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demonsAs soon as you heard the question, you knew the answer. No, God does not really care if we give up chocolate for Lent. The devil might, but for a different reason. His reason is so that this SMALL matter becomes the distraction that keeps you from the GREAT work of Lent. So, what is THE work of Lent? Let me tell you a story…

Once upon a time, a long time ago, and very far from here, a great Tibetan poet named Milarepa studied and meditated for decades. He traveled the countryside, teaching the practice of compassion and mercy to the villagers he met. He faced many hardships, difficulties and sorrows, and transformed them into the path of his awakening.Finally, it was time to return to the small hut he called home. He had carried its memory in his heart through all the years of his journey. Much to his surprise, upon entering, he found it filled with enemies of every kind. Terrifying, horrifying, monstrous demons that would make most people run. But Milarepa was not most people.
Inhaling and exhaling slowly three times, he turned toward the demons, fully present and aware. He looked deeply into the eyes of each, bowing in respect and said: “You are here in my home now. I honor you, and open myself to what you have to teach me.”
As soon as he uttered these words, all of the enemies save five disappeared. The ones that remained were grisly, raw, huge monsters. Milarepa bowed once more and began to sing a song to them, a sweet melody resonant with caring for the ways these beasts had suffered, and curiosity about what they needed and how he could help them. As the last notes left his lips, four the demons disappeared into thin air.
Now only one nasty creature was left, fangs dripping evil, nostrils flaming, opened jaws revealing a dark foul black throat. Milarepa stepped closer to this huge demon, breathed deeply into his own belly, and said with quiet compassion: “I must understand your pain and what it is you need in order to be healed.” Then he put his head in the mouth of his enemy.
In that instant, the demon disappeared, and Milarepa was home at last.

In so many ways, that story echoes the story of Jesus we hear each first Sunday of Lent. It’s the story of Jesus being LED by the Spirit into the desert – where there were no distractions – just the raw, naked elements and the silence. In that deserted place, Jesus meets HIS demons head on. What he learned there is the enemy he HAD to face there in that desolation was none other than the enemy within. The enemy was not outside of him, but rather, within. And He learned that the only way out was in. THAT is the GREAT WORK OF LENT. Not giving up chocolate. Not fasting between meals. Not even praying more or sacrificing more. Nope. The great work of Lent is to face the demons within!

The demons are all that is wrong with us that we continue to run from—that we refuse to attend to and refuse to treat with compassion in ourselves. They will surface again and again until we face them. For whatever we bury, we bury alive. They take on a life of their own. Robert Bly wrote: “Every part of our personality that we do not love will become hostile to us.” Those parts of us become that demon we fear—they become the enemy! But once we face them, we can be transformed by them. Once Jesus learned THAT, he came to know that if there is no enemy within, the enemy outside can do us no harm.

And what is the face of this inner enemy, those demons who would not go away? As Matthew and Luke were later to describe it – somewhere inside Jesus, he wanted to be powerful, he wanted to be noticed, he wanted to be celebrated and acclaimed. He was tempted to turn his considerable charisma and talent to his own ends. The temptation was to let it be about him. He had to wrestle with that in him. This was a frightening foe; the enemy within him would not go away. It would haunt him throughout his ministry. And it was that desire that he had to face down if he was ever to be free to love and to serve. Only by taking it on, only by facing it, only by putting his head in its mouth, could he have ever gotten free.

And so it is for us. This is where it all begins – what Lent is really about. Unless we start here we will not be able to love. And if we cannot love we do not live! Unless we face those “enemies of love” that are real and live in us, as surely as they lived in Jesus, we will not be able to know true love, healthy connection, a love that lasts – that for which we most hunger and thirst. Facing those “enemies”, we will begin to see that our enemy is actually our ally in disguise.

Once we dare face the ENEMIES that live in us—welcome them, bow to them; once we dare put our heads into their very mouths, then they can disappear. Oh they will hang around to come and tempt us again. But next time we will not be so afraid. And we will be that much less afraid of other people hurting us, or those demons having power over us.

The heroes and leaders of our times will be those women and men who have the courage to plunge into the darkness at the bottom of their personal lives and face the enemy within. Please God, give us the courage NOW, this Lent, to do just that!

And if we do so, then perhaps what we will learn is the most profound thing of all: That what was wrong with us, when faced and loved and understood, is exactly what is right with us.

Milarepa was a great sage who met his enemies with an enlightened mind and an open heart. “In that instant, the demon disappeared and Milarepa was home at last.” So will you be, home at last! Home, in your own home!

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ashesDoes anyone here have a Fitbit? If you don’t know what they are, they look like a watch, sync to your computer, and are meant to be your companion on a journey to live a fit and healthy lifestyle. Among the metrics they record:
• The number of steps taken each day, floors climbed, active minutes working out, and calories burned per day. (and per hour if you want…)
• It will tell you what time of day you were most active THAT DAY, and track when you did NOTHING for your fitness goal.
• It will track your weight, BMI, lean mass and body fat percentages and automatically syncs it all to your computer
• Paired with your phone, it will track the distance you have run and even the record the path you took while running through various neighborhoods or terrains.
• It will record your Workouts in seconds or minutes and post those times instantly on a monthly exercise calendar.
• The more advanced ones can use your phone to take a picture of the food you are about to eat and it will tell you the approximate number of calories you are about to eat.
And then, it will take all of that data, and give you a score for how well you exercised and kept to your fitness regimen, even sending you encouraging emails to keep you motivated. It will tell you if you are over or under your daily goal. From the company’s website: Fitbit tracks every part of your day—including activity, exercise, food, weight and sleep—to help you find your fit, stay motivated, and see how small steps make a big impact. It is a pretty amazing piece of equipment.

Now, what kind of person buys a Fitbit? Obviously, only someone who is SERIOUS about their health and fitness. Someone who really wants to lose those extra pounds and get themselves into a way of living that is healthy in mind and body. What kind of person wears a Fitbit or its equivalent? Someone who is ready to do the work of fitness!

Which made me wonder if they have invented a SPIRITUAL FITBIT yet? And if they have, what would IT measure and what kind of person would wear that?

In some ways, we know already what the three big areas it would measure don’t we? Fasting. Prayer. Almsgiving. Those three practices that today’s gospel invites us to look into – they are the hallmarks of a spiritually healthy person. Fasting, not so we can say what good “do bees” we are, but fasting so that we train our desires to long only for the things of God. Prayer, not so others will see the halo around our heads (like the thinner waste line after fit bit) but that we might learn to hear the voice of God inviting us to wholeness. Almsgiving, not that others will notice how generous we are, but that other simply will have what they need to live.

Like the regular Fitbit, our spiritual Fitbit can keep track of our best times to pray, and how far we have journeyed to help those in need and how often we sacrificed our own desires to desire the things of God. And those are all good things. But like the other Fitbit, the first goal of the Spiritual Fitbit is to help us ask the question: What is missing from my life? What do I need to receive from this lent so as to become the saint God invites me to be. If we don’t answer that primary question first, then we’ve kind of missed the point.

And finally, what kind of person wears a Spiritual Fitbit? The same kind who chooses to wear ashes on their forehead as a sign of repentance. So this lent, I will give you permission perhaps for the only time in my priesthood to take a Selfie. Let it be of your ashes. And then post them on your Facebook wall, or computer background. Put it on your bathroom mirror. Or on top of your daily planner. Let it be the reminder of the Spiritual Fitbit journey you have decided to hold yourself accountable for this season. And may it inspire you, DAILY, to keep making those small steps to the greater holiness God invites each of us to know.

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reach out“He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” Those final words in our passage from Leviticus today might be the saddest words recorded in the Old Testament. Can you imagine what that would be like, especially in the Bedouin-like existence of the Jewish people during their sojourn in the desert?
• Practically, it is a nuisance. You are farthest away from the source of water. And you’ll go through ½ of the camp, ringing a bell and saying: “Unclean, Unclean.”
• You’d hear the sounds of laughter, the late night murmur of conversations, the playing of children – but you would not be able to take part in them.
• Your family would struggle as well – and though the skin conditions that would be declared unclean were not the debilitating symptoms of what WE know as Hansen’s disease, (climate is too dry for what we know a leprosy (rather it is what we would know as eczema, psoriasis, severe acne) yet, you would STILL not be able to help your family with anything – even though physically, you are ‘fine’ and mostly able bodied.
• And in the absence of the creams and lotions and over the counter medicines that we are accustomed to, you could be forced to dwell apart for a long, long time – angry, frustrated and isolated, because of something that you had little or no control over.

The biblical prohibitions against leprosy were designed to protect the community (similar to the involuntary quarantines of health workers returning from ebola infected patients, or un-immunized kids exposed to the measles)– but did so at the expense of the individual. He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp. For the good of the group, the individual was isolated from everyone.

I suspect that Jesus ‘knew’ how difficult it was to dwell apart, to be an outsider, wanting to be in. Because He does not flinch, does he, when the leper approaches. For to touch the leper risked the same fate as the leper – to be on the outside, looking in, should you contract any of those skin diseases.

And you sort of ‘hear’ that in the conversation: The leper says: “If you wish, you can make me clean. You can restore me to family, to friends, to the life that I was so vibrantly a part of and want to be a part of again.” Jesus’ response is just as immediate: “I do wish it. Be made clean.” And then, because it is not enough for someone to be cured to be allowed to be returned to family, he commands the man to show himself to the priests – the final steps in his restoration to the community.

So we see in this story, not just the physical healing of the man, but his restoration to the life of the community, his inclusion back into the family that nourished him. In fact, he is so thrilled to be back, that can’t stop telling people about his good fortune. He disobeys Jesus’ command – to not tell anyone – because in the joy of restoration, of no longer having to dwell apart, outside the camp he cannot keep silent. The good news is just too good not to be shared.

There are, I think, two concrete consequences, to ‘easy ways’ for us to be a part of that same healing that is recounted in the gospel today.

The first is easy. Contact someone who has been ‘dwelling apart, outside the camp’ as it were, for whatever reason. Perhaps they lost a spouse, a son, a daughter recently, and it is just so dang hard to come back to this church, because the last time there were here was at the funeral and it is still feels too sad, ‘too much’ just yet. Offer to sit with them, and tell them ‘you’ll bring the Kleenex’. Or call the neighbor who can’t see so well to drive at night – an offer to pick them up. I know a gentleman at Normandy Nursing home who would love to come to mass here, but has no transportation – so, though I bring him communion, it is not quite the same. Who haven’t you seen in the pews around you these days? Give them a call and check in on them. It will mean the world to them.

Secondly, like the man who was healed who couldn’t shut up about the good news he knew in Jesus – pick ONE blessing to share this week – with your spouse, your kids, your parents, your neighbor – about how good God has been to you. It does not need to be earth shattering. But it does need to be shared.

You see, here at this altar, we bring all that keeps us dwelling apart, with our abode outside the camp to the one who says to us, as he said to the one in the gospel – “I do wish you to be whole, to be connected, to be made clean. Come to the table of life!”

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restThere are at least two pieces of technology that can grade the quality of your sleep. A fit bit. (I don’t have one, but I know it can be programmed to give you feedback on your sleep.) And the 3rd(?) generation of c-pap machines. About an hour after waking up, mine sends daily reports to an internet site which then assigns me a sleep score. The score is a composite of Usage Hours, Mask Seal, Events/hour (when I stop breathing) and the number of times when the mask is on or off. (aka – how interrupted my sleep is) So I am ‘graded’ each night on the quality of my sleep. I got an 88 last night. I have seen quite a bit of progress since when I first started on the new machine. I am doing better on the quality of my sleep. But here is the rub, I now know that there is a huge difference between sleep and rest.

I suspect you all know this at some level or the other. You can be bone tired, bone weary, and crash into bed after the long day, and wake up 8 hours later and still feel that same bone wearying tiredness. You slept, but you did not rest. Likewise, you can be that same kind of tired, fall to sleep and wake only a few hours later – but you are rested, energized, and ready for a new day. What is the difference?

Though not an expert as to the science behind the ‘why’ some sleep more restful than others (beyond knowing it has to do at least a bit with REM level sleep and delta waves in the brain) my spiritual awareness tells me this. When I am ‘on mission’ – doing that which is at the center of who I am and what matters, then I REST well, even if my sleep is not so great. When I am scattered, fighting someone else’s battles, waging someone else’s wars, not doing that which is at the center of my calling – even though I might sleep well, I am not rested. I become like Job in the first reading – my days are a drudgery…

Jesus knew this pretty early on in Mark’s gospel. We hear today the second last story of Chapter ONE – sometimes called “a few days in the life of Jesus.” They are busy ones. Once he hears of John’s arrest, Jesus begins his preaching. He calls his first disciples; makes his way to Capernaum. On the Sabbath, he cures a man with an unclean spirit. Then he cures Simon Peter’s mother in law. And the whole town after the end of the Sabbath (when it was evening – the Sabbath would be over and they can now “carry people” to Jesus without violating the law’s prohibition to do work.) Finally, bone weary and exhausted, he crashes into bed for some sleep. But it is not restful sleep, is it?

“Rising early the next morning” we are told, Jesus seeks the place, not of sleep but of rest. Of abiding. Of connection. Because, in the temptation of instant success and having whole towns and villages at his door, he knows what dangerous ground he could quickly be on. “Successful but not faithful” would be how I would name this temptation. Humanly having it all together, but in terms of what mattered to God, he could fly so quickly off-center.

In that quiet place, Jesus is re-connects to his mission. “To the other towns I MUST go – This is my purpose.” Only his resting in God’s love allows that kind of freedom, that ability to turn his back on success beyond his wildest dreams, to pursue rather his Father’s will.

So what did Jesus do to transform sleep intervals into rest intervals? Two things, it appears.

First, Jesus finds a place he could be alone and keep his own counsel. Jesus seeks out a place free of noise, people, expectations, demands, and things. Mark describes it as “a deserted place”. The word translated “deserted” is the noun for “desert” or “wilderness”. There are few desolate places on planet earth quite like the desert places in the Middle East. In those places, there is no water, no vegetation, little life – only solitude. Unplugged from the bustle of his new found fame and popularity, Jesus is able to rest in the presence of his God.

We will never find a cure for our exhausted lives until we find our own desert place. It may be a room in your home. It could be a city park or a quiet corner of a coffee house. It could be your car, as you stop a block away from home and turn off the ignition, radio and any other source of noise. It must be a place where no iPad, no iPhone, no laptop, no friends dropping by, no Day-Timer open, and no life-noise (music, words, traffic if possible) can enter. Find that place that works for you in the concrete reality of your life.

And then, in that quiet place, release your cares to God. Let him know of your day and your life and your struggles and successes. And in that prayer, LISTEN. Listen as God reminds you who you are and who God is. Prayer creates a space where we can let go of all that wearies us and allows us to take hold of the only One who can sustain us.

John XXIII, on the evening that he announced the convening of Vatican II, could not sleep. Finally, chiding and challenging himself, he asked: “Angelo, why aren’t you sleeping? Who’s running the church, you or the Holy Spirit? So sleep.” And therein is the cure for our exhausted, depleted, tired lives. When we hear the voice of God in our rest, we can be effective ministers of his grace and love.

What is the quality of your rest? Like Jesus, might we spend time listening to the voice of God sustaining, so we may respond to the voice of God calling us to our mission to transform our world…

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set me freeUnlike John’s gospel, where the first miracle Jesus performs is the changing of water into wine, and in Matthew where he cures a leper, Mark’s account of the first miracle worked by Jesus is the freeing of a man from possession by an unclean spirit. How quaint. Unclean spirits! By-products of an age that did not understand human psychology very well, nor the chemical interactions in the brain which are causative of much which a former age would have labeled demonic. It is tempting, isn’t it, to dismiss such miracles as appropriate for a less sophisticated age. Yet… Yet, it doesn’t take much perception, nor effort to realize there are still unclean spirits roaming our world. Unclean spirits that lessen human dignity and degrade the goodness of people created in the image and likeness of God.

• There is the unclean spirit of violence that surfaces in the guise of entertainment in the media and in video games and that desensitizes us to torture, pain, abuse, and killing.

• There is the unclean spirit of pornography that appears on our computers, smart phones and other digital devices. An unclean spirit that distorts our understanding of human sexuality and reduces human beings, particularly women and children, to objects of pleasure to be used, exploited, bought, and sold.

• There is the unclean spirit of greed and materialism that drives us to acquire more and more even at the cost of human relationships, family life, the ecosystem of our planet and our spiritual well-being.

• There is the unclean spirit of alcohol consumption on college campuses, which often leads to a host of poor choices, victims and victimizers.

• There is the unclean spirit of meaninglessness and hopelessness for many. In a world, so fraught with so much senseless violence, so much injustice and racial inequality, what is the point – of trying? – of sacrificing? – of working to make a difference? I am just ONE person – what I do will not/does not matter. Let me just enjoy my small pleasures of family and friends and my mostly peaceful world.

• There is the unclean spirit of cynicism and contempt that mocks religion, morality, and traditional values and replaces them with nothing that gives life direction, meaning and purpose. Everything good and true and beautiful becomes a joke that leaves only emptiness when the laughter stops.

Sadly, it did not take long for me to come up with that list. I suspect you can add to my list without much effort as well.

So here are two truths that I know about these “unclean spirits:”

1) They need to be named in our lives, honestly and truthfully for what they are – human distortions of the plan of God for our good and our salvation. In the gospel, the unclean spirits recognize in Jesus their ‘potential downfall” – “What have you to do with us – have you come to destroy us?” “As a matter of fact – I have”, is Jesus’ response. He directly faces the one possessed. And he engages the un-cleanliness head on. Because as often as we dismiss our unclean spirits as “harmless video games”; as “artful images of sexy women”; as “deserved acquisitions from hard labor” – we give power to these unclean spirits to remain. And we will never be rid of them, both as individuals and as a community. As often as you want to ‘let yourself off the hook’ – beware the distortion and the power of the unclean spirit to remain…

2) They need to be confronted with the power and authority of Jesus Christ. Notice the first word he uses to drive them out: “Quiet!” As if to say: “I am done listening to you. Your voice carries no power any more. So just be silent, for I will not listen to you any longer.” When we deny those sirens of un-cleanliness a voice, they fade and flee from the voice that we do listen to – that of our Lord.

SO, this week – shine a little light into the darker places of your world and heart. Name what is ‘less than God’ in your choices and behaviors and patterns – all that is ‘unclean’ in your life. And then, invite the Lord to speak to you the words he spoke in that first miracle recorded by Mark: “Be silent. Come out of you.” Let him indeed set YOU free…

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Do you like to fish?

Published on 25. Jan, 2015 by in Sunday Homilies

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wormI have never enjoyed fishing. Never liked touching worms, much less putting them on a hook. The fish were slimy and would ‘fin’ you if you were not careful when you had caught them. And it seemed unfair – that you would catch them with their hunger – they did not stand much a chance once you had them snagged. (Plus all I knew was catch and release, so it did not make much sense to do all that work for nothing.) So, aside from the cute verbal turn of the phrase, fishermen to fishers of men, that image of being fishers of men never did much for me. Yet, it is precisely that call that Jesus uses to catch his first disciples. So, there must be something there for us non-fishing-loving-people. What is at the heart of that image – fishers of men? Certainly it is not the image of dragging things against their will from the sea to the shore. (use finger as a ‘hook’ in my mouth to drag me sideways) That does not do much for me.

Here is where some information from the cultural world of Jesus supplies some needed information. For the Jewish people, the sea, even as it was a source of their livelihood and food, was primarily a place of chaos, filled with monsters and demons. We hear the images in the Psalms: ‘Leviathan’, the ‘monsters of the deep’, the ‘torrents overwhelming us’. The greatest punishment they could imagine was to be cast into the sea with a millstone around their neck. The sea was a dangerous place to venture, fraught with peril. Thus, when Jesus walks on the water, he ‘tames the forces of evil and chaos; he shows his mastery over those demons and forces. So, when he invites his apostles to be fishers of men – he invites them to be the ones who pull people from a place of danger, to rescue them from places of chaos; to bring them to a shore of safety.

That way of looking at being “fishers of men” has captured my prayer this week – to be a person who saves people from the chaos of life, to rescue folks, to bring them to a place where they might come to know safety, to help them escape the nets of a sometimes crazy world, – and ultimately to meet the same Jesus that I have met – Ahh! that kind of fishing I can get hooked on. (pun intended)

So, I have looked for opportunities this week to make that happen. Though none of the moments would make it to the front page of the news, there are those moments when you are able to invite people to come and stand on safer ground.
• While at dinner with a friend, they voiced concern about a destructive relationship one of their friends was involved in. So we spent some time brainstorming about how to voice those concerns in a loving but challenging way.
• At Dave and Ann’s house, who continues his battle with ALS last Sunday night, it is obvious that the disease is winning. Though we all continue to pray for a miracle which has yet to be granted, what I could affirm was the wonderful group of friends they have who gather each Sunday night to pray the rosary with them. Their faithful witness is a wonderful way that they know God is still with them in the battle.
• Though they have postponed the planned execution of a death row inmate slated for this Wed., Missouri put 10 people to death last year. And is probably on that same pace for this year. It is a flawed system of justice. So I spent time this week writing my governor and elected officials inviting them to stop the practice.
• I had a two minute conversation with a student who now has to change majors – not because I could change the outcome at the University level, but because they needed to know they were still loved and worthwhile, no matter where their education brought them to…

Fishing for people: finding a way to rescue people from the dangers – great and small – that their lives are in, and gently call them to life. It is what Jesus invited his disciples to do. It is what he invites us to do.

Whether you like fishing or not, I believe we all know people who are in peril on the seas of their lives. How is God inviting you to be a fisher of His people this week?

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come and seeIt is known as the St. Louis question – and there are two variations on it. The first – What high school did you go to? The second – What parish do you belong to? Both of them reveal a lot about who we are and what makes us tick. “Prep South High School” and “Our Lady of Providence parish” are my answers. The first tells you that I was in the seminary from early on. The second tells you that I grew up in white, lower middle class suburbia. But if you are like me, you get tired of those questions, don’t you? Because both of them lead to rather predictable conversations – about different pastors and priests or different high school sporting events or players or competitions. And, I confess, I long for a bit more. When someone asks you: “What High School did you go to?” how do you answer them? Because you have a choice about how you answer that, and where the conversation goes from that point on.

In today’s gospel, we hear the 1st century variation of that question: “Rabbi, where are you staying?” But, notice, the response of Jesus is not the usual street address/parish/high school kind of answer. “Come and you will see!” As if to say: “You can’t answer that question with words – only with actions, only with what really reveals the heart and soul – the things that I do.

Notice what happens next. The two disciples stay with Jesus the rest of that day, from 4:00 on. What they see as they watch Jesus interact with his family, with his friends, for the rest of that day is enough for Andrew. There is something about this Jesus, something about how he lived that ordinary day at home that changes everything for Andrew. He tracks down his brother and says: “This is it. I’ve found the one. And now I know “WHERE” I will STAY for the rest of my days – following this one, letting his dream become my dream, letting his passion become my passion. Where am I staying? Peter, I will spend the rest of my days staying with this one called the messiah. That’s where I will stay, that’s where I will live.”

“Where are you staying?” It is one of the more important questions that the disciples ask Jesus. But I believe it to be one of the important questions that the gospels ask of us. Where are you staying? Where do you live? For the disciples discovered, there are no guarantees in that reply of Jesus. “Come and you will see” – took them to work among the poorest of the poor. “Come and you will see” – invited them to journey to the Cross at Calvary and their own crosses, scattered throughout Christendom. “Come and you will see” – may take you and me to the inner city of St. Louis or the streets of Ferguson, or to serve your local municipality as a councilwoman or man. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, it may bid you to combat racism in all its forms, to march in political rallies, to get involved in the shaping our laws and policies. To all the places where Jesus lives, where Jesus stays, we are invited to stay. “Where are you staying?” Close to the master. Close to the places where He spent His energy. Close to his love.

That process – of ‘staying with’ the person you have been introduced, is so important, isn’t it? It is what Eli had to teach Samuel to do with his middle of the night wake up calls. “Don’t come running to me. Stay in that moment, in that encounter and LISTEN. Then you will come to know the truth that God wants and needs you to know.”

This week, I invite that gospel question of the disciples to be the question of your prayer – “Where are you staying?” “What are the things that you are passionate about, the places where you are ALIVE and not just surviving?” That, I believe, is the biggest challenge of the four signs of a Dynamic Catholic – to realize that God is calling ME/YOU, actively, like he called Samuel, Andrew, and Simon Peter, to come and see. May we have the grace to respond as they did: “Speak Lord, your servant is listening!”

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Christian Christmas Nativity SceneOne of my priests friends had the un-enviable job of overseeing issues around priests and personnel and conflicts among the brothers. At one point, during a particularly stressful time, he said a simple line that, unfortunately, has stayed with me: “This job kills all curiosity…!” In context, I completely understand what he was saying. He had to hear all about the poor decisions that my brother priests were sometimes want to make. And the petty squabbles. And the turf battles. And the violations of canon law. It fell to his desk to deal with the sinful side of the priesthood. In that context, “this job kills all curiosity” makes complete sense. But it is deadly, I think, for the spiritual life.

I was reminded of that at the wedding of my former campus minister these past two days – first the rehearsal, the brunch, and then the wedding and reception. There was a relative of the bride who had three small kids under the age of 6. They were close knit. Exploring everything. The crib scene; the three wise men; the camels; the Christmas tree. At the brunch – every nook and cranny of a small room; the wood pile; the groom’s cake; the buffet line – it all was examined. And then again at Maggiano’s – a Christmas tree, poinsettias, room décor – none of it escaped their gaze, none of it was outside the realm of exploration and wonder.

WONDER is what starts the journey of the Magi, isn’t? Whether 2000 years ago or now, when we believe that something NEW is happening, about to happen; when we are hopeful of the inbreaking of God into our world – filled with expectation – how can we not explore? (fav. book this past year – Bill Bryson’s “A short history of almost everything” which gives a crash course in the nature of space, time, geology, archeology, physics, etc. I find this world of ours sooo fascinating.)

There are two prerequisite of wonder, two traits that make wonder possible. The first is to believe that God is NOT DONE with me/us/this world of ours… It is the absolute trust on our parts that every moment holds a potential epiphany – a revelation of the faithfulness of God to us.

The second, I was taught again by those three girls. You have to be willing to be led by your curiosity, to explore where it takes you, to follow where it leads. Without that willing to go where curiosity leads, you’ll never be able to push through the tough times, and what sometimes appears to be ugly to find the presence of God.

Wise men still seek him… do we? This Epiphany, perhaps that is the only question worth looking at. Are you making the wise man’s journey? To that end, where are you at in those two poles:

Are you in the “This job kills all curiosity mode?” shut off, closed off, just coasting through life till its end?

Or…

Can you watch small kids play and be amazed and RECAPTURE that wonder that ALWAYS sets wise men and women on the journey?

(sing)

Star of Wonder, Star of light…
guide us to thy perfect light.

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blessingsA few weeks ago, I got a new cPap machine. It is about the third of the size of my first one. And it is very light weight. and it comes with it’s own carrying case, easy to tote through airports. SOOO, for the first time in 12 years, I am actually going to be able to travel for a week’s vacation using ONLY a carry on –because my former one filled pretty much my entire carry on, with only room for one change of clothes! Doesn’t seem like much, BUT, I find myself now having to actually plan what I am carrying on with me for this trip. Before – not an issue, because there was ALWAYS room…

New years can kind of be like that, can’t they? We pause, don’t we, and look back and look forward. Many make resolutions that last (or don’t…) that are helpful to them moving forward. But I wonder if it might be profitable to look at “WHAT” we might be taking with us in our “life Carry On” from last year to this year. The events and memories of a year shape us and form us. But some of those events, we don’t need to pack with us, as they only take up space. Others are pretty important to make sure they are in our life. So three quick thoughts about what to pack/not pack in 2015. Perhaps they will spur your own prayer and reflection.

I suspect that we will need to pack SOMETHING from our experience of Ferguson into our lives this year. The temptation will be to want to pack ‘Back To Normal’ into our lives. And in terms of the day to day running of things – that would not be a bad thing. But what else? The TSA rules tell us you can take no water in your carryon. I wonder if we could symbolically pack ‘an empty water bottle to symbolize our thirst for justice. To symbolize the need for many to experience a system that is not a part of the problem, but a part of the answer. Pack a thirst for righteousness and justice for 2015…

It is easy to take unforgiveness in the suitcase of our lives. “They started it.” “Why should I let them off the hook for all the pain they cause me?” “If I forgive them, they’ll just do it again.” It is easy to find a hundred reasons NOT to forgive, to keep carrying the hurt without. 2015 would be a better year if we chose not to carry the wounds of 2014 with us. Whatever it was, leave it behind…

The third item to make sure we pack into our carry on/with luggage for this year, comes from our Scriptures today: they speak of blessing: the blessings we can be in one another’s life, and the blessings that God showers down upon us. I believe they highlight the two moments of blessing that are critical for us.

The infancy narratives around the birth of Jesus capture many beautiful verbal blessings; the announcement to Mary from the angel; Mary’s magnificat; the good news being shared by the shepherds; the angels singing “Glory to God…” And it says that “Mary kept all these things and treasured them in her heart. Perhaps that is the first work of blessing – we have to ponder our own moments and gifts and signs of favor, to carry them with us, to make sure we have time to treasure them because life is hard and busy and comes by and goes past way too quickly unless we do.

And once we ‘realize’, once we have that sense of God smiling down upon us, then it becomes easier, doesn’t it, to affirm others with our words, to be that blessing in their lives by our actions. I wonder if this year, we can recommit ourselves packing kindness coming from our lips into our carry on’s. It’s too easy for the hurtful words to come. But if we are intentional, God can use our words to heal, and build up, to be blessings for others.

So, concretely, I ask you to pull your cell phones out of your pockets and purses. We use these for texts and tweets and emails and facebooks and sometimes even for talking! I invite you to place your hand on phone…If you don’t have one, or don’t have it with you, hold it in your mind for a moment:

Oh, God, you have given us the amazing gift of speech. We can speak great love and compassion, kindness and healing. And also, great harm and hate
Our phones are one way we can communicate with even more people. Dear God, we set these aside for kindness. May hatred never flow through these, only encouragement … only goodness. We pray this blessing on our phones through Christ our Lord.

We carry a lot of things with us on the journey of life. As we sit at the dawn of a New Year, may God bless our words that we might speak blessing; that we might be blessing for this world …

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golferFor those who do not golf, there is a fine line in one of the basic mechanics of the golf swing (and probably the baseball swing as well, but I don’t play baseball) that will effect everything. It has to do with how tightly or loosely you grip the club. Too loose, and the club flies out of your hand. Too tight, and you lose both distance and accuracy as the plane of the swing is now controlled by the small muscles in your hands and not the big muscles of your hips and legs and back. Somewhere in between too tight and too loose is the ‘just right’ zone where you maximize club head speed and ball striking accuracy.

I suspect each parent with now grown children recognizes that same fine line they tried to walk in the rearing of their children. Hold on to them too loosely and they spin out of control – without boundaries or guidelines to tether them to both responsibility and possibility. Hold them too tightly, and they never learn the freedom to make mistakes and fail and fall and be hurt, and yet know it is within their power to pick themselves up and start anew.

The little we know of Jesus’ childhood come to us from Luke’s gospel – and even then, we only see two snapshots – today’s gospel and the gospel of the presentation in the temple when he was 12. What do they teach us about how the Holy Family navigated those waters?

From the first of these two stories we learn that the Holy Family did not hold Jesus too loosely. Thoughtful parents also tend to the spiritual and emotional needs of their children, with equal discipline and commitment as they care for the physical needs. We see Mary and Joseph named Jesus in accordance to the message of the angel. Before he could talk or walk, they brought him to the Temple. They brought him there because they knew to thank God for him, and to ask God for help raising him to adulthood. They knew one of their responsibilities and great joys was to raise children in the faith.

I had a conversation at a wedding reception last night with a couple who are realizing that it is time for them to come to a decision about church attendance, precisely because of their children. Unlike some parents who leave that decision to their kids, under the guise of ‘allowing them to make up their own mind”, they recognize it is part of the ‘not too loose’ grasp they need to have for their children. Just as they don’t leave choices on nutrition and bed times and playing in the middle of the street to the kids, they know that a solid witness in their own lives to matters of faith is crucial.

templeFrom the story of Jesus being left behind at the Temple at age 12, we learn that the Holy Family also did not hold him too tightly. We know the story. In their customary yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, (again, witness to not holding too loosely) Jesus is inadvertently left behind, because they trust him to be among the relatives and friends who were with them on the journey. Frantic hours are spent trying to find him. And, suddenly, like the mother of Kevin McCallister in the second Home Alone movie, they realize exactly where to look for him – in the temple. There they found him, confounding the religious teachers with his uncanny grasp of mature and complex religious matters. What a testament he was to the spiritual foundation that Mary and Joseph laid for him, but also what a testament to the unique relationship he had with his Heavenly Father.

Mary and Joseph did not hover over his every moment. They did not keep Jesus tied to their hip, always in their sight. They gradually gave him space to grow up, to mature, to ask questions, to spread his wings. This is not an easy gift for parents to give their children. We are frightened by the violence and suffering in the world, from which we rightly want to protect our children. But we harm them also when we try to bulldoze down every challenge in their path, and hover over them so closely that they fail to learn to stand and fall and get back up again.

I realize that many here are past the ‘active child rearing years’, at least as parents, and perhaps even as grandparents. Yet these two rules – not too tightly – not too loosely – also apply to all the relationships of we are a part. Do I give my spouse, my friend, my fiancé, my grown son, my aging parent that same set of both roots and wings critical to their growth even now? Take a lesson from the Holy Family these days or from the golf course. Either way, the message is the same – not too loose, not too tight… (take an imaginary golf swing…)

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