fish storyI have an image in my head of an older St. Peter, before he was martyred. Sitting around a campfire at night with some of the kids of his first converts – the second generation of believers – like a grandpa gathered with the grandkids at a family function. “Tell us how it started!” they begged him. “Tell us how it all began for you.” A smile comes to his face. His eyes go a bit distant. And misty. Finally, in a voice full of emotion, Simon begins to tell his favorite fish story.

“There we were, cleaning our nets after an unsuccessful night’s work. And this upstart street preacher, being followed by a crowd as far as the eye can see, comes rushing right to my boat. I couldn’t tell if they were chasing him down for something he’d said, or just following because they were so anxious to be close to him. So without so much as a ‘how do you do’, he jumps into MY boat – not Andrew and Philipp’s – but MINE. (chest swells with pride) And boys, let me tell you what happened next…

We heard what happened next in the gospel that was just proclaimed.

There is something about beginnings that contain the rest of the story. You see Simon’s willingness to put himself aside, a bit impetuously, when Jesus asks. You see his willingness to be made a fool of when he puts into the deep to fish in the daytime. (a no-no even for our time as any good fisherman will tell you.) AND you see his awareness of his unworthiness – “I’m just a nobody – leave me Lord! You want someone else. Better, smarter, less rash. Leave me.”

The story could have stopped there, couldn’t it have? It would have been a great fish story, perhaps the greatest of all time. Certainly it would have been the highlight of Peter’s career on the Sea of Galilee. The locals would have talked about that catch of fish for months.

Instead, believers have spoken about his favorite fish story for centuries. You see, Peter wasn’t done with his fish story. In my imagination, Peter stops and he looks at those kids gathered around him around the fire, and says: “Do you know what happened next?” (of course, they all did, but they didn’t want to stop him now.) “Jesus did his own casting of his net, and caught ME!” Me. Lowly Simon. The guy with more enthusiasm than sense, more heart than brains.” He said “from now on, you will be a fisher of men.” And he had me, hook, line and sinker. That’s my favorite fish story, boys. That’s how it started. Like Isaiah in the temple, I heard the voice of the Lord saying TO ME: ‘Whom shall I send, who will go for us?’”

So, back to that trick gospel question – what is YOUR favorite fish story? What is the moment when Jesus stepped firmly into the boat of your life and suddenly, your world was never the same?

For me, there are many moments that give me snapshots into my fisher of men story. One of pivotal ones happened late on an August night, 1981. It was the last evening of three summers doing volunteer work in Northern Ireland. A group of us were coming home from Tom Mallon’s house, back to the school that housed us. Our path took us to the top of Ballyoran Green – this little bit of park-like space overlooking most of the town of Portadown. Nobody told us to stop. We just did. Next thing I know, we were all arm in arm, locked together in our own private thoughts and prayers, looking over the town where we had given so much. I found the tears rolling down my cheeks – weeping for the beauty of the people, their struggles – and their seeming inability to do for each other what they had done for us student volunteers. That had reached out to us, shared their homes, shared their stories and their lives. They had welcomed us and forgiven us, but they couldn’t seem to do it for the neighbors they lived with all the time – just for us guests.
And suddenly, I was transported to a hillside I had never been to, to a place where Jesus also stopped with his friends, and looked out over his city Jerusalem and wept because they too, were not who they could be, who love needed them to be. 2000 years later, as my eyes wept over ‘my’ city, I heard the voice that had spoken to Isaiah saying to me: ‘Who will go for us? Whom shall I send?

<<raise hand>> And like Peter, hook, line and sinker, I was caught.

This week, I invite you to think about YOUR favorite fish story. No, not the one that got away, but the one where our Lord caught you and changed you forever. And then write it down in a diary for your children and your children’s children to read. Post it on facebook. Share it around the dinner table. Find a venue that works. But make sure that you tell YOUR favorite fish story.

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loveHe has been found in the strangest places, doing the most unexpected things. This week found him praying with the president Iran. Three weeks ago, he promulgated a book of common prayers to mark the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran catholic split, in preparation for a trip to Switzerland. Before that, he was found praying at a synagogue in Rome. Thursday found him meeting with Leonardo DiCaprio. Last week found him officially allowing the washing of the feet of women as part of the Holy Thursday ritual. There was a picture on face book of him with a cafeteria tray going through the cafeteria line, just like everyone else. In all those places people ask: “What is he doing here?” And then they ask: “what is he doing here?” Some want to ride him out on a rail. Others believe he is the best thing to happen to the church in a long time. Despite both criticism and applause, Pope Francis continues to shepherd this church according to that inner compass and mandate. It is amazing where love will lead you, if you let it.

He was also found in the strangest places –
•dinners with tax collectors
•in the company of prostitutes
•with common people, teaching and instructing
•with lepers, the sick, the infirm
• in front of court officials, Pilate, the High Priests
•on a hillside called Golgotha
• in a stone cold tomb

Is this not the carpenter’s son? What is he doing here? What is he doing here? Amazing where love will lead you – if you let it.

Could you come, my mother has just died.
Could you come, our daughter just moved in with her boyfriend and we’re not dealing so well with that.
Could you come, we need someone to give a talk to some teenagers
Could you come, my life feels so empty, – I don’t feel like it is worth going on…
Isn’t this Fred and Mary’s Son? Didn’t he go to Prep South? Isn’t he the pastor of the Newman Center? What’s he doing there? What is he doing there? It is amazing where love will lead you, if you let it.

Jeremiah says: “Before you were formed in the womb I knew you, before you were born, I dedicated you, -a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” For Jeremiah, that was a difficult journey. He was not a popular prophet. Through failure and rejection, all the while still being faithful to the message, he continued to speak as God invited him to. And it wasn’t until the end of his journey – as he is on his way to Egypt – that he realizes there has been a greater plan. “I have made you prophet to the NATIONS.” Isn’t this Jeremiah the prophet? What is he doing here? What is he doing here? Going where love leads him.

It is still amazing where love will lead you, if you let it.
Where will you let love lead you? That’s the invitation given in today’s readings – to go with God – to hear God say to us as he said to Jeremiah: “I send you!” To be willing to say not the easy things people like to hear, but the challenging things that they need to hear.

It is why they wanted to ride Jesus out on a rail – because he kept moving where love led him – dinners with tax collectors, in the company of prostitutes, with workmen, common people – even to God forsaken places like Calvary. And it was too much for them… It is why some people want to ride Pope Francis out on a rail. You wrote an encyclical on the environment? You prayed with Protestants and the head of an Islamist state? You challenged your own curia to live simply and to put service ahead of self?

Yet, Jesus walked right through their midst. As does the Pope. You see, love does that. Only love has that kind of power in a life – only love allows you to walk into places charged with anger; places full of despair; places that seem God forsaken and be God’s presence. Paul tells us so profoundly: “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” in the one who chooses to live it.

Will you go where love leads you? It won’t always be easy. You won’t always be liked. Or appreciated. Or understood. But, you will be God’s servant! Will YOU let love bear and believe and hope and endure all things in you?

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I was reminded why I am not a huge fan of book introductions when I was trying to pick out a nook book for vacation. You can download a sample, so I did, but the introduction took up all but TWO pages of the sample. ARRGH. Don’t go into long detail about why you wrote the book – just get down to the good stuff. So too, it is easy for me to gloss over the beginning of Luke’s gospel, just proclaimed. I don’t really care. Let’s get down to talking about Jesus. Yet, it is important for Luke to tell us: “Many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us.” Luke was obviously familiar with the gospel of Mark, because he quotes it, pretty much word for word, in his gospel.) He continues: “I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.” Luke writes the story of Jesus, grateful for those who came before him, but wanting to tell this incredible good news his own way. And though I am not a fan of introductions, it is a great way to begin a gospel…

So let me ask: How will you tell the story of Jesus through your personality, using your words, in your way? Those first followers of Jesus told the story their way, those who followed told it their way, from century to century, – it has been passed down to us. Had they not, we would not be here. So I ask again: How will you tell the story of Jesus?

Luke gives us two guideposts for that undertaking.
I have decided to write it down in an orderly sequence. Not random, but according to a plan. So, how would YOU organize your experience of the Good News.

I suspect many of our Baptist and Pentecostal brothers and sisters would begin with the ‘moment they were saved” – when they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and go on from there to describe their walk since then. I wonder if we Catholics in St. Louis instinctively begin by saying: Here is what high school I went to. And what parish I am from. Then we’ll talk about the priests that we knew who affected us, and the things we got away with back in the day. And though it is less than an overt telling of Jesus’ impact in our lives, it is a ‘safe’ way to talk about our very personal experience of faith.
My college students will tell you what Stuebenville Conference they attended and where it was held. If they have the courage to go further, they’ll talk about a retreat that changed them, a homily that hit them square between the eyes.

I realized at one point, that I could tell the story of my vocation by the songs in my head and that I played on the guitar in my prayer. I heard a talk once that did it through the types of shoes they wore… Spend some time reflecting on how YOU will organize your story – loves lost? service given? communities you belong to? It doesn’t matter WHERE your start, only that you do.

Secondly, Luke writes so that all of us would understand “the truths concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”

I remember the conversation in the threadbare house with a pair of students I had the gift to marry where they changed my perspective on stewardship and my own approach to money. “It’s not our money. God gave us the talents and skills and opportunities to earn what we do. So we never view it as ‘our money’ – rather it is on loan from God to do as much good with as possible.” Suddenly, I knew one of the truths of the life of faith.

As I watched my friend Dave face the gradual loss of control over his muscles to ALS, I also saw this profound courage to LIVE each breath God allowed him to have, even when breathing itself was a choice he made. What did the death of a close friend teach you?

I remember seeing my grandpa Kempf attending to grandma Kempf for 13 years as she was confined to a bed. Every day, unless the snow was 10 inches high, he was at her side in those nursing homes. I learned about the faithfulness of God by watching his loving care of grandma.

So, how will YOUR orderly account of the life of Jesus and the truths he taught you be told? Because the reality is this: we are writing that book with each day we live. And if you need advice about that, there is a bumper sticker that sums it up in 12 words: “Live so that the preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral…”

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canaIt is always important to look at the whole picture and context of a gospel story so as to understand the meaning and to grasp the truth of the kingdom being presented. But sometimes, it is those little ‘throwaway lines’, those almost forgotten details that can open for us a deeper understanding of the person of Jesus. Today I found myself reflecting precisely on two of those details I usually miss.

“They filled them to the brim.”

In response to Jesus’ request to fill the jars, John could have simply said: They did so. But John is careful to note that “They filled them to the brim.” Why to the brim? That would have made transporting them difficult, sloppy. Messy. Water spilling over the floors now becomes a slipping hazard. John is insistent. “They filled them to the brim.”

Why that little detail, John? Why was that important to remember in this great story? Since none of the commentaries I read mentioned that detail, I applied the rules of writing to the passage. John, the good writer that his is, is ‘setting us up’ for what will follow in his Gospel. For the next story in John’s gospel that talks about water is about the Samaritan woman at the well. We know that story and the woman’s failure and emptiness after 5 failed marriages. This woman who was SOOO empty, so wounded by life, so ashamed that she would come to the well only when she knew no one would be there – at midday, enters into this dialogue with Jesus who promises this woman ‘living water.’ And as that dialogue continues, this empty, broken woman herself is filled to the brim and becomes the first evangelist – running back to her village to proclaim Jesus as the messiah. When you are filled like that with grace, it is what you do – you have to share that good news…

“They filled them to the brim.”

And I wondered if I have let myself be ‘filled to the brim’ in the same way? Have I let the wine of Cana flow without counting the cost into my heart and life? And then came the invitation: “Bill – spend time with me in prayer so that I can fill you to the brim.” It is so much safer to let God only fill us a little – to say – we’ve got it from here, because then we can control where that grace will take us. Do you let God fill you to the brim in your prayer?

The second line, though this is more at the heart of the story:
“You have kept the good wine until now.”

In this FIRST miracle, the FIRST sign of God’s in-breaking kingdom, what do we learn? In this sign that reveals the glory of God, we come to know that it is not just any wine, but the choicest wine that God shares with us. The best vintage, not the cheap stuff! Jesus was not content with replacing the wine of the banquet with more wine, one Napa Valley Cabernet with another one of the same vintage. Sure, he could have done that. Instead, he replaces it with the wine of glory – the very best you have to give. “You have kept the good wine until now.”

Two comments about the good wine till now. Isn’t that what you and I experience in life – that God continues to bless each year, to make each one better and better. It is not that the aches and pains of aging are miraculously gone, but each year, I stand amazed at how good God has been. He has saved the good wine, the good year, the good day till NOW.

Secondly, isn’t that precisely what God is asking of me/us today? To give all that is generous for us to give? I think of that specifically in terms of the time I give God in my prayer. Do I give him my most wakeful self, the time of day where I am most up and functioning and alert, or does he get the dregs of the day? Do I squeeze him in while in the shopping line at the grocery, or do I set aside time for him when I can truly give him the best of me?

Perhaps your mind focused on other details in the story. Then let God take you where he needs you to go. In the mean time, what does it mean for you to have kept the good wine until now? And will you let the Lord fill you to the brim?

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baptism waterI had two very disparate experiences of water this past week and a half. The first was up at the Newman Center when the deluge of rains raised the water table enough to allow a series of slow seepages of water through a few seams in the foundation. They were just trickles. Barely enough to float a speck of dust on. Hardly enough, seemingly, to make much of a difference. Yet, just enough to keep the quick drying cement from being able to set IN the crack itself to seal the leak. And just enough, because of the location of the cracks in relation to the floor drains, to soak about 90% of the carpet that covers the basement floor, making it a sodden, smelly, moldy mess. And as I spent time with the shop vac, trying my best to get as much water as I could OUT of the carpet, and setting up fans and dehumidifiers to try and dry it out, I wondered: Who would think that so little a flow of water could do so much damage?

The other experience of waster was Thursday morning on vacation. Our vacation spot is 175 yards from the best snorkeling reefs you can access from Grace Bay. So I would be out there twice a day, enjoying the beauty of the reefs. However, on Thursday, whether because of an offshore storm or the confluence of a major high tide, these huge waves were crashing over the protective reef sheltering the bay. Those waters came rushing in and sent large waves crashing on the beach, stirring up sediment that made visibility less than a foot and a half. And it created this strong current that made making headway with flippers difficult and without them, nigh impossible. After nearly crashing into a section of the reef that I knew was there, but simply could not see till I was a foot away from crashing into it, I called it a morning on the snorkeling.

So here is my wonder about these two disparate images of water. I wonder if I/we as members of St. Ann parish are content to think of the waters of Baptism as if they were like that little trickle in the Newman Center basement. Not much flowing. Just enough to make our spirits wet and our consciences aware of God; just enough so that we have to shop vac the residue of grace into action by our prayer and our stewardship, but not much more. It is an annoyance. But, unlike the people in the Meramec River valley who lost homes and possessions and lives, it doesn’t cost us too much.

In reality, I believe that God wants us to know the waters of Baptism like those waves I experiences on Thursday morning – crashing over the protective reefs we place in our lives, overwhelming our defenses, pouring in this knowledge into our souls that we, LIKE JESUS, are the beloved of God. And because God is pouring that Grace into us that strongly and powerfully, then we are to be swept along in the current of God’s grace, to come face to face with all that still needs to hear and see, in us, the good news of salvation.

I wonder what my faith life would be, and what my witness would be, if I let THAT image of the waters of Baptism be what I think about each morning and try to live each day? Where will the waters send me today? What situation, what need, what neighbor, what law, what opportunity will I be blessed AND challenged to address because I have let the flow of the grace of my baptism take me there?

[Confirmation students – that is precisely the formation you have begun today – to become awake to that flow of grace that has been there in your life since the day of your baptism. To stir into flame the grace poured into your hearts, and to say a resounding YES to the spirit’s movement in your life. We, the parish family, promise to pray for you and with you as you make the journey to confirmation.]

What is your image of the waters of baptism? A trickle? Or a torrent? What might this St. Ann parish be the day we really trust those waters are crashing into us, moment by moment – confirming in us what we truly are – God’s beloved sons and daughters – sent to bring the good news to all?

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MercyLake Superior State University on Thursday released its 41st annual List of Words they believe should be banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness. The tongue-in-cheek wish-list of sorts includes starting an answer with the word * “So;” * ”presser” instead of press conference; * “problematic” * “walk it back” and * “break the Internet.” Others are * “stakeholder,” * ”join the conversation,” * ”physicality,” * ”price point,” * ”manspreading,” * ”giving me life” and * “vape,” (describing the act of “smoking” e-cigarettes). And who knew that the phrase * “secret sauce” was being bandied about in corporate board rooms to such an extent that is has become rather meaningless.

So, that got me to thinking I should join the conversation and look at what words are giving me life, what words are problematic, and what words might become a secret sauce, as it were, to the life of holiness I am being called to. (that was 5 of those words…)

The one word to add this year? That is an easy one. MERCY. What would it be like to let mercy be the main word we keep at the forefront of every conversation about refugees and undocumented immigrants that we will hear this election year? Could mercy be the word that best describes our relationships with our family members? Or maybe just that one friendship that could really use a bit of the love that we call mercy? How will you make MERCY the most important vocabulary word in your life this year? (and if you do, how would people tell?)

The one word to delete for me, is, unfortunately all too easy a target as well. Hurry. Getting to the next thing without fully entering the thing in front of me. Unfortunately, I know too well the truth of the statement: “Hurry always empties the soul.”

And if there is to be an ally in this quest of mine, I have no further to look than Mary, the Mother of God, whose feast we celebrate today. Mary who “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Mary, who had the patience not to have to figure everything out in terms of raising this child all at once, but who could simply trust in the unfolding of God’s plan, day by day.

And you, are there two words that might guide your year, your unfolding of time by their absence and presence in your life this year? You are welcome to use mine – Mercy and Hurry. Or to borrow one from the good folks at the University of Lake Superior. (Vaping comes to mind…) Whatever they are, post them on your bathroom mirror, or rear view mirror or someplace where you will see them often enough to jolt you into awareness.

And if you cannot come up with two words, then ask Mary, the mother of our savior, to teach you what you need to embrace and what you need to let go to follow her son as a stakeholder. Oops. So, I meant to say disciple….

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bookWhen the Kempf family simplified our Christmas giving years ago, to picking one adult and one of the kids to share gifts with, (and matching your giving to a charity of your choice) the nieces and nephews were a little disappointed. So, we replaced the serious gifting with a “Rob Your Neighbor” experience. You were to bring some kind of gift, whether funny or useful or any place in between, costing $10 or less for the exchange. And everyone was happy, the first year. The second year ended with a very tired youngest nephew in tears because somebody ‘stole’ the gift he wanted to keep. (we roll dice and when you get doubles you HAVE to exchange.) And then an interesting side competition came to being: Who brought the hottest gift?

So, if this gives you any insight into the Kempf family, this year’s hottest gift, (which I scored) was this little book entitled: <<show book>> “How to traumatize your children: 7 proven methods to help you screw up your kids deliberately and with skill.” (How could you even make this up?) The back cover tells you all you need to know about why the book was so popular in our family: “Don’t leave your most important job to instinct and gut reactions.” “Give your children enough material to write a memoir someday.” It was the hot item of this year. And knowing that gives you a pretty good insight into the craziness of the Kempf family.

Today’s gospel also gives us a little insight into the Holy Family – a little snapshot, as it were, that helps you understand the heart of Jesus’ family during those formative years. And if these were normative for the holy family, then perhaps they hold some truth for us. Let me share three quick insights that this verbal snapshot of the gospel reveals to us about the Holy Family.

1) We hear that each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem. So it’s family custom to pray together, to observe the law together, to be grounded in the community of believers together. All you teens and college students back from campus, when your parents drag you out of bed on Sunday morning or Saturday evening to come here, they really are NOT trying to traumatize you. Rather, they are forming you in the same way Mary and Joseph formed Jesus.

2) We also hear that everything was not completely ‘perfect’ nor without struggle in that Holy Family. Jesus seems to get absorbed in a conversation and loses all track of time. Evidently, it never dawned on him to send word to his parents! Meanwhile, they are frantically searching for him, hearts racing, afraid they would never see him again. Every parent here can understand how terrified Mary and Joseph were for their one and only!

When they did find him, Mary’s fear turns – understandably – to anger. She did not hold back her rebuke. “Son, why have you done this to us?!” Jesus shoots back: “Why were you looking for me?” Did you not know I must be in my father’s house?” I could imagine that later Jesus apologized for HOW he said what he said, but not for WHAT he said. Family means being aware of how our actions affect those around us. And how to expand the sometimes closed in view of who belongs – family is more than just biology but all those who are faithful to God’s word.

And finally, we get a little snapshot into the life at Nazareth. Jesus obedient; Mary, pondering, wondering, treasuring all these things. And Jesus growing in age and grace and wisdom before God and all. Which meant he was doing what all Jewish children would do, being obedient to their parents, learning a trade, doing the dishes, and hanging out with friends, going to school, playing sports, etc. etc. etc.. The Gospel snapshot of the holy family invites us to know that it is never about perfection, but always about figuring out, about mutual love, and about openness to what God has in mind.

The good news, even in the Kempf family <<show book>> – is that it is never about traumatizing our children. Today we draw our inspiration from Mary, Joseph and Jesus, asking that we might be given the grace to become better members of our own “holy families.” Then, what was said of the Child Jesus today might also be said of us someday…that we too grew in wisdom, and the Grace of God was upon us.

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cb and linus50 years ago, A Charlie Brown Christmas aired for the first time. Charlie Brown is best known for his uniquely striped shirt, and Linus is most associated with his ever-present security blanket. Throughout the story of Peanuts, Lucy, Snoopy, Sally and others all work to no avail to separate Linus from his blanket. And even though his security blanket remains a major source of ridicule for the otherwise mature and thoughtful Linus, he simply refuses to give it up.

In the climactic scene of the movie, in response to Charlie Brown’s question: “Can anyone tell me what Christmas is really about?”, Linus takes the center stage to quote Luke’s account of the birth of the savior. Mid way through, an amazing thing happens. As Linus is sharing “what Christmas is all about,” he drops his security blanket! And what is most telling is the specific moment he drops it: when he utters the words, “fear not”, for behold I bring you tidings of good news…

Coincidence? I think not. What that great theologian Charles Schultz was trying to teach us, oh so subtly, was the profound truth that the birth of Jesus separates us from our fears. The birth of Jesus frees us from the habits we are unable (or unwilling) to break ourselves. The birth of Jesus allows us to simply drop the false security we have been grasping so tightly, and learn to trust and cling to Him instead.

50 years later (or 2000, depending on your perspective) we still have not learned that lesson very well. The world of 2015 has been a scary place, and most of us find ourselves grasping something other than Jesus as our security blanket. Some politicians want us to build higher and bigger walls between the US and Mexico to ease our fears. Some presidential candidates would have us close our borders to the biggest mass exodus in human history – as over 1 million people have fled the wars in Syria and Iraq to Europe this year. Some parents debate whether having a firearm in the house is a good deterrent or an unsafe risk against home invasion. Some students choose a wall of unfeeling rather than the vulnerability of relationship.

If Christ is to be our Savior as this day proclaims, then we need to acknowledge this difficult truth: we all carry security blankets around with us to keep fear at bay. Fear as an emotion comes to us all. And like Linus and his blanket, the temptation is to cling to something, anything that will help us manage that fear, even if it makes us look silly…

Isn’t the challenge of this day to learn how to let the one who is Wonder counselor, God-hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace be just that in our day and time? Perhaps this is the Christmas in which our response, both individually and as a nation, needs to be exactly what Linus chose in that cartoon 50 years ago: To let go of all the ‘security blankets’ WE cling to out of fear to really hear and heed the message of the angel: “Do not be afraid.” Can we learn how to NOT decide and act from those places of fear – but rather from a place of trust in the goodness of God?

So, what other wisdom did Charles Schultz have up his sleeve in that theological classic of his to help us do that? I think it is this image of what happens when we learn to act out of trust and not fear. Linus does pick up his blanket at the end of his monologue, and carries it again, but only for a short time. And only to lay it at the feet of that poor, lonely, sad Charlie Brown Christmas tree. In doing so, Linus is responding to that invitation to ‘fear not.’ And as the rest of the cast assemble around the tree, and effortlessly slide into “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” an amazing thing happens. That scraggly, struggling, bare boned twig of a Christmas tree becomes this thing of beauty.

I like to believe that this is precisely what would happen in our world if we all had the courage to respond to the Angel’s message to “fear not.” I wonder:
• how many Syrian refugee families might be adopted?
• how many failing kids in failing school districts might find tutors who would mentor them into life?
• how many families broken by addiction would find treatment?
• how many siblings estranged by long forgotten slights might find the courage this season to reconnect?
• how many governments might find the path to peace this day?
What an amazing beauty we might create…

LinusDropsBlanketThis Christmas, hear the invitation to lay all your security blankets down – all the defenses, all the clinging to the very real and sometimes not so real fears – to lay them down not just anywhere, but forever at the foot of the manger, before the One who is indeed our prince of peace. “Fear Not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy…” That was true 50 years ago in A Charlie Brown Christmas. It was true 2000 years ago on that hillside in Jerusalem. And, it is true for us all this night…

(Jason Soroski, a blogger and youth pastor was the source of the Charlie Brown Christmas insight about Linus dropping the blanket…

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Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Israel,

Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Israel

One of the eye opening moments of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land was learning the very concrete topography of several of the sights. Few so opened a new understanding in me as the site of the Visitation. So, when the gospel says that Mary set out in haste to the HILL COUNTRY, we think – oh, how nice that must have been. Beautiful scenery (it is) Nice breezes. (they were) Wonderful perspective from Elizabeth’s house. (Yessiree, Bob). All those things are very true.

But then there is this one more detail. The well where you drew water. Because the cities were all set on the hillside, the wells would be either impossibly deep to have been dug into the hillside, or they would be at the bottom of the hills upon which the towns were built. So they show you the well. At the BOTTOM of the hill. At the BOTTOM of the very LONG hill. At the BOTTOM of the VERY STEEP, VERY LONG hill. They did not call it the hill country for naught.

When you know that, it puts another level of understanding to the yes that Mary said to be the handmaid of the Lord. If it was true that the only sign given her about the truth of the angel’s word’s to her – that Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant – was indeed the case, then Mary sets out to the hill country precisely because she knows that Elizabeth will be needing the help – the practical help of carrying the water up the hill.

bucket 2Let that little fact sink in.

The first thing that Mary chooses to do, once she has said “YES” to being the handmaid of the Lord – is to BE just that, in a very practical way. She sets out to serve. To make that daily or more than daily, walk from the bottom of that very steep, very long hill to bring the needed water to Elizabeth’s house. To take that burden off of aged Elizabeth in her pregnancy. What a practical, concrete way of being love to her kinswoman. “Let me draw water for you from the well…”

I wonder if that is exactly how you and I could spend this fourth week of Advent – looking at one family, one person in our life and asking the same question: How can I concretely be of service to them? What is the ‘hill country’ that they will find/are finding difficult in their lives? What is the ‘bucket’ of water that I might bring to them?

I think of my friend’s wife, Ann, and their two kids – now celebrating their first Christmas without Dave – and found myself asking her: “What can I do that would be helpful in dealing with these days?” “We will be fine through Christmas. I will be needing you to be around in January, when all this business slows down, and the reality will completely sink in.” SO, I plan to go watch a water polo game of their son Thomas in Dave’s place. And to cook a meal for the family and some guests on a day of their choosing in Feb.

What of befriending with a letter one prisoner – one person who is not likely to receive any kind of letter or gift or communication from a loved one? What would it be to commit to a letter a month?

I find myself asking about the ‘hill country’ of ISLAMAPHOBIA that seems to be gripping more and more of the rhetoric of our election debate, and realize that I need to log into the various websites of the various candidates and elected officials to make sure that the voice of those fleeing certain death from their own government still have a hearing in the policies and laws our government is considering in the wake of San Bernardino.

Sometimes, it seems like the ‘hill country’ is all around us. That the road to the top, to the view, to the breeze where all is according to God’s will might not ever come to be. But, if like Mary, we are willing to be handmaids and servants in our days, then one bucket at a time, one choice of love at a time, one practical decision at a time, we will be the ones of whom it is said: “Blessed are you who believed, and who put God’s word into practice…”

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do itIn the summer when it became known that I would become pastor here at St. Ann while remaining director of the Newman Center, almost every person I received the same message over and over. “Father, you are going to be really busy!” Or: “How are you going to do all that work? You will be really busy.” Did I mention that you told me: “I was going to be really busy?” After a few weeks of listening to that mantra, I quickly realized that this was NOT going to be a healthy way of living. That if I followed that ‘map’ of how to do priesthood at two places, I would soon find myself crazy or burned out or both. (I get you can probably still make the argument about crazy..) I realized I needed another map, another way of thinking about my ministries. Fortunately, there was one available in a quote from St. Vincent de Paul: “Do the doable, not the impossible.” I don’t even know who said it to me, but I realized that this was precisely the map that would work. Do the doable, not the impossible…

Isn’t that precisely what we hear from John the Baptizer as the various groups approach him? You don’t need to do impossible to sustain those one time acts of repentance from the religious high that is your baptism here – the ones that will leave you exhausted and unable to minister over the long haul. Rather, look at the concrete reality of your occupation and vocation, and from there, do what is possible.

I suspect the Roman soldiers were the most surprised. As occupiers, they knew the locals did not have a high opinion of them. And they had done their share of the dirty work in subduing populations in the past. So they knew the reputation of ‘soldiers’ that they carried. You can almost hear the trepidation in their voices: “What is it that we should do? To their surprise, John does not ask the impossible. Nor does he demand that they give up their profession as occupiers. ‘Don’t use force to get your way, don’t file false police reports, and be content with your salary.’ Lessons that we are still learning in our post Ferguson world – John tells the soldiers not to abuse their power over people as they do their work.

To the tax collectors – ‘try a little honesty. Since nobody but YOU know how much tax the Romans are asking of the population, don’t skim off the top.’ To the crowds – ‘be generous with what you have, not with what you don’t have. Extra cloak in the closet – give it to someone who has no cloak. Extra food in the pantry – there are plenty of folks who are hungry. Generosity goes a long way, folks.’

To all three groups, John says the same thing: Do the doable, not the impossible. Be intentional about what you do – making sure that you are busy about what God desires for you…

• If you choose to write Christmas cards, do you whisper a prayer for the people as you write them?
• If you are blessed to go to a Christmas party, do you really ‘arrive there, and enter the conversations?’ Or are you still going through the laundry list of ‘to do’s’ which keep you from being present to the people right in front of you.
• Doing laundry … In your car driving … Studying for exams … in a job you dislike … is there a way to do that with love, and so be awake the fact that each of those moments is an opportunity to serve the Lord
• Shopping for gifts … Can we be intentional about different possibilities of gift giving – not STUFF, but things of blessing for people? The social Justice committee will be selling the ‘water with blessing’ kits that provide drinkable water for families without access to it.

Finally, one last thought about doing the doable and not the impossible. I discovered quickly on that it might be possible for me to play hooky kind of easily. To the St. Ann people I could say –“I’m up at Newman.” To the Newman people I could say – “I am at St. Ann.” And then I go golfing… Don’t lightly let yourself off the hook on what is doable and not impossible. Just because something is hard, does not mean it is impossible.

I learned quickly on, that summer of the change, that I would need a map to guide me as I worked two places. “You are going to be so busy” was not an option. I wonder if these last two weeks of advent hold the very same temptation for each of us: We tell ourselves, we are going to be SOOO busy getting everything ready for Christmas. Perhaps we are. But if we keep that mindset, we will miss what God is doing here and now. The choice is clear – attempt the impossible? Or do what is in your power to do? Which ‘map’ will you use?

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