Friday, March 9, 2018

Talking to God ...

All prayer begins with the invitation of God, who invites us to know him in a personal manner. The triune mystery, the energizing presence in all things, is always reaching out to us through the indwelling Spirit.

We think that prayer is our effort to reach out to God. What appears to be our initiative is actually our response to God’s Spirit prompting us to pray. Often we go about the day unaware of God’s gracious presence calling us to new life. When we pray, we wake up to God’s call and loving embrace. This is why St. Paul advises us to, “Pray without ceasing.”

The best way to speak to God in prayer is as one friend to another.  We can thank God for food, our house, our teachers; asking God to bring our family members safely home from work and school, or saying sorry when we hurt each other. These are prayers of thanks, petition, and forgiveness.

Christian tradition teaches that God speaks to us in many ways, especially through Jesus Christ, but many struggle to hear God speak at all. The psalmist warns, “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.” The key word in that sentence is "if." The psalmist thinks the problem is hard hearts, which is no doubt correct, but we also have a hearing problem. Living in a fast-paced, noisy world, we struggle to hear the voice of God. Many Christians do not know how to listen for God’s voice because they do not understand how God speaks. Many conclude, therefore, that God does not talk to us. If we do not expect God to speak to us, we will not listen for God’s voice.  We harden our hearts and close our minds.

How does God speak to us?

One way is through remorse. Sometimes we act against the work and mission of Christ and engage in destructive behavior. When these situations arise, the Holy Spirit works to change our behavior by filling us with remorse. Many Christians assume they only experience God in moments of peace and joy, but Saint Ignatius of Loyola reminds us that God speaks to us in other ways, particularly in experiences of remorse. This is an act of love on God’s part because God desires to free us from our distorted attitudes and actions. God speaks to us through feelings of regret and sorrow over how we act at times.

The Lord also speaks to us in confession. Through the priest’s words, we experience the Lord’s mercy and compassion. After admitting what we have done and agreeing to do our penance. We often feel light, happy and filled with energy. According to St. Ignatius, God encourages the person who seeks reconciliation by restoring the relationship and by filling them with energy, courage, clarity, and inspirations. God also gives spiritual consolation. What is that? The most common form is feelings of quiet and peace and experiences of interior joy that attract us to live like Christ. When we are feeling free from guilt, we have a sense of God filling us with joy. That is an experience of “spiritual consolation,” a result of our cooperation with the Lord.

St. Ignatius believed that all the good we receive in our lives comes from God, like light streaming toward us from the sun. We always need to ask ourselves: “What good things was I given today?”  Most of us would answer family, friends, our home, and food. Do we know what God is saying to us when he gives us such good things? He is telling us how much he loves us and cares for us.

Why doesn’t God speak to me as he spoke to the prophets or the disciples of Jesus?

This is a common question for many Christians, adults as well as children. Our experiences, interpreted in the light of these Ignatian principles, reminds us that the Lord Jesus is always speaking to us through our relationships and choices, through our feelings, desires, imagination, and thoughts. He speaks through creation, through the gift of our lives, through other people and through our own abilities, opportunities, and struggles. The Lord desires to be in a relationship with us, to free and transform us into his image. Our task is to listen and respond.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Transfiguration

It’s been a tough year in America. First came the hurricanes that devastated so many people.  Then the wildfires which ravaged the houses of hundreds of our neighbors here in California.  And now another awful mass shooting at a school. A year like this prompts so many of us to ask … "Why?"

Why does God allow tragedy and suffering?

And the truth is there’s a mystery to tragedies like these. We don’t know the answer. And we may never know until God explains all things to us. To these big tragic events, we can all add the everyday pain and suffering we experience in our individual lives. There’s illness, abuse, broken relationships, injuries, heartache, crime and the loss of someone dear to us.  And we ask –  Why? Why? Why?

At least Jesus was honest with us about the inevitability of suffering. In the Gospel of John, he said, "You will have to suffer in this world." He didn't say – you might – he said it is going to happen. But why?

If you ask me, “Why did God allow the gunman to spray a high school in Florida with gunfire just a few days ago?” the only answer I can honestly give consists of four words: "I do not know."  None of us have God's mind we don't share his perspective.

Saint Paul once said: "Now we see things imperfectly like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity." Someday we'll see clearly, but for now, things are foggy. We can't understand everything from our limited perspective.                                               

The people suffering from the Florida tragedy don't need a big theological treatise right now, any intellectual response is going to seem trite and inadequate. What they desperately need now is the very real and comforting presence of Jesus Christ in their lives. They need a shoulder to cry on from someone who cares. They need friends to journey with them through the pain.  And we know and can be grateful, that so many churches and ministries of that community are helping them experience that.

It is still important to grapple with the question of why God allows suffering in our lives. I had a very good friend who taught me a lot about suffering. His name was Liam Hearne. Liam was born with cystic fibrosis he had been in and out of hospitals his whole life and yet he told me one day he thought God is fair. I looked at him in amazement and said, “Liam you think that God is fair after all you have been through, and he said, "Yes … and God has all eternity to make it up to me."

There was the transfigured Christ standing right in front of me - Liam Hearn.

We've all seen examples of how the same suffering that causes one person to turn bitter to reject God to become hard and angry and sullen can cause another person to turn to God to become more gentle and more loving and more tender willing to reach out to compassionately help other people who are in pain.

That was Liam! He was always ready to reach out to comfort others.

The God we worship isn't some distant, detached, and disinterested deity. He entered our world and personally experienced our pain. But he also came into our world to show us the glory of God too. That’s what the Gospel story teaches us today. Yes, suffering exists, and Christ who shared in our humanity shared in our suffering so that we could share in his divinity. And that day on the mountain he showed Peter, James, and John - and us - His divinity is something truly spectacular.

John Henry Newman a 19th-century convert who became a cardinal told us what this moment truly means. He said: “It is the duty and the privilege of all disciples of our glorified Savior, to be exalted and transfigured with Him; to live in heaven in their thoughts, motives, aims, desires, likings, prayers, praises, intercessions, even while they are in the flesh; to look like other men, to be busy like other men, to be passed over in the crowd of men, or even to be scorned or oppressed, as other men may be, but all the while to have a secret channel of communication with the Most High, a gift the world knows not of; to have their life hid with Christ in God.”

That is our call to be transformed too.

To shine the light of Christ – the glory of God – to those all around us

To like Liam be a beacon of light even in a broken world.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

“Where is the life we have lost in living;
where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge;
where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”— T.S. Eliot

Monday, January 29, 2018

Faith–religion–is all about mystery.  I am not talking about that which is unknowable, but that which is entirely knowable. God will always be mystery and God will still be knowable. So how do we engage the mystery that is God? 
It’s in becoming aware of our powerlessness that we gain faith in something greater than ourselves.  If we believe we are powerful and have all the knowledge we need about life and its meaning, then we have no need of a higher power.

The spiritual journey, the journey to knowing God, is a journey into the mystery of our own powerlessness. Life is the best teacher.  Life is full of disappointment, betrayal, abandonment, failure, and rejection, and that is the stuff of religious education. It’s the losses, disappointments, and failures that are our best teachers. When we embrace our brokenness, we can begin to embrace the one who loves us just as we are.  We need to let go of the lies the world offers and open our hearts to what’s real, then we can begin to discover the knowable God. 

We often muse about why so many people in church have white hair.  It’s because they have traveled this journey of life’s disappointments and have come to know the knowable God who loves them unconditionally. They have come to realize the emptiness of selfishness and greed. Real spiritual growth comes when we let go of our addiction to self.

How do we know when we have found God? When we begin to focus on the other. When there is an increased capacity for compassion, forgiveness, and love.  When we begin to turn away from the all-demanding self and turn our eyes and hearts out to the other, then we are starting to discover the knowable God. 

Jesus said that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. He also said if we spend our life trying to find our life, we’ll lose it; on the other hand, if we spend our life letting go of our life, we’ll find it. 

Our culture is made to order for this spiritual journey. We love to define our self almost entirely by external achievements, by external appearance, by skin color, by the car we drive, where we live, and so forth. Which of course is all illusion; or as Jesus said about the rich man who built more barns - foolishness. There’s something more in life than accumulating money and possessions. There's something more in life than worrying about what others think of us. Eventually, we all figure that out whether we find God or not. 

So how do we know God? We find Him when we’ve let go of all of the obscurities that blind us to Him. When we transcend the illusions of the world, we begin to know the very knowable God.  As Christians, we are so fortunate because we follow a God in Jesus who modeled it for us.  We follow a God who loves us so dearly, he became one of us to show The Way. 

Friday, January 26, 2018

REPENT - We don't like that word very much. Homily 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Gospel of Mark 1:14-20

In the Gospel reading, Mark gives us the first record we have of Jesus preaching. His first sermon was short and powerful: 

“The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel."

One word – leaps out of that message. A word we Christians aren’t too fond of - REPENT.  
It sounds so negative when we hear the word – repent. It often causes us to call to mind those things that make us feel guilty. So, if you are like me, you pretty much avoid the word. But the truth is to “repent” in the language of the gospels - Greek - it means something a bit different.  The Greek word is metanoia. Repentance – or metanoia – is not merely a moral call to stop sinning. Rather, it refers to what we might call “conversion,” changing one’s mind, heart and life toward God. Shifting the focus of our lives. The kingdom that Jesus preached is about transformation. To repent is to transform yourself. Jesus is asking us to make a turn in our life. Not so much to turn from something, but to turn to something.

To repent is to turn inside, to look within ourselves and ask – What am I doing here? Is this the way God wants me to live? The answer may be … “YES” … but you won’t know unless you look within. To repent is to turn to Christ and accept the Gospel – the Good News – he brought to the world. And let it change our lives for the better.

One of the most significant saints in our church's history is an excellent example of this.Saint Augustine’s life as a young man was characterized by loose living and a search for the answers to life's fundamental questions. He would follow various philosophers, only to become disillusioned with their teachings.  He had success and lovers. He should have been happy, but he wasn’t.  He went one day to hear the preaching of the local bishop Ambrose.  He went only to hear Ambrose's eloquent style of speaking for he was a famous orator. But what he heard that day led him to a new understanding of the Christian Faith. He had this metanoia, this change of heart, Jesus called for in his first sermon. Augustine said it felt as if his heart was flooded with light. He turned entirely from his life of sin to a life that embraced the Gospel – the Good News. He was Baptized by Ambrose the following Easter. Later, reflecting on this experience, Augustine wrote about this turn to Christ. He said in a prayer to Christ. “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Augustine went on to become a powerful influence on the spirituality and the theology of the Christian Church. He became one of the Church’s greatest theologians – a Doctor of the Church.

How do you turn toward Christ as he did? Not just a “book learning” of Jesus but let him get inside of you; to have an experience like Augustine and feel as if your heart is flooded with light. To repent means to turn toward Jesus and open your heart and mind to his message. The first thing is you must get to know him. Augustine met Jesus in a sermon at church and then learned more as he prepared for his baptism. You can hear Christ speak to you at church, in the words of the Bible, and he can speak to you in your life. Listen for his invitation to metanoia – a change of heart. But be prepared to let him shake you up and to love you and stir something up you never felt before. This transformation – this metanoia – comes with an invitation

We hear today the story of the first four people who turned their lives to Christ and left their old lives behind to follow him. Jesus' first disciples, Andrew, Peter, James, and John respond to God's call by abandoning their old life. They got out of their fishing boats and let Jesus lead them. God seems to choose the most unlikely people to believe in the Gospel and to proclaim the good news. Those four simple fishermen knew a lot about bait and nets but little about preaching and building a church.                             
Today he still does the same thing. He calls an elementary school teacher, a stockbroker, a waiter, a lawyer, a nurse, a firefighter, and even retirees. And he wants us all to be fishers of men. He wants us to be changed by the Gospel – the Good News – to repent and to experience metanoia, to turn toward him.  No matter who we are.

And then he sends us out into the sea of humanity to go deep-soul fishing, because the Church's primary business, and so each Christian's primary business, is the fishing business. 

Your neighborhood is a lake full of fish. 
Your office is a lake full of fish.                  
Your school is a lake full of fish.
Your family is a lake full of fish.                                                                             

When Jesus said, "I will make you fishers of men,” He was saying,                                
“I will take you … 
with your personality
your background
your testimony
your influence
and I will use you to catch men and women, and boys and girls, and bring them into my family.” When we offer Christ our skills, he will use us. When we accept his invitation, we find the fulfillment of our life’s work. St. Augustine said it well in his prayer at his moment of metanoia, at the moment of his invitation:

“You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”   

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Sunday Homily - The Annunciation

Today’s Gospel reading describes the moment when the Angel Gabriel announces to the young virgin Mary that she has been chosen to be the mother of God.

Artists have painted this scene from Luke’s Gospel hundreds of times. We’ve all seen these images of what we call the Annunciation on the covers of Christmas cards. These images usually depict Mary and the Angel dressed in beautiful clothes.  Gabriel’s wings are flared and magnificent – Mary is dressed in a beautiful blue robe and looks lovely. Images like this have always felt a bit unreal, too pretty, too perfect.

My favorite image of this moment hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It is a painting by an American artist named Henry Tanner. In Tanner’s painting, Gabriel does not appear as an angel with wings but as a beam of light that filled Mary’s bedroom with its glow.  Mary in his painting is sitting on a bed a bit disheveled like she just woke up. The bright light of the angel is right in front of her. Tanner’s painting is like a candid snap-shot of this moment. He captures Mary’s humanity her normalness. He allows the viewer to relate to her as an average person, like us in every way. The scene appears to be right after the angel has said these words and Mary looks thoughtful and reflective, even a bit scared and bewildered. She has a look on her face that says, "How can this be?" What is so engaging about Tanner’s painting is that he allows us to think for a moment about what that real-life situation was for this humble young woman.

This story is about God suddenly breaking into the life of a peasant girl and God making an incredible request of her. It’s easy to imagine that Mary’s heart was pounding as this unexpected heavenly visitor suddenly appears in her room and tells her that God wants her to be a pregnant unwed mother.

Have you ever thought of what might have gone through Mary’s mind at that moment?  We just assume she eagerly said, “may it be done to me.” But perhaps at that moment, Mary thought of all the consequences of her decision, before she responded.

  • Did she think about what it was going to be like to tell her family that she was pregnant before being married? 
  • Did she wonder if they would believe her when she told them that she hadn't been intimate with a man? That would be pretty hard for any parent to believe.         
  • Did Mary wonder how her fiancĂ© Joseph would react? We know from Matthew’s Gospel, that at first, Joseph didn’t believe her; that he was going to divorce her quietly.
  • Did she think about the wagging tongues spreading rumors about her and Jesus in the future? Would they talk about the impropriety of Mary’s pregnancy? 
  • And did it pop into her mind, even for a second, that the penalty according to the Mosaic Law for being unmarried and pregnant was death by stoning?

In truth, we don’t know what that moment was like for Mary. But in many ways thinking that she did consider the consequences of her decision gives her “YES” even more impact. Here this teenage girl listened to this incomprehensible request and bravely said “YES” even if it cost her her life. And this simple girl’s “Yes” changed the world forever. In that moment Mary is a model for us. All of us like Mary face moments when life takes a turn; we never expected when God’s plan for us seems a total surprise. In her amazing bravery, Mary inspires us to have faith in God’s plan.

It’s important for us to appreciate the courage of Mary in that moment. Denise Levertov wrote a poem about this moment called “Annunciation.” And the words of the poet are words that can inspire us to say “Yes” when we are called to handle something challenging when we are called to be brave in our faith. Her poem goes like this:

She did not cry, “I cannot, I am unworthy,” 
Nor, “I have not the strength.”
She did not submit
with gritted teeth, raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

Mary consented to God’s request to a wholly unexpected and radical change in her life. She agreed because she knew God. She said “YES” because she was a good Jew and a prayerful person she knew her God was a merciful God a God who would look after her.

Mary is a great role model for each of us. Mary said yes to God and welcomed Jesus in a special way into her life and allowed God – allowed Jesus – to come into the world. And like her God asks us to welcome Him into our life.

God is asking each of us, in our own way, to accept Jesus into our lives and to bring Jesus into - our – world; to bring the saving power of Jesus to those in our world.

And God waits for our answer. Will we say – “YES” – this Year?

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Finding out Santa isn't real can be tough.

Santa Claus is a wonderful myth we all grew up loving.  The Dutch who founded New York City brought with them their love of Holand’s patron Saint - St. Nicholas. The Dutch were the first to depict him with a full white beard, who wore a magic cloak and dispensed gifts to children. Children placed their shoes and hay (to feed the horse) near the fireplace. Santa Claus would replace the hay with nuts and candy in the children’s shoes. Santa, as we know him, is very much a product of American creativity.

The image and stories we grew up loving have only been around since the 19th century. Any number of people are responsible for “inventing” the Santa Claus we know today. Clement C. Moore wrote the poem – A Visit from St. Nicholas in 1822. Political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew the first depiction of Santa Claus as we envision him in Harper’s Weekly in 1866 (shown on the left). You could even credit the marketers of Coca-Cola who popularized the image we hold so dear. But it seems most of the credit for the Santa myth we grew up with goes to author Washington Irving who wrote such classics as "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Washington Irving published "Knickerbocker's History of New York" in 1823. In this parody of colonial America, Irving took much glee in satirizing the early Dutch settlers of New York and their traditions, including their patron saint, Nicholas, whom they referred to as Sancte Claus. But in doing so, he also created our wonderful Christmas tradition.

Another Christmas event many of us have experienced is the sadness of a child when they discover that Santa is just a story – a myth. Many of us remember the discomfort when our children found out it was all a bit of a lie. The reason for this post is to suggest what to do when this occurs.  Rather than tiptoe through that awkward moment, I suggest we immediately tell each child the story of the real Saint Nick.

The real story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in a village on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Nicholas was such a good boy that he desired to obey Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

The gift giving associated with St. Nick stemmed mostly from a story when he was very young.  In his town, there was a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands something of value—a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man's daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window by Nicholas, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. So our wonderful tradition of gift giving at Christmas comes from remembering the kindness of St. Nicholas the generous gift-giver.