Friday, December 25, 2015



Christmas is a time when the whole world seems to reach out in hope. Whether people are truly Christian believers or not, there is a heightened sense of longing for the world to be more than it is––even a sense of expectancy that maybe it can be. 

"Silent night, holy night..." Those are words that express what it is we are looking for.  And it's no wonder we feel the need for such. . . our lives are so contrasting.  

Our culture has almost forgotten what silence is. It seems we are always in the middle of noise or hurry or crowds. The roads are jammed with impatient people––I know because I'm one of them. We're always in a hurry, trying to pack ten hours into an eight hour day.  It takes effort to get away from noise; there is always a radio or a television playing; even on the phone we are subjected to someone else's taste in music. Many people cannot jog or mow the lawn without a headset over their ears. And those are the sounds we invite. 

Perhaps we seek those sounds to drown out other sounds that we do not want to hear––the cries of other people or the clanging emptiness of our own hearts. We push away the sounds of threatening voices. Silence would be nice, but in the end it's too threatening. 

But if silence is something we have forgotten, holiness is something most of the world has never known. Holiness is threatening. I think it must be one of the things we try to escape through our noise. 

Holiness reminds us that things could (and should) be different. Holiness shines a burning light on things like revenge and lust and jealousy and greed––the things that are so common in our world, and even in our individual lives. We do not like the threats of terrorism and war, the reports of homes breaking up, the driving urge to do whatever it takes to get bigger and better things than the guy next door, but we like even less dealing with whatever it is in us that causes those things to happen.  And so we run from holiness. 

Yet the hunger for the silent and the holy will not go away. Our souls need the silence; our very existence needs the holiness. When the promise comes close, we respond––if only for a moment. Could it be? Can we really have that in this world? 

Christmas tells us yes. God knew we needed the silence and the holiness, so he sent his Son––as a baby. A baby has a way of slowing things down. A baby motivates us to cut some of the noise. A baby lets us see innocence in a fresh way, which isn't a bad way to understand holiness. If the characteristics of the cradle could stay with us, the silence and holiness and peace that the world needs just might make it. 

But Jesus did not stay a baby––and Christmas comes and goes. Jesus grew into a man who showed the world how badly we need the silence and the holiness; and the world goes on, coming close to it once each year, yet not able to embrace fully all it means that God sent his Son in the silence and in holiness so we could know what it is to be silent and holy in our own hearts. 

How about you this evening? Is this "silent night, holy night" a mere exercise in fantasy?  Is it a time only to come close to what God wants for us––to what he has given us in his Son––only to go back into the world of clatter and moral chaos when the candles are out and the carols are over? 

Silent night, holy night is not merely a mood. It is not just a nice story to make us sentimental once a year. Silent night, holy night is a promise. It's a promise from God that it really can be that way in the life of each person who lets the Baby of Bethlehem come inside to grow up into all the fulness of Christ. 

Are you hungry for quietness down in your very soul? Is your life crying out for something clean and good? Then on this silent night, holy night, let God do in you what he did on that night so long ago. Let your heart be a manger, and let the one be born in you who came to save his people from their sins.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

When God Comes

December 20, 2015 –– 4th Sunday of Advent
Micah 5:1–4a / Hebrews 10:5–10 / Luke 1:39–45

God was sending his Word into the world. It might seem the best way to get everyone’s attention would be through the Emperor––or at least the Governor. Even a governor had the power of life and death in his hands. But God didn't send his message through them. Maybe a religious leader would be best. Shouldn’t God work through the high priest? Well, he didn’t, but our temptation is so often to do the opposite of what God does: to look to those who are on top, not at those who are on the bottom; to those who are prosperous, not to those who are in need. Today’s Scriptures remind us that when we’re looking for the biggest and the best and the most, God still comes––but we can miss it. God is incredible at using what we call “insignificant”.

God’s Word came through Mary. If we really think about it, God often frustrates our expectations. Even though Mary is connected to the house of David, she is living in Nazareth and not Bethlehem (and neither of them were “significant”). Even though Mary is engaged to Joseph, she is not yet married and, being a godly woman, had no out-of-bounds sexual relations. Yet the angel says she is going to bear a son. Mary is astounded: How will this be, since I am a virgin? But God always acts consistent with his character: he chooses a pure vessel, for the child to be born will be called holy––the Son of God.

But even though Mary is a pure vessel, she is a “nobody” in her world. On top of that, Mary’s situation was not “pure” in public opinion; she was suspected of adultery, and Jesus probably grew up with his questionable birth in the minds of his hometown neighbors.

From our way of thinking, God does wild and crazy things. He encouraged Mary through Elizabeth––this relative who was an old woman well past child-bearing age, whose unexpected pregnancy was possibly an embarrassment. (It was certainly an inconvenient interruption in Zechariah’s life, at least initially.) This is because God so often does almost nothing according to expectation…. except to prepare us to expect the unexpected. The angel tells Mary nothing will be impossible with God. So when Mary travels to see Elizabeth, and the developing child in Elizabeth senses the newly conceived embryo within Mary, an inspiration of the Holy Spirit comes upon Mary and she exclaims the words we have come to call the Magnificat––an extended celebration of the way God turns the world upside down:

He has shown the strength of his arm,
  he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,
  and the rich he has sent away empty.

This is one of the most basic things about what happens when God comes. Our own expectations need to be released so we can focus on one thing: an openness for God to be God.

God wants to come to each one of us, and yet his coming is not always obvious. The Chinese bamboo tree does absolutely nothing––or so it seems––for the first four years. Then suddenly, sometime during the fifth year, it shoots up ninety feet in sixty days. Would you say that bamboo tree grew in six weeks, or five years? Our relationship with God can be like the Chinese bamboo tree. Sometimes we put forth effort…. we invite God to come in fresh ways…. we pray more and do other spiritual disciplines we’ve been taught, and nothing seems to happen. But when we learn to enter the spirit of Advent––the seeking, the repenting, the waiting….little things that our culture disdains––then there will be those moments when God’s presence breaks through the fog that enshrouds this world.

We need God to come. We need God to do what we cannot do. We need to accept humbly that by ourselves we are mostly helpless and hopeless, but believe that nothing will be impossible with God. God loves to come to unlikely people. Like Mary, we need to have open hands and humble hearts when God comes. This is how God works again and again. It happened in Bethlehem, a little insignificant village. It happened in Elizabeth, an old woman who everyone thought was well beyond any productive years. It happened through Mary, a poor yet pure virgin girl who could believe and trust and surrender.

And so God comes. “He does not come with military divisions; he comes instead with a wounded heart that…. proves to be the true and wholly other power and might of God” (Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI).

We are invited to believe that God comes in what we tend to think as the insignificant––even the disdainful. And because God is God, he comes the way he wants to––not the way we would choose. A shattering phone call…. a disturbing email…. an overwhelming interference with our plans…. these kinds of things may be the first stage of God coming in an incredible way.

The Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem has only one entrance, and you cannot pass through it without bending down. This door is supposed to remind pilgrims that in order to penetrate the deep meaning of Christmas it is necessary to humble oneself and become little. Can we dare to be “little” enough to recognize God’s coming? Don’t let what the world thinks is impressive distort your expectations of God. Look for God to come in ways are often dismissed and overlooked. Be open for God to be God. What “insignificant” (or even “awful”) thing in your life is God wanting to explode into power and glory (even it’s only in your soul)?! This is a great week to give God your “littleness.”

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

God is always at work for our salvation!

Wednesday: December 9, 2015 –– 2nd Week in Advent 
Isaiah 40:25–31 / Psalm 103 / Matthew 11:28–30
God is always at work for our salvation!

All three readings today point to one incredible truth: God is always at work for our salvation!

The essence of Christian Faith is believing this, but…. “believing” is a loaded word.

Many “say” they believe, but show no evidence of realizing their sins as the psalmist does. I cannot imagine the psalmist writing these words and then being casual about sins in his life.

Many “say” they believe, but show no evidence of the rest of spirit that Jesus promises in the Gospel. We want to think that a strong faith will give us temporal “relief” from our unpleasant circumstances. This is neither what Jesus taught nor modeled.

Many “say” they believe, but show no evidence of the daily strength described by Isaiah. Again, our tendency is to focus on our physical circumstances. We too easily lose sight of the ultimate (and most important) issue: God is always at work for our salvation!

When we feel any desire for God there is an implicit reality that Christian Faith assures. It is the message of today’s Psalm: God welcomes us because he takes care of our sins. God is always at work for our salvation!

When we feel tired and overwhelmed, we can trust God for the ability to take the next step––to do the next thing. We are not alone. Jesus is our teammate in the “yoke” that we are to bear, and he personally fashions that yoke for each of us according to our need––even if our temporal circumstances seem too hard and we do not understand. God is always at work for our salvation!

We can dare to trust that we can be so renewed in spirit––sometimes consciously so that we feel able to run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint. We are invited to the Church’s gift of Reconciliation. We are invited to come to the Table and eat and be replenished. We are invited each day to take into our minds and hearts the Scriptures. Every day we are called to the reality of holiness. God is always at work for our salvation!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Attitude of Holiness

Tuesday: December 8, 2015 –– Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
Luke 1:26–38
The Attitude of Holiness

May it be done to me according to your word. Mary’s response to the angel is an indicator of her holiness and one of the best models for us if we hunger for holiness.

Eve succumbed to the temptation to put herself above God’s Word. This is the watershed of spiritual life. God is life, and the only true life for us, as the pinnacle of God’s creation, is to embrace and bear the Word of God. Mary did this totally and she is our model for all it means to  have spiritual life and be holy.

There is a psalm antiphon in The Liturgy of the Hours that says: Surrender to God and he will do everything for you. This is what marked Mary’s life. This is God’s call for each of us.

Mary surrendered to God and said “yes” even when she didn’t fully understand (How can this be…?). It is so easy for us to demand that our own “wisdom” be satisfied before we consider submitting to God. Even worse, we can so easily insist on an “obedience” that is convenient, easy, and pleasant.

God’s Word was able to come into our world as one of us, on the human side, because Mary said yes––May it be done to me according to your word.

Let’s not insist on our own understanding. Let’s not resist the Word of God when it’s not easy. Let’s follow Mary in holiness. Let’s pray every day, May it be done to me according to your word.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Listening to God and Being Ready

November 29, 2105 –– First Sunday in Advent
Jeremiah 33:14–16 / 1 Thessalonians 3:12–4:2 / Luke 21:25–28, 34–36
Listening to God and Being Ready

ISIS…. infiltration by Syrian refugees…. suicide bombers…. nations bristling in the Near East…. shootings in our streets…. children with shattered innocence…. economic uncertainty….

There is more than enough in our daily news to keep us in an unsettled frame of mind. Yet many people choose to keep themselves distracted by the many material trinkets and pleasures that our society so abundantly offers. Black Friday events seem to enthrall the culture about as much as Christmas itself. As we enter Advent, with the Church calling us to a hope and peace that can seem more fairy tale than reality, the world counters with surface celebrations and the enticement of more and bigger things.

Which voice are we going to listen to in these coming weeks: the threatening voices, the diversionary voices, or the voice of God that blows through the Scriptures and the Church?

On the surface, the voice of God is not always immediately appealing. Even when God promises great things, the fulfillment is often suspended. Over 2,500 years ago, with Jerusalem facing total destruction, Jeremiah affirmed the coming of God’s promise––of what is right and just. A bit over 500 years later the Promise––fully God and fully Man––did come into our world, and yet in another way Jesus himself only extended the longed-for hopes. The Gospel today seems to side with the threatening voices in today’s news. There are “downer” words we’d rather not hear: dismay…. people will die…. the heavens will be shaken….tribulations…. But do we see that those things are not the focus?

What are we looking for? Again, some voices are fixed on the gloom and doom. Other voices tell us to grab whatever pleasures we can while we can. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians focus on the core of Christian Faith; in summary he is saying Live in the love of God. Too often we look for something sensational. Paul simply says: conduct yourselves to please God.

How do we do that? C. S. Lewis seems to have something for almost any occasion. For decades following World War II our nation continued to fight what was called the Cold War––a tense time of mostly passive aggression between the two big nuclear superpowers of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The looming threat then was an atomic bomb attack. I remember elementary school exercises in which the students were to crawl under their desks in a act of seeking shelter. Many homes built bomb shelters in their back yards. The fear then was just as palatable as fears today. So Lewis wrote an essay addressing this situation that seemed to be holding so many Christians in hostage. He said:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. "How are we to live in an atomic age?" I am tempted to reply: "Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents."

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors––anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

"This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things - praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts - not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds. (C.S. Lewis, Present Concerns, in a 1948 essay entitled, “On Living in an Atomic Age”)

So I ask again, which voice are we going to listen to in these coming weeks: the threatening voices, the diversionary voices, or the voice of God that blows through the Scriptures and the Church? The voices of fear are tempting us to forget that God is in control and that his promises are sure. The diversionary voices are tempting us to believe that something other than God can give us security and peace and happiness. The Scriptures and the Church continue to remind us of what is right and good and true, and to encourage us to be faithful.

We are here gathered around the Word and the Altar. We are here to receive Jesus and in doing so to give witness that there is nothing greater. We are here to learn to love each other as God has loved us. And as we do these things (and keep on doing them), listen again to St Paul:

Finally, brothers and sisters, we earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that, as you received from us how you should conduct yourselves to please God––and as you are conducting yourselves––you do so even more.

This is how we are to enter Advent. This is how we are to prepare for the coming of our Lord. Keep praying. Keep loving. Keep listening to the Lord and his Church. Then we will be ready for anything.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

You Have To Serve Somebody

November 11, 2015 –– Solemnity of Christ the King
Conversion Series: You Have To Serve Somebody

"Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy." Thus begins C.S. Lewis' first Narnian story, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. It is a fantasy story in which the four children climb into a big wooden wardrobe and find themselves transported to a land of talking animals and mythological creatures, but a land marred by the rule of the wicked white witch.

On this Christ the King Sunday it is also a story that gives us a picture of Jesus. Lucy was the first to enter Narnia. She returned telling the others of her adventure, but no one believed her. Later Edmund jumped into the wardrobe and he, too, passed into the magic of Narnia. It was then that Edmund met the witch for the first time. At first he was afraid, but this woman who called herself the Queen of Narnia soon had Edmund eating enchanted candy. His fear––and his will power––seemed to melt. She made him promise to get his brother and sisters and come to her castle.

Of course, all four go to Narnia. Peter and Susan go with Lucy, but Edmund runs away to find the Queen––only he finds out she really is a witch, and it is her intent to kill all of them. Meanwhile, Peter, Susan and Lucy find out about the real king of Narnia, Aslan (who is a lion), and they journey to meet him.

Eventually the three children are united with Aslan and his army. In turn, they rescue Edmund just as the witch was sharpening her knife to kill him. Yet Edmund was still in trouble. The witch came to Aslan under a flag of truce and said Edmund belonged to her. Edmund was a traitor; he had originally chosen to serve her side. The Deep Magic––laws which governed Narnia––gave the witch the right to a kill for any treason. So Aslan and the witch confer in secret, after which, incredibly, she renounces her claim on Edmund. Unknown to his army, Aslan had offered himself as Edmund's substitute. His death for Edmund's took place that very night. Then, even as the witch gloatingly promised to kill Edmund anyway, she plunged a big knife into the lion's heart.

But the witch did not know all the Deep Magic. There was an older law that, when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's place, Death itself would work backwards. Aslan came back to life stronger than ever. Edmund was saved.

Obviously, the close analogy of Lewis' story to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is no accident. And we need to hear this story over and over. Sometimes our understanding and appreciation of the gospel story can be refreshed when its essence comes through a new medium. That's why the Narnia stories can seem so real.

We live in a world that has been affected by a spirit of treachery. It is hard to see it because it seems natural. When we give in to greed or lust or anger or any kind of selfishness––when we make make any decision with disregard for what is pleasing to God––we are moving in a wrong direction.

Living according to our own selfish desires also shapes our identity. Each of us has a basic spiritual identity, and that identity depends on who we serve. Jesus said, No one can serve two masters (Matt 6:24). Think about Edmund. His treachery was not an isolated event in his life for which he could merely say, "Well, I made a little mistake. What say we forget it and start over?" His action identified him with the white witch. He quite suddenly found himself under her rule and on her side.

We can have a distorted understanding of freedom. God has indeed given us freedom to choose, but not one person is free from having a master. You have to serve somebody. There are two kingdoms at war in our world right now, and we are part of the battlefield. People who do not know that can think they are acting by themselves and for themselves, when in fact, everything that each one of us does (or even thinks) has a spiritual repercussion. When Edmund ate the enchanted candy he thought he was merely gratifying his sweet tooth. Actually, he was establishing his identity; he was placing himself under the control of the white witch.

The Christian Gospel is the Good News that Jesus died for each of us so we could be free from any claim darkness has on us. The prince of darkness has no right to claim us as subjects if we choose to identify with Jesus. We need to understand: we must choose one of two masters. God’s love does not mean we are set free of any and all masters. It means we are free to switch from self-serving and the realm of death to the Master whose name is Love. Opening your heart to Jesus means changing masters.

Have you chosen Jesus as your Master? I invite you to to believe what Jesus has done for you. I invite you to be a loyal servant to the true King of the universe whose name is Love. All the magic of Narnia is right here. It is here for each of us when Jesus is our King––our Lord and Master.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

ISIS and Refugees: Thinking Out Loud

Instead of being "devil's advocate", I hope this in some way is indeed an advocacy of what the Spirit would say to those who embrace the word "Christian". I understand the hesitancy.... even the fear of ISIS and the refugee situation, et al. I understand that many look at this FIRST from the perspective of being an "American." Yet deep in my spirit I hear One who said, "Do not fear the one able to kill the body...." and I can't escape the core fact that we follow One who chose to lay down his life rather than retaliate against the evil ones who abused him. And on top of that, Peter writes in his first letter that Christians are called to follow, in suffering, the One who went ahead of us in just that way. Perhaps if more "Christians" were giving themselves in total selflessness, the world would have a different model of "radical" to consider and a better option of something beyond this world worth living–and dying–for. Now, in saying this I readily confess that "I" do NOT want to suffer! "I" would prefer living in "American privilege" the rest of my days. But by the grace of our Lord, a deeper "I" desires to FIRST be a loyal follower of the One who called us by saying, "Take up your cross and follow me." It doesn't make good politics, but there is a glory (for those with eyes to see) that transcends this world that is passing away. Lord, have mercy on our world.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


November 8, 2105 –– 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Conversion Series: Soul-Hunger

The Lord has given our pastor a vision of renewed conversion for all of us in the parish in this sermon series. How often do we think about the incredible responsibility of being the “point-guard” for the many souls connected to this congregation? I thank God for the pastor he has given us, but it’s not all up to him. How often do each of us give explicit attention to our own souls?!

We have been reminded that our world is broken, and yet there is something deep within us that cries out for “better”. In our hearts we know there is more, and the deepest truth is that the God who created me wants more for my life, just as I do. The deepest desires of our human heart are for a true holiness––a life marked by God’s truth and beauty and love.

One of the ways God reaches out to us is to make us aware of the gap between where we are and where we long to be. Every dissatisfaction––even every tinge of guilt––is actually a stirring of God’s Spirit within saying that things can be better. Sometimes I am hit with a little vignette from my past. I will suddenly remember something stupid I did years ago, and I am internally embarrassed at myself. Or a particular sinful action or desire that once marked my life will pop into my mind, and I will groan that such a thing once had such a hold on me. Yet even as my soul blushes as I think of these things, I also find encouragement. I am encouraged when I realize that I do not want stupid and sinful things to mark my life, and I am encouraged when I realize that the Lord has worked his grace into me so that I am not the person I was ten, twenty, and forty years ago.

We need personal reflection time. Because God is always at work, always seeking our attention and our hearts, it is good to find time and space to hear him speak to us. One way we learn to hear God’s voice is through contact with other people who have already developed an ear for God’s Spirit. That is the way preaching is supposed to work; at its best, a sermon is listening to someone who has been listening to God. Or it is helpful to read the lives of people who have walked closely with the Lord. Good Catholic formation will include the lives of the saints. In my early formation there were people whose witness gave similar examples. Soon after a major conversion experience when I was fifteen years old I began to read biographies of great Christians. At age sixteen I underlined this observation (and it has stayed with me for almost fifty years):

The soul does not seem to mind what it is occupied with, but only cares that it be kept occupied. It is passive as to choice. I choose, my soul responds, with ringing laughter, emotion, or pure worship. It is a tool, not a craftsman, and must be controlled…. Discerner of my sittings down, my risings, wilt Thou hallow this soul of mine? The choice is mine, you say? Ah, yes, the choice is mine (Eliot, The Shadow of the Almighty, p97).

Then, in another entry, there is an extension of this thought that I also marked all those years ago:

I think the devil has made it his business to monopolize on three elements: noise, hurry, crowds. ….he will not allow quietness. Satan is quite aware of the power of silence. The voice of God, though persistent, is soft…. Let us resist the devil in this by avoiding as much noise as we can, purposefully seeking to spend time alone, facing ourselves….. (Eliot, The Shadow of the Almighty, p85).

This was written years before the day of cable sports networks, 24/7 news channels, and electronic pads. I fear that most people stay too distracted even to realize their soul is hungry. Our entertainment keeps us distracted.

Is it because we are afraid to face ourselves? If embarrassing and guilt-laden memories sometimes invade our thoughts spontaneously, why make time for even more of them? Well, first of all, I am not encouraging a life lived by looking constantly in the rear-view mirror. That kind of perspective is just another trick of the devil to discourage us. Yet we can benefit from sometimes looking back if we are willing to learn. It has been said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Can we look back and see in our recurring embarrassments and frustrations, and even in our guilt, our underlying desire for what is right and true and good? And if so, can we dare to believe what St John Paul II told an audience of young people in the year 2000? “It is Jesus you seek when you dream of happiness.” Each dawn brings a new choice; each day new grace. If you’ve tried life according to your own plan, it is time now for you to fall on your knees and fully give your life to the Lord.

There is a consistent witness among Christians who have opened their hearts to intimacy with Jesus. The psalmist said it this way several thousand years ago, and it’s still true:

Hungry they were and thirsty;
their soul was fainting within them.
Then they cried to the Lord in their need
and he rescued them from their distress
and he led them along the right way…
For he satisfies the thirsty soul;
he fills the hungry with good things (from Psa 107).

Every one of us is hungry in our souls. Every time we try to find happiness in amusements and every time we find ourselves stressed over the many things that seem to consume our days, we need to stop long enough to remember: God is calling me. Jesus wants me to love and trust him.

Prayer: You fill the hungry with good things, Lord God, and break the sinner’s chains. Hear your people who call to you in their need, and lead your Church from the shadows of death. Draw us into all it means to be your people and to live in your love, through Christ our Lord.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Deepest Desire of Our Heart Is Holy

October 18, 2015 –– 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Conversion Series
The Deepest Desire of Our Heart Is Holy

For these weeks preceding Advent we are doing a sermon series to highlight the importance of being totally committed to Jesus Christ. Think about it: If Christianity is not true, then as St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “let’s just try to make life one big party” (that’s a paraphrase translation of 1 Cor 15:32). On the other hand, if it is indeed true that God came into our world as a Man, gave his life in order to absorb the evil in us and all the world, and then rose from the dead to give us eternal life, there is nothing greater nor more important.

Every week we confess the Creed and say we believe it. Over the past weeks we have reviewed some basic implications. Why are there pain and suffering in this world? Because the world is broken! Yet there is something within us that cries out for a more perfect world. In our hearts we know that there is more, and the deepest Truth is that God is searching for us. Our sins are no obstacle to God. We do not deserve God’s love, but we have it anyway––not because of who we are, but because of who God is. The God who created me wants more for my life, just as I do. We all have a deep and insatiable hunger for what is right and good and true.

I often think about my deepest desires. I think about the kind of life, if it were in my power, that I would give my children and grandchildren. My first concern is not for material wealth. And while I would prefer it, my greatest desire would not be for their health and comfort. My deepest desire is that my children know the God who made them, and that they will seek to have the character of Jesus formed into their own lives. It is people like that who have an observable beauty that others notice.

Think of the things that so easily and quickly move the human heart––a baby or a small child…. a person who is observably handicapped, yet accomplishing a task seemingly beyond his ability…. a radiant young woman whose beauty does not need the manipulation of immodesty…. a husband and wife of well-advanced years enjoying life, obviously still in love. We can also be stirred by stories of courage and sacrifice. The glories of nature give us spontaneous thrills––a panoramic sunset…. a majestic mountain overlook….

Think too of the qualities we so naturally admire in the saints. Think of the purity of St Agnes and St. Maria Goretti. Think of the simple love of Therese of Lisieux. Think of the joy that exudes from Pope Francis. Those things pull at us like a magnet.

We notice these things. Something deep within us recognizes truth and beauty. That same “something" hungers for what is right and good. We may even think about them––their significance and why such things are important to us. Yet how often do see a connection to holiness?

The devil twists the image we have of holiness. We too easily see it as unattainable. We think holiness will limit our happiness; we assume that being holy puts us under too many restrictions. Holiness is simply entering into the fullness of life as God created it to be. Holiness is believing that whatever is not holy is not truly good.

So much of what we spend our time, energy, and money on in order to find meaning and happiness leaves us unsatisfied and searching for “more”. St Paul exhorts the Philippians to direct their thoughts to all that is true, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, admirable, decent, virtuous, or worthy of praise (4:8). St Augustine reflected:

Show me one who is full of longing, one who is hungry, one who is a pilgrim and suffering from thirst in the desert of this world…. and he knows what I mean.
….What does the soul desire more than truth? Why then does the soul have hungry jaws, a spiritual palate as it were, sensitive enough to judge the truth, if not in order to eat and drink wisdom, justice, truth, eternal life?
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… (St Augustine)

We need to learn to listen to our deepest hungers. Perhaps the most basic principle of the spirituality of St Ignatius of Loyola is that of “discerning spirits”. There are “spirits”––thoughts and feelings––that can move us toward God or pull us away from God. Sometimes a feeling can seem initially good but then prove to lead to a bad place. Likewise, something can seem unpleasant at first, but actually lead to deep satisfaction.

Every day we face a most important question. Is Christian Faith really true? If we say “yes” then we can expect two things to happen. We can expect God to be at work in our lives, calling us to know him, to trust him, to obey him. We can also expect to fight a spiritual war. There are other voices that want to distract us. We live in a broken world that can discourage us. There are spirits that want to destroy us. Each day we have a fresh decision to make: What voice will I listen to?

The deepest desires of our heart are true holiness––for a life marked by God’s truth and beauty and love. St Augustine captured it: You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you. Our hunger for God is a hunger to be holy. If we can recognize that we may stumble, but our direction will be set.

Then we can pray with the psalmist: Of you my heart has spoken: “Seek his face.” It is your face, O Lord, that I seek (Psa 27). And we trust the words of our Lord: Seek and you shall find (Matt 7:7). It is as easy as following the deepest desire of our heart.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

On Marriage and Ministry

Libby is speaking to the wives of the aspirant deacon class today. This is her “talk” and I thought I should add this just as I post my homilies. The Lord blessed me with an incredible wife (she’s been the prayerful powerhouse supporting me for over 40yrs).

My name is Libby Hall, and I’m happy to share a few thoughts on marriage and ministry with you this afternoon.  First of all, let me tell you how excited I am for each of you women.  God has good things ahead.  I could tell from the introductory remarks you made weeks ago that you’re coming into this “wife of a deacon” life with different reactions – most of you sounded thrilled, some were shocked, but all of you sounded open and ready and already saying “YES” to what God has ahead.  I left that Saturday session giving thanks that God had put His call on you to be deacon wives. 
There are a few key things that I want to tell you from my experience.  First of all,
God is writing a wonderful, unique story in YOUR life.
My story isn’t better than yours; it’s just different. I grew up mostly in Alabama as the oldest child in a Wesleyan (Protestant) pastor’s family (now you know why I talk funny), and knew deep within as a child that God wanted me to be a pastor’s wife.  In fact, my entire family tree is filled with Protestant pastors and church musicians – my grandfather, great uncles, dad, uncle, brothers-in-law, nephews...  David and I met in a conservative Bible college, and he was a Brethren in Christ pastor for over 33 years.
The blend of ministry into marriages and families is the only life I’ve ever known.  We didn’t begin to be perfect! but marriage and family and ministry were blended together in an integration that understood God came first.  I remember as a teenager praying and crying out to God to do whatever He wanted in my life, to please make sure I knew Him as much as possible and didn’t miss out on anything He wanted to do in and through me.  
I look back at 64 years now and see that He has faithfully, constantly ordered and led in ways that were never expected.  When we give ourselves to Him and say “do whatever You want” – He takes that seriously.
Stop for a minute and think about your family and life – all this time God has been preparing you to be a deacon’s wife.  He’s had His hand on you even when you didn’t realize it.  He’s all Love, knows what is best for His glory and our good, and we can trust Him for this phase and all that will come.  
More than anything, He wants to be first in your life and in your marriage.  He wants you to know Him in deeper, growing ways – this is a gift, and I wish I knew the details of each of your lives so I could rejoice with you that God has been working from the beginning and is helping you become like Him more and more.
God uses the not-so-pretty, hard things for His purposes.
The church that we were raised in was very strict and held high standards for how you dressed, and what you did and said, told you in detail what was “worldly” (which meant unholy), and even preached that God could change your attitudes so that you became selfless and loving like Jesus.  So David and I came into marriage with the advantage of faith formation that taught us it was sinful to put yourself above the other. Wanting the good of each other has kept us close when hard things hit – when our son was diagnosed with a learning disability and couldn’t excel academically as we had, when our adopted daughter took anti-malaria meds for a family mission trip to Africa and had neurological side effects that turned her life and ours upside down for the past 20 years....
Being in ministry together is priceless, but it can open your marriage and your family to a vulnerable place of attack from the devil who doesn’t WANT our husbands to serve God or for the focus of our lives to be God-first. It’s not that we live in fear for what pressures will hit next or what crisis is around the corner, but we know to expect that it won’t be easy.  The good news is that God is more powerful than ANY hard thing, and He’s promised to make a way.  He does that over and over.  
I’ve enjoyed some wonderful, glorious times, too, but it’s the hard struggles that have produced the character changes and taught me to fall before Jesus and cry out for His deliverance.  It’s the tough stuff (that I would have never chosen) that have bonded me to dependency and intimacy with the Lord.
God delights and honors our prayers.
My Christian church tradition taught us to pray hard and long.  We had family prayer together every night growing up, and during worship services (three services a week plus revival weeks and summer camp meetings) people got down on their knees and everybody prayed out loud at the same time.  “Storming the gates of heaven” took on literal meaning.  We didn’t use written prayers apart from memorizing the Lord’s prayer and saying it once a year or so, but we talked to Jesus from the heart.  
When we got married, I thought our prayer lives would blend so that David and I prayed together each day.  But we were different – I was more emotive while he was more logical and “heady”.  So we prayed with the children but didn’t develop times of prayer as husband and wife for many years.  After David’s mother died in the late 90’s during the same time we were struggling daily with Katie’s emotional and mental needs, my husband began to realize some issues in his own life that were lacking.  As he was faced with the need to lay down his life for his daughter, God began to show him that things weren’t where they should be in his spiritual life. He was a “successful” senior pastor of a growing church and was a good husband and dad.  He could pray in public or with anyone in a given situation; he could preach and knew the Bible in detail, but he found it hard to be intimate with God, to pray from the heart instead of the head.
And he asked God to change his heart and teach him how to pray.  It’s an involved story, but God did that – someone recommended the Liturgy of the Hours for daily praying the Psalms, and David adopted the disciplines of readings and prayers throughout the day.  The writings of the Early Fathers opened his eyes to the beginnings of the Church in ways that several graduate degrees in Bible and theology had not.  He spent a sabbatical month at Little Portion Hermitage (the monastic community founded by John Michael Talbot) to pray the Liturgy in community, and more truths unfolded so that he saw the need for the centrality of the Eucharist in worship.  Attending Sat. evening Mass before preaching at our church twice the next morning took things even further.  
God began melting his heart through praying the Psalms, and I saw changes in him as a father and husband as he loved and gave himself in new depths of selflessness.  Remember my prayer as a teenager wanting everything God had for me?  While I didn’t understand what was happening in David through these new disciplines (that I didn’t even realize were “Catholic”), I was beyond thrilled – this was exactly what I wanted in marriage, for both of us to hunger passionately for Jesus together.  By the time he was diagnosed with prostate cancer (which surgery showed to be outside the gland), we were at a different place spiritually.  We began praying together every morning and night and asking the Lord to do what He wanted with us for as long as we had left.  We didn’t know if the cancer diagnosis meant the years of ministry were limited – did we have 10 years left or not?  
Powerful things began to happen as we prayed – there was a calmness and acceptance that no matter what, God was working.  By the time David told me he could no longer in good conscience pastor a Protestant church because he’d become too “Catholic” in understanding and desire, I said okay even though it meant he walked away from preaching (which he loved) and our entire identity as pastor and wife, not to mention 2/3rds of our income, our entire way of life.
Again, there are a lot more details, but let me just say that the last 8 years since we’ve come into the Catholic Church have been filled with wonderful joys.  That the Lord would open the way for David to be ordained a deacon and be again in full-time ministry is a gift for which we continually give thanks.  I may never be the best “Catholic” culturally – it’s a very large and unfamiliar world, but being fed regularly with Jesus’ Body and Blood, joining others in crying out for the Lamb of God to have mercy on us, being close to Jesus during Adoration, the list goes on and on... with priceless spiritual and tangible realities that enrich and strengthen our lives in ways we couldn’t imagine before.
So back to prayer – find your own ways to invite God into your lives together regularly.  If you’re not yet at that place where you freely say “do whatever You want no matter what, Jesus” – then ask God to help you at the place you are now, to take the next step to grow into His good plan.
He knows you.  He sees the desires of your heart.  He’s started you on this new phase of heading toward the diaconate, and your marriage will be enriched and your total life focus on God will enlarge as you follow in obedience.
God will teach you how to be a deacon’s wife.
Don’t feel like you have to make yourself become a certain way. There’s no one way or even a “right” way.  Keep remembering that this is God’s idea and plan, not yours.  And then ask Him to give you the gift of praying for your husband in a new way.  Ordination DOES change the man, but God can be freed to do more in him if you commit to covering your husband with constant prayer.  When he’s studying, pray.  When things are tough because of the extra demands these next years of formation, ask the Lord to make a way and to give you extra help and patience.  Once he’s ordained and begins to preach, sit and listen in the congregation and pray the whole time.  You will see God work in astounding ways, and you’ll enter with him into ministry in spirit and heart. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015


September 20, 2015–– 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 2:12, 17–20 / James 3:16–4:3 / Mark 9:30–37

Some people seem to segment their lives––to say that faith only belongs to a personal and private “religious” part of life, kept distinct from the “everyday” contexts of business or science or even public morality. God’s message through James is that such thinking is wrong. Trying to live that way is damnable. This is because faith is what a person believes, and what a person believes affects what a person does. A person cannot "believe" one way and live another. James says our lives will be marked one of two ways, and he uses two different "hooks" on which to hang his point: every person is characterized by one of two wisdoms and one of two friendships.

Jesus said the fruit of people's lives reveals who they are. Paul explicitly described the behavior of people controlled by the sinful nature: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. Then he went on to warn: those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-21). It should be obvious that James is saying the same thing in his own way. He is talking about the two ways to live in this world: a person is either opposed to God and his ways, or embracing God and his ways. This is life by one of two “wisdoms”––wisdom that is cut off from God or wisdom that has its source in God.

James gives us a description of the wisdom from above: it is first of all pure; then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere (3:17). Do you know what happens when we do not live that way? If we look around us we can see the results of living according to the world's wisdom. Remember, James is talking about faith––what we believe. People do what they do because of what they truly believe.

The world's wisdom pits people against each other. Think about all the divisions in our news headlines right now! James describes it this way:

Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions…. (4:1).

We hear this in our commercial society. We are urged to think about ourselves: get the best... have something bigger or better than the next guy. The world says, "indulge yourself––you deserve it". Or consider the growing problem of road rage: someone cuts me off…. hinders what I want to do…. gets in my way…. 

This is what happens when everyone is determined to put his own desires above everything else: Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice (3:16). This is why our society is falling apart. This is why basic respect for others is disappearing and violence is escalating. People have followed their own selfish desires and turned away from Gods wisdom.

Even in the Church there are examples of people who have not learned to turn from the world's wisdom. Sometimes people say, "But I prayed about it..." That is good, but notice what James says about prayer: You do not receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (4:3). Prayer is not telling God what we want. Early in James’ letter we are told what to pray for: If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God…. (1:5).

We can only get God’s wisdom when we seek friendship with God. This is not the same as outwardly practicing "religion." Friendship with God is not just routine religious ritual. Friendship with God is not merely following a moral code. Friendship with God means putting him first in everything…. everyday. Friendship with God means not grieving him by seeking or trying to hold onto things that are contrary to his character. In the verse immediately following our reading James says: whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (4:4).

When the Bible uses the word world in this context it means an attitude that is in rebellion against God. This attitude is all around us. Being a Christian is more than “God on Sunday and the rest of life the other days of the week.” In our lives, Jesus is either Lord of all or he is not truly Lord at all. Jesus meant it when he called his disciples to humility and serving and sacrificial love.

The world does not understand this, so much so that what James says can be inverted: whoever wishes to be a friend of God makes himself an enemy of the world. This is what the Wisdom writer is describing in the first reading. Wicked people hate goodness. Godliness shows the true nature of selfishness, and darkness wants to snuff out the light. The Wisdom writer reveals the threat of the wicked; paraphrased they say, “Let’s kill the good guy; he makes us look bad.” This is fulfilled in the Gospel when Jesus tells the disciples: The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him….

The same threat hangs over people who follow Jesus. It is true in our world today. Christians are being persecuted and killed. The Boko Haram gang is killing Christians in Nigeria. ISIS is killing Christians in the Near East and wherever else they can. But such hatred is not limited to those contexts; there are militant homosexuals in this county who have openly stated their desire that Christians be exterminated. And far more pervasive, think about the explicit and growing voice in our country for Christians to keep quiet about morality and public policy? Maybe some of us push things like this out of our conscious thoughts. Others let the worries and threats almost consume them. The important thing for all of us is to remember we are in a spiritual war for our souls. Our one hope is to believe and trust God. 

If we want to be a friend of God and have his wisdom, there is a basic question to answer: Who or what is going to be first in my life? If I want my own way, I cannot be a friend of God. We cannot be friends with God if we never take time to be with him, to listen to him and to obey him. If our minds are being shaped more by the media and popular opinion than being transformed by God's Word and his Spirit as he comes to us through the Church, we are not embracing God’s wisdom.

In this ancient letter to the Church, James gives us the basics: There are two (opposing) wisdoms tied to two (opposing) friendships. We have to choose…. and all of us are making our choice for one or the other in everything we do.

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