Ash Wednesday

Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.

Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

One of the ministry things I have been involved in during my time in seminary is as a fire chaplain. I work for one of the local fire departments, and sometimes go to the scenes of ambulance calls or fires. Last year on Ash Wednesday, we were called to the scene of a fire. I went with one of my friends who also is a fire chaplain for the department. The fire was at a four-unit condominium, and it was looking pretty bad. When we arrived, we checked in with the Chief, and he told us that the families were in an apartment across the street. We headed that way and spoke to some of the family members who were home at the time and started to be sure that their needs were being taken care of. After we had talked with them for a time, I started a conversation with the woman in whose apartment we were all gathered. I asked her if she knew any of these people before the fire. She told me that she didn?t and I thanked her for opening her home to the victims of the fire. She said she wouldn?t think not to do something like that. And I believed her: she had on a sweatshirt that said, ?What would Jesus do?? Now we have all heard the WWJD thing a million times and I wonder if it even means anything to anyone anymore. Theologians also tell us that in some ways that?s the wrong question to even ask. But as I was there with this nice woman who opened her house up to us all, and with fire fighters and police officers coming in and out with snowy and wet boots, I wasn?t so sure that WWJD was completely pass鮠 It struck me that in asking what Jesus would do, maybe we can grow in our relationship with Jesus so much so that we do the work he wants to do right here and right now, without even stopping to think about it. After all, at this time, we are all his hands and feet, and he works through us to give people a place to gather while their house is burning, or he works through us to show his presence in our world in thousands of ways every single minute of every single day. Today?s first reading and Gospel talk about fasting and almsgiving, which are appropriate topics for this first day of Lent. Above all, these readings tell us that we can?t get all caught up in the show of it all. Our fasting, our almsgiving, our service ? all of these can?t be done just so people can see it and think well of us. No, we must do these things as naturally as someone who has made it their prayer to live every day doing what Jesus would do, and living as people who have come to know their Lord in a way that they can do that without a moment?s hesitation. Indeed, these kinds of ?hidden? works of fasting, almsgiving and prayer should be natural for us who know the Lord and live as people who have been redeemed by him in this very acceptable day of salvation. So maybe our question to one another ought not to be ?what are you giving up for Lent this year?? Maybe it would be better to ask ?how are you using Lent to come to know the Lord better?? And maybe in doing that we will fast, because fasting helps us to realize that there is nothing that we hunger for that God can?t provide. Maybe in doing that we will give something up, because in denying ourselves we can be open to the many ways God wants to bless us. Maybe our way of coming to know the Lord better will be through prayer, or reading a book of Scripture during Lent, because prayer and Scripture are ways that Jesus reveals himself to us all the time. Or maybe our way of coming to know the Lord better will be through some kind of service to others ? maybe even something we?ve never done but have been asked to try ? because in service we can come to see that God does things in us we could never do on our own. But whatever it is we are called to do in these forty days of Lent, let us not waste this time in any way and let us not make a big show of it. The time to grow in our spiritual life ? to come to know our Lord Jesus Christ better ? is now, today, right this very minute. Let us not put it off because indeed now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time: Bringing Friends to Jesus

This was my homily for yesterday. It had a lot to do with the topic of friendship and how God is incarnate in our friends — that’s just been on my mind and heart a lot lately, and this Gospel just really spoke to that.

I can hardly believe it but we’re just now into the second chapter of Mark’s Gospel. All this time since Christmas, we’ve been reading from Chapter one. And if you’re like me, Christmas seems like a long time ago now. If we look back at what we’ve heard in these weeks since Christmas, we probably remember a lot of healings that Jesus did. And today is no exception from that. Today, Jesus heals a man who was suffering from paralysis. What is interesting about Jesus’ healing of the paralytic is that his first effort is not to heal the paralysis, but to heal something that is perhaps even more paralyzing in his life and in ours: sin.

The whole exchange here between Jesus and the scribes is interesting for two reasons. First, it shows that they still don’t get it. For all of the healings he did, and as I said, we’ve heard a lot of them in the last few weeks; they still don’t quite understand what Jesus came to do. So Jesus says to the man, “your sins are forgiven.” In those days, if someone was ill or afflicted, it was thought to be the result of sin. So Jesus goes beyond just healing the physical paralysis—which is nothing more than a symptom of the problem—and goes right to the heart of the matter: he heals the brokenness in the man’s life that is the result of sin. Jesus was doing something much greater than anyone expected him to do. They just wanted the man to be healed physically; but Jesus goes them one better: he heals the man from the inside out. As Isaiah says in the first reading, God is doing something really new here, and they need to open their eyes and see it.

Second, it’s easy enough to say, “your sins are forgiven.” But it’s hard to know if that really happened, right? I mean, when your sins are forgiven, your hair doesn’t change colors. Sin doesn’t cause spots on your body that magically disappear when you’ve been forgiven. It’s hard to know what forgiveness of sins looks like, and this is part of the problem the scribes have with Jesus. He says, “Your sins are forgiven” easily enough, but how can they be sure he’s done anything? And they believed that forgiveness of sins was reserved to God alone. They were right about that, but they missed the fact that they were looking into the face of God. They just didn’t get it.

What strikes me most, though, about today’s Gospel, is the way the paralytic came to Jesus. He is carried by four of his friends. They bring him to Jesus for healing and are met with what must have been a pretty irritating obstacle. They couldn’t even get into the house where Jesus was preaching because of all the people crowded in there. There were so many people, they couldn’t even move a little to make an aisle to bring the man in. But they didn’t say to the man, “well, we tried; maybe we’ll come back another time.” No, they climbed up onto the roof, ripped a hole in it, and lowered their friend down in front of Jesus as he was preaching. Can you imagine the audacity of that? They destroyed a person’s roof and interrupted Jesus’ preaching. I just want to let you know that if that happens during today’s homily, we’ll be taking up a second collection to repair the roof… But the point is that these four very good friends did not allow a simple obstacle to get in the way of their desire to bring their friend to Jesus. They had come this far and weren’t about to give up so easily.

That got me to thinking about how friends can bring us to Jesus. I just finished final exams, thank God. One of my classes this past quarter was called “Friendship and the Moral Life.” In that class, we discussed the virtue of friendship. Friendship is a special kind of charity, or love, in which the two people in the relationship desire the Good of the other person most of all. This is not a friendship of utility where people are related because they can give each other a ride to work or something pragmatic like that. And it’s decidedly not some kind of misguided relationship where two people are “partners in crime.” This is the kind of relationship where two people encourage each other in the spiritual life and literally bring each other to Jesus. There are examples of this here and there in the saintly literature, most especially between St. Thérèse of Liseaux and Maurice, a seminarian. Through their relationship, Maurice was encouraged by Thérèse to stick with his formation for priesthood, and he was eventually ordained. And Thérèse herself admitted that their correspondence helped her to see her life in a different light and made her desire to be with Christ all the stronger. This kind of friendship is a gift from God, which we can all receive, but we must also nurture those friendships in our life.

This past week, between writing like a million pages of papers that were due in the last days of the quarter, I took some time to pack away some of the books on my shelves that I won’t be using in the next eight weeks. This coming quarter is my last one at Mundelein, and I wanted to get a head start on packing up so that I won’t have to move everything in May. When I was packing up those books, I came across a book of memories that was made for me by my friends at the place I worked before I went to seminary. I hadn’t seen that book in maybe five years, so I stopped to page through it. There were pictures and stories and notes from all of them. I laughed and I cried. But most of all I remembered all of the support and encouragement they gave me when I was getting ready to go to seminary. In some ways, I don’t think I’d be here now if it weren’t for them, and for the support of so many other friends and family who literally brought me to Jesus throughout my life, and in a special way while I was discerning my vocation. They literally brought me to Jesus, who was able to heal me of the paralysis I was having with regard to my vocation. As I think about all those folks, I realize with a great deal of humility how blessed I have been with that special kind of friendship that has always led me to Jesus.

Think of that for a moment. We are all called to bring each other to Jesus. That’s why God gives us our friendships. We have to be the people who challenge and support each other and help each other to grow. To what extent are our friendships like that? Supporting each other is generally easy to do, but how often do we challenge each other when the other needs it? I’m not talking about picking fights with each other, but rather of helping each other to become what God has called us to be.

And think too about the friends in your life. Who are those who have brought you to Jesus? Who are those who have challenged you to grow and supported you when you were hurting? Who are those who have pointed out and celebrated the gifts you have? Who are those who have pushed you to become something more than you could have on your own; something more than you ever thought you had potential to become? Maybe they were teachers or parents or family or classmates or coworkers or mentors. But whoever they were, they were that gift God gave you, and they were the people who ripped open the roof and lowered you down to Jesus so that he could heal whatever was paralyzing you in your life and keeping you from growing. Take a minute to think of them today, thank God for them, and as we offer our gifts at the altar today, place them before the altar that they too might be brought to Jesus in whatever way they need that today.

The Nature of Friendship

One of my courses this quarter is called “Friendship and the Moral Life.” I just turned in the final paper for the class, and the introduction to the paper was a reflection on friendships in my life. I thought that those three paragraphs were worth blogging about…

One of my great concerns about coming to seminary five years ago was the issue of friendship. I liked my life just fine the way it was: I had a good job, a growing spiritual life, and plenty of good friends. So uprooting myself and leaving all that behind was naturally a little frightening. But if I am honest, I would have to admit that those same friendships I was loathe to leave behind were the same friendships that were pushing me forward. These were the same friends who were not only not surprised when I told them I was going to seminary, but were in fact incredibly supportive.

The grace of friendship, however, has not been something I have left behind when I drove through the front gates of the seminary. God has certainly provided some extremely important friendships that have seen me through my formation. Those friends have also seen me through some very difficult times, including the month in first theology when both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer. I am certain now that I would not have stayed in the seminary were it not for them, and one of the spiritual insights that I remember from that time is how blessed I felt to have been in seminary at the time, because the support those friends gave me was more than I could have hoped for at any other time of my life.

The incredible grace of friendship has been a constant source of support and encouragement for me, but has also been a force that has kept me focused on doing God’s will in my life. These friends have supported me, but also on occasion called me to task, challenged me, and helped me see who I am through more objective eyes. As my friends have become more a part of my life, I have felt challenged to grow and to become a stronger servant of God than I would have otherwise. And I know that, even for some years before I came to seminary, I have always linked friendship with faith. I have experienced friendship as an icon of Incarnation: my friends help me to know God’s presence in my life and in the world.

What age do you act?

Well, people always tell me I don’t look my age. I always say it’s because I never act my age. Now I have proof:

***You Are 24 Years Old***

Under 12: You are a kid at heart. You still have an optimistic life view – and you look at the world with awe.

13-19: You are a teenager at heart. You question authority and are still trying to find your place in this world.

20-29: You are a twentysomething at heart. You feel excited about what’s to come… love, work, and new experiences.

30-39: You are a thirtysomething at heart. You’ve had a taste of success and true love, but you want more!

40+: You are a mature adult. You’ve been through most of the ups and downs of life already. Now you get to sit back and relax.

What Age Do You Act?
http://www.blogthings.com/whatagequiz/

Healing the Church

This entry concerns the most recent allegations of sexual abuse in my diocese and, more directly, the issue of an unsealed deposition made by my bishop. Last week we read a letter from the Bishop at all Masses. Following that, Chuck Goudie — a Catholic living in my diocese — published a column in the local Daily Herald newspaper voicing his disapproval. I have a few comments.

First, all of these allegations are simply horrible. That anyone in a position of any kind of authority, and particularly in a position of trust like the priesthood, could ever treat children in any kind of abusive way is unconscionable. That the issue could be covered up is horrific. Everyone feels that way, I think.

But Goudie claims that in his letter, Bishop Imesch “never once said the greatest healing words in the English language: ‘I’m sorry.'” So I re-read the Bishop’s letter. And I came accross words like this: “I deeply regret…” (those are actually the first three words of the letter; it is repeated toward the end of the letter) and “I want to express my sincere apology to all who have suffered abuse from priests. I deeply regret any damage that was done to you and want to assist with your recovery.” I guess Goudie should have re-read the letter also, and preferrably before he published his column.

That said, the comments I’ve heard from parishioners indicate that people have reacted to the tone of the letter as a whole, which provided a lot of explanations for how decisions were made in the past. Some people have mentioned to me that these sounded like excuses. I can’t say whether or not the intent of the letter was to be a list of excuses, or merely to provide background, although I strongly suspect the latter. I do think it’s lamentable, though, that so many church statements lately seem to be written more by lawyers than pastors. And I know that lawyers have to be involved, or nobody’s protected. But I think when we start letting lawyers make pastoral statements, we have to take a fresh look at what we’re doing.

So when will the Church heal from all of this? I don’t honestly know. Until all the members of the Church that are affected — victims, abusers, and the faithful with their pastors — have been healed, the Church as a whole can’t heal. This could take generations. What is clear, though, is that whatever is the impact being made by people like Goudie and lawyers, healing isn’t it, and that’s too bad.

The elephant in the room is the burning question, “Why do I want to become a priest at a time like this?” I could put on my best bravado and pride and say, “because I can change the Church with my ministry.” But that’s just a pile of you-know-what. The reason I want to become a priest at a time like this is that the Holy Spirit has led me here, and the only thing I can do is trust and obey. And if anyone can heal the Church, it’s the Holy Spirit.

Come, Holy Spirit,
fill the hearts of Your faithful,
enkindle in them the fire of Your love.
Send forth Your Spirit
and they shall be created,
and You shall renew the face of the earth
.

Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Be Made Clean

Well, I didn’t preach this week, but some things came to me as I prayed through the scriptures this weekend.

First, the leper in the Gospel was clearly a man of faith. “If you will it, you can make me clean.” There is no hesitation there; he knows that Jesus can heal him. Whether this comes from an actual life of faith or whether it is just from what he’s seen and observed about Jesus’ healings so far, he clearly knows without a doubt that Jesus can make him clean.

Second, Jesus responds to the man’s faith: “I do will it. Be made clean.” It’s as simple as that — faith makes the work Jesus came to do possible. And it’s as difficult as that — even our lack of faith can stymie the work of Christ in our lives.

Third, it doesn’t matter how often Jesus tells those who have been healed to keep it under their hats, they can’t help but make it known. The leper in today’s Gospel seems most enthusiastic to do so: he publicized the whole matter, spread it abroad, and through his proclamation of the saving event in his life, people came to Jesus “from everywhere.”

Fourth, and this almost should go without saying, but the real saving news here is not the healing, although that’s certainly up there. The real Good News here is that Jesus reaches out and touches the man. His reaching out to touch an untouchable makes it possible for all of us to go outside ourselves, and reach out to those it is difficult to touch, and bring them the healing and loving touch of Christ. If Jesus didn’t do it, we’d have no reason to; now that he has, the ball’s in our court.

Finally, all of these acts of faith make possible not just mere healing, not just a mere cessation of leprosy, or whatever it is we’re afflicted with, but more than that: true joy. God yearns to not just make the pain go away but to completely change our lives. And this complete change is what the psalmist sings about today: “I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.” The Lord didn’t just make the psalmist’s troubles go away, but the Lord actually filled the psalmist with the joy of salvation. Our acts of faith are truly blessed.