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Amazing God: God is love

Over the course of the next three years, we will have the opportunity to explore our relationship with our God, whom we know as Trinity.

We invite all of you on this journey: young and old and people in-between, clergy and laity, people in parishes and people searching for a community, people searching for answers and Good News.

There is no hidden agenda. As Roman Catholics, we bear witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and proclaim the Good News of the Gospel.

However, we will not attempt to proselytize or coerce others to be Roman Catholic. Roman Catholics affirm the everlasting covenant God made with Israel and acknowledge the truth found in non-Christian faith traditions.

We hope that this initiative called "Amazing God" will speak to the longings of your heart to build a relationship with God, to find a community of faith and to help build God's dream for our world.

We will spend some time exploring the questions, "Who is this God who loves us?" "How do we experience God's love?" and, "Why does God's love matter?"

Let us begin in prayer: Gracious and amazing God, your love for us is greater than anything we can fathom. We ask you to bless our time together and bless all those who are participating in this retreat. Open our hearts and minds to your presence in our lives today and always. Amen.

Who is God?
Close your eyes and use your imagination: Who or what do you see when I say the name "God"?

For many, people and experiences associated with love will come to mind; for others, images from art and icons of religious traditions. For some, the name might conjure up negative images associated with guilt or punishment, or even violence as we see with religious extremists.

Most often, our initial images of God were influenced by our family, cultural or religious upbringing.

As human beings, we have built within us a desire or a longing for the divine, and we try to put this longing into words or images. But as we live our lives, we find that our longings are not satisfied by our first images of God.

We continue to search, to question and sometimes even to reject God in an effort to discover the divine presence in our lives. We will never fully capture the reality of God in the limitations of our human language and imagination; yet we continue to search.

St. Augustine once described this longing: "O God, you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You."

Our ancestors in faith, like us, were seekers of God. Their stories of faith, recorded in the Old Testament, are truly an account of the greatest love story ever told.

Surrounded by many different cultures of people who believed in many gods, the Hebrews had a very different experience of the divine. They believed in one God who was the transcendent source of all life, but yet was as close to them as their own breath.

Through Abraham and Sarah, God made a covenant: a promise to be with them and their descendants always. Through Moses, He brought His beloved people through their trials and tribulations as slaves and wanderers into freedom and a new land. Through their kings and prophets, God called His people together and gave them a purpose.

Even when the people turned away, God was consistently faithful to His covenant and called them back to relationship.

Many images of God were used in the faith stories of the people of the Old Testament as they began to grasp the profound love of God. A favorite of mine is a parental image from the prophet Isaiah: "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands."

Jesuit Father Paul Coutinho, in his book "How Big is Your God," likens this image to having my name "tattooed" on God's hands!

Our ancestors in faith discovered that their God is love -- a love that created all, a love that sustained them, a love that gave them a future full of hope, a love that would never leave them abandoned. As Christians, we, too, understand God as a God of love.

Experience his love
We make great efforts in our search for God. What happens if we would just stop "searching" and let God find us?

English poet Francis Thompson's poem "The Hound of Heaven" speaks of God's loving pursuit of us. Even when we want to run and hide, God seeks us out in order to pour out divine love into our lives.

God does seek us out -- yet many people find that hard to believe! They say things like, "I'm not good enough for God to care about me. Doesn't God have more important things to do?"

We don't have to be good or perfect for God to reach into our life with love. We don't ever need to do anything to earn, or even to deserve, God's love.

God loves us, not because we are good, but because God is good! God is there for us and will always be there for us. We only need to be open and to listen to the love that calls us.

There are many distractions that keep us from recognizing God's already-present love in our lives. We live a fast-paced life, filled with busyness and noise. We are saturated with more information and activity than we can handle.

We need to slow down and let God find us, but the slowing down may be difficult. How do we begin to do that?

• Try a little silence. Have you ever just turned off your TV, radio, computer, iPod? Does silence make you uncomfortable? In silence, we come face-to-face with ourselves. We begin to hear our own breath, our own heartbeat.

When the prophet Elijah went to the mountain of Horeb to listen for God, he found that God's voice was not in the strong wind, the earthquake or the fire, but rather in the sheer silence. By spending time each day in silence, you will begin to notice the stirrings deep within yourself where God's promptings are heard.

• Become more aware and attentive to what surrounds you. A child delights in everything she sees. God speaks to us in signs and symbols and movements of daily life that often go unnoticed.

Make an effort to notice more, to count the blessings of each day and to be grateful. Keep a journal of all that comes to you as you grow in awareness and gratitude, and soon you will see, through all of that, the God of love.

• Celebrate the sacraments. We are wired to receive God's love through our bodies and our senses. The sacraments offer us the opportunity to experience God's love in this way.

In the pouring of water and anointing with oil, in baptism and confirmation, we are bonded to the God of love and welcomed into His covenant people and His mission. Through touch and spoken words in the sacraments of anointing of the sick and reconciliation, we are offered the gift of God's healing and forgiveness. Through sharing bread and wine which has become the body and blood of Christ, in the Eucharist we are nourished and sustained in God's love as we become God's instruments of love in the world.

The sacraments are a powerful way that God communicates, through the Church, His love for His people.

• Share your experiences of God's love with others. My journey with God isn't a solo journey; God loves me, moves me and challenges me through others. When I share my experiences of God's love in my life with others and listen to theirs, I am in the presence of the God of love.

• Share love through acts of service to others. The ironic thing about God's love is that the more you share it, the more deeply you experience it. When we enter into people's need and vulnerability with words and actions of compassion, mercy, service and justice, we see God's love made real in the world.

Jesus Christ, a gift
At a certain point in time, we believe that God reached into our lives in the most profound way: God chose to actually enter into our human life in the person of Jesus Christ.

We believe that Jesus shared union with God from the beginning of time. As human beings, the best way to know God's love is to see a "God with a human face," who shares intimately our humanity, and empties himself for the love of us.

When we see Jesus, we see God's love in a very concrete and real way. Our ancestors in faith waited for God to send them a Messiah, someone who would bring peace to their land. They expected a powerful military leader who would wipe out their enemies.

But the God of love is also a God of surprises: Their Messiah came as a vulnerable baby born in poverty of a very young mother. He was raised in a small town and grew in age and wisdom, and in a sense of His mission.

Jesus brought hope to those who had lost hope. He brought healing to the sick and dignity to those who were outcasts. He showed us a way to live in God's love -- and, in doing so, help to build the kind of existence that God has dreamed for us from the beginning.

We call this "God's kingdom." It comes, not from power and military might, but from the transformation of people's hearts to know God's love for them. Jesus walked willingly into death, trusting that God's love would triumph -- and it did.

The ultimate sign of God's love came in His raising Jesus from the dead, and promising the same to us. Jesus showed us, in His life, death and resurrection, that there is no place in our human life where God is absent from us.

God's love is present in every human situation, in all the joys and sufferings of life. God is faithful to His promise to love us without limit or condition and nothing, even death, can ever separate us from God's love.

Why it matters
What difference does God's love make? That is a question posed to me many times, especially from people who are not believers in God. Even those who do believe in God have that same question.

God has taken the first step toward a relationship with us, but every invitation demands a response. Do we live differently because of the assurance of God's unconditional love?

The experience of God's love frees us from anything that keeps us from being who we were meant to be. We no longer need to be enslaved by our faults, sins, addictions, obsessions or fears. We were not created to be bound in prisons of our own making. We were meant to be alive and filled with joy. God's love brings us life.

One of the first tenets of most addiction-recovery programs is to let go of the need to control and submit to a power greater than ourselves. This is a discovery not born of a particular religious tradition, but a great spiritual insight.

God's love and care for us has the power to bring us new life -- and it is greater than anything we can do by ourselves.

A great example that comes to mind is Mary of Nazareth: When faced with the prospect of being the mother of God, this young, unmarried woman knew she would be ostracized or even killed, and likely she was very afraid. But she knew God's love and trusted it beyond her fears. Mary's "yes" gives us the courage to say yes in little ways that lead to a more courageous trust.

The experience of God's love opens our eyes to a new vision of life -- one in which we all belong and no one is excluded. We come to understand that everything and everyone belongs to God and ultimately, in that love, we are all connected at our source.

In Jesus' farewell discourse to his followers just before His death, we read in the Gospel of John (17:21-22): "As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them so that they may be one as we are one."

Being loved by God frees us to move beyond self-interest and to work toward unity, reconciliation and peace. God's love, in us, has the power to transform the world and all of creation.

Amazing God prayer
Amazing God, open our hearts to live our faith fully and share it freely with others. Give us the courage to imitate you, for you are love. Fill us with your Spirit, that we may reflect the compassion present in the heart of your Son. And may the eagerness to share our faith bring a transformation to our Diocese and the world.

Mary, mother of the Church, intercede with your Son to bring about in each of us a renewed enthusiasm for our faith.

We ask this through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

These are excerpts from a DVD retreat being offered by Bishop Hubbard in parishes as part of the Albany Diocese's three-year "Amazing God" evangelization process.


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