Monday, December 19, 2011

Give the gift of your time.

My Dear brothers and sisters in Christ

May the grace and peace of God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all as we celebrate this final Sunday of the Advent season. There is a story told about a little boy whose father worked very hard at a very important job often bringing work home with him to do at night. On one such night, the little boy came into his father’s study and stood for a while unnoticed. Finally, his somewhat oblivious father sensed his son’s presence, acknowledged him, and asked what his son wanted. The son asked the normal pleasantry question about what his father was doing to which his father replied something about earning his paycheck. The son then asked how much the father made per hour, a question that seemed to irritate the boy’s father. Figuring that his son was in some kind of silly game of comparison with classmates at school, the father told him that that was a very rude question and that it was none of his business. So, the son left the room but he returned a few minutes later and stood in the same place. The father, annoyed at being disrupted a second time and still thinking about how rude the son’s question was finished the sentence he was writing and then quickly looked up to find his son holding a small ceramic pig with an Iowa State Cyclone emblem on the side. The son opened the bottom of the pig and, much to the surprise of his father, emptied a few quarters, nickels, dimes, and many many pennies onto his desk. The father looked at the tear stained eyes of his son who asked, “I’d like to buy one hour. Is this enough?” The father smiled at his son, put down his pen, and went to spend time with his son. And he never brought work home again.

For the past several weeks, I’ve heard a lot of people talking about the obnoxious level of commercialism that plagues Christmas. A lot of people recognize that this is a problem but few offer any kind of solution. I believe that we hear one in the scriptures today. The first reading and gospel are one of the few times when it is apparent that one passage is directly building upon another. In the first reading, Nathan, speaking on behalf of God, promised David an heir who will be great and a son of God. In the gospel, the angel Gabriel, speaking on behalf of God, tells Mary Jesus “will be great” and will be called the “Son of God.” In the first reading, Nathan promises David a kingdom forever; in the gospel, Gabriel tells Mary “of his kingdom there will be no end.” In the first reading Nathan promises David an everlasting throne. In the gospel, Gabriel promises Mary that Jesus will inherit the throne of David his Father.

Yet, amidst all these similarities, there is still one striking difference between these reading, a difference that gives us instruction as we approach Christmas. In the first reading, David feels blessed by God. The Ark of the Covenant, which had been traveling all over Israel to be kept safe, finally arrives in Jerusalem. And David wants to do something nice for God for all the good things God has done for him. So he decides to build a house or, more precisely, a temple. The problem is that God didn’t ask for a house. He didn’t even want one! He was perfectly fine in his tent. But instead of punishing David, as we might expect, God decides that he’s going to build a house for David, a lineage so that all of David’s offspring can serve God.

Mary is also coming off of a pretty good stretch. She has got engaged to Joseph, an event that is very exciting. But, Mary’s first act is not to go out and get a gift for God in thanks. She didn’t sacrifice the fattened calf. Mary, instead, thanked God for her good fortune. She simply spent time with God in prayer. This thankful attitude is what allowed her to be the first tabernacle of the body of Christ.

This, then, is the antidote to the problem of commercialism; to focus on relationships instead of things. In other words, our first and foremost gift this time of year should be more about time than money or trinkets. No amount of money, no perfect toy, no ticket to a bowl game is as important as being with the people we love and being with our God. Now is the perfect moment to take some time to be with those we love and spend time with God in prayer. Don’t make God send a prophet, an Angel, or a crying child to get you to do it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What if Jesus comes back like that?

My Dear Friends in Christ

Grace and Peace to you in God, our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ who will come again in glory in the power of the Holy Spirit. I heard a story about a monastery that was undergoing some hard times. It used to thrive and be filled with monks but had fallen on hard times and  was down to six cantankerous monks. It had been years since anyone had gone to the monastery for spiritual direction or a young person had tried to join them. When their old abbot died and the new one was chosen, he searched out some advice from a local hermit who was renowned for his holiness. He explained that the monks were very small and were really short with one another in the hallways and he wondered if he should close down the monastery. The hermit thought for a moment and then said to the abbot that one of the monks was the messaih.The abbot was surprised and shot back that it was impossible. But the hermit simply insisted even more severely that one of the monks was the messiah but he's disguising himself with by taking on some personal foibles.

So, the abbot returned to his monastery and for one whole day surveyed the monks to see if he could spot him. There was brother Jack who spent almost every waking moment in the chapel in prayer. But, when he wasn't in the chapel, he was kind of a jerk in the hallway. But maybe that was just covering himself. Maybe he was the messiah. Or maybe it was Brother Dennis who was so jovial and so charitible. He always helped other people with a smile on his face. And you always know how to find him because he's always down in the kitchen sneaking food. In fact, he's there so often that he's really a glutton. But maybe he's the messiah and is using his big belly to cover for it.

The next day, the abbot went to the rest of the monastery and told them what the hermit had told him and explained that he was sure he was right. The rest of the monks did a similar evaluation of their brothers and, over the course of the next few weeks, began to treat each other differently. Soon, their change in attitude became noticed by the local population who started going to them for spiritual direction. Then, they started gaining a few younger monks...a complete and total change.

In today's gospel, John the baptist identifies Jesus as, " among you whom you do not recognize..." It's easy for us to sit in judgment of the Jews of Jesus' time. They had the opportunity to get to know the messiah but they just missed the chance. But, remember that they thought there was going to be a lot of fanfare surrounding the messiah. They thought that Elijah would come out of the sky in his fiery chariot and Isaiah the prophet would return with his fiery rhetoric exhorting them to return to the Lord. And, instead, they got John the Baptist out in the middle of nowhere preaching repentance to the poor and outcasts of society and the messiah came in some unimportant town to some unimportant family.

It reminded me of a song that I heard a few years ago by country singer Colin Raye. It tells the story of a homeless bum living under bridges begging food and money from people. He's the type of person who annoys you when you see him on the street, who gets removed from the front of grocery stores. What if Jesus comes back like that? Would we so quickly turn our back on him? Or what about the infant daughter of a pair of crack addicts. The baby shivers in her incubator and the parents, who have no money to pay the medical bills, basically abandon her. The medical care is going to cost millions and she'll likely be mentally and physically handicapped. She's the type of child that you kind of wish could just die in her sleep. But what if Jesus comes back like that? Would you still want them to pull the plug, still want them to just let her die peacefully?

There are so many times that we forget that we are created in the image and likeness of God and that that demands we treat each other with love and respect. That cranky coworker you avoid at work. What if Jesus comes back like that? That annoying child crying in the pew in front of you. What if Jesus comes back like that. They didn't expect him the first time, what makes you think we know for sure the way he's coming the second? What if Jesus comes back like that?

Monday, December 05, 2011

Good News

My Dear Friends in Christ

May the Good News of our Savior Jesus Christ come upon you in the power of the Holy Spirit and warm your hearts to his love. So how was your last week? Did you watch the news? Was it any good? I picked up a paper on Wedensday and read that someone had been stabbed over in Mason City. I thought to myself, well thank goodness that I don’t live over there, as though it couldn’t happen here. The Penn State sexual abuse scandal continues to be in the headlines as more and more young people come forward claiming to be abused. And, of course, it only took a few days for people to connect this scandal to the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Our country’s economy, well to be honest it really is the world’s economy but still, the economy is still in the toilet and no one seems to be able to do anything about it. And I don’t know about you but I hate this time of year. I hate the fact that it gets dark so early and waits so long in the morning before we get to see the sun again.

In the midst of this, we hear in both the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah and in the Gospel from John the Baptist the hopeful message of GOOD NEWS! In the first reading, we heard a rare positive message from the prophet. It took him 40 chapters to finally get there and, in order to get there, we had to slog through warnings of impending doom if the people didn’t reform their ways. But, finally, in the 40th chapter, Isaiah turns to us out of nowhere and says, “Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God!” It’s as though God is saying to us that he knows there’s a lot of fear out there. He knows that some of you are wondering where the money is going to come from to make this a special Christmas. He knows that some of you are worried about some hard feelings between you and your relatives that may rear their ugly head at Christmas gatherings. He knows that some of you are worried about finding jobs or keeping jobs. He knows that some of you are worried that you or your parents or someone else you care about might not make it through this Winter and he saying to us, “Fear not…God is here to save you.”

What a great message of hope! Jesus came into the world and now we await his return in glory. We do so as we listen to the words of John the Baptist. John is this wild man living in the desert on whatever he can salvage. We can learn a thing or two from John. God may not provide filet mignon. He may not supply escargot. But he has given us our daily bread; his body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Eucharist. But John’s message of Good News is different than we are used to. He points to one mightier than he who is coming after him. He is not worthy to do the job of servant for this one coming after him. Think about that. John is probably the holiest person of his time and he’s not even important enough to be Jesus’ servant. John’s message is one of total humility.

In our world today, we could use a little humble Good News. This is why Fr. Lippstock and the deanery vocation committee have organized this vocation awareness event in a couple of weeks for people who are considering priesthood or religious life. We need people who can tell glad tidings of Good News, especially priests and religious. Yet, in all honesty, we are all called to be people of Good News who spread the light of Christ to all the world. So here’s my challenge to you: This coming week choose some way to interject Good News into your world. It can be as big as trying to organize a Bible study among your coworkers or friends or as small as saying hello to that person you normally avoid at work or school. Let all the world know the Good News that Jesus Christ has come into the world and that he will come again in glory.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The rush from what happened to who is to blame.

Before I begin this column, I want to start off with a few preliminary remarks. Sexual abuse of any kind, but especially sexual abuse of minors, is a tragedy. It is a reality of this fallen world but a tragic reality and my heart hurts for the victims and their families. In my heart of hearts, I hope that Jesus wasn't speaking figuratively when he warned that drowning violently would be a better death than what is in store for those who hurt a child.

Now on to what I've been tossing around in my head. And these truly are just my thoughts. I'm not speaking in any way on behalf of the church (or the Church, for the matter). For the past week, I've watched with sadness what has taken place at Penn State University. I mourn for the kids and families who went through this crap. As I said before, it is a tragedy. But, to be honest, I'm nervous at how quickly things moved from the stage of finding out what happened to finding out who is at fault. I'm not meaning to cast aspersions on the findings. I'm just asking if there is a step missing that, I fear, will be crucial to stopping this in the future.

Let me give an example of what I'm talking about. You might remember Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords campaign rally a few weeks ago in which a deeply disturbed gentlemen named Jared Laughner brought guns to the event and ended up shooting people. In my opinion, the same step was missed in this. We quickly moved from what happened to who was at fault. Liberals blamed Sarah Palin for putting a gun sight over Giffford's district. Conservatives responded that there was no proof that Laughner even knew about the sight and that he was just crazy. In the end, it seemed as though the rush to blame someone made us miss a crucial point. There is a lot of gun violence perpetuated in this country by people like laughner, people who are diagnosed bipolar or schizophrenic. I feel like we missed a chance to look at the amount of violence done by people who suffer from this mysterious illness and see if we should restrict gun sales to them. I can think of two instances in my own life in which which someone with bipolar disorder has killed someone else because voices in their head were telling them to do so. But, if we just focus on who is at fault in this particular situation, we miss the opportunity to stop it the next time.

So how is that related to this? If I understand things correctly, part of the way Jerry Sandusky was able to abuse kids was by befriending at-risk kids. These are the kids that the rest of us would prefer not to have to deal with. They misbehave in school and cause headaches for their teachers. You always wonder where their parents are and why they are skateboarding on your front steps instead of at their own. These are the kids that break your windows with rocks because they are bored and then lie to you about it when you confront them. These are the "bad kids." This scumbag, Sandusky, took these kids and made them disappear into what appeared to be something good: a mentoring program. They were out of sight and someone else's problem. He then used what I've come to understand as typical abusive psychological manipulation techniques to get these kids to trust him enough so that he could do almost anything to them. It's eerily similar to what a priest I knew seems to have done to kids who were at risk. In the rush to blame, we can't miss the lesson we need to learn: We need to have greater monitoring and accountability in these mentoring types of relationships, especially for at-risk kids. I imagine that, for the most part, these programs are totally on the up and up and do immeasurably great things for the kids that participate in them. But there needs to be a way so that someone who is in the program to abuse children cannot have the opportunity to do so. We can't just trust that the guy who is getting rid of the problem children is doing it for the right reasons. There's just too much room for abuse to take place.

The rush to blame someone is really a way of putting the problem behind us. It centers the problem in someone and removes us from finding the thing that is behind the problem. In some ways, it stops us from getting overwhelmed at all the solutions to problems we need to implement. But it really doesn't help the poor troubled kid who was just befriended by a coach, boy scout leader, or priest from being sexually abused. Only by seeking the root of the problem and dealing with that will we ever be able to fix it.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Fides ET Ratio

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ

Grace and Peace to you in God, our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. If you had never entered a church before in your life and most of your friends had never entered a church before but your only experience of believers was off the TV, what would be your perception of church going people? I imagine the perception would be that most of us are simpletons. Think of the character Net on the Television show The Simpsons. He’s a geeky guy with a whiney, high-pitched voice who uses phrases like, “Son of a Didley” instead of swearing. But, Ned also supports his church and his minister and is always willing to give a helpful hand to his neighbors, the Simpsons, even though they seem to always accept his help and then take advantage of his generosity. In many ways, he’s the definition of a simpleton.

There was a time when a religious person would have been portrayed very differently. Recently, I’ve had a chance to watch the shows Going My Way with Bing Crosby and The Trouble with Angels with Jane Russel and Haley Mills. These shows from a bygone era show priests and nuns and religion in general as a place for intelligent and moral people. In fact, the whole point of those movies seemed to be that wise people affiliated themselves with religion while the dregs of society who cared only for themselves fought against it. Today, it seems like you have to shut off your brain to believe in God, or at least that’s the way Hollywood would have you believe. I’m afraid we’ve confused something very fundamental, something that makes us different than most Protestant denominations. In fact, the confusion is so widespread that even some priests get confused about it. The confusion centers around the idea of faith. Some believe that faith is a “best guess scenario.” It’s something an individual has to guess at. You look around in search for proof and, when you can’t find any, you make a “leap of faith.” The only think you can trust is the Bible or, as they may say it, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

For Catholics, faith and wisdom are inseparable. If our faith contradicts wisdom, then one must be in need of a new appropriation. But it must be authentic wisdom not the kind that was praised in the first reading today, which I call knowledge not wisdom. One can have knowledge but not be wise. Think of the professor that knows everything about the way the Universe works but would likely leave for work without wearing pants if a loving spouse didn’t lay them out each day. Or the sports figure who knows everything about the game of football or baseball but couldn’t put together a grammatically correct sentence if Ms. Manners had a gun to his head. These folks have knowledge but not wisdom.

A wise person grapples with difficult questions and is never satisfied with simple answers. She or he realizes that atheism is true futility, true foolishness. Instead, a wise person opens herself or himself up to the possibility that there is a God and then tries to get into a relationship with him. They look at the Bible as a helpful tool that tells us about our ancestor’s relationship to God but they also recognize it’s not a purely historical document. They live life differently that those who do not believe in God, as a consequence. They live life as though Christ could come tomorrow. Indeed, they live as though Christ could come right now and we’d be prepared. That means that we show love to our neighbors, especially those who are oppressed. We live life in order to reach out to those who are not wise in order to let them know where true wisdom resides, in the heart of Christ.

True wisdom is built on vigilantly waiting for God, which is why Hollywood has it so wrong. It’s not we who believe and patiently wait for Christ’s return who are simple. It’s those who give up on God like the five foolish bridegrooms in the gospel who are simple. We who have the faith, hope, and love of Christ and await his return in glory are the truly wise ones. Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life. Lord Jesus, come in glory.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Love God and Love one another…two commandments or one?

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ

May Grace and Peace be yours in abundance through our Lord Jesus Christ who has shown us the way to the Father in his love for us. This weekend is Sacrificial Giving Sunday, the one weekend when I focus my homily on money. I promise you that, unless something drastic happens, I won’t preach about money again this year. Last week, it was really easy to talk about sacrificial giving to the parishes of Hancock County. The gospel story on the coin with Caesar’s image focused us on who has given us what we have and to whom we should give that in return. This week, it’s a little more challenging. In fact, to be honest, I was ready to give up focusing on sacrificial giving when I first read the readings. But, then it came to me. There’s something missing in today’s gospel that really drives home the idea of sacrificial giving.

In the gospel, Jesus is approached by some scholars of the law to settle a disputed question. He had just settled a question on the resurrection for the Sadducees by telling them, who didn’t believe in resurrection, that the teaching for it actually goes back to the first chapters of one of the books they still had in their Bible, the book of Genesis. When the Sadducees couldn’t trick him, the Pharisees send in one of their own to prove just how superior they are to the rival Sadducees. At the time of Jesus, there were 613 laws recognized by the Pharisees. There were 365 laws that prohibited something, one for each day of the year, and 268 laws that prescribed some kind of action, one for each bone in the human body. Jesus is asked if he can summarize all 613 laws in one short sentence by deeming one as most important. He begins by citing a prayer that every Jew prays daily called the Schema “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is God indeed. You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” But, Jesus doesn’t stop there. He goes on to give a second one that is “like” the first, which is traced to the book of Deuteronomy, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This answer seems to silence the Pharisees for the time being.

As I said to you, there is something that is amazing about this great commandment, as we have come to know this. After all this is supposed to be the driving force for all Christian legislation. This is supposed to be the way we order our lives. First we are to love God with our entire being and then love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. Think about your life for just a second. Is this the way we really order our life? I imagine if we were to write this for today, we’d be tempted to add a commandment and it would likely be first. The commandment would say something like, “Love yourself and be sure to pamper yourself with all that you need because you can’t love anyone else if you don’t love yourself first.” Yet, loving ourselves seems to be the last thing on Jesus’ mind. We are supposed to love others as much as we love ourselves. This does presuppose that we, in fact, love ourselves. But, I think it’s interesting that self love is the last concern on Jesus’ mind.

Let me give a concrete example of this in the way we use our money. When we get our paycheck, don’t we first think about all the bills that we are going to have to pay? There’s the car loan and the mortgage on the house and the credit card bill. Oh, and don’t forget water, gas, and electricity. And, if there’s extra, we probably think about putting it away for a rainy day or maybe putting it in the college fund for the kids. Maybe we even think of something we’d like to buy for ourselves, a book or a nice new sweater or a new wrench. Are we following Jesus’ commandments when we order it in this way? Shouldn’t our first concern be how much of our salary we should give back to God, whether through donating to the church or by giving to the poor and widows and orphans that the first reading was talking about today? We call this Sacrificial Giving Sunday because it challenges us on the sacrifice we can make in service to God. I know many of you already make sacrifices for this parish. You give of your time, talent, and treasure to see to it that this parish has the resources it needs to keep going and I want to thank you for the sacrifices you make. But, I know there are some who have given the same $1 or $5 contribution each week since they were kids and others who don’t give anything because they probably have never thought about the kinds of expenses that a parish has. I’d like to ask the latter two groups of people to take some time to reflect on how much money you can give. I’m not asking anyone to give more than they can but I think each of us, myself included, are called to make certain sacrifices in our own lives to live out the Great Commandment to love God and love our Neighbor.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Render unto Caesar

My Dear friends in Christ

May the Grace and Peace of God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ come into your heart and remain with you forever. When I was an Associate Pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames, once a year, we would get one of the retired priests to celebrate mass in our rural parish in Gilbert so that both Pastor and the Associate could be present at all masses for this homily. It was a fun homily in some ways because we turned it into a dialogue. Most of the time, in the dialogue, I was the dumb guy who didn’t quite “get” what we were talking about and Father Ev Hemann, the pastor, had to explain it to me. Unfortunately, that’s impossible in this current set-up. First of all, I don’t have an Associate Pastor. Fr. Lippstock is a Sacramental Priest and, as you’re probably aware, that means that he is here to celebrate sacraments for us and there are certain things that he doesn’t have to do. Plus, even if we still had an Associate pastor, the number of masses in different towns and distance between those towns would almost make it impossible. So, given this fact, I have to be both people in the dialogue. I will be (standing at the pulpit) young Fr. Dennis the excited but slightly misguided Associate Pastor sent year to learn from (sitting in the chair) old Fr. Miller the seasoned, wise, but slightly cynical pastor. Okay, ready?

At the ambo: Hi! My name is Fr. Dennis and I’m the Associate Pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Student center and I’m here today to be brief and to the point, or at least that’s what Fr. Miller told me. (Laugh harder than the joke deserves) Just kidding. In Today’s gospel we heard Jesus say that we are supposed to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.

At the chair: Oh my gosh. Don’t repeat what you just read in the Gospel like we weren’t paying attention. It’s insulting to your audience.

At the Ambo: Oh, sorry. The past few Sundays, Jesus has had some very hard words for the Pharisees and Scholars of the Law and this one is no different. Three Sundays ago, he said that the scourge of the earth, tax collectors and prostitutes, were entering the kingdom before Pharisees and Scholars of the Law. Then, for the last two weeks, he told parables that all seem to imply that the leaders of the Jews have been behaving so badly by killing and beating people that God is going to get rid of them and replace them with others.

At the chair: Why only go back three weeks? Why not summarize everything we’ve heard since Advent. GET TO THE POINT!

At the Ambo: Right. Today, Jesus is asked a question from those same Pharisees and Scholars of the Law he has upset for the last few weeks who are there in a kind of gotcha interview, as Sarah Palin would say. They ask if they need to pay taxes or not. Now, you need to know that there was a division between two groups in Judaism at the time of Jesus. The Pharisees didn’t like the fact that the Romans were occupying Israel. They sort of tolerated Roman presence but simultaneously worked to get them to leave and worked to enforce laws as though they were still in charge. Their opponents, in a sense, were the Saducees who were very much in league with the Romans. They had become rich by cooperating with them and they even got rid of certain parts of Judaism in order to get rid of anything that would threaten Roman leaders. So, in effect, the Pharisees in asking this question of Jesus are asking if he is a Pharisee or a Saducee, a conservative or a liberal, a Cyclone or a Hawkeye. Jesus response, actually I’m a Panther fan. He’s giving me that look like I should get to the point, so here it is. Jesus answer is tricky. On the one hand, he seems to agree with the Sadducees that we should work with the Romans and pay the taxes using the money with the false god, Caesar’s, image on it. But, what he really says is give to “Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Did Caesar make the world? Did Caesar make the elements? Even if the coin has his face on it, everything that it’s made out of is God’s. Caesar is just borrowing it.
Today we are going to talk about money. The pastor told me that if I do a good job, it’ll be the one time in the year that you’ll have to hear about it. So, here goes brief and to the point. We need your money. Not just some of it, all of it. We have some big bills to pay coming up this winter and we’re going to close your parish if you don’t start giving more money so stop being such cheapskates and give some money…

At the chair: Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! What are you doing? We talked about this That’s not the right way to approach a Sacrificial Giving homily. (Move from the chair to one side of the pulpit). You started off so good in emphasizing that everything that we have has been given to us by God but then you totally went off track.

At the Ambo: Really?

At the chair: Yes. The reason we talk about money on this ONE AND ONLY Sunday of the year is not because of the church’s needs. Jesus didn’t say in the gospel that you should give just because we need a new roof or a new boiler. He said that you should give back to God in thanksgiving for everything that God has given to you. You need to tell the nice people just how impressed you are at the generosity of so many of them. Their money is used to pay bills for our parish and salaries for our employees. But, you also need to tell them that there are some of them that don’t contribute as much as they could and ask them to prayerfully consider giving more. Some of them have been giving the same $1 or $5 since they were kids and just as their age has gotten bigger, so their contribution should follow suit. Others probably haven’t thought about the amount of money that it takes to run a parish at all and need to be asked to consider giving something for the first time.

At the Ambo: That’s right. Now I remember. You said that a lot of times a figure of 10% is thrown around, 5% to the church and 5% to other charities, because it’s tithing. But, each individual or family needs to ask themselves what they can afford to give. For some people, giving 10% of their income might not be a sacrifice at all. For others, they wouldn’t be able to eat if they gave away 10% of their income. Especially in these uncertain financial times, we all have to be responsible with our generosity but we are, nonetheless, called to be generous.

At the chair: Very good.Well, Thank you Fr. Dennis for the message. I hope you do better at the next mass or I may just have to do it myself.

Monday, October 10, 2011

My Dear friends in Christ

May grace and peace be yours in abundance through knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. Every year, around late July or early August, I get an email or note from a parishioner that goes something like this…

Dear Fr. Miller

In general, I think you are doing a good job as our pastor. You have a very beautiful voice and sometimes you even have a good homily. But, you need to do something about all these women that don’t wear the right clothes to church. And I’m not just talking about young girls. I’m talking about women who should know better wearing spaghetti straps and shorts. Don’t they know they are coming to church? I find this very offensive. I don’t come to church to look at bare shoulders and back acne. (I’m not kidding about the back acne comment!) Church is supposed to be a formal place where you wear your finest clothes, not the swimming hole with Opey and Andy.

Yours in Christ
Older, respected woman in the community

I couldn’t help but think of these communications when I was reading this passage. If I were to apply this scripture passage literally, the message is clear: those older, respected women in the community are exactly right and I should have the ushers throw out anyone who comes to church without the right clothes on. I should set up a dress code that everyone has to meet, especially the women. I’m thinking full length ball gown with a mantilla covering the women’s head is going to be part. Guys will have to wear a suit with a bow tie, preferably a tuxedo but I understand that not every man can afford a tux so any suit would suffice except for a leisure suit. What do you think this is, a disco mass?

I am, of course, being facetious. I have no intention of implementing a dress code. Having worked on a college campus, I’ll admit that I have seen it all. I’ve seen girls with tight fitting shirts, short shorts, and thigh high boots come and kneel down in the front row of church. I’ve seen guys with baggy pants, baggy shorts, body-piercings and tattoos visible everywhere spending time in front of the tabernacle. And I've seen guys in khaki pants, a shirt, and tie come in and act like total idiots in church. I don’t think Jesus was advocating setting a dress code for mass in this parable. He’s using a common convention as an analogy to a deeper, issue.

The King in this analogy is God and, as we know, God first made a relationship to the Jewish people. In the first reading, we heard that the end-time was supposed to be like a great banquet that the Lord of hosts would provide on his mountain. But, when God invites his chosen people to attend, at first they refuse to come and then they beat and kill the servants inviting them. The servants that invite them are, of course, the prophets, John the Baptist, and Jesus himself. So, the King has to give up on the guests he first invited and sends the remaining servants out to invite anyone and everyone. Yet, when he does this, someone shows up not wearing clothes fit for a wedding. But what tells me that there’s a deeper meaning than simple church regulation is that the result of being thrown out of the banquet is wailing and gnashing of teeth. It seems clear that Jesus is using people’s outward appearance to talk about what’s happening in their heart.

I think of the politicians that come to mass dressed in the same suit that they wore after voting to ease restrictions on abortion. Or the man who comes to mass with his beautiful family after cheating on his wife the night before. What about the nicely dressed woman who stole money from work the on Friday and then comes before the Lord in the Holy Eucharist on Sunday. Those are the garments that matter to the Lord.

Don’t get me wrong. I do think there are times that women could dress more modestly because their dress could facilitate a guy’s imagination and cause him to sin. Guys tend to be more visual than woman and don’t need a woman’s help to objectify them. But, guys, we can't let that be an excuse! Have custody of your own eyes. We're the only ones that can decide if we treat women with dignity or not.

On this mountain the Lord of hosts has provided a feast of rich food and choice wine, on this mountain the Lord has provided the body and blood of his only Son. We put on the wedding garments of good works to come to this mountain, even if our outward clothing isn’t always perfect.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Short version of this week's homily

This weekend's gospel was the parable of the two sons. It's kind of the short version of the prodigal son. A man with two sons goes to his first son and asks him to help in the vineyard. The son says no but eventually goes. The other son says yes but never quite gets there.

Jesus is using this parable to point out that some who seemed to be on the fast track to hell ended up changing their ways and going to heaven. Whereas some people who seemed so holy were sinning but not repenting, let alone even coming to recognize their sin for what it was.

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. None of us are perfect. That's why we have the sacrament of Reconciliation. It keeps us humble and helps us get the job done.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Being duped by God for humility

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ
           May grace and peace be yours in abundance through Christ our Lord as we gather to worship and praise God’s name. As I meditated on the readings for today, I couldn’t help but think of a situation that happened to me in my seminary days. The second year of St. Paul Seminary was known to be a very difficult one. In fact, they referred to it as the washout year, a year in which the professors made a deliberate effort to so pack your schedule that the “undesirable” seminarians would leave. As I looked over my schedule at the beginning of the year, I realized that the reading for the classes alone could take up all my time. Yet, on top of the reading, I was expected to participate in daily common prayer and go out to a local parish to observe and learn from the pastor. The crazy thing was that, during the first semester, I really felt like I was succeeding and this was supposed to be the more difficult semester of the two. In several classes, I had read material that my fellow classmates simply hadn’t. I would get back papers with the best grades I had gotten in my post-secondary education, which was good since any grade below a C would mean that you automatically were asked to leave the program. I even had thoughts that I could become a bishop some day if I did well. I made it to finals and was looking forward to going home for break. All I had to do was take three oral finals in a row on Thursday morning and then I would be free to leave. The first one, on Original Sin and Grace, went okay. The second one, on the Eucharist, started off rough but quickly was amazing. I even used the Greek term for the sacristy, skeuophylakion, at one point, which made the professor’s eyes light up with joy. I walked into my last final and sat down ready to be done with a difficult year. The professor told me I could choose the question I wanted to answer. I looked at the paper with the questions and chose the last one I had been working on, one of the harder questions. As I started saying the answer, I remember thinking about a minute into it that I had started answering incorrectly but I didn’t know how to gracefully get around to the right answer. I felt like a semi truck driver going downhill with no brakes. After ten minutes, I finally gave up. I asked if I could try another question, and the professor kindly but firmly told me that I could not. I had a choice. I could come back the next day and take a written form of the test or I could take the F on the test and probably fail the course. I was devastated. I went back to my room and started to cry. I was convinced that I would fail the course and would, therefore, not be ordained. I felt like I had been duped by God into believing that I was intelligent when, clearly, I was not.
          In some ways, both Peter and Jeremiah feel duped by God in today’s readings. You might remember that last week Peter was called the rock on which the church is built by Our Lord and was given the Keys to the Kingdom, which is why we honor him as the first Pope. But, when Peter tries to exercise leadership this week, Jesus calls him Satan and says that, instead of building up the church, the rock is acting more like a stumbling block. And, while Jeremiah has been doing exactly what the Lord has asked him to do, prophesying about the ramifications of the Judeans sinful actions by the hands of the Babylonians, by all appearances Jeremiah is the one who is going to be punished instead of the Judeans. The word that Jeremiah uses today is translated as duped but it would be better to use the word seduced. For both Peter and Jeremiah, God made their leadership positions so attractive that they felt like they couldn’t turn him down. But, it quickly becomes clear that God seduced them by only presenting the best parts. Now that they’ve accepted, he tells them about the crosses that are also involved.
          I imagine the same is true in your life. Didn’t we all dream of having a job that we loved, the kind of job where we feel like we make a good amount of money and make a real contribution to society? You probably didn’t think about becoming dissatisfied with job conditions or having your position eliminated and being forced to work in a job for little pay with long hours. Or, if you are married, you were undoubtedly seduced by the best parts of family life. You probably thought of having a loving spouse to be your companion throughout your life. You probably thought of having children you would raise to be responsible citizens. You probably didn’t think about having disagreements that seem to go on and on with a spouse who is sometimes very hard to love or children that come home one day with body piercings or tattoos. Haven’t you ever wanted to turn to God and say, “You seduced me with all the good stuff and now you expect me to put up with the crosses of all the bad as well? Where’s the justice in this?!##$@#”
          I am convinced that, part of the reason we have these experiences is to teach us humility. Ultimately, we may feel like we are in charge of our own fate but we are not. A disagreeable spouse reminds us that we are in a relationship of equals and that compromise is essential in such a relationship. A rebellious daughter or son reminds us of the things we did to our parents and all the hardship we caused them. Even a failing grade in seminary can seem like an opportunity to learn resilience and a lesson in why I will never, ever, ever, ever become a Bishop. It is what St. Paul was talking about in offering our lives as a living sacrifice. We offer up all the disappointments, all the sufferings and hardships, to the one true God as part of the cross that he invites us to carry knowing that he carried it for us first in forgiveness of our sins.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The keys

<p>In this Sunday's homily, I preached about the keys that Jesus bestowed on St. Peter. Keys are a sign of authority. You control access to an area and control of a vehicle with them. Jesus did this because Peter answered the question, "Who do YOU say that I am" in faith. We each answer that question every day. Is Jesus an acquaintance we only acknowledge on Sunday? Do we tend to use Jesus' name as a swear word? What are we saying about him when we do that? Or do you approach Jesus each day as your Shepherd and Messiah who leads you to everlasting life? Who do you say that Jesus is?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Forgiving others before they ask for forgiveness

Last night someone jumped the fence in my garden, stole four of my watermelons, and smashed one on the road outside my church. At first I was mad. Then I wanted revenge in the presence of an electric fence. But I think I've forgiven them now.

I imagine it was a group of High School kids who hang around a nearby park. They have mopeds and they race down the street late at night. They park their parent's car along the street and the boys and girls try to impress each other. In short,  they're miserable. They feel powerless and invincible at the same time...if only they were in control.

They're like the Israelites in the desert with new found freedom while complaining that God isn't listening to them and they haven't yet experienced, nor do they trust that it will get better. The are truly hopeless.

So if the choice was having them act out their frustration by committing suicide, beating up some unpopular kid, or smashing my watermelons,  I'm sort of fine with losing all the work that went into them. I just hope they make amends to someone when they reach their promised land.

Sunday, July 31, 2011


My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ

Grace and Peace to you in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the incredible power of the Holy Spirit. I keep reflecting on how wonderful it was to gather a few short weeks ago for Fr. Hertges going away party. On the one hand, it was very edifying to see some of you see coworkers and friends that you may have not even known were Catholic. But, as it was a potluck, it was also incredible to look at all the food and realize that I was going to have a lot of difficulty fitting a sample of everything on one plate. And, as always, there was more food there than there was people.

When I went to Loras College, I heard a lot of great homilies from great priests. But, I once heard a priest preach on this gospel in a way that was very enlightening. To sum up, he said that we tend to emphasize the miraculous nature of this story. But, in truth, this is a morality tale, a story meant to impart a moral message on the listeners. He said that what really happened was that the people listening to Jesus message were hoarding all their food. But eventually a little boy came forward and gave his meager supplies, five loaves and two fish, which made everyone else so guilty that they all started giving their hoarded food to the disciples until there was enough to feed everyone with some left over. Of course, the point of the story according to this priest was the importance of charity and making sure that everyone has some before worrying about storing up for later. That’s a good Christian message. However, as I discovered later, it has NOTHING to do with this gospel passage and putting forward that message misses the point entirely.

Jesus has just heard that his cousin and his role model has just been put to death by the government. So, he goes off to mourn. But, he looks out at all the people who have come from far away and realizes that they are there because they are mourning too. These are the sick, the possessed, the poor, and the outcasts. So, he begins to heal the sick, to minister to them. But, when evening comes, his apostles tell him that he should dismiss them so they can go to the local villages and get food. Bear in mind that there’s probably somewhere between twelve and fifteen thousand people out there and they have just enough food for the apostles and Jesus, five loaves and two fish. But Jesus has a larger purpose there. He takes those five loaves and two fish and breaks them until everyone is fed. It wasn’t magic. He didn’t put it in a basket filled with food and just keep pulling out more and more of it. He just keeps breaking it and there’s always more. It’s not magic. It’s a miracle.

I believe that, oftentimes, when we ask God for something, we tend to be too small. We pray for something and, when God doesn’t answer our prayer, we ask for something smaller. In fact, one of the things that really annoys me about some of our evangelical brothers and sisters is listening to their prayer. They say something like, “Lord, I just want you to…” and “I just…” But God is not the God who gives us just what we need. God is the God of superabundance. We ask him to take away our sins and he takes away the sins of the world for all time. We ask him to save us from death and he prepares a place for us. We ask for a dollar and he gives us a million. We shouldn’t put limits on our expectations of God. It doesn’t mean that he’ll give it to us. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a miracle when he does. But, he definitely won’t give it to us if we don’t ask.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A full Saturday

Saturdays tend to be challenging for priests. I woke up worried about something that's unresolved from my parishes. I hate it when that happens.

I heard confessions for a half hour and then walked around the block before returning to my house at 10:45. After that I got organized for a wedding prep session with one couple and witnessed the marriage of another.

After the wedding, I looked at my Sunday homily one last time before going to hear more confessions and celebrating evening mass. After mass someone requested to be anointed and then my day was done.

Four sacraments in eight hours in three different towns. Fairly typical and very satisfying. I love being a priest.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

From my phone

I just downloaded an ap for my smartphone that will allow me to post here. The good news is that I no longer will think of something to blog about and then forget it by the time I get to a computer. The bad news is that the filter that naturally happens because of the lag has also disappeared. I'll do my best to not turn my blog into twitter.

The Search

My Dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Grace and Peace to you in God, Our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Oftentimes, when I think about prayer, I think of the gospel from Ash Wednesday. “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” As an introvert, this appeals to me. In fact, I have even coverted what should be a sun room into a private prayer space in the rectory in Garner. And, even though I think we should all have our favorite place to visit daily for prayer, whether they be an emptry room at home, a favorite outdoor shair, or a daily visit to the Blessed Sacrament, I don’t think that Jesus was saying that this is the ONLY way that Jesus wanted us to pray. The context of this message, which comes from the same gospel we read tonight, Matthew, is that we shouldn’t pray just so that others will see us and admire us for how holy we are. Prayer is a conversation with God, not a way of making ourselves look good to others.

A few years ago, I was camping with my family at Adventureland Campground just outside of Des Moines. At the time, I had a fold-down camper and my parents still had their large, hard-side camper. I went to bed around 10:30 since we were going to be going to Adventureland park the next day. At midnight, a flash of lightning illumined my camper immediately followed by a loud cannon shot of thunder. For a half hour, this lightning storm in the sky made it impossible to sleep but eventually it was silent again so I rolled over and went back to sleep. About an hour later, a heavy rain shower with some light hail moved through that sounded gunfire. But, eventually that stopped and I rolled over and went back to sleep. At three fifteen, I woke up annoyed because someone’s alarm was going off. But, of course, it wasn’t someone’s alarm. It was the tornado sirens. I wanted to roll over and go back to sleep. Thankfully, my dad came and knocked on my door before he ran off to the shelter house. I put on a shirt and some shoes before I opened my camper door to follow dad to the shelter house. I remember being very disoriented and feeling the rain and wind hit my face. I rand toward what I thought was the shelter house only to discover that it was really a locked front office. I had no idea what to do. If I ran to a different building, there was no guarantee that it would be unlocked and the only building I knew would be open, the bathroom, was the opposide direction from the way I had ran. I was afraid that if I ran for it, it would hail or the tornado would come and pick me up like in the Wizard of Oz. Only I had no delusions of ending up in Oz! So, I did the only thinkg I thought I could do. I prayed. I wasn’t locked away in my chapel, though I would have rather been there. I was under a bench in the middle of a fierce storm asking God, through the intercession of the saints, to end this so that I could get back to my camper, change my clothes, get into bed, roll over, and go back to sleep.

Let’s face it, if religion is confined to the purely private recesses of our houses, we are the ones that are going to suffer. We need God just as much in our daily lives as we do in the times set aside for prayer. That old truism that there are no atheists in foxholes reminds us of a truism that our evangelical brothers and sisters often understand better than we do: It’s oftentimes harder to believe in God when life is good than when life is challenging. We may thing that the goal of the ideal spiritual life should be to bring us peace but that’s not authentic Christiand spirituality. St. Paul reminded us of this in the second reading. He said, “We know that all things work for God for those who love God.” Now, this isn’t Paul’s way of saying that it will get better or all good things come to those who wait. Paul is expressing that, in the midst of suffering and persecution, God still brings good things to us as long as we love him. And that’s the journey each of us is called to.

The life of the Christian is not meant to be easy. In the gospel, Jesus uses two images of searching for treasure and a willingness to give up everything to have that treasure in order to convey this message to us. That’s why we need to stay connected to God both in the good times and the bad so that we can draw strength from him when we need it and be attentive to our brothers and sisters who are suffering when we don’t. Prayer needs to be the bedrock of our lives for us to be part of the Kingdom of heaven.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Eucharist constitutes the church

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ

Grace and Peace to you in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. One of the most powerful things that I get to do as a priest is exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. That’s what we do when we set that large metal stand, called the monstrance, on the altar so that people can adore and pray in front of the Host or Blessed Sacrament, for a period of time. I find this to be an extraordinarily powerful time of quiet meditation. Yet, regardless of how profound my experience of Adoration is, there is this little uneasy dance that happens in my heart towards the end of almost every session. I begin to wonder if people are bored. I begin to worry that people are remembering days when their mother or father forced them to come and do this. I begin to worry that people are resolving never to do this again. I begin to think that I should cut it short so that people don’t get more frustrated than what they already are. But, I stick it out for the full amount of time and stand, with all these doubts running through my head, to return the Blessed Sacrament to its place in the tabernacle. I kneel with my back to the people and invite them to open to the back of the hymnal and sing that classic chant, “Tantum egro sacramentum” and I hear voices of people who never crack a hymnal at Sunday mass singing out this song that was first sung before it’s singers knew there was a North America. Then, I approach the monstrance to bless the people and, on their faces, I see looks that bespeak respect and love. Not only do the people not feel the way my heart was trying to say they do, most of the time people wish they could have adoration more often. I even had one woman openly admit that she wished it could be much longer. I’ve never had anyone tell me that they thought mass was too short but, for this woman, she didn’t have enough time to adore the presence of the Lord. I think people see in this form a prayer a memory. And, I don’t mean that people sit around and think about the good old days, I think we are reminded of the respect that we have in our hearts for what we eat and drink each week.

That is what is at the heart of the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord. We are invited to focus on the Eucharist and its importance in our lives. Our readings focus on the respect that we should have for the Eucharist. The first reading from Deuteronomy reminded our Jewish brothers and sisters, just as surely as it reminds us that the Eucharist is a gift from God. Jesus, in the gospel, takes this message a step further and reminds us that the bread that we eat is his flesh and the wine that we drink is his blood. Just as God gave the Israelites bread in the journey toward the promised land so God gives his pilgrim church bread on our earthly journey.

As Catholics, we believe that the Eucharist is what constitutes the church. Without the Eucharist there would be no church and without the church there would be no Eucharist. The Eucharist connects us to Christ and to each other. It connects us to Christ because, as we heard in the Gospel today, we aren’t just receiving bread and wine. We are receiving Christ himself; his body, blood, soul, and divinity, when we receive the Eucharist. But, by receiving this gift of God, we are made a part of the church. Therefore, it connects us to one another as well. It is the great commandment we have been given to love God and love our neighbor.

Sometimes, in the church, there is a perception of a division between so-called liberals who are more social justice oriented and so-called conservatives who are more prayer oriented. This solemnity really challenges this division. I think of Mother Teresa, for instance, who would spend hours each day praying before the Blessed Sacrament while also spending hours reaching out to the poor in Calcutta. I think of Mary Jo Copeland, who runs a series of homeless shelters in the Twin Cities and prayerfully washes the feet of several of the people who come to her shelters. I think of St. Katherine Drexel who used her own personal fortune, 20 million dollars, to help impoverished African-Americans and American-Indians that society had forgotten. Yet, she would spend hours each day kneeling in front of the Blessed Sacrament.

Mass is where we come to encounter the love of God, the God who laid down is body and blood for our sins. But mass also empowers us to live out that encounter in our daily lives, to be the love of God to others. We may do this by starting or serving at a homeless shelter or reaching out to someone that we know is hurting and fixing a meal for the person or organizing a group of people to help him or her. In whatever way, we feel called, let us live out the love that we feel in prayer by helping those in need to know the love God has for them.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans

My Dear Friends in Christ

Grace and Peace to you in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Today we gather to celebrate Trinity Sunday. When I was a kid, weekends in summer meant camping. I, in fact, remember camping with such fondness that I have purchased a camper of my own that I use on my day off. Most of the time that we went camping, we would go to Twin Acres Campground, which is located between Colo, Iowa and Nevada, Iowa. My parents, being good and observant Catholics, didn’t believe that vacation was a vacation from church so, of course, we had to get dressed up on Saturday afternoon and head to St. Mary’s Church in Colo for mass. The priest there was very stern. For example, he didn’t want someone using their left hand to receive the Holy Eucharist so he would reach down and adjust their hands if he felt like they were wrong. But, what I remember most about mass in Colo was that they would always sing the same four songs. I'm not sure if they were the only four songs the organist knew or if they were the only four songs the priest allowed. Regardless, one of them was called “Sing Praise to our Creator”. It had three verses, each extolling the three persons of the Holy Trinity. But the chorus was always the same: Oh most Holy Trinity, undivided unity, Holy God, Mighty God, God immortal be adored.

An updated version started appearing in music books a couple of years ago and I do use it for daily mass on occasion. Yet, I don’t just love the song because it reminds me of a simpler time of my life. I also love it because it portrays a teaching about God that, I fear, has been lost in a lot of Catholic teaching, namely the transcendence of God.

Our readings today are all about the transcendence of God. In the first reading, we hear about Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. You will notice that, despite the fact that God is said to have appeared to Moses, there is no description of him. Moses falls on the ground in worship because, in the mindset of the Old Testament, if one were to see God, you would surely die. So Moses’ act of falling to the ground was just as much about preserving his life as it was about his love for the Lord.

Given this understanding of God, you can understand why the early church had such a difficult time communicating the message of Jesus to the Jews. In some way, the Gospel today is an attempt bridge this gap in understanding by communicating the relationship of Jesus to his heavenly Father. God could have sent his son into the world to condemn the world. We have all fallen prey to the sin of Adam and God could have sent Jesus here to wipe us all out. He almost did it in the flood. He could do it again. But, instead, he sent his son to save us from those sins.

So, given the complete “otherness” of God, given the fact that God is completely transcendent, how can we love God. It’s hard to love and to know the love of something that is totally unknown and unknowable. To me, that is why God revealed himself to us as a trinity of person. This means that the nature of God is relational. There’s diversity among the unity of God. So, even though, as it says elsewhere in the gospel of John, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one, nonetheless, they are three persons of the godhead. Therefore, we come to understand in a fragmentary and imperfect way, a bit of the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit in our own relationships with one another.

This is also why God gave us the church. For most people, salvation is not based solely upon one’s ability to have a personal relationship to Jesus Christ. Such a relationship is important to be sure but it is just as important that we be a part of Church of Christ. We need each other to correct our faults, to lean on in times of suffering, and to stand in solidarity during times of persecution. We need each other to support our faith and challenge that faith when it becomes too simple. And, in these relationships, we experience the love that is God.

O most Holy Trinity, undivided unity. Holy God, Mighty God. God immortal be adored.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sorry for the silence

I haven't posted my last three homilies because, to be honest, I haven't preached a homily worth posting since then. Three weeks ago, I had a wedding, a funeral, and Sunday masses after a heck of a busy week. My homily was...thin. Two weeks ago, the Ascension, I had another busy week and another wedding but the homily just wouldn't come together. I never did write the thing down because it was just blech. Then, last weekend, I had a further crazy/busy week, the last wedding, and the deacon preached. I'm thinking that things are going to start to slow down now and I'll finally get to spend adequate time in preparation.

In my leadership training course, we talked about how, when you are learning a new skill, you go through a process of losing energy until you've achieved an adequate level of competence. I can see how true that is. In the past three weeks I keep thinking about how Brother Dennis Miller, the Benedictine Monk from Conception Abbey who assists Brother Blaise taking care of the grounds, wouldn't have to worry about budgets, litigation, weddings, and excessive civic parochialism. He'd just pray and work all day. After a couple of minutes of this kind of day dreaming, I remind myself that, if I was supposed to be at Conception Abbey, I'd be at Conception Abbey. For some reason, the Archbishop wants me to be here. If he has this much confidence in me, I should probably stop day dreaming and get to work.

Monday, May 23, 2011

It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ

May the Grace and Peace from our resurrected Lord be with you as we continue through this Easter Season. I’m a little disappointed. I don’t know if you had heard this but I heard that the rapture was supposed to take place today/yesterday at 6:00 pm Eastern Time so I didn’t think I was going to be preaching this weekend. Of course, it’s not too late. It could happen now. (pause) Or now. (Pause) How about now? (Pause) I guess God really is in charge of when and how it will take place. The Bible doesn’t contain a secret code contained in disparate passages that only fundamentalists can read explaining exactly how it will all come to an end. Oftentimes, what the fundamentalists read as things that will take place at the end times are passages describing what life was like living in a world where both Jews and Gentiles hated us and wanted to kill us. And yet, we are still faced with the whole issue that, as we say in the creed each week, we believe that Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead. How should we prepare ourselves to be judged?

Believe it or not, two of our readings deal with the end times. The first one, the gospel, is easy to see. Jesus speaks words of comfort to us to give us an insight into the end times. To me, this is the difference between the Catholic approach and the approach of Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins, writers of the Left Behind books. Jesus tells the disciples that they will know the way to the Father and the Apostle Thomas, still doubting, asks how they know the way if they have never been there. Jesus responds to Thomas that he is The Way. He has to repeat this statement to Philip later who still thinks that Jesus can just give him GPS coordinates to heaven. Jesus is The Way. He isn’t just going to show us the way to the Father. He IS the way to the Father. Our responsibility, then, shouldn’t be to be seeking signs of Jesus’ return or trying to predict when it will take place. We should be trying to get to know and love Jesus so that we can get to know and love the Father.

The other reading that points to the end-times is the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. At this point in church history, the disciples thought that Jesus’ return would happen within their life-times. So, they have combined up most of their property in preparation. But, in order to make sure that everyone is fed in this group that is constantly increasing in size, the Apostles are taking more and more time each day giving out food and less and less time each day for prayer. We can all probably sympathize with this. Remember in High School and College when all you had to do each day was study and work a couple of hours at a job? Some of you never had this experience so bear with me for a moment. If you did have this experience, you probably had your parents to rely on to take care of the bigger problems of bills and repairs around the home. Do you remember that time when you looked around and realized that your life got a lot more complicated? You have to pay all the bills and make sure you’re not late or else you don’t have insurance or lights or gas. It’s so easy in these times of stress to quit doing things like reading books, praying, and studying. The Apostles knew they couldn’t let this happen so they asked the community to appoint deacons to assist them by bringing food to the Greek-speaking widows who felt neglected in the daily distribution. The point was that prayer needed to be a central place in each day for them to survive. It reminds me of a monastery visit I made in which a monk who had an hour of work still to do, put everything away because he knew it was time to pray and, had he finished, he would have missed prayer. He knew he had to spend time with the Way to the Father if he intended on being ready for eternal life.

In the end, as Catholics, we don’t get wrapped up in looking for the rapture or the beast or any of that stuff. We aren’t going to get lost looking in the Bible for clues to the end-times, as though the Bible were a mystery novel and we’ve been sent to solve it. Instead, through the sacraments and our prayer life, we draw closer each day to the one who alone knows how it end because he is the Way that leads to the Father. We take comfort in Jesus’ words: Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God, have faith also in the way.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Stay with us, Lord

My Dear Friends in Christ

May the Grace and Peace of our resurrected Lord Jesus Christ be with you as we continue to celebrate this Easter season. I have a friend who is a priest that I always see at priest gatherings. In a one-on-one situation, he’s a great person to talk to. He keeps the conversation going and always has interesting stories to tell. But, if you get him in a group, I hate talking to him because, as you talk to him, he is constantly scanning the room looking for someone else to talk to. I just want to grab his head, turn it towards me, and say, “Please pay attention to me while we are talking!”

I’m sure most of us would say that, when it comes to God, we want to put all our attention on our relationship with him. And yet, our readings today present us with three situations in which we’d probably prefer God wasn’t there. The first is illustrated in the gospel account of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. One commentator that I read said that this may have been Cleopas, whose father may have been the brother of St. Joseph, and Mary, his wife, who was present at the crucifixion next to the Blessed Mother and Mary of Magdala. If so, it stands to reason that this husband and wife, one a first cousin of Jesus and the other an eyewitness to his death, would have been very disappointed in the results of Good Friday and very skeptical of the women’s reports of the empty tomb. As they’re walking along, Jesus comes to them and starts talking to them but their eyes are prevented from seeing him. It’s only when he takes bread, blesses it, and hands it to them that the scales fall from their eyes and they are able to see. As one commentator put it, “Jesus miraculous presence is hardly necessary when one has his presence in the Eucharist.” Yet, honestly, how many times to we come to mass, not pay any attention to the prayers, barely listen to the readings or homily, scuttle to the front of the communion line, consume the host, and have no real sense that the Lord was here among us the whole time? Stay with us Lord when our spiritual blindness prevents us from recognizing you in the breaking of the bread.

In the second reading, the Apostle Peter exhorts us that, if we call God our Father, which we do each time we pray the Our Father, then we have to accept God as a father. Part of what isn’t communicated as well in today’s society as it would have been even 40 or 50 years ago is that we call God “Father” because he is head of the household. I’m not trying to diminish the role of women, especially on this day, Mother’s Day. But, one of the sad things that has happened to men in modern media is that we often view fathers as total buffoons. From Al Bundy to Homer Simpson to Peter Griffin to Doug Heffernen to Phil Dunfey and the list could go on and on and on, most fathers on television are shells of the real dads I’ve met who love their wives, work hard, and, yes, occasionally discipline their kids when they’re bad. I can’t help but notice that, as our image of fatherhood has been so diminished and distorted, so has our image of God as Father. We don’t like to think of God as being in charge or God as having the master plan. Stay with us, Lord, when we misunderstand you and distort who you are for our own convenience.

And, lastly, there’s the first reading. In this first Papal Address made by our first Pope, Peter courageously speaks to the people he blames for the death of Jesus, his fellow Jews. He addresses them and witnesses to them about how Jesus has appeared to him. In our modern era, religion is considered by many to be a private matter. Part of the reason for this is because we don’t want to seem like a Bible thumpers, right? First of all, most of us (myself included) don’t know enough Bible passages by heart to be a bible thumper but, just as important, we don’t want that image. And, yet, believing in Jesus demands that we speak to others about him, that we let others know about the love God has for them in sending his son to be our savior, especially in this time when there is so much misinformation out there about the church. Stay with us, Lord, when we are with others who need to know you.

We may think that we always want God to be close to us but there are times when we may think it would just as good if he wasn’t. In those times, it’s most important that we echo the prayer of two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “Stay with us, Lord.”

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Some Reflections on my first Easter Vigil as a pastor

I've been waiting for the moment when I start to feel like I belong here. Things are starting to seem "normal" here instead of like everything is constantly changing.

This Easter Vigil was very special for me. It was the first time I celebrated it as a pastor. I'd done my best to avoid celebrating it before because I said that the pastor should always be the one to bring people into the church. I was able to sit and listen to all the wonderful Old Testament readings (We did five) and I chanted probably 75% of the prayers (including Eucharistic Prayer I) and I managed to use incense and not spill the coals (unlike Holy Thursday!).

Probably the time that just hit me was when my butt hit the chair after communion for a few moments of reflection/thanksgiving. The choir started singing Regina Coeli Latare and I thought to myself: Rejoice, O Church for he who Mary bore has truly risen. Alleluia.

He is Risen. He is truly risen.

Allow hope to overcome fear

My dear Friends in Christ

Grace and Peace to you in our Risen Savior as we gather here for the Easter Vigil. The case is often made that, as Catholics, we never read the Bible. Well, you can’t say that about this mass. We seem to have covered almost the entire Bible tonight. As I was praying over the readings, I couldn’t hope but notice a theme. God continually drives out fear with hope. We heard in the first reading how he made the earth and gave us a special role in it with a dominion proper to men and women. It’s not until the next chapter with the story of Adam and Eve that fear enters the world through sin. This was the fear that Abraham overcame when he travelled three days into the wilderness to slaughter his son, Isaac. God ultimately spared the Son of Abraham. And because of his obedience to the unfair request of God, Abraham is told that his name will be a blessing to many nations, and it is to anyone who calls themselves Jew, Christian, or Muslim. Yes, God spared the son of Abraham in hope and did not spare his own son to put an end to fear and start a new beginning of hope to all the nations through Jesus.

It was fear that caused the Moses and the Israelites to question whether God would save them from the oncoming Egyptian force. Yet, God had their back by sending his angel to protect them so that the Egyptians could not get close. Then he opened a way through the waters of the Red Sea so that only His people could pass, not the Egyptians. He used the waters of the Red Sea to point to the hopeful waters of Baptism, which drive out the fear of death.

This is what St. Paul was talking about in his letter to the Romans. Baptism is, for us, an entrance into the resurrected life of Jesus. He has died for us and we enter into his death in the waters of Baptism. He died for us so that we may no longer be a slave to sin. To me, the ultimate symbol of hope overcoming fear is in the gospel. There is an earthquake because the Angel of the Lord has moved the rock that blocked the way to the tomb of Jesus. The Angel, who appears in dazzling white, scares the guards so much that they become like dead men. Fear can be paralyzing like that sometimes. Yet, the women who have faith can see through the tumult of an earthquake, the hope that lies behind it. They hear the hopeful words of the Angel that he is risen. They ran fearful but overjoyed to the disciples. The fear is natural but Jesus had to get rid of it so that they could be completely hopeful witnesses so he, likewise, appears to them to drive out any vestige of fear they may have.

At our 13 hours, Fr. Hertges talked about how hope drives out fear. I kept thinking of all the things in this world that so easily deflate the kind of pithy hope that most people have. Internationally, the United States is in a four front war in the Middle East. There have been so many natural disasters; earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados, etc. that it’s hard to keep up with it all. Gas prices keep going higher and higher and the economy keeps getting worse and worse and, to be honest, I’m not sure any politician has the selflessness, let alone the intelligence, to be able to deal with it. Our church’s struggle with sexual abuse has diminished our voice on moral matters to the extent that it seems to be ignored by everyone. And, still, there’s hope. In the face of all this tumult, the angel of the Lord looks at each of us and says, “Do not be afraid!” God has conquered sin and death. Jesus is raised from the dead. Alleluia! Alleluia!

We are to be like the women in the gospel today and announce the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection to the whole world. Like the women, we are undoubtedly afraid to do so because we may be spurned, mocked, and ridiculed. Allow Jesus, who comes to us tonight in bread and wine, to open your heart to his call to evangelization. Go tell your brothers and sisters to go to church, here they will see him. Here they will find hope to overcome fear. Here they will die with Christ so as to rise with him.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Reflections on the Good Friday Service

Before Lent began, I met with the Forest City Ministerial Association to talk about the things ministerial associations normally talk about; pray together, work on a communal charitable effort, and get to know each other so we don't demonize each other. I found out that we do an ecumenical Good Friday service and they asked for a speaker. No one spoke of the worst things that can happen to a "helper" personality like mine. I volunteered and then completely forgot that I had volunteered until I was reminded LAST WEEK! Yikes! Thankfully, the other minister they had paired with me had put great thought into it and had an entire service in mine. He even brought his own musicians along.

I wore my cassock and sat nervously next to the only other minister wearing a clergy collar. We sang hymns and heard John 19:1-30 and then I stepped forward to preach. Now, in the past three days, I've had two absolute train wrecks happen. First, in the middle of the chrism mass, I had to leave because over being overheated. Then, at the end of Holy Thursday mass, I spilled a coal from the censor and nearly started myself and the church on fire. So, I wondered what was next.

Nothing was next. I preached. No one was hurt. I had great compliments. And the people said, "Amen."

...Hell trembles in fear.

Dearly Beloved in Christ

Grace and Peace to you in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit as we come together from our various Christian Communities to remember the events Good Friday. I’d like to begin my reflection today by quoting an ancient reflection typically read on Holy Saturday. I think it’s just as applicable today as it is tomorrow.

“Something strange is happening--- there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and He has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh, and hell trembles with fear.”

The Gospel of John’s account of the death of our Lord offers some incredibly beautiful insights for us to reflect upon in this Good Friday celebration. Despite the fact that Pilate believes he is in control, it becomes clear that he is not. The question that comes to mind as he is trying to decide how to treat Jesus is who is in charge? Is it God? Is It Caesar? Is it the devil? At different points throughout John 19, it seems like any one of these three are in fact in charge. When Pilate indicates that he is willing to release Jesus, the Jewish leaders proclaim fidelity to Caesar. Indeed, it seems that Pilate most fears that, by releasing Jesus, he may be releasing a competitor for his bosses’ job. Jesus focuses him back where he belongs and reminds him, “You would have no power over me at all if it had not been given you from above; that is why the man who handed me over to you has the greater guilt.” In some ways, Jesus is expunging Pilate of the guilt of passing sentence by saying that there is one who has committed a worse sin by handing him over to be crucified. Who is Jesus condemning here? Who handed him over? Judas merely handed him over to the Jews, who have not authority to crucify. He had no idea what his actions did. Plus, he has already gone to his death and is at the mercy of the Father. Some have suggested that this a reference to the High Priest, Caiaphas. I’d like to suggest that there is something deeper happening here.

In trying to decide what to do with Jesus’ clothes, there is one garment that is left undivided. This was done, as John the Evangelist said, to fulfill sacred scripture, Psalm 22, “Many dogs surround me; a pack of evildoers closes in on me. So wasted are my hands and feet that I can count all my bones. They stare at me and gloat; they divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.” Yet, John the Evangelist sees in this action a symbolism for the need for Christians to be united. That’s why it is so fitting that we would gather together on Good Friday to remember the death of Our Lord and to pray for greater unity among all Christians, that we may be one as Father, Son, and Spirit are One. From now on, Jesus will seek to make sure that there is greater unity among the people all the way until he breathes his last. From the cross, he makes sure that his elderly mother is cared for by his apostle, John.

At the end, he breathes a phrase that could sound, in most Bibles, like utter frustration, “It is finished.” Jesus has suffered enough. He is ready to stop fulfilling prophecy, to stop fighting, and give up his Spirit. It sounds like a cancer patient who has fought bravely against the illness giving into the inevitable. Jesus can do no more so it’s time to stop fighting.

If we were to believe that, we couldn’t be more wrong. Jesus isn’t, in frustration, throwing up his hands. He is saying that everything is in place now, everything is complete, everything has been fulfilled. In this statement, we finally get an answer as to who is really in charge and who is really the one who handed him over. The devil, in hell, thought he had pulled off the perfect coup, as he had done in the garden. Just as he had convinced Adam and Eve to commit the first sin, to clothe themselves with garments of shame, and to be thrown out the garden, so he now thinks that he has clothed the king of Glory in the shame of death on the cross, with the mocking clothes of a King on his body. Yet, now all is set for the conquering of death in the resurrection, the folly of the garden overcome by the glorious death of the cross. It is finished, it is fulfilled…and hell trembles in fear.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

We await the resurrection of the body

My Dear Friends in Christ

Grace and peace to you in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. In a past assignment, I was asked to go and officiate at a graveside service for someone whose funeral mass has been in Denver, Colorado. It was one of those situations where the person died in Colorado but wanted to be buried back here in Iowa but the priest (for obvious reasons) didn’t want to tag along for the burial. I arrived at the rural cemetery on a typical Iowa summer day. It was somewhere between 95 and a hundred million degrees outside. And the farmer that had the field adjoining the cemetery decided it would be the perfect day to fertilize his crops so the fresh smell of hog manure greeted us as we stepped out of our vehicles. I decided then and there to be brief. There was only a few family members present along with the urn that contained the cremains of their father. I did all the burial prayers, “Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust…” but felt relief when it was all over and I could finally leave. As I opened the door to my truck, one of the daughters of the man who had passed away came up to me with two small boxes approximately the size of ring boxes. She asked if I would bless them. I asked what they were and they said the crematorium provided small “take home” portions of the cremains for each child but put the majority in the urn. I couldn’t believe it. The church is very clear about cremains. We don’t have a problem with them as long as they are kept intact and buried in one spot. Yet, the hot smell of hog manure was so overwhelming that all I wanted to do was get away as quickly as possible. So, instead of doing what I should have done and told them to put them in the grave, I said a blessing, got into my truck, and inhaled for the first time in fifteen minutes.

As I look back on that experience, I have to admit to my own confusion surrounding the church’s teaching on burial. Why should we believe we need to buried in one spot? I think of the number of people who have died in airplane and helicopter accidents in which no bodies were recoverable. Or the people who have lost a limb throughout their life that aren’t buried with the limb. Or, what about all the saints whose bodies are put into altars throughout the world. Why would the body of a saint, who we’re sure will one day be resurrected, be allowed to be scattered around several churches, perhaps even in several different continents if being buried in one spot was so important?

The Greek Philosopher Plato who believed that we are made up of body and soul, the body being evil and the soul being good. Christians take our understanding of the body from the Jews. The Jews believed that the human being is made up of a body and a soul and that one without the other is not a real existence. A souless body is dead. A bodiless soul is an evil spirit seeking to take possession of a body. When body and soul are matched up by God then he puts his spirit which holds them together.

Our readings today talk a lot about this dynamic. Focusing on the gospel, we hear about the death of this man Lazarus. Jesus is confronted by his friends Martha and Mary that had he been there, their brother would still be alive. They are, understandably, struggling with the reality of the loss of a loved one so you can’t be too hard on them. The trouble is that, despite the fact that they should know him better than most people, they only seem to have faith in Jesus the healer. He needs them to have faith in himself as the resurrection. So, in order to show that he was the resurrection, he brought their brother back to life.

Part of the reason the church asks that we not scatter our ashes all over the place is to show respect for the body. Some people believe that, after death, we become pure spirit and live in heaven as such. But, each time that we gather together for church we profess in the Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body. We aren’t just referring to Jesus’ bodily resurrection. We’re talking about the resurrection of our own bodies. We are given a body and a soul from God. Both are gifts given to us to be used with care and respect. As we prepare for the great victory over sin and death that is the cross, let us remember that we hope to raised body and soul in Spirit.

Monday, April 04, 2011

The weekend and why my homily will take a while...

This weekend started off good enough. The weather was going to be warm with chances of rain in the evenings, which was really good considering how horribly my last week had gone. It was just a very busy week with way too many 13 and 14 hour days. I got to Friday and realized that, if I didn’t do something stupid, I may actually have an entire evening free. I got caught up on some emails and telephone calls and I tried to focus on the readings for Sunday Mass. Nothing was coming to me. I couldn’t find a message my people needed to hear. I went to bed confident that it would come.

On Saturday, I slept in a little. I’d had some short nights the previous week and thought it would be good to try and catch up. I prayed, had confession, and did some laundry. After confessions were over, I returned to my homily and prayed over the readings some more. Still, nothing was coming to me. For four hours I prayed and for four hours nothing would come to me. I went to the my files and pulled out a homily from six years ago that I wasn’t satisfied with but that had to do. In the middle of preaching at my first mass, the homily came to me. It was like I was hearing them for the first time with clarity. I went to my other rectory and wrote down what I wanted to say and even managed to get to bed early.

On Sunday, I woke up and preached the new homily at the two morning masses, went to an Eagle Scout ceremony, had two communal reconciliations and then collapsed back in my other rectory. I read a little of the Pope’s new book (Jesus of Nazareth 2) and went to sleep. All in all, a good, full day.

I remember being in Ames in my last assignment and thanking God that these incredibly busy days were few and far between. I tend to remember the days when I would be able to spend time with students or days I would take some time to go work in my garden around the little church in Gilbert. It takes days like this to remind me of those other days; days when I would sleep poorly thinking about all the appointments I had for the next day or days when I had to go home to let off some steam after a particular trying staff meeting. I’m glad I don’t think about those days all the time. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The woman at the well

I preached this weekend about how the woman at the well was hurting because of her married life and how Jesus came to her and forgave her. I talked about how Jesus, as the stream of living water, was articulating a theology of baptism, which is a sacrament of entrance into the church and forgiveness of sins. I also talked about how being baptized demands that we tell others about the forgiveness of sins offered to us in baptism. We all know people who are hurting, people who need to feel the loving forgiveness of Jesus and, as baptized people, we must be like the woman at the well and lead them to the source of living water.

Unfortunately, because of two funerals, an extra mass for a retreat, and preparation for 13 hours, my homily remained as an outline and not the full text.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Could we start again, please?

My Dear friends in Christ

Grace and Peace to you in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit as we delve deeper into this Lenten season. One of my favorite plot schemes in modern television and movies happens when a character is faced with a future version of himself coming back to give him guidance. This plot scheme is a staple of the Science Fiction industry, of which, I hate to admit, I am an addict. I like the plot scheme because it makes me wonder when I would return to my former self to intervene. Think about it from your own life. Is there something you’ve done that you would like to go back and witness or something you did you wish you could go back and change. I could go back and stop myself from being hit by that car when I was a kid or go back and watch my priesthood ordination. I think the hardest thing to do would be to pick the point that I would want to go back to.

In today’s gospel, Jesus chooses right now to reveal something to his disciples. We’re at seventeen out of twenty eight chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, a long time away from the crucifixion, and Jesus reveals to his disciples a glimpse of himself as Messiah. The glimpse is eerily similar to an incident involving Moses in the Old Testament. In chapter thirty four of Exodus, Moses and two of his associates go up a mountain and leave the rest of the Israelites at the foot of the mountain. While there, Moses’ face shines white while reflecting the glory of God and the law is revealed to him. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus face was, likewise, changed along with his clothes. The biggest difference is that, whereas Moses was reflecting the glory of God, Jesus was the glory of God. His face shines and his clothes shine as well. He is the light, not the reflection of that light. And, to underscore this difference, Moses and Elijah stand beside him to represent the Law and the Prophets. Jesus is showing that he has been the light guiding the Jewish people to salvation all along.

Each year that we read this reading, I think to myself; wouldn’t this be more suitable during Easter? Lent is supposed to be a sad time, a time of mortification. Shouldn’t our readings focus us on sad things? The closest thing to something sad you can experience in the Transfiguration is how impetuous Peter behaves. Rather than simply take in what is happening, Peter feels like he has to interject something. “Let us make tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” In some ways, Peter acts like the guy who tries to steal the spotlight from an otherwise incredible evening. And yet, Peter is actually getting the point of the exercise. One of the Jewish Holidays that Jesus and the Apostles participated in was called Succoth. It was a holiday reminding the Jewish people that God met Moses in a tent and that he called them to live in tents for forty days and forty nights while on their way to the Promised Land. Peter’s suggestion, then, fits in perfectly. He recognizes that Jesus, as Messiah, should be in a tent similar to the tent of meeting. Peter didn’t realize that this vision he, James, and John were sharing simply wasn’t going to last long enough for any such construction. Instead, as at Jesus baptism, we have the image of the trinity as the voice of God overshadows the son through the Sprit-filled cloud which declares Jesus as the Son.

We are now two and a half weeks into Lent. For me, this is the time when my spiritual practices begin to waver. I may have slipped up and had a burger on a Friday by accident or forgot to allow enough time to get my entire holy hour in or I look over at unmade rice bowl still sitting where I threw it after Ash Wednesday mass. I tend to feel tempted to give up. I think that’s why we have this image of the Transfiguration in the middle of Lent. Sure it’s happy. But there’s nothing that says Lent has to be a miserable time of suffering. Lent should be a time of renewal, a time to shed the things that weigh us down in our journey toward God. Perhaps the best thing that we can do is do what Jesus and his inner circle did: Go away to a deserted place and open ourselves to the presence of God to allow our hearts to be transfigured so that we can renew our Lenten commitment.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving

My Dear Friends in Christ

Grace and Peace in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit be with you as we begin the Lenten Fast. We begin today by focusing on fasting. Our readings tell us what value fasting has for us. The first reading talked about it in the context of the reconciling nature of fasting. The Prophet Joel says, “Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God.” Jesus speaks of fasting as something that we should do in secret. We are to wash our face and anoint our head. Fasting is one of the central penitential practices of the Catholic Church, certainly something that is closely associated with our tradition.

Once I was visiting with a deacon candidate who said that he was pondering how much sense the church year makes. He said that, in winter, we tend to add a few pounds and we need a time in the church year to diet to lose those pounds, and that is what Lent is all about. I told him that he might want to rethink that analysis. The reason we fast during Lent is not to lose weight so we’ll look good in a swimsuit. That’s the reason we diet. Dieting is not the same thing as fasting. One goes on a diet in order to have a healthier, better looking body. One fasts in order to have a healthier, better looking spirit. We fast to remind ourselves that the one thing that we cannot do without, the one thing that would stop our existence is the absence of God. We can fast from facebook, from the computer in general, from swearing, from alcohol, and even from something that we know we need like food. But we cannot make it a single day without God.

One of the things Fr. Hertges and I have learned at our leadership training course, however, is you can’t just fast from something without replacing it. Otherwise, you just sit around and think about what you’re trying to fast from. The church offers two ideas that can fill our time in the wake of fasting; prayer and almsgiving. We can use the time we gain from fasting to spend more time in prayer or, if we do enough prayer, to spend time doing some charitable act for someone else.

Ultimately, Lent is meant to offer a change of heart. That’s why Jesus encourages us to keep these acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to ourselves. They aren’t meant to be used to impress people. They’re meant to live out the message of St. Paul from the second reading, “Working together, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says: In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you. Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”