Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Lord of Lunatics and Liars

This election cycle has seen its share of incivility, name-calling, insults, lies, and crudeness. It’s not a stretch to say that it’s brought out the worst in many people. Whether it’s the Wikileaks emails revealing corruption, bigotry, and arrogance from the Hillary camp, or the leaked video tapes (and outright public comments) from Trump displaying misogynistic, narcissistic, and immature behavior it is clear that the 2016 election has been better suited for a Jerry Springer episode than the selection process for the leader of the free world. A simple survey of Facebook posts and comments shows how deeply divided our nation is, and how winning political points is more important than the methods used to get there.

This all reached a new low on the eve of the election when Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life posted two videos (one on Facebook, one on YouTube) in which he displayed the body of a child killed during a second trimester saline abortion on an altar while delivering a political speech urging people to vote for Trump and the Republicans. (I’m not going to post a link to either video as it is too disturbing.)

After a wave of negative reactions Fr. Pavone has essentially doubled down on his position by deflecting blame to abortionists and Democrats while attacking or belittling his critics. For Fr. Pavone, the atrocity of abortion is so great, and the need for political victory so desperate, that his action is completely justified. In his view, crudely displaying a child’s naked body on an altar dedicated for sacred use to deliver a political speech pales in comparison to the evil of abortion. In other words, the ends justify the means.

This kind of thinking and acting is never morally acceptable.  Suppose a fictional Priest Against Porn ministry wanted to drive home the importance of standing against pornography. They reason that perhaps many are ambivalent about porn because they haven’t seen it or been exposed to how graphically disordered it can be, so they decide to post a video of their leader speaking against pornography while in the foreground a naked woman gyrates provocatively. Would this be okay? What if they were taking a stand against sexual violence so they displayed a woman who had just been raped, still weeping and shaking. Would the seriousness of standing against rape justify the exhibition of a victim?

Abortion is a great moral evil, a sin that cries out from our blood soaked land for justice. It is a legal, state-sponsored holocaust that has claimed the lives of millions of children. Abortion is, as St. Teresa of Calcutta said, “the greatest destroyer of love and peace” in the world. But, abortion is not our nation’s greatest sin, nor is it our greatest spiritual struggle. It is only a symptom, a natural consequence of a much deeper, much graver depravity.

We are guilty of and in bondage to idolatry.

I am not just speaking of our secular, hedonistic culture. I’m talking about those who claim the name of Christian. Survey after survey often shows little difference in the moral behavior of believers vs. non-believers. Our national religion is the adoration of the Self. Pride was the original sin and it continues to plague us today, individually and communally.

We have turned from God and towards ourselves. We seek only that which brings pleasure, confirms our biases, and keeps us comfortable. College campuses today promote “safe spaces” free of offensive words, thoughts, or actions; and they are often mocked and criticized for it. In reality, we have all created our own safe spaces in which we insulate ourselves from the call of Christ to “be transformed” rather than conformed to this age.

Jesus stands and calls us to follow, and that implies that we must leave our lives, or dreams, our desires behind. He calls us out of our selves, in fact, he calls us to die to our selves. As Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This death to the self brings ultimate freedom and joy. It liberates us not only from our self-centered desires, but also from our fears through abandonment to Christ. He calls us out from the world around us into a new order, a new Kingdom.

This political season has been a challenging one for those called by Christ to follow him. In truth, the Christian life does not easily fit within any earthly political system, and never has. The choice presented to us, what one 60 Minutes focus group called a choice between “the liar and the lunatic”, has caused many well-intentioned Christians to say and do some very out of character things. Those opposed to Clinton’s rapid pro-abortion position have found themselves in the unenviable position of supporting and defending Trump just because he claims to be “pro-life”.

This brings me back to the morally repugnant stunt that Fr. Pavone is trying to justify. I believe Fr. Pavone is motivated out of a true desire to see an end to the holocaust of abortion. I believe that he really believes that what he’s doing is necessary, right and effective. However, I wonder if this isn’t a fearful act of idolatry, of placing hope and trust in a man (Trump), or a party (Republicans), or a system (politics) rather than trusting in God. Is this just playing down to the level of your adversary? Is it morally compromising in hopes of gaining a political win? What does it profit a man (or a country) to win an election but loose his soul?

I saw a meme that said, “The problem with the election is that one of them is going to win.” So true. Today we will elect the most unpopular presidential candidate ever. Tomorrow half the nation is going to feel defeated, cheated, confused, and scared. Regardless of who wins, our nation is going to be confronted with serious issues from terrorism to the economy to the treat of war to moral and religious social challenges. As Christians we must remember that Christ is our King and heaven our homeland. We need to earnestly pray for the blessing and conversion of whoever wins the election. I close with the advice of St. Paul to St. Timothy (remember who the political leaders were when this was written): 
“First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.” – 1 Timothy 2:1-4

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Learning to Endure

The mass readings for Sunday (7/24), the seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, present us with a teaching about prayer, more specifically intercessory prayer.

In the first reading Abraham negotiates with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. As God contemplates destroying the cities for their rampant sins, Abraham pleads with God to spare them for the sake of a righteous few. In the back and forth conversation Abraham starts with asking for mercy if merely fifty righteous could be found, gradually lowing the number down to ten.

There are some who look at this passage and see a vengeful God ready to smote while kind Abraham has to argue with him to save the cities. It’s the same kind of situation when we see Moses pleading for mercy on behalf of Israel before the Lord. So what’s the deal? Why does God make Abraham and Moses plead for mercy? Isn’t God merciful? It is difficult for many to read these stories and understand what God is doing, especially when the focus is placed on God’s wrath.

The Gospel reading from Luke presents us with Jesus’ teaching on prayer and provides the interpretive key to understanding the reading from Genesis. The disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. Keep in mind that as good Jews they likely followed to religious commands to pray, and pray daily. The Jews had specific guidelines for prayer. So why ask Jesus to teach them? I would argue that it was because they watched Jesus pray, they took note of his prayer life and realized there was something different about it from their own experiences.

In response, Jesus first gives them the prayer we know as the Our Father. It is a prayer unto itself and a model of prayer. He then tells the parable of the man asking his neighbor for bread in the middle of the night. This man seemingly pesters his neighbor until the neighbor agrees to just be left alone. Jesus even says as much, “I tell you, if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.”

So what does this have to do with Abraham? Is Jesus saying if we just pester God enough he’ll give us what we ask for just to shut us up because we’re bothering him?

Jesus tells us to ask, seek, and knock—in the Greek these verbs are more like keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking. He assures us that God is a loving, caring Father who knows our needs and will not deceive us or withhold from us. How does this fit with the story of Abraham and the parable Jesus told about the persistent neighbor?

God always has our ultimate greatest end in mind, he is always most concerned about forming his children so that we can be fully restored to his image and likeness. The point of the conversation with Abraham (or similar conversations with Moses) isn’t that these men somehow managed to change God’s mind, but that through their perseverance in prayer their own hearts are changed. In pleading for mercy on behalf of others the hearts of Abraham and Moses are moved to mercy themselves. They become less self-centered, self-focused and become truly concerned for others. When we keep pressing on in intercessory prayer, the longer and harder we press in the more our hearts are transformed. God knows our needs and he will “work all things together for the good of those who love him” but that good is always the highest and perfect good. We never see the big picture, we never truly know all of the facts, but Jesus calls us to keep seeking after God and his kingdom. He wants us to be transformed while resting in the knowledge that God always cares for us.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Bearing the Fruit of a Culture of Death

I believe the Unites States of America is truly one of the greatest civilizations in the history of mankind. As a nation it has contributed to the safety, security, and prosperity of not just itself but most of the world through the innovation and generosity of its citizens and the socio-economic and political example of its government. This is not to say that it is perfect.

America has a problem. It’s a problem that’s been there since its very beginning. It’s like a congenital birth defect—a problem that is rooted in the very DNA of the nation: Violence.

It was violent resistance that brought our nation into existence. It was violent oppression against Native American that fueled its expansion. It was violent and bloody war that ended the violent and dehumanizing practice of slavery. Violence against the family through abortion and divorce has been a means of economic gain for many. The option of resulting to violent means to address and solve whatever problems we face is a very real and present solution for too many.

Today as I’ve read and watch the coverage of the shooting of Dallas police officers in the wake of protests of police in Louisiana and Minnesota shooting black men I cannot help but see this same disease of violence wreaking havoc on our nation again.

This disease is not caused by economic disparity. It is not the result of racism. It is not political. These are only symptoms. Our nation suffers from a spiritual disease, our soul is sick. There is a cure, but many don’t want it, they’re too content to profit from the symptoms.

The Old Testament (2 Kings 5) tells the story of Naaman, the commander of the armies of Syria. He was stricken with leprosy and the king of Syria sent him with an entire entourage, gold, silver, and riches to seek healing from the God of Israel. The prophet Elisha sent a message to Naaman to wash in the Jordan River. When he received the message Naaman at first was insulted and refused to even consider the idea of washing in some puny Israelite river. It was then that his servant asked him if he would have done some great and heroic deed if that was what the prophet requested, and if so, then why not do this simple thing? Naaman relented, washed in the Jordan, and was healed of his leprosy.

Like Naaman our culture is suffering from a fatal disease that is slowly, yet progressively eating us alive. We have become a culture of death embracing every form of immorality and ridiculing the virtuous life. Pundits and politicians and every other sort of talking head will discuss the recent acts of violence, just as they did after the Orlando shooting, and they’ll search for motives. They will propose all sorts of ideas, programs and laws to act as a medicine to heal our land. Like Naaman, they will recommend buying a cure with millions of dollars in new programs and initiatives. They will want to do many great things, but they will shun and ridicule the one simple, and only real cure, Jesus.

The only escape from the death spiral our nation finds itself in is to turn to the Lord of Life to rescue us from the culture of death. The only true antidote to hate, racism, and fear is love. The only light in darkness is the Light of World, and the challenge to the Church is to bring that light and that love to others. We must rise above the Balkanizing efforts to divide along political, racial, or economic lines and fully demonstrate to the world the unity of being in Christ Jesus.

Unfortunately, this will come at a price. It is the medicine our world needs, but not what it wants. Like a petulant child it will fight and kick and scream against us. It will resist with the hope that we will give up. We must be faithful and selfless. We must be willing to love as Jesus loved, even to the point of laying down our lives for the love of others. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

"Follow Me"

As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him,"I will follow you wherever you go."
Jesus answered him,"Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head." And to another he said, "Follow me."
But he replied, "Lord, let me go first and bury my father."
But he answered him, "Let the dead bury their dead.
But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
And another said, "I will follow you, Lord,but first let me say farewell to my family at home."
To him Jesus said, "No one who sets a hand to the plowand looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God." - Luke 9:57-62

“Follow me.” This is the invitation Jesus offers. Not, “Believe in me.” Not, “Be my friend.”

“Follow me.” It is the invitation to discipleship. It is an invitation that calls us outside of ourselves, outside of our comfort zones, outside of the boat and onto the water amid the wind and the waves.

It is an invitation to the unknown and the uncertain. It is an invitation without the promise of worldly success or prosperity. It is an invitation that sometimes mean doing the insensible thing, the unexpected thing, even the irrational thing.

This passage hit me between the eyes today.

In only two weeks I’ll be leaving my safe, well paying, stable job of thirteen years. I’m leaving it to follow the call and leading of Christ. In just two weeks I will temporarily leave my family behind in Florida to start a new job as Director of Adult Faith Formation at a great parish in Indiana. They’ll follow me once we’ve closed on the sale of our home and the purchase of a new one in the Hoosier State. But for at least a few weeks I’ll essentially following in the footsteps of Jesus with no place to lay my head. I’’ have to rely on the kindness of a family at our new parish to give me a place to stay. I’ll be leaving behind my wife, kids, friends, and comforts. It’s a little scary, but it’s exciting. As a family we are so excited and looking forward to all that God has in store for us in this next chapter of our lives. Still, sometimes I feel a little like Indiana Jones in this scene:

Jesus calls all of us to leave all behind for him. He’s the pearl of great price, the treasure in a field waiting for us to sell all we have so we can possess him. And yet, it’s really he who possesses us. It is the Lord who calls us to radical abandonment, to complete and unwavering trust in his goodness. That call comes in different ways to each of us, but make no mistake it comes to all. For some it’s a career change or a move, for others it’s greater involvement in a ministry, still others it may be a call to repent and rebuild relationships, or maybe for others it’s speaking up when everything in you wants to remain silent. Whatever the form, the call will always be costly, but it will always be worth it in the end. Missionary martyr Jim Elliot famously said, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep for that which he cannot lose.”

If we ultimately want to see the reality of God breaking through and into our lives we must take the leap of faith. Someone I greatly respected once said that faith is spelled R-I-S-K, and that in the end we must be willing to see ourselves “change in God’s pocket to be spent as he sees fit.” I believe the Church isn’t seeing the miraculous on a regular basis because so many are content to be “believers” and have either not heard, ignored, or are too afraid to follow the call to be disciples, to follow Jesus.

I’m reminded of the song “Called Me Higher” by All Sons and Daughters. We can be safe and content, but that’s not what God is calling us to. In the words of Pope Benedict, “The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” Dare to be great. Dare to trust Jesus with everything. Drop your nets. Leave your boats. Listen to him, “Follow me.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Where Have All the Heroes Gone

Where have all the good men gone
And where are all the gods?
Where's the street-wise Hercules
To fight the rising odds?
Isn't there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
Late at night I toss and I turn and I dream of what I need

I need a hero
I'm holding out for a hero 'til the end of the night
He's gotta be strong
And he's gotta be fast
And he's gotta be fresh from the fight
I need a hero
I'm holding out for a hero 'til the morning light
He's gotta be sure
And it's gotta be soon
And he's gotta be larger than life
 - “I need a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler

We have become a culture of the anti-hero. Three of the top five grossing movies so far this year are: Captain America: Civil War, Batman vs Superman, and Deadpool. These movies present traditional heroes at war with each other or a lead anti-hero character who has no good moral character of his own. As Fr. Longnecker over on Patheos has so eloquently put it, our presidential choices are between “a corrupt, scheming, immoral, venal, arrogant, greedy and ignorant Republican or a corrupt, scheming, immoral, venal, arrogant and ignorant Democrat.” We have an entire multi-million dollar celebrity media enterprise that on one hand promotes morally questionable pop stars while gleefully awaiting and publicizing the moral failures of others. Meanwhile even our athletic heroes have tarnished their legacies through scandals.

As our culture continues to detach itself from moral sanity I think this cult of the anti-hero will continue to grow. There’s something about the classical hero—a strong, confident, morally straight leader—that makes our current culture uncomfortable. If we hold up such characters as exemplars then we must admit that our own priorities as a culture and nation have gone askew. This is why we must now attack the hero. Marvel Comics recently announced a new line of Captain America comics that reveal that he has secretly been a covert agent for the Nazi Hydra organization all along. Groups of fans have started online movements to make Captain America gay or Elsa a lesbian queen in the upcoming sequel to Frozen. Like the primitive pagan cultures of antiquity we are fashioning gods in our image, that affirm our hedonistic desires, and that do not challenge us to a higher, more difficult way of self-denial or sacrifice.

In a 2009 letter to all the bishops of the world, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God. Not just any god, but the God who spoke on Sinai; to that God whose face we recognize in a love which presses "to the end" – in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.” We are certainly a culture that has lost its bearings. Fortunately, in diagnosing the problem, Benedict also provides the cure: Christians making Jesus Christ present in the world.

This isn’t an easy answer, and it will require much of us who are called by His name. We must live lives that match our words. We must live heroically virtuous lives of holiness that will draw people into encountering Jesus in and through us. In short, we need to be saints. The world needs us to be saints. In the words of St. Pope John Paul II in announcing the 2005 World Youth Day, "the Church needs genuine witnesses for the new evangelization: men and women whose lives have been transformed by meeting with Jesus, men and women who are capable of communicating this experience to others. The Church needs saints. All are called to holiness, and holy people alone can renew humanity.”

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Mary At The Cross

“So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them

But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.” (John 19:17-18, 25-27)

It is only John’s gospel that tells us that Mary was at the cross. Only John who recorded the dying words of Jesus addressed to his mother. It was only John because he was there too.

It seems odd, even a bit cold, that Jesus would call his mother “woman”. But this one word carries so much weight.

Eve was the first woman and it is by “woman” that she is addressed in Genesis 3: “The serpent said to the woman”.

Eve stood at the foot of the tree in the garden. Eve chose to believe the lie of the devil. She looked up at the fruit hanging on the tree with purely physical eyes, considering its beauty. Eve lost faith, and disobeyed. She did this because she was promised greater understanding and knowledge. Scripture then tells us that Eve handed the fruit to Adam. God rebukes Adam, “Because you listened to the voice of your wife, and eaten of the fruit of the tree…”

Mary, whom the Fathers of the Church called the new Eve, stood at the foot of the cross which would become the Tree of Life. Where Eve believed a lie, Mary believed in the promises of God, that her son was the Messiah and Savior of the word, the King of an everlasting kingdom. Where Eve brought the fruit of sin to Adam, Mary brought the “fruit of her womb” to Elizabeth, and John recognized the presence of Jesus in the voice of Mary and leapt for joy in the womb. Where Eve’s words to Adam brought a curse, Mary’s words to Elizabeth brought a blessing.
Imagine Mary at the cross looking upon the cruel execution of her son. They say that losing a child is one of the most traumatic experiences a person can deal with—and I hope I never do. She had to have been thinking about the words of the Angel so many years before,

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  (Luke 1:30-33)

St. Augustine said that “Mary first conceived in her heart by faith and then in her womb” And now at the cross as she looks at her son she receives a second annunciation of sorts. She is asked once again to become a mother, the mother of the Church born from the blood and water flowing from the side of Christ. She becomes my mother, your mother, the mother of all believers at the cross.

There’s a scene in the movie Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince where Dumbledore says to Harry, “Once again I must ask too much of you.” Once again, so much is asked of Mary. To take on the burden of being the mother of all the faithful, is also asking her to take on the heartbreak of all who lose faith, all who reject Jesus, and even those who would accept her son, but reject her.  But once again she says yes.

This brings me back again to that word: woman. Jesus calls his mother “woman” one other time in John’s gospel, at the wedding at Cana. The bridal party has run out of wine. This was much more of a big deal in that time and culture than we really appreciate now. It was a crisis. Mary’s response was to intercede with Jesus on behalf of the bride and groom. She brought the troubled servants to Jesus and told them “Do whatever he tells you.”

John ran, just like all the other apostles. He followed Jesus at a distance during the trials. But only John came to the cross. Is it a coincidence that he was there with Mary? I suspect that John went to Mary and it was she that brought him with her to Calvary. Once again Mary was leading a troubled servant, in a crisis, to her son. And John did as Jesus told him; he took Mary into his home.

As the “beloved disciple” John is supposed to represent all who would follow Jesus. When reading the gospel of John we should be putting ourselves in the place of the “disciple whom Jesus loved”. We should allow Mary to lead us to Jesus, to the cross, to learn from her how to fully and completely surrender everything to God. To come to Jesus and learn from him what he would have us do. 

(Note:This is a re-posting of an older blog post a few updates.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Being Before Doing

Two scripture passages that I encountered last past weekend got me thinking.

On Saturday I attended a conference and one of the speakers used the story of Gideon in his presentation. Gideon lived in Israel at a time when the nation was under the control of its enemies. Many Israelites went into hiding to avoid being persecuted. Gideon was threshing wheat in a wine press in order to hide from his enemies so they wouldn’t steal his wheat. While he was carrying out his chore in fear and hiding an angel of the Lord appeared to him and greeted him saying, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior!” (Judges 6:12) Gideon went on to lead Israel to repent of their idolatry and drove the enemy Midianites out of the land.

Sunday was the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord when Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River. After coming up from the waters the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus and a voice from the heavens proclaims, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22) The event of his baptism marks the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus.

The thing that struck me as I thought about these two passages is that being preceded doing. They were affirmed in who they were before they did anything. Gideon wasn’t acting like a mighty warrior, but that was his true identity before God and it was proven in his deeds. Jesus certainly didn’t look like the Son of God to those around him, but that was his true identity and it was manifested in all that he did, and ultimately in his death and resurrection.

How often we get that backwards. We allow ourselves, our self-worth, to be defined by what we do. I must not be special because I’m not doing anything special. I must not have great worth because I don’t have much net worth. In reality, we must first understand who we are to the One who made us and let that be shone forth in all that we do. I am forgiven. I am loved. I am a child of God. That means that everything I do has importance, meaning, relevance, and eternal consequences. Gideon had to take some baby steps. He tested the Lord, but slowly he began to believe and to grow into his God-given identity. That’s when God was able to use Gideon to be a blessing to others. That’s when others began to see the blessing of God upon Gideon.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Giving What You've Got

Today is the feast of St. John Neumann, the first American saint. He was born in what is now the Czech Republic in Eastern Europe. Upon completing seminary he was initially denied ordination because his diocese had too many priests (imagine that). His desire to become a priest was so strong that he left his homeland and came to the United States where the bishop of New York ordained him. At the time he was one of 36 priests serving 200,000 Catholics and his parish boundary stretched from western New York to Pennsylvania. In fact, in my home town of McKeesport, PA, there was a parish that he visited and preached at in 1846. He eventually became bishop of Philadelphia where he started the Catholic school system in America. He was widely regarded for his great love and pastoral care.

St. John Neumann was a living example of the story shared in the Gospel reading for today, the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:34-44). Like the meager offering of five loaves and two fish, John Neumann offered the all that he had, little and poor as it was, and Jesus took that offering and multiplied it many times over as a blessing and provision for others. It is a reminder that when we give to God what we have, even though it may seem insignificant, he can do great things with it.

I know my temptation is to hold back. I want my offering to God to be perfect. I often feel that if I can’t have the “perfect” prayer time I might as well not pray. If I can’t come up with the “perfect” blog I might as well not write anything. If I can’t use my gifts in the “perfect” manner I might as well not bother at all. That is not the lesson of the feeding of the 5,000; and it is not the lesson of St. John Neumann’s life.  All God asks is that I give him what I have. If it’s imperfect, he can make it perfect. He makes up the difference. He brings about the miraculous. He multiplies whatever I have to give, if only I give it. In that moment of surrender, when I give him my little offering of loaves and fishes, he is pleased and he can work with it.

(Click here for sourcing of biographical info on St. John Neumann)

Friday, December 11, 2015

The End is the Beginning

Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday is the third Sunday of the Advent Season. It is a Sunday of transition in the season as the liturgical color changes  for the week from violet to rose and the focus changes from looking forward to the Second Coming of Jesus to preparing to celebrate his first coming. Before moving on to the second half of Advent, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the first two weeks of the season.
Advent is a time when we remember the Incarnation and prepare to celebrate Christmas, but it is also a time to remember that Christ will come again. The readings in the mass for the first two weeks focus our attention on our mortality, the return of Jesus, and the Kingdom to come. I attended two different parishes during the first two weeks of Advent. Both Sundays the priest’s homily was rightly focused on these themes of remembering our end, and the end of the world. Both homilies were very good, yet both priests approached the idea of the end of our lives and the end of this world with hesitation. They commented how we all want to go to heaven, but no one is in a rush to get there. That got me thinking.
All of us want to live a long, healthy life. We want to see our children grow up, and see our grandchildren. No one likes to think or talk about death. Although there’s certainly nothing wrong with this, shouldn’t we desire heaven and the return of Jesus more fervently than we do? When you read the New Testament epistles and even the Book of Revelation there is an excitement and eagerness for the Lord’s return. In fact, the bible ends with the prayerful exclamation “Maranatha!” meaning “Come Lord Jesus!”
The early church was almost impatient for the Lord to return. Today, most of us would rather he wait.
Some consider hoping for Christ’s immanent return to be a form of escapism for those overwhelmed with the burdens of life, fearful of the state of the world, or overcome by rapid, unsettling cultural changes. To be sure, there are those who do have this mindset. In fact, the entire theology of the rapture—a predominantly nineteenth century Protestant doctrinal invention—is formed around this idea of escaping from the world. But this idea of escapism is much different than the hopeful expectation of the early church.
The early Christians longed for Christ’s return because they knew the end was only the beginning. They knew that we were not made for this earth, but to spend eternity with God. They recognized that no matter what treasures, fame, or wealth this world has to offer is ultimately “garbage” (Phil. 3:8), that all of the pain, suffering, and trials we face only prepare us for an “eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17). The early Christians sought the end of this world because it meant being with Jesus and living in the presence of God. They weren’t looking to escape; they recognized that this life is a really long road trip and they just wanted to get home.
I used to have a card that I carried in my wallet with a simple phrase on it, “Live each day as if Jesus died yesterday, rose today, and is coming back tomorrow.” I have to confess, I don’t always follow that advice, but what would my life look like if I did? This doesn’t mean quit your job, stop paying your bills, and sit on a mountain top waiting for Jesus. It does mean, think about your choices and priorities. There is another saying similar to this (but it sounds cooler because it’s Latin), “Tempus fugit. Memento mori.” It means, “Time flies, remember your death.” It is a call to consider how I live my life.
My kids love watching “Man vs Wild”, a survival show where the host, Bear Grylls, is dropped off in some remote location and he demonstrates survival techniques. Most often, one of the first things he does is look for a high point to look out and gain a lay of the land. He’ll get his bearings, figure out what direction to travel, and pick some landmark in the distance. I know from my own days in scouting that when you’re hiking in the wild it’s always best to set a fixed landmark, because once you start walking and you have to navigate terrain or push through heavy growth, it’s easy to get turned around and lost in the trees. But, as long as you’re able to realign with the distant landmark you will know where you’re going.
This is what the author of the Letter to the Hebrews means when he writes that we should fix “our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus endured it all because he had the end in mind. We need to constantly remember, not just during Advent, that there is an end. We should long to get there, while faithfully enduring until we do. Like anyone running a marathon, then finish line should be something we long to see and eagerly anticipate, not fear or avoid. Our hope is in Christ and he is the one leading us home. He has prepared a place for us (John 14:3). Like the early Christians let that knowledge excite us. Let us look forward to heaven like we look forward to sleeping in our own bed after a long road trip. Let us fill our hearts with the joyful cry, “Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!”

Thursday, September 24, 2015

When God Says No (or What to Do About “Unanswered” Prayer)

Let me start off by saying that I don’t think that “unanswered” prayer is an accurate term because God hears and answers all of our prayers. It’s just that sometimes the answer is no, and those often feel unanswered. Those are the prayers that feel like they’re being, or have been, lifted up to a brick wall, that have fallen back to earth with a thud. But, unanswered prayers can be blessings in disguise even if they feel like crushing or heartbreaking losses at the time.

I think that the mystery of God’s no can be one of the most perplexing and difficult stumbling blocks for Christians. It can be right up there with the problem of evil, and often the two combine when our prayers seemingly go unanswered in the midst of tragedy or pain. It can be even more frustrating when your prayer seems ignored while others around you see their prayers answered.

I had a college roommate who was engaged to his high school sweetheart. They were in their senior year and looking forward to their wedding and life together. Then she got sick, critically ill. It seemed like our entire campus came together in prayer interceding for her healing, but she died. Around the same time I had met a woman who struggled with infertility since having an abortion with complications as a teen. A few of us had prayed with her on one occasion and had heard months later that she was pregnant. I have friends who have seen miraculous financial provision seemingly come out of nowhere at the eleventh hour when hope was lost, and others who saw deadlines come and go with no rescue.

What do we do when we’ve poured our hearts out to God in prayer and nothing happens, or the exact opposite result of what we had been praying for comes to pass? I have found a few things that have brought me comfort in those valleys.

My first consoling thought is to remember that this is not our home. Whatever happens or doesn’t happen in this life is not the end of the story. My wife and I lost a baby to a miscarriage a few years ago. At the first sign of trouble we prayed and prayed and prayed, but it felt as though all my prayers were hitting the ceiling and going nowhere. It was remembering that this world is not the end that helped me through the grieving process. It was knowing that I would meet my child one day that put my temporary, but very real, sorrow in perspective. St. Paul, a man not unaccustomed to pain and difficulty wrote to the Corinthians, “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:17-18)

Another thing that helps me when God says no is to remember that he knows what he’s doing even if I don’t. God is love. He is our loving Father. God’s plans and purposes for my life are beyond what I can fully understand from my perspective. It is hard sometimes to trust God when it seems like he isn’t listening or doesn’t care about my current circumstances. My own pride, fear, or anxiety can cloud my understanding and obscure my view of the grand design. It’s precisely at the moment of having our prayer “unanswered” that we are faced with making a decision—will I doubt God’s goodness or will I seek his consolation? In essence, do I trust him only when he’s doing what I want, or will I trust him when I don’t understand him? Learning to trust God when everything inside you is angry with him and ready to walk away is a precious moment of spiritual growth.

Finally, never waste your suffering. It might be something small or trivial, or it may be a matter of life or death, anytime we feel that our prayers are ignored or unanswered, anytime God tells us no, there is disappointment and a degree of suffering. When we unite our suffering, no matter how big or small, to Jesus we are united with him in a powerful and unique way. When we bring our wounds to touch his wounds we can make up “what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church.” (Col. 1:24) Ironically, the pain we experience from “unanswered” prayer can be used as a prayer in itself for others. We can take our disappointment and offer it up to Jesus as a gift, as a sacrifice, for those in need of grace. This can redeem our suffering, our disappointment or disillusionment and bring healing and comfort to us that deepens our relationship with God and helps us to trust him again.