Thursday, July 24, 2014

Better Angels

Choosing sides in the spiritual battle

John 20:1-2, 11-13

On the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.” Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping. And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb and saw two angels in white sitting there, one at the head and one at the feet where the Body of Jesus had been. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him.”

            Behind every physical battle there always rages a spiritual one; wars are fought not only with clubs and canons but also with prayer and penance.  Wise people always see this and point it out.  Do you remember how Abraham Lincoln concluded his first Inaugural Address?  The country teetered on the verge of civil war, and he said: “We are not enemies but friends.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”  Then Lincoln waxes poetically: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and heartstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”  Did you catch that?  This civil war is not only about North versus South, or blue versus gray, but also about those evil angels versus our better angels.  Lincoln asked all Americans to be aware of that bigger battle and chose the side of our better angels.  Sometimes, people jokingly say, “The devil made me do it!” in order to exonerate themselves of guilt.  But they unknowingly stumble upon a sacred truth: the spiritual battle always afoot.

            Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, who was aware of this spiritual battle better than most.  Jesus had cast 7 demons out of her and she had become a faithful disciple.  In the gospel she sees two angels, and they tell her about Jesus’ resurrection.  You see, she had learned to listen to better angels, instead of listening to demons.  In other words, Mary realized that Jesus’ mission was about more than overthrowing the Roman Empire, and about more than arguing with the scribes and Pharisees, and even about more than feeding the poor and healing the sick.  Jesus had come to give us true freedom, freedom from spiritual slavery, to teach us how to listen to our better angels.  There is always a spiritual battle behind every physical one.

            Try to be more attentive to this spiritual warfare inside you and in everyone else.  When you face some temptation, can’t you almost hear voices telling you to do one thing or the other?  Should I eat one donut or 5 donuts!?  Should I go to morning Mass or sleep in!? Should I exercise or watch another episode of The Simpsons?!  Listen to your better angels.  The war that’s blazing in the Gaza Strip involves more than political and even ethnic elements, but also a spiritual one.  That’s why Pope Francis is telling us to pray, so that everyone might listen to their better angels.  I read a great book by Dr. Gerald May called “Addiction and Grace.”  He argues that all addiction – whether to coffee or alcohol, to gambling or video games, to pornography or pot – is also a spiritual reality.  He urged us to listen to our better angels.

            Mary Madgalene is not the only one who needs to have 7 demons expelled out of her.  We all have demons who torment and tempt us.  Sometimes, the devil does make us do it.  Or, we can listen to “the mystic chords that are touched by the better angels of our nature.”

            Praised be Jesus Christ! 

Angry Bird or Sugar Daddy

Correcting our broken image of God
Micah 6:1-4, 6-8

With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow before God most high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriad streams of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my crime, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the LORD requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.

            What is your vision of God?  Even though we cannot see God, each of us has an idea, a mental picture, of who God is.  And how we see God dramatically determines how we live each day.  Some people see God as a strict judge, ready to condemn us for the smallest misstep.  That was Jonathon Edwards’, who in 1741 preached a famous sermon called, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  He literally wanted to “scare the hell out of people” in order to save them.  Others picture God more like a “Daddy Warbucks” or “Sugar Daddy,” who overlooks our faults and, like a doting grandfather, gives us whatever we want.  Even those who don’t believe in God spend a lot of time and money arguing with those who do.  They believe in a “shadow God” who’s not really there, but they still write books and make money off a God who doesn’t exist.  I know, I bought one of Richard Dawkins’ books!  How we see God determines how we live.
             That’s why in the Bible Philip eagerly asked Jesus, “Show us the Father!”  In other words, what does God look like?  Jesus answered him, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”  Jesus is the perfect icon of the Father.  That’s why at Mass we stand when we hear the 4 gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  When Jesus speaks, he reveals not only who he is, but also who the Father is.  And Micah in the first reading today tells us how this Biblical vision of God should make us act.  He says, “Only to do the right, and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”  This is not Jonathon Edwards’ “Angry Bird,” (your know, the video game) and it’s not a “Sugar Daddy,” it is a Father who loves his children but also expects a lot from them.  How we see God determines, to a dramatic degree, how we behave.

            You know, you can also ask this question the other way around: how we behave is a clue to how we see God.  In other words, begin by examining your behavior.  If you find yourself scrupulous and living a fearful and anxious life, it may mean you have a Jonathon Edwards’ vision of God.  If, on the other hand, you live a carefree, reckless and irresponsible life, you may see God as a Sugar Daddy, who never holds you accountable.  If, on the other hand, you’re making tons of money on books about a “shadow God” you’re probably an atheist!  You see, there is no escaping God.  You can ask the question from whichever side you like – begin with God or begin with your behavior – but they are two sides of the same existential coin.  Who you think he is and how you live your life are inextricably bound together.

            Today, pray like Philip did and say to Jesus with all your heart: “Show us the Father!”  And start to correct your own broken image of God.

            Praised be Jesus Christ! 

Pillow Talk

Letting God work while we sleep
 Matthew 13:24-29
 Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field.  While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.  When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well.  The slaves of the householder came to him and said, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?  Where have the weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ His slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them.  Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

             The best advice I received was contained in a little Irish maxim.  It went like this: “Take counsel with your pillow.”  What does that mean?  Looks like what some of you are about to do right now!  Before you make any big decision – like whether you’ll give $10,000 or $20,000 to the capital campaign – or as you mull over something, you should sleep on it, get a good night’s rest, and things become clearer in the morning.  But I believe more than mental clarity happens when we take counsel with our pillow.  Even though we are sleeping, God is wide awake and he whispers to us, touching our minds and hearts with his grace to renew and inspire us.

             Stephen Covey calls this “the Law of the Farm.”  He admits that during college he would goof off and procrastinate and then before the big test he would stay awake all night and cram.  Have you ever done that?  Of course you have; I have too.  But that strategy won’t work on the farm.  He explains: “Can you imagine ‘cramming’ on the farm?  Can you imagine forgetting to plant in the spring, flaking out all summer, and hitting it hard in the fall – ripping the soil up, throwing in the seeds, watering and cultivating all night – and expecting to get a bountiful harvest the next day??”  What a foolish farmer!!  All wise farmers know that a big part of plant growth happens while they wait, while they sleep. Why?  Because God gives the growth.  You see, God’s grace touches plants and people while we are “taking counsel with our pillows.”  You can’t cram holiness into people overnight; God’s grace works gradually.

             In the gospel today, Jesus also gives some advice about farming.  He proposes a parable in which a farmer discovers weeds growing among his wheat.  His servants suggest pulling up the weeds.  But the master replies, “Let them grow together until harvest.”  Now, no farmer does that!  Would you do that in your garden at home?  Of course not!  So, why would Jesus?  Because Jesus is not really talking about weeds but about people.  Weeds do not magically change into wheat, but people do change, scoundrels do sometimes become saints.  Remember what happened to Ebenezer Scrooge in the Charles Dickens’ classic?  What about the ancient story of Beauty and the Beast?  The Beast certainly acted like a weed, whom Gaston wanted to tear out of the ground!  But Belle’s love slowly changed him into a golden stalk of wheat.  You see, God works on us gradually with his grace, and slowly something saintly begins to sprout.

             A friend of mine recently shared this funny story.  He said: “An overweight colleague of mine decided it was time to shed some excess pounds.  He took his new diet seriously, even changing his driving route to avoid his favorite bakery.  One morning, however, he arrived at work carrying a gigantic coffeecake.  We all scolded him, but his smile remained angelic.  “This is a very special coffeecake,” he explained.  “I accidentally drove by the bakery this morning and there in the window was a host of goodies.  I felt this was no accident, so I prayed, ‘Lord, if you want me to have one of these delicious coffeecakes, send me a sign, and let me find a parking place directly in front of the bakery.’  And sure enough,” he continued, “the eighth time around the block, there it was!”  So, you see, patience pays off.
 Folks, if you’re anything like me, you hate waiting.  We live in the culture of instant gratification, we wait for nothing and no one.  If I had been the farmer in the parable I would have shot some steroids into the weeds and wheat and forced them to grow faster!  But that’s not healthy growth, ask any athlete who’s taken performance enhancing drugs.  Instead, take counsel with your pillow.  That is, take your time.  Sleep on it.  Don’t make rushed and rash decisions.  People can change.  God is working on them.  Let me give you some examples.

 Parents despair when their college-aged son comes home and announces he’s an atheist.  Don’t freak out and try to pull up the weeds of his disbelief.  Don’t worry, next year he’ll come home as a communist.  Be patient, God is still working on him.  If you’re a staunch Republican, you may feel like Obama is a hopeless cause.  If you’re a Democrat, you may feel that way about Rush Limbaugh.  You should pray for them that God will speak to them as they sleep; they are still growing and changing.  You may feel this way after a divorce.  You may say about your ex: “He was a weed if there ever was one, but I’ve pulled him out of my life and thrown him out!”  Not so fast: pray for your ex, that God will give him or her the grace to grow and become more like Jesus.  Most of all, be patient with yourself.  Have you ever wanted to give up on yourself, believing you could not overcome a stubborn sin, or reconcile with a family member, or ever go to confession to a priest, or ever love the LSU Tigers?  I know, I know, but that’s why they call it “amazing grace”!  You see, no one is beyond saving, but God’s grace works gradually, not like steroids, while we take counsel with our pillows.

             Do you know that I take counsel with my pillow when I prepare my homilies?  I told a friend once that I write my homily by hand on Friday night, and then I sleep on it.  On Saturday morning, I type it up and make changes to improve it.  My friend replied, “Maybe you should write them on Wednesday and they’d be a lot better!”  I said, “Thanks a lot.”  He was right.  You see, God gives the growth while I sleep, while I take counsel with my pillow.  Be patient and let God’s grace do the same for you, and for those you love, and for those you should love a little more.  It is not the harvest yet.

             Praised be Jesus Christ!   

Armchair Preachers

Living the message we preach
 Matthew 12:14-21

The Pharisees went out and took counsel against Jesus to put him to death. When Jesus realized this, he withdrew from that place. Many people followed him, and he cured them all, but he warned them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through Isaiah the prophet: Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved in whom I delight; I shall place my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not contend or cry out, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope.

            You know, it’s very easy to preach on Pope Francis.  So I will!  One of the compelling things about Pope Francis is that his actions speak even louder than his words.  From day one, his message has been, “love the poor and vulnerable.”  When he first stepped foot inside the spacious papal apartments, he exclaimed, “300 people could live here!”  So, instead of living there himself, he resides in two rooms at the much simpler Domus Santa Marta.  The pope also decided to drive himself around Rome in a 29 year old Renault hatchback with 186,000 miles on it, instead of being chauffeured in the usual papal Mercedes ML.  Only Virginia Ricketts has an older car!  The pope is speaking to us, not only in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, but also with body language, his actions.  And his message is loud and clear, compelling and convicting: show solidarity with the poor and vulnerable.

            In the gospel today we see Jesus also speaks with words and deeds, and his message is the same as Pope Francis’.  Matthew says, quoting Isaiah: “A bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not quench.”  What a tender image of the Messiah!  He’s sensitive to the smallest needs of the most vulnerable person.  You’ll remember Jesus chose humble transportation too – a donkey for his triumphal entry into Jerusalem – which gets about the same gas mileage as a Renault.  You see, when actions underscore words, when the messenger and the message are that intimately united, people finally hear the Good News.

            I think the pope is telling us more than how to preach solidarity with the poor; he’s telling us how to preach, period!  He’s gently reminding us that we've lost credibility as preachers because we preach love and humility and service, but our actions preach a different message.  Nothing turns people off faster than hypocrisy.  You've heard of “armchair quarterbacks,” who just complain about how the real quarterbacks play but never get in the game themselves?  Well, nothing is worse than an “armchair preacher” whose message is a million miles away from his actions.  We don’t all have to trade in our cars for 29 year old Renault’s, but we do have to do a reality check: what message does my body language preach?  It is not enough to speak English and Spanish fluently.  Do we live a life witnessing personally to solidarity with the poor and vulnerable?  If we ever did, I dare say the whole world might just become Catholic.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Glory Days

Seeing God’s glory shine in our history

Isaiah 7: 7-9

Thus says the LORD: “This shall not stand, it shall not be! Damascus is the capital of Aram, and Rezin is the head of Damascus; Samaria is the capital of Ephraim, and Remaliah’s son the head of Samaria. But within sixty years and five, Ephraim shall be crushed, no longer a nation. Unless your faith is firm you shall not be firm!”

            If you could live in any era of the 2,000 year history of the Church, which period would you pick?  A priest friend and I were having this conversation, and I said, “That’s easy, I’d pick the glory days of the Church!  I’d love to have been a fly on the wall of history in the 1,200s while St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure was battling over timeless theological questions, or in the 400s while St. Patrick was driving snakes out of Ireland, or even in the 1940s while St. Ann Convent was full of nuns and we had a Catholic high school on our campus!”  Do you know what my friend said?  He loves the 1,400s.  I answered, “What?  That was the worst time of the Church’s history.  The hierarchy was corrupt, popes had their own children made bishops and archbishops, the clergy was lazy and the people were like sheep without a shepherd.”  He answered, “That’s right.  But think about it this way: If the Church could survive such depravity and decay, that’s proof-positive she was established by Christ.  Otherwise, Christianity would have collapsed.”  In other words, when we are at our worst, that’s when God’s love is at its best.  Those are our real glory days.

            If a Jewish person were to peruse the pages of the Old Testament, what period would he or she pick as their favorite?  In the first reading today, Isaiah might have selected the nadir, the low point, of all Jewish history, the time of the Babylonian Captivity.  He prophesies, “Unless your faith is firm, you shall not be firm!”  That is, no matter how bad things get, God is still with you, have faith.  Even though through your sins you lose your land and your loved ones and your legacy, God will not leave you.  When you are at your worst, God will be at his best.  Those are your real glory days.

            If you were to look back on your own life, is there a time you would like to re-live?  Maybe high school or college, maybe when you landed a huge sales client, maybe the birth of your first child, or holding your grandchildren?  Those are truly glorious and grace-filled moments. But don’t overlook when you were down-and-out; when through your sins you felt like you had lost your land and loved ones and legacy.  There, too, is glory and grace.  Do you remember the poem, “Footprints”?

            One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
            Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
            In each scene I noticed footprints.
            Sometimes, there were two sets of footprints,
            Sometimes, there was one set of footprints.

            This bothered me because I noticed
            That during the low periods of my life
            When I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat,
            I could see only one set of footprints.

            So I said to the Lord,
            “Lord, you promised me that if I followed you,
            You would walk with me always.
            But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life
            There have been only one set of footprints in the sand.
            Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?

            The Lord replied,
            “The times when you have seen only one set of footprints in the sand
            Is when I carried you.”

When we are at our worst, God's love is at its best.  Those are our glory days.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Trojan Horse in Fort Smith

Allowing Christ to conquer our hearts

Matthew 10:34-37
Jesus said to his Apostles: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

            Have you experienced the divine invasion yet?  Christ wants to conquer each of us like a general invading enemy territory and establish his kingdom in us.  For most of us this invasion occurs gradually, through the sacraments of baptism, confession, Communion, etc.  For others, however, the conquest happens with shock and awe, it is dramatic and decisive.  Did you know that Fort Smith’s own Judge Isaac Parker converted and became Catholic on his deathbed?  His wife was a devout Irish Catholic named Mary O’Toole, who faithfully attended Immaculate Conception Church.  You could say Jesus sent a Catholic spy to infiltrate Judge Parker’s heart like the Trojan Horse, until Jesus could ride triumphantly into Parker’s life.
             Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Keteri Tekekwitha.  Jesus sent Jesuit missionaries, like modern day Marines, to conquer Keteri’s heart.  Finally, Keteri raised the white flag of surrender and Jesus established his kingdom completely in her.  Christ wants to conquer each of us, every last person on earth.
             In the gospel today, we see Jesus making no bones about his intention to take over each person’s life.  General Jesus says, “Do not think I have come to bring peace but the sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household.”  In other words, once we pledge allegiance to the conquering Christ, everything else becomes secondary, even our family ties.
             How much of your life have you surrendered to Christ?  It is foolish to believe Jesus only wants a 10% tithe from us and we can do with the rest of our life whatever we want.  General Jesus wants to establish his kingdom in every nook and cranny of our hearts.  Why?  So he can send us out like Trojan Horses into the world, into the lives of our family and friends so he can conquer them, too.  That’s the real reason you are at Mass this morning: surrendering more territory to General Jesus.  That’s why you visit the sick, that’s why you pray the rosary, that’s why you help the poor, that’s why you give to the capital campaign, that’s why you send your children to Catholic schools.  You see, Immaculate Conception Church sits like a great Trojan Horse, resting in the middle of Troy, and while Fort Smith sleeps, we sneak out of its belly and convert the Judge Isaac Parker’s of 2014.
            Christ wants to conquer each of us, every last person on earth.  And you are his spies!

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Poor Lightning Bug

Hearing the Word of God today

Isaiah 55:10-11

Thus says the LORD: Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.

            I love words.  I feel a very intense joy when I find just the right word to express an idea or feeling.  That’s why Mark Twain once said: “The difference between the right word and the wrong word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”  Wow, that’s a vivid way to make the point!  Another great wordsmith of American history was Abraham Lincoln.  Who can forget his Gettysburg Address?  Listen to these opening lines: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  In just two minutes Lincoln delivered arguably the greatest speech in American history.  Now, here's the funny thing.  Lincoln wasn’t even the main speaker that day.  Do you remember who gave the keynote address?  Me neither!  The difference between the two speeches was like that between lightning and the lightning bug.  No one remembers the poor lightning bug!  Lincoln chose each of those words with care and purpose and such simple syllables galvanized the whole nation.  Words are powerful and should be used with a purpose.

            No one used words as well as the prophets of the Old Testament.  In the first reading today, Isaiah speaks about the power of the prophetic word.  The Lord says through Isaiah: “My word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.”  In other words, God’s words always strike like lightning from heaven.  They are powerful and purposeful, and the prophets wielded those words with great effect, greater than the effect of Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln’s words.  You see, the prophets uttered the Word of God, not merely the words of men.

            Where can we find these divine bolts of lightning today?  Here are three places you can listen for God’s words of power and purpose.  First, you can find these words in the Sacred Scriptures, obviously.  Our attitude toward the Scriptures should be like that of Jeremiah, who said, “When I found your words, O Lord, I devoured them.  They became the joy and the happiness of my heart” (Jeremiah 15:16).  Catholics are rightly criticized for not reading the Bible; we leave them to collect dust on our night stands.  Do you know even one Bible verse by heart?  If not, learn one today, and they will become the joy and happiness of your heart.

Second, God speaks through the sacraments.  What Catholic does not feel a tingle run up his or her spine when a priest pronounces the words of consecration, changing the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus?  We breathe a sign of profound relief when, kneeling in confession laden with guilt, we hear the priest says the words, “I absolve you of your sins…”  Those sacramental words are sweeter than honey.  When we skip Mass and avoid confession, we miss out on God's gracious words.  You see, sacramental words are God’s words, not man’s words; they are lightning, not the lightning bug.

And third, you’ll hear those lightning bolts of God’s word in the silence of prayer.  Often we fail to hear what God is saying to us because we won’t be quiet in prayer!  Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who is a “motor mouth”?  You can’t get in a word in the conversation because the other person won’t be quiet and listen!   I wonder if that’s how God feels when we pray to him: we do all the talking.  He probably asks, “When will Fr. John be quiet so I can say something??”  Don’t fill up your prayer time with just lightning bugs (your human words), let God’s lightning strike instead (listen to his divine words).

Please don’t misunderstand me today, I’m don’t mean to pick on the poor lightning bug.  He’s beautiful at night.  But I’ll always prefer the right word over the wrong word.  I’ll forever love God’s words over man’s words.  Look at it this way: if there were a showdown between lightning and the lightning bug, who would you put your money on?

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Blue Frills Tuxedo

Being able to laugh at ourselves

Isaiah 6:1-2

In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two they veiled their feet, and with two they hovered aloft.

            Today I turn 45 years old, and if there’s anything I've learned in the last 4 and a half decades, it’s to be able to laugh at myself.  It’s like the Ella Wheeler Wilcox poem, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone.”  Now, I couldn't always laugh at myself; I used to take myself far too seriously.  Do you know what I do when I start thinking I’m right and the rest of the world is wrong?  I pull out my 8th grade graduation picture from 1983.  I was adamant about wearing this baby blue tuxedo with these blue and white frills on the front.  Remember those?  The most hideous thing you've ever seen, but I thought I was hot stuff.  And I laugh at myself.  Then I ask myself: what are the “blue frills” in my life today?  In other words, what are the things that I think or I feel or I am convinced about that make me believe I'm hot stuff?  30 years from now I’ll look back and laugh at myself.  And I laugh at the metaphorical "blue frills" I still wear in 2014.

            The first reading today is from Isaiah 6, and describes the great vocation of Isaiah as a prophet.  But right in the middle of this dramatic scene is a little humor.  The seraphic angels – the highest and mightiest of all angels – use their wings to cover their faces, their feet and to hover aloft.  That scene always makes me think of those 3 wise monkey who with their hands cover their eyes, their ears and their mouths.  To me, those angels and monkey mean one thing: don’t take myself too seriously.  That is, don’t put too much stock in what I see, and what I hear, and what I think and what I feel.  God alone is thrice holy, and in comparison to him, my thoughts and feelings are about as serious as blue frills on a graduation tuxedo.

            For the longest time my favorite Shakespearean plays were always the sober and somber ones, like Othello, and Hamlet, King Lear and Romeo and Juliet.  Those characters takes themselves so seriously and their lives are so tragic.  Gravitas.  And to be sure there is a lot of truth in those plays.  But now I’m learning to appreciate the comedies, too, like Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, and especially Much Ado About Nothing.  In these plays, all the people and plot and purpose are about as serious as blue frills on a tuxedo.  All those characters learn to laugh at themselves, and Shakespeare invites us to do the same.

            Today ask yourself: what are the things I take dead seriously?  Some people say today, what are you willing to fall on a sword for?  Of course, we should take our faith and our family and our friends very seriously.  But we should never take ourselves too seriously.  We should be able to laugh heartily at ourselves.  If you’re having trouble doing that, just pull out YOUR 8th grade graduation picture!

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Stray Dogs

Loving Jesus in everyone we meet

Matthew 9:34-38

Jesus went around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom, and curing every disease and illness. At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.”

            In the course of a day, you never know whom you might meet, and this is especially true if you’re a priest.  William Martin writes that being a pastor is like being a stray dog at a whistler’s convention!  Yesterday a parish family invited me for dinner.  I said I could only stop by for a few minutes because I was already on my way to dinner at another family’s home.  It’s so hard being a priest!  When I arrived, I expected a quick and polite visit, but I was greeted by Bishop John Brungardt of Dodge City, Kansas, a member of the Burton family.  They were about to begin Mass and I was enlisted as an altar server – I only messed up 3 times!  Bishop Brungardt was very kind and compassionate, I was sorry I couldn’t stay longer.  This stray dog heard the whistle blowing somewhere else!  But each person we meet – you might say each person who whistles at us – carries a small spark of God in them, which is really Jesus in them.  And when we see that spark and try to love that person, we also love Jesus who is in them.

            In the gospel today, Jesus is moved with great compassion for the crowds.  Why?  Matthew writes: “At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.”  But Jesus is no ordinary shepherd who guides his sheep standing nearby and protecting them from hungry wolves.  He does immensely more than that.  The Good Shepherd desires to be a Great Spark inside his sheep bestowing up on them a dignity and a destiny beyond the horizons of this world, and beyond the limits of their imagination.  You see, each person we meet carries a spark of God in them (that’s really Jesus), and when we love them, we also love Jesus who abides in them.  In other words, each one of us should feel like a stray dog at a whistler’s convention, trying to love everyone who whistles at us.

            Let me leave you with a poignant poem by Rev. Studdart-Kennedy describing how Jesus feels when we are indifferent toward him and ignore him:

When Jesus came to Golgotha,
they hanged him on a tree.
They drove great nails through hands and feet,
And made a Calvary.

They crowned him with a crown of thorns,
Red were his wounds and deep.
For those were crude and cruel days,
And human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to Washington,
They simply passed him by,
They never hurt a hair of him,
They only let him die;

For men have grown more tender,
And they would not give him pain.
They only just passed down the street,
And left him in the rain.

Still Jesus cried, “Father forgive them
For they know not what they do!”
And still it rained the winter rain
And drenched him through and through.

The crowds when home and left the streets,
Without a soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall,
And cried for Calvary.

There were no stray dogs to listen to Jesus’ whistling.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Crowns In the Garage Marrying Your Football

Accepting God’s proposal to marry him

Hosea 2:16, 17C-18, 21-22
Thus says the LORD: I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart. She shall respond there as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt. On that day, says the LORD, She shall call me “My husband,” and never again “My baal.” I will espouse you to me forever: I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the LORD.

            Children have funny ways of talking.  I heard this on the playground once.  One boy was talking about how he really loved his football signed by Brett Favre, and his friends began to tease him, saying, “Well, if you love it so much, why don’t you just marry it?!”  If a child said she really loved her dog or cat, their friends would taunt them: “If you love it so much, why don’t you marry it!?”  But children aren’t the only ones who use this analogy, so do adults.  Don’t we hear people say things like: “He’s married to his job; he wears his pager to bed!”  Some people are more married to their job than to their spouse!  This is how I look at being a priest.  When some people complain: “It’s too bad priests can’t get married,” I say, “Priests do get married: we marry the church.”  That’s why I love to go over to your homes for supper – to see what my wife cooked for dinner!  When you want to express intense love and deep devotion, you use the analogy of marriage to describe that relationship.

            We find one of the most perplexing predictions of the Old Testament in today’s first reading from Hosea, where God says he will marry his people.  Listen to these words of love.  God says, “I will espouse you to me forever; I will espouse you in right and justice, in love and mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the Lord.”  Wow, God just got down on one knee and proposed to you!  The old saying goes, “Man proposes, but God disposes.”  But Hosea flips that on its head.  The truer maxim is: “God proposes and man disposes.”  God proposes marriage to us.  The children may taunt God saying, “Well, if you love your people so much, why don’t you just go ahead and marry them!?”  Today, God replies, “What a great idea!  I think I will!”

            Anyone who’s been really married for more than a year, however, knows that marriage is not as easy as falling in love with your favorite Brett Farve football.  True marriage is demanding and requires the effort of both parties for it to work.  In other words, it’s not enough to say, “God wants to marry you!”  You must seriously and soberly ask yourself, “Do I want to marry God?”  There must be reciprocity, mutual love and support, or the marriage will end in disastrous divorce, even our marriage to God.  Look at it this way, if children saw how you live, how you express your love for God, would they taunt you by saying, “If you love God so much, why don’t you just marry him?!”  Martin Luther King, Jr. often asked rhetorically: “If you were on trial for being a Christian, for your love of God, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  You see, in the end, God proposes and man disposes.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Crowns in the Garage

Allowing the virtue of humility to find you
Matthew 11:25-30

At that time Jesus exclaimed:  “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father.  No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.” “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

            I believe one of the hardest virtues to find and grow in is the virtue of humility.  It’s like trying to catch your own shadow: the harder you try, the faster it flees from you.  Anyone who boasts, “Yeah, I’m humble!” we can be sure is the one person who is not humble.  Whereas, the truly humble person will more likely say, “I’m still full of ego and pride.”  I would submit to you that we can never really find humility on our own; instead, humility has to find us.

            Have you seen the Youtube interview with the CEO of PepsiCo?  She’s an Indian lady named Indra K. Nooyi (of course she’s Indian: we’re taking over the world!).  When she was first named CEO, she went home early from work – which for her meant 10 p.m. – to tell her family.  Her mother was waiting at the top of the stairs.  Indra said, “Mom, I have some great news for you!”  Her mom said, “Let the news wait.  Can you go out and get some milk?”  Indra asked why she didn’t ask her husband who was already home, and her mom replied, “Well, he’s tired.”  So, like a dutiful daughter she gets the milk, returns home, slams the milk on the counter and erupts: “I had great news for you.  I’ve just been told that I’m going to be the CEO of PepsiCo.  And all that you want me to do is go out and get the milk?  What kind of mom are you?!”  Her mother answered, “Let me explain something to you.  You may be the president of PepsiCo.  You may be on the Board of Directors.  But when you enter this house, you’re the wife, you’re the daughter, you’re the mother.  Nobody else can take your place here.  So leave your darn crown in the garage and don’t bring it into the house.”  (She used a stronger word than “darn.”)  You see, Indra Nooyi wasn’t looking for humility, but humility was looking for her.

            In the gospel today we see why we are powerless to find humility: because it is a virtue that depends entirely on the decision of God to give us.  You see, God gives his gifts as it suits him, not as it pleases us.  Listen to these bewildering but beautiful lines from the gospel of Matthew, where Jesus says, “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones.”  In other words, there are certain treasures of heaven (like humility) that we cannot barge through the gates of paradise and plunder.  Rather, we’re much more like beggars who sit outside the Pearly Gates and pray the King will bestow his gifts on us, like he blessed Indra Nooyi quite unexpectedly.

John Donne, a poet and priest in the 17th century, captured this conundrum in his famous poem.  Here are the first four lines:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’er throw me, and bend
Your force, to break, blowe, burn and make me new.”

In other words, Donne is saying don’t be gentle with me, Lord, but use a battering ram to get past my hard heart and thick skull.  Sometimes, only by the blows of a battering ram can God help us to be humble.

            So is there anything we can do to become more humble?  If there isn’t, why not just give up?  Well, here are three things you can do.  First, ask God for the grace of humility and then wait patiently.  That prayer itself is a great act of humility because we acknowledge that we’re powerless to become humble by our own devises; ask the Three-Person’d God to batter your heart with humility.  So, first pray for humility.

Second, accept corrections and criticisms and advice from others cheerfully, not begrudgingly with a bruised ego.  Have I told you I’m writing a book?  It’s a collection of my homilies.  The money we raise from the book sales will go to help Catholic schools.  Folks, let me tell you something, if you want a short-cut to humility, try writing a book!  I have an editor who has ripped up the manuscript with loads of corrections.  Someone on our staff here also went through it with a red pen and bled all over it.  I asked Archbishop Peter Sartain (our former bishop) to write the Foreword.  I figured, he’s a friend, he likes me, he’ll tell me how great it is.  But together with the Foreword, he also sent me a long, laundry list of suggested changes!  If you ever want to write a book, you better leave your crown in the garage!  I gotta tell you: it wasn’t easy to accept all those changes with a smile, but of course, they’ve vastly improved the book.

Here’s the third thing, spend more time with your family.  Our family sees us when we’re not wearing our crowns.  Actually, they’re happy to knock that crown off our heads when we parade around the house wearing it.  It’s like that little boy in the story who yells, “The Emperor has no clothes!”  Our family sees us without crowns or our clothes; they see us as we really are.  Our families see us with curlers in our hair and before lipstick, before we’ve polished our shoes and starched our shirts, while we’re still moms and daughters, dads and sons, not CEO’s, not professors, not football stars or homecoming queens.  The more time you spend with your family, the better the chance that humility will find you.  Maybe that’s why some people DON’T want to spend time at home; maybe that’s why Indra Nooyi came home at 10 p.m.  There’s too much humility at home.

            Several years ago, Arkansas Razorback fans adapted the old Mack Davis song, “Oh, Lord it’s hard to be humble.”  Remember that?  It went like this: “Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.  I can’t wait to look in the mirror, I get better looking each day!  To know me is to love me, I must be a heck of a man.  Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble, when you’re an Arkansas Razorback fan!”  Last year, our football team won zero conference games.  We were not looking for humility, but humility was looking for us.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!   

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Lead Butts

Accepting God’s tough love
Amos 4:11-12
I brought upon you such upheaval as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah: you were like a brand plucked from the fire; Yet you returned not to me, says the LORD. So now I will deal with you in my own way, O Israel! and since I will deal thus with you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel.

             I will forever be grateful I attended Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock, and experienced Fr. George Tribou’s leadership.  He was the epitome of tough love.  One day a newspaper reporter asked if Fr. Tribou would install metal detectors at the school entrances because of all the recent school shootings.  Fr. Tribou responded: “No.  Our boys have so much lead in their butts, it would be going off all the time.”  As we progressed through Catholic High, from being freshmen and sophomores to juniors and finally seniors, Fr. Tribou also treated us differently.  He was strict and unbending as a firm father to the freshman and sophomores but more kind and gentle like a wise grandfather with the juniors and seniors. Have you ever heard of that classic police interrogation technique called “good cop-bad cop”?  The bad cop questions the suspect ruthlessly, threatening and cajoling.  Then, the second officer is gentle and compassionate, promising clemency and pardon, the good cop.  The suspect eventually caves in, and so did the students of Catholic High School.  Fr. Tribou won our hearts with his good cop-bad cop routine.

            Please forgive me if this sounds irreverent, but I believe the Scriptures reveal God also relating to human beings as a good cop-bad cop.  In the Old Testament we frequently see God’s tough love.  The first reading from Amos is a perfect example, where the Lord says: “So now I will deal with you in my own way, O Israel!  And since I will deal with you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel.”  Freshman and sophomores could easily envision Fr. Tribou saying something like that.  Actually, he did say that; we frequently felt we were about to meet our Maker.  The New Testament, however, features God’s gentler side in Jesus, mercy incarnate, the good cop you might say.  But here’s the point: we always need both: the justice as well as the mercy, the Old Testament wrath as well as the New Testament forgiveness, the bad cop as well as the good cop.  You see, that’s how God wins our hearts, too.

            Let me ask you: how do you feel God is dealing with you these days?  Are you getting hammered with the blows of his tough love?  We may feel this way when tragedies befall us.  Shakespeare taught: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions” (Hamlet IV, 5).  On the other hand, maybe you’re basking in God’s blessings: everything is turning up roses for you.  Everywhere you look, you’re greeted with smiles and sunshine.  Whichever the case is right now, you can be sure of one thing: it won’t last.  Why?  Well because we all need a heaping helping of both treatments: justice and mercy, wrath and forgiveness, Old Testament and New Testament, bad cop and good cop.  Because you see, the fact of the matter is, we all have too much lead in our butts.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Curb Your Enthusiasm

Carrying the cross is essential for discipleship
Matthew 8:18-22
When Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other shore. A scribe approached and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But Jesus answered him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.”

             Did you ever watch that television sitcom called, “Curb Your Enthusiasm”?  Don’t worry, I didn’t see it either.  But I really like the title which reminds us not to get super-excited about things, to keep things in proper perspective, and to frequently do a reality check with our projects.  Whenever I see a commercial selling something over-zealously – they’re usually car ads, where the volume on the T.V. mysteriously increases – I feel like saying, “curb your enthusiasm.”  It’s just a car.  I love that line in the movie Princess Bride, where Wesley says to Princess Buttercup: “Life is pain, your highness, anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.”  Whenever someone tells you they can make life’s pain and problems magically disappear, they’re selling you something.  You see, life is always an admixture of pleasure and pain; those who forget that need to curb their enthusiasm.

            In the gospel today, we see Jesus reminding people to take a more sober look at following him.  One scribe gushes excitedly, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go!”  Jesus gently reminds him it won’ be easy to follow him, indeed, he will have to abandon creature comforts he’s used to.  He will have to carry his cross.  To another Jesus sounds almost harsh in saying, “Let the dead bury their dead.”  Jesus isn’t being cruel, but he does caution anyone who follows him that pain will be part and parcel of discipleship.  Jesus tells all his over-zealous followers today: “curb your enthusiasm.”

            One of the most vexing questions of all human history is the problem of pain, and more poignantly, why do the innocent suffer.  Have you ever felt like you suffered unjustly?  Have you had to watch the pain, illness or suffering of another without being able to alleviate it?  How often we hear people cry out, "Doesn't God want me to be happy?!"  An insightful book on this topic is the classic, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” by Rabbi Harold Kushner.  It’s a good book but I disagree with Kushner’s conclusion.  I prefer what Scott Hahn says about suffering: “God loves you just the way you are.  But he loves you too much to let you stay that way.”  In other words, God knows we have to grow throughout life, and the only path to true progress lay in the land of pain and discomfort.  As the Sunday School rhyme goes: “Pick up your cross and follow me, if you would my disciple be.”

            The next time you hear someone excitedly offer you some panacea for all your problems, anxieties and aches, just tell them, “curb your enthusiasm.”  The only path to perfection and peace, that is, to, heaven, is the royal road of the cross.  Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Cabeza y Corazon

Valorando a los apóstoles San Pedro y San Pablo
Mateo 16: 15-17
Luego les pregunto: “Y ustedes, ¿quién dicen que soy yo?”  Simón Pedro tomo la palabra y le dijo: “Tú eres el Mesías, el Hijo de Dios vivo.” Jesús le dijo entonces: “¡Dichoso tu, Simón, hijo de Juan, porque esto no te lo ha revelado ningún hombre, sino mi Padre, que está en los cielos! Y yo te digo a ti que tú eres Pedro y sobre esta piedra edificaré mi Iglesia.”

            Hermanos, déjenme preguntarles algo sobre el cuerpo humano, a ver si pusieron atención en la clase de biología en la preparatoria.  ¿Qué es más importante para el funcionamiento del cuerpo humano, la cabeza o el corazón?   ¿Cuántos creen que la cabeza es más importante?  Ahora, ¿cuántos consideran que el corazón es más necesario?  Podemos ver la pregunta de otra manera: ¿cuánto tiempo podemos sobrevivir sin la cabeza o sin el corazón?  No podemos, ¿verdad? ambos son importantes, necesarios, e indispensables.  Para que el cuerpo humano funcione bien, hay que tener un corazón fuerte y una cabeza inteligente.

            Hoy celebramos la fiesta de dos santos, dos santos que son los pilares de la Iglesia.  Hoy damos gracias tanto por San Pedro, como por San Pablo.  ¿Por qué celebramos su fiesta juntos?  ¿Acaso no merecen su propia fiesta?, ¿no es importante cada uno?  ¡Claro que si!  Pedro y Pablo son los dos santos más importantes en toda la historia de la Iglesia.  ¿Por qué, entonces, celebramos su fiesta juntos?  La Iglesia nos quiere enseñar que uno es como la cabeza y el otro es como el corazón.  ¿Cuál es la cabeza?  San Pedro.  Él tiene autoridad para guiar a la Iglesia entera, en todas partes del mundo.  Ahora, ¿quién está en el lugar de San Pedro, como su sucesor hoy en día?  Es el Papa Francisco.  Él es la cabeza de la Iglesia.  Y por tanto, San Pablo era el corazón porque tenía mucha energía, pasión y amor para llevar la Buena Nueva a todas partes del mundo.  Pero ambos son necesarios: Pedro y Pablo, cabeza y corazón.

             Hermanos, en cada familia, también, hay una cabeza y un corazón.  ¿Quiénes son?   El hombre es la cabeza y la mujer es el corazón.  Una amiga mía siempre dice que ella no quiere ser el corazón de la familia, ella prefiere ser el cuello.  Le pregunte por qué, y ella me contestó, “Porque el cuello puede voltear la cabeza.”  Es decir, la cabeza tiene que obedecer el cuello.  Así es en unas familias.  Pero en familias sanas, como en cuerpos sanos, hay ambos – cabeza y corazón – y hay respeto mutuo entre los dos.  Eso es difícil porque a veces hay tensión entre lo que quiere la cabeza y lo que quiere el corazón, entre el marido y su esposa.  No hay soluciones mágicas para es
tas discusiones matrimoniales.  Lo que yo les quiero sugerir es evitar pensar que uno es más importante que el otro.  Evitar creer que la familia sólo necesita la mamá o sólo requiere del papa.  Es como decir que el cuerpo solo necesita la cabeza o solo necesita el corazón.  Cada persona, hombre y mujer, tiene algo que contribuir al bien común de la familia.

            En esta fiesta de los Santos Pablo y Pedro, demos gracias a Dios por ambos santos.  Y más aún, respetemos también el corazón y la cabeza como bien necesarios para el bien del cuerpo humano así como para la familia humana.

¡Alabado sea Jesucristo!

Hormones Happen

Remembering the wisdom of our youth
 Luke 2: 46-50
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

             Who are the wisest people in the world?  Are they doctors, whom we trust with issues about life and death?  Are they Ph.D. professors teaching the best and the brightest in our universities?    Are they priests?  Well, not judging from the number of people already sleeping during this homily!  I would submit to you the wisest people on earth are 12 year olds.  Remember that T.V. show called “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”  It took a Nobel Prize winner in physics, named George Smoot, to win the million dollar prize in that show.  In other words, most people are NOT smarter than a 5th grader.  But I believe a 12 year old is wise for another reason.  What happens at 13 years of age?  Hormones happen.  And I am convinced that is not only a physiological phenomenon but a deeply spiritual one.  At the age of 12 you will see God, others and yourself the most clearly, and after 12 you will suffer from an inherent confusion about God, others and yourself.  The wisest you’ll ever be is at the age of 12.

             In the gospel today we see Jesus also displaying great acumen and smarts at the age of 12.  He remains in the Temple in Jerusalem and confounds the scribes and Pharisees with his questions and answers.  You could say they all learned that day THEY were not smarter than a 5th grader.  But notice how surprised Jesus is that his parents worried about him.  He asks, “Why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  In other words, it’s obvious to me who God is, and who others are, and who I am.  You see, that was obvious to Jesus not only because he was God, but also because he was 12 years old.

For a moment, try to think back to the days you were a 12 year old.  What did you think about?  What did you want to do with your life?  Maybe you wanted to become a priest or nun?  Who were your best friends?  Did you like to go to church and to Mass and did you enjoy praying?  In her classic book, “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” Willa Cather describes the aged archbishop losing his memory.  But at the same time, he begins to remember vividly events and episodes from his early childhood.  He returns to being as smart as a 5th grader.  In old age, we begin to see again who God really is, who others really are, and who we were supposed to have been because that’s when hormones don’t happen.  Maybe that’s why grandparents enjoy spending so much time with their grandchildren, especially the little ones: they both think very much alike.

            The 6th beatitude is “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”  The wisest people in the world are 12 year olds.

            Praised be Jesus Ch