him in routine prayer, fasting, and meditation?
  • Are you patient with God’s plans for you or are you looking for God to give you a “quick fix?”
  • Are you open to God’s plans even if they are difficult or run contrary to how you would like to live?
  • Do you have the strength to live up to God’s plans for you even if they are at odds with accepted societal practices?
  • Are there parts of your life where you live contrary to God’s plan for you?
  • What will you do to align your life more with God’s Will?

Gospel for Janurary 9, 2011 — God’s Booming Voice

John the Baptist baptizing Christ
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The Gospel for January 9, 2011 is from Matthew 3:13-17 — the Baptism of Jesus which is also the First Luminous Mystery of the holy rosary.  When you pray this mystery, remember verse 3:17 where God tells John the Baptist and others gathered, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Very few people in the history of the human kind have ever directly heard the voice of God.  Imagine how great and at the same time terrifying that experience must have been for those present at Jesus’ baptism.  I know many times we may wish that God would talk to us in a more direct way such as through a booming voice from the sky.  But would you be truly prepared for such an event?  Would you be willing to change your entire life since you could no longer be ignorant of God’s existence, His laws, and the divine nature of Jesus Christ?

And yet I wonder how many people present at Jesus’ baptism were also there at Pontius Pilot’s palace yelling, “crucify Him!”  That shows just how stubborn (and stupid) we can act at times.  Even when we hear God’s Word and know what God expects of us, we turn around and either abandon Him or outright attack Him or His Church.  We do this all the time.  We know what is right and wrong in most common cases.  We know what the Church teaches about various moral, ethical, and social issues.  And yet so often we flagrantly act contrary to God’s Will.  It makes me wonder if we would even convert our sinful ways if God did speak to us as a voice in the sky.  After all, God would be competing with Oprah, television, and the media to whom we usually give more attention.

None of us have heard God as a booming voice in the sky.  But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t speak to us.  He speaks through the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.  He spoke through the saints.  And God speaks to us through prayer.  When it really comes down to it, we really don’t have much of an excuse to not keep God’s laws because He constantly communicates them to us.

When we pray the First Luminous Mystery of the rosary and recall Jesus’ baptism, let us also recall our own baptism.  Remember that through our baptism God calls us to live in His grace and one day be with Him in Heaven.  At our baptism, we were about as close to God as we ever can be in this life because our souls are wiped clean of all sin and we did not face any time in Purgatory.  That is the state God desires for our souls.  Trying to live in that state should be our ultimate goal in life.  That is what this Gospel and rosary mystery remind us.  In your prayers, really listen to what God says to you.  When you silence all those distractions and open your heart to God then you may actually realize that God does speak to you with a booming voice.

Scary Times

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We are going into that “scary” period in the liturgical calendar right before Advent where many of the readings and Gospels focus on the end times, persecution, and final judgment.  There are many people who take these apocalyptic verses to extremes.  There is the one camp that just ignores these readings or see them as a lot of hyperbole and not events that will eventually occur.  The other camp thinks the end of the world will occur every day and finds every shred of circumstantial and coincidental evidence to support their claim.  I want to take a more balanced look at these readings and how we can approach them without being hysterical.

The Gospel reading from Luke on November 14, 2010 presents some very grim imagery.  Jesus describes wars and insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and persecution (Lk, 21:5-19).  I do not think anyone would disagree that these are all pretty terrible things and we would be fortunate to avoid them.  In many people’s world view this is how it all ends; people dying in misery and despair.  However, many people do not see that there is light at the end of this dark tunnel we call human existence.  There is the glory, comfort, and joy of eternal life in Heaven.  Last Sunday’s Gospel ends with Jesus saying,  “not a hair on your head will be destroyed.  By your perseverance you will secure your lives” (Lk, 21:19).  And that is the central message we should take away from these apocalyptic readings — the joy of Heaven is infinitely greater than any suffering here on Earth.

Think back to your childhood.  Do you remember the first time you cut yourself?  Perhaps you fell when you were playing.  Maybe you poked yourself with a sharp object.  I’m sure many of us cried and wailed over that pain as it seemed like the worst torment we would ever encounter.  Now as adults we probably don’t have the slightest recollection of that ordeal.  This is similar to how Heaven will compare to all our Earthly suffering.  The worst wars and tragedies won’t even be a faint memory compared to the joys of Heaven.  This is what Jesus teaches us in the Gospel.  In the end, our faith and perseverance will bring us more happiness than we can possibly imagine and make all our earthly suffering seem like nothing more than a scraped knee.

We can pick any Sorrowful Mystery as an example of  perseverance through hard times.  In this period before Advent, when we pray the rosary, we should ask God for the strength to endure any difficulties in our lives.  Perhaps you are having a hard time at work or at home.  Maybe you are having relationship problems or there are people in your life that bring you nothing but misery.  Take all those challenges and present them to God when you pray.  Try to look past the misery and difficulties of this world by reminding yourself that it is all temporary.  When you put it all in perspective you will realize that life’s biggest obstacles are so small compared to the joy of Heaven and you will wonder why you even worried about them in the first place.

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Seeing Lazarus in Your Life

The Gospel for 9/26/2010 was Luke 16:19-31 which was the story of the rich man and Lazarus. In short, a rich man goes to Hell because he was uncharitable to Lazarus, a poor man. I always squirm before the homily when I hear this Gospel during Mass because many times people will use it to jump into a tirade about how you are an evil person bound for Hell if you have any money. Some will use it as justification on why we need higher taxes or some sort of forced redistribution of wealth. I believe such analysis of this parable misses the point Jesus was trying to make. The rich man did not go to Hell because he was rich. He went to Hell because he was uncharitable with his wealth, neglected those who needed his help, and hence was not showing his love for God.

Print by Gustave Doré illustrating the parable...
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The Gospel for 9/26/2010 was Luke 16:19-31 — the story of the rich man and Lazarus.  In short, a rich man goes to Hell because he was uncharitable to Lazarus, a poor man.  I always squirm before the homily when I hear this Gospel during Mass because many times people will use it to jump into a tirade about how you are an evil person bound for Hell if you have any money.  Some will use it as justification on why we need higher taxes or some sort of forced redistribution of wealth.  I believe such analysis of this parable misses the point Jesus was trying to make.  The rich man did not go to Hell because he was rich.  He went to Hell because he was uncharitable with his wealth, neglected those who needed his help, and hence was not showing his love for God.

This parable reminds me of The Third Sorrowful Mystery of the holy rosary where the Roman soldiers placed a crown of thorns on Jesus and mocked Him.  The crowning of thorns represents how we often show our faith.  Through our actions, instead of offering Jesus a majestic crown made from our love for Him we present a pitiful one made from our indifference.  When do we show this indifference, apathy, and even hatred towards Jesus?  When do we crown Him with “thorns?”  Surely we would treat Him with the utmost honor and respect if we saw Him, correct?  Look no further than Matthew 25:41-45:

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs? He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.

By ignoring Lazarus, the rich man ignored Jesus.  If charity shows love for Jesus, then acting uncharitable shows contempt.  Through his actions, the rich man was not putting Jesus first in his life.  The rich man is the antithesis of the Good Samaritan.  While the Good Samaritan lived a life of constant prayer and could spot those in need and readily help them, the rich man was blind to the needs of others.  And that is the heart of Jesus’ parable.  It’s not that money is inherently bad and those who have some and live comfortably should feel ashamed.  It’s that wealth has the capacity to blind you to the needs of others and can prevent you from offering Jesus the true respect, honor, and love He deserves.  That is, money will blind you if you let it.

On the flip side, having some level of wealth provides great opportunities to help others in need and hence really show love for Jesus.  Look around and see some of the great institutions and services funded through charitable donations.  Whether it is a food drive, soup kitchen, or a new hospital, these opportunities to help the less fortunate come from people who use their wealth for good.  Without getting too political, how could these people act so charitably if they did not accumulate anything and could only look after their basic needs?  I want to end with a trailer from the movie, “The Blind Side.”  Besides it being a good movie I think the story paints a good picture on how having a certain level of resources at your disposal enables people to do great things for those less fortunate.

Jesus, the Lost Sheep

The parable of the shepherd looking for his lost sheep relates to the Fifth Joyful Mystery of the Catholic rosary. Both center on the idea that Jesus calls us to put him first in our lives despite the challenges it may impose.

An etching by Jan Luyken illustrating Matthew ...
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The parable of the shepherd looking for his lost sheep relates to the Fifth Joyful Mystery of the Catholic rosary.  Both center on the idea that Jesus calls us to put him first in our lives despite the challenges it may impose.

The Gospel for 9/12/10 is Luke 15:1-10.  When the Pharisees criticized Jesus for welcoming sinners in his presence, he told them the parable of the lost sheep:

What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?  And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’
I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.

While Jesus was talking about himself as the Good Shepherd and how he came into this world to help even the lowest sinner, let us try reversing the roles.  Suppose you are the shepherd and Jesus is the lost sheep.  The shepherd set out to find something valuable that he lost.  Like the shepherd, we too are often seeking something valuable in our spiritual lives, namely God‘s grace.  Similarly, the Fifth Joyful Mystery of the Catholic rosary tells the story of Mary and Joseph losing Jesus and looking for him in Jerusalem for three days before finding him in the temple.  Both stories include the element of a difficult search whether it be the shepherd braving the elements looking for his sheep or Mary and Joseph’s frustrating three-day search for Jesus.  Throughout the Gospel Jesus preaches about how those who follow him will face challenges and be persecuted and rejected by others.  Jesus’ own life reflects those teachings by his suffering in the Passion and Crucifixion.

It is important to understand that our faith is not always easy and there will be times of difficulty.  Faith often requires taking risks, going into the great unknown, and sometimes encountering “dead ends” and disappointment.  For instance, it is not always easy to pray regularly, avoid sin, and receive the Sacraments.  It is even harder to love God when it seems like our life is falling apart such as losing a job or the death of a loved one.  Often we just don’t want to put in the effort to incorporate Jesus into our lives because it does not seem like we get anything out of it in return.

The Catholic Church teaches us that we will be rewarded with all the comforts of Heaven when we keep Jesus close to our hearts and work hard to come back into his graces if we sin.  But no matter how many times you hear that, the only way you will actually overcome life’s trials and misfortunes is if you actually BELIEVE it.  After all, why should you work so hard for God’s grace if you don’t believe it has any meaningful value?  It is the belief in God’s Kingdom that drives us forward even in the most difficult of times.  Belief, along with the help of the Church, the Holy Spirit, the saints, Mary, and the angels in Heaven will push us through to the glory of God’s internal kingdom.  We can solicit their help either for ourselves or for others who do not have their heart centered on finding Jesus.

When we pray the rosary and especially the Fifth Joyful Mystery, let us ask God for the strength to endure life’s stuggles in our search for Jesus.  We must pray for those who do not put a high value on God’s grace or are having difficulty finding the energy to continue on the road of faith.  Finally, let us pray that we have the awareness to spot those who are struggling and use any extra spiritual energy to help them out and turn them into believers that God’s Kingdom of Heaven is worth the difficult journey.