We All Need to Step Back, Open Our Eyes and See Jesus

We All Need to Step Back, Open Our Eyes and See Jesus

This weekend groups of teens and adults will be returning home from Beyond Sunday Missions in Mexico, ME and CAMPS (Christ as My Personal Savior) in Pittsfield, MA. Two weeks ago, another dozen teens and adults joined thousands at the Steubenville East Conference in Lowell, MA. Close to 30 members of our parish community joined in these experiences with thousands of other Catholics for one purpose: to encounter Jesus Christ.

For many years now experiences like these have been integral to the formation of teens and adults into disciples of Jesus Christ at our parish. It is important for every Catholic to step back from mundane life occasionally to reach out and be touched by the Living God. We call these conferences, retreats, bible camp, missions etc. But they are all really Transfiguration experiences.

In the Transfiguration, Jesus took Peter, John, and James up a mountain to reveal His glory to them. The events leading up to this are important. Six days before this, the twelve were gathered with Jesus and he asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” It was a question not only for them but for us too. Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” He didn’t grasp the full meaning of this declaration, confirmed immediately after by Peter’s attempt to convince Jesus to evade his arrest, passion, and death in Jerusalem. But Peter stepped out in faith anyway.

And so, six days later, Jesus called Peter, along with James and John, to journey up a mountain, because he had something to show them. There on Mount Tabor, Jesus revealed His Glory and left no doubt in the minds of the three disciples as to who He was and is.

To encounter Jesus and be left with no doubt about who He is.

That is why we invest so much time and money on experiences like Steubenville, Beyond Sunday Mission and CAMPS. That is why we urge so many young people to step out in faith and get on the bus, or get in the van and go. I wrote a few weeks ago on the Parable of the Sower. One of the types of soil was rocky soil, where crops spring up at once and wither because they have no root. I said that sometimes when people return home from a profound retreat experience they can be like that rocky soil—on fire for Christ for a while, but not when troubles come. I did not mean that as a criticism of powerful spiritual experiences. I think these experiences are critical to developing as a disciple, and they remain with someone for years. Saint Peter recalled the events of the Transfiguration decades later in this week’s second reading.

I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition. As a disciple of Jesus, I’m a product of the “small” acts that build faith. The informal catechesis of my parents tilled the soil of my heart. The mountain of little things served to amplify those huge Transfiguration moments. I’ve probably been to Mass a couple thousand times in my life, Reconciliation maybe a hundred times. Despite all that, I still remember the first time experiencing a God who was both bigger than I could possibly imagine and closer than I could ever dream. I was singing a song at CAMPS in 1995 called “Where Justice Rolls Down” surrounded by friends from my parish and a couple hundred other campers. In that moment, singing at the top of my lungs with arms raised heavenward, I had no doubt who Jesus Christ was and is. That sort of thing changes you like the first Transfiguration changed Peter, John, and James.

No, it’s not an either/or thing. Like so much of Catholicism, it’s both/and. That Transfiguration experience 22 years ago set a fire that still burns today, but it wouldn’t still be burning without all the little things that prepared me for it and sustained me afterward. Even when it looked like my faith would wither and die (and there were times when it did look that way) the roots had gone too deep for that to happen.

So, I’ll just ask you for two things. First, will you pray for deep roots for all those who have come home from a Transfiguration experience this summer? Pray that they now have the courage to persevere in doing the little things that sustain the fire they received. Second, if you’ve never had a Transfiguration experience, or if it has been a long time since you have, would you prayerfully consider setting aside time for one this year?

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So You’ve Soiled Yourself. Now What?

So You’ve Soiled Yourself. Now What?

The Gospel reading this Sunday is the parable of the sower (note the name, I’ll come back to that). I’ve used this passage to open retreats with teens for many years. The message I add to the parable isn’t exactly mind blowing: listen to the explanation of the parable and consider which of the four types of soil represents you.

These are generally Confirmation retreats so I assume they have heard the Word the parable refers to—that God loves them, made them for life with Him, and that we reject His love by disobedience and sin, but He sent His Son Jesus to set us free from sin and give us hope of eternal life by his Death and Resurrection. Then we examine the four types of soil.

There’s path soil. The devil snatches the seed up before it can even grow. This represents a hardened heart, much like the hard-packed soil of a dirt road. Hearts harden for so many reasons but these reasons all tend to have something in common with the road: they’ve been walked on, run over, trampled. And it’s often done by people who don’t know they’re doing it, sometimes by “church” people. The scar tissue of life’s wounds builds up and the seed cannot penetrate. They become cynical about God’s goodness and even His existence.

There’s shallow rocky soil. Crops sprout up quickly but have no root so they wither. This person isn’t shallow, but their faith might be. The reason for the shallowness can be found in a confusion between faith and feelings. When persevering in faith feels good, faith seems strong. But when the positive feelings dry up (as they do) there is nothing of substance left to feed the growing faith. I see this in people who come home from a retreat, conference, mission, or bible camp on fire for Jesus, but the fire is partially the result of an emotional roller coaster. The first speedbump—an argument at home, a friend who questions or mocks, or a personal setback—derails the whole thing.

Then there’s thorny weedy soil. The first two were dark, so I have fun with this one. You can do this too. I tell them think of everything obligation they have. Raise your hand and keep it up if you go to school. Raise the other hand and keep it up if you have a job. If both hands are up raise a leg if you have commitments to family, friends, sports, arts, academic clubs, social media, hobbies, etc. The list goes on and on until every one of them has two arms up, two legs up, is bobbing their head and shimmying in their seat. Then I ask, how do you look doing that? In a hundred times doing this exercise there are two answers I always get. First, they say foolish. Second, like a puppet. The simple message is that the things in life that are supposed to be enjoyed shouldn’t make you look like a foolish puppet—they shouldn’t control you. They have heard the Word and desire to accept it and live it out, but honestly believe they just don’t have the time or energy. Faith goes on the back burner and promptly begins to die. In the very least it bears no fruit.

Finally, there’s good soil which has been tilled, cleared of rocks, and weeded. It’s not soil that was never trampled, was never shallow and never had thorns or weeds. It represents the one who cooperates with the sower to allow rocks to be removed and make room for genuine faith. With the sower they make sure that their trampled heart, though scarred, remains open by hope. And in genuine love they put weeds and thorns in their proper place. Rather than loving things and using people, they love God, love others, love themselves, and use things.

This is absolutely true. Each of us has the responsibility to cooperate with grace in perfecting our hearts to receive the Good News with joy so we can bear fruit.

But that’s not what this parable is about.

Jesus refers to this parable by name, and He doesn’t call it the Parable of the Four Types of Soil. He calls it the Parable of the Sower. It’s not about us, it’s about Jesus.

The seed is the word of God and Christ is the sower. I’m not a farmer, but I know that seed is valuable. After all, the farmer could have eaten it, or sold it. He certainly wouldn’t toss it anywhere, especially in places he knows it won’t grow. I don’t think Jesus is trying to tell us that He’s a careless farmer. The Parable of the Sower is about God’s desire that everyone be saved. His love for us is abundant and lavish—even reckless. It is a gift we cannot earn. We all have those times when faith is shallow, or forgotten, or even shut out by a hardened heart. Jesus is still there.

Good soil or not, God provides His Word and the grace to receive it with joy because He loves us. The only proper response is to ready our hearts, be hearers and doers of the word, and bear fruit.

Speak, O Lord, as we come to You
To receive the food of Your Holy Word.
Take Your truth, plant it deep in us;
Shape and fashion us in Your likeness,
That the light of Christ might be seen today
In our acts of love and our deeds of faith.
Speak, O Lord, and fulfill in us 
All Your purposes for Your glory.

Teach us, Lord, full obedience,
Holy reverence, true humility;
Test our thoughts and our attitudes
In the radiance of Your purity.
Cause our faith to rise; cause our eyes to see
Your majestic love and authority.
Words of pow’r that can never fail—
Let their truth prevail over unbelief.

Speak, O Lord, and renew our minds;
Help us grasp the heights of Your plans for us—
Truths unchanged from the dawn of time
That will echo down through eternity.
And by grace we’ll stand on Your promises,
And by faith we’ll walk as You walk with us.
Speak, O Lord, till Your church is built
And the earth is filled with Your glory.

 

 

 

 

Perfect Love Casts Out FOMO

Perfect Love Casts Out FOMO

Last week Jesus consoled us and commanded that we have no fear. Not even a fear of death. He wasn’t talking about an emotion. We have very little immediate control over our emotional response to things, especially things we don’t often encounter like our lives being threatened. The word He used still exists in English—phobia. When we say someone has a phobia we almost always mean that their internal fear or anxiety translates into action which is disproportionate to the thing they fear.

Being creeped out by seeing a spider in your bathroom isn’t arachnophobia, but burning down your house and moving to another continent is. Sometimes when I talk to people I have this internal conversation critic who seems to think every word out of my mouth is The Dumbest Thing Ever Said, but I wouldn’t dare minimize the suffering of someone with actual social anxiety by calling mine a phobia. It’s just an annoying worry with little power over me—anyone who knows me knows I keep on talking anyway. No, the fear Jesus forbids is of the sort that dictates our behavior—a fear that can make us choose to do and be less when Christ invites us to greatness.

For us, discipleship doesn’t carry fear of death (for now). Instead we suffer from a spiritual FOMO. FOMO means fear of missing out. It’s a word coined in 2004 that immediately became overused and annoying. But it is a real phenomenon. Some people think social media is to blame. We see posts of our friends and family at the Best Party Ever or the Best Concert Ever and we get a sense of anxiety over our loss for doing something less important like going to work or taking care of family. It makes people fail to see the good things right in front them while they worry about the other things they could be doing. For some people, it results in a failure to commit to doing anything at all because what if it’s the wrong thing? For most, it means a nagging feeling that there’s always something better than the present moment.

FOMO is nothing new though and it’s much older than Facebook or Instagram. Spiritual fear of missing out goes all the way back to the Fall. The serpent convinced Eve that God was holding out on her and Adam.  God had promised paradise, but what if he was holding out? They feared, they disobeyed, and the rest is history. Come to think of it, maybe FOMO isn’t that much older than social media. I can’t help but notice the logo on my phone: an apple with a bite out of it.

When we fear that life in Christ isn’t the greatest good, that it will make us miss out on something better (what could be better?) we become less. Saint Irenaeus said, “The Glory of God is man fully alive.” We fall short of the Glory of God if we give power to fear of missing out on comfort, or a chance to shore up our ego, or to achieve acceptance and worldly success, or any number of lesser things. We fail to be fully alive.

This is the point of the first part of Sunday’s Gospel.  It sounds harsh, I know. On the one hand, I think Jesus is saying to love him more than even our own family to drive home the point that He is the greatest good. If we’re supposed to love Jesus more than we love our own mom then you better believe we’re supposed love Him more than we love Sunday sports, political ideology or money.  Loving Jesus more than our parents, more than our children, and more than our own lives doesn’t convey their unimportance, but it demonstrates Jesus’ absolute importance. It’s not a command to not love mother and father, sons and daughters, and ourselves, but an opportunity to love them more by loving Him more. In other words, if, as disciples of Jesus, the upper limit of our capacity to love is measured by how much we love Christ, then seeking to know and love Him more can only mean we will love others more, especially mom and dad, the kids, and ourselves.

There’s no denying the difficulty of taking up our cross daily to follow him, even in a nation where free exercise of religion is supposed to be unrestricted. When we should be more engaged in prayer, or doing spiritual and corporal acts of mercy, or fulfilling our Sunday obligation to attend Mass, it is all too easy to let spiritual FOMO slip in. The Catholic life, the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ, is not easy, it is not popular, and sometimes the temptation to be less than our calling is overwhelming.

Maybe that’s the rationale for the second half of Sunday’s Gospel. We are commanded to show hospitality, especially to fellow disciples, especially the little ones (maybe they’re little because the weight of their cross has crushed them). They, like you, are walking a hard road. They too struggle with fear of missing out—a nagging feeling that might not be a true doubt in God’s goodness but still represents a persistent anxiety that this isn’t the right path. We need to help carry each other’s crosses. That could take the form of a note of encouragement, a warm greeting at Mass or on the street, prayer for our fellow disciples, fellowship and time spent together simply being present to and loving each other–there are countless examples. None of us can carry our cross alone, so I’ll end by taking my own advice:

Please know that I am constantly in awe of the sacrifices you make to be fellow disciples. Your sincere love for Jesus and His people encourages me. Sunday is my favorite day of the week not just because I get to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist, but also because I share it in communion with you. There’s no place I’d rather be than in His presence and I am blessed to be there with a family of which you are part. The Body of Christ truly is beautiful and I have genuine affection for each of you. I hope that your example of faith inspires people Monday to Saturday as much as it inspires me on Sunday.

In Jesus and Mary,

Frank

 

 

A Mass Within the Mass

A Mass Within the Mass

If the Last Supper was the very first Catholic Mass, then this week’s Gospel reading has to be the second one. The middle 22 verses of Luke 24 contain almost all the significant elements of the Mass we celebrate today. It begins with a procession, not from the back of the church to the altar, but from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Along the way, the two disciples meet Jesus, though they don’t know its him. They introduce themselves, explaining their heartbreaking situation (the introductory and penitential rites). They tell the stranger all that Jesus said and did, leading up to His suffering and death, and show confusion and doubt about the Resurrection account offered by the women at the tomb. Jesus, still unknown to them, breaks open the old testament (the first reading and the psalm) and shows them how the scriptures were talking about Him (the second reading and the Gospel). He helps them to understand how the Word of God applies to their life (the homily). Sensing Jesus is leaving, the disciples petition Him to stay (the prayers of the faithful). He obliges and stays for supper–taking bread, blessing and breaking it. (Liturgy of the Eucharist and Communion). Finally, they see it is Jesus. In awe and wonder, they ask how they could have possibly not known, “Were not our hearts burning while he spoke?” Saint Luke tells us that they set out to Jerusalem at once to announce the good news, but I’m sure they stayed through the announcements, final blessing and all four verses of the closing hymn.

Do we feel this same burning in our hearts at Mass? Do we leave Mass on fire for Jesus? I don’t mean an emotional response that can burn out as quickly as it flares up, but a real sustained fire that compels us to share the good news with everyone. I’d like to humbly offer some helps to building such a fire. These are some ways to open our hearts to receive as much grace from Holy Mass as we can. They range from simple to incredibly awkward.

  1. Read the readings before Mass. This wasn’t something I did until I started selecting songs for Mass on a regular basis. It gives me the opportunity to think and pray about the themes of the Mass before I even arrive at the church. Familiarity with the readings makes every prayer and hymn come to life. You can find them online pretty easily.
  2. Respond. In December of 2016, after a terror attack on a Coptic Christian cathedral in Egpyt, demonstrators took to the streets in support of the victims. A video emerged of people not just reciting the Nicene Creed, but declaring itWhile not in English, you can hear the familiar rhythm and cadence of the Creed. The freedom we have to worship openly should be a reason to respond even more boldly, both in gratitude and in solidarity with our persecuted brothers and sisters. The responses we declare at Mass are an emptying of self. And, ultimately, the more of ourselves we invest in participating in the Mass, the more room we make for Jesus.
  3. Sing. I joke with my pastor that I long for the day when we have to hold a second collection to repair all the cracks in the ceiling caused by singing Jesus’ praise. It’s difficult to be disengaged when you sing. Nothing creates a sense of community like singing together. A common objection is, “but I have a terrible voice!” Then sing out! If it’s truly that terrible God might hear it and give you a better one. In the very least the people around you will sing louder to drown you out.
  4. Pray with and for each other. Here’s the awkwardness I promised. Too many Catholics, without realizing it, treat the Mass like a personal devotion. I’m guilty of this from time to time. The Mass isn’t a private prayer. It’s part of the public prayer of the Church. I have a greater Mass experience by knowing the readings, boldly responding, and singing my heart out. The reality is that I also owe it to you to do these things. As much as we should actively participate in the celebration for our own good, we should also do so for the rest of our parish family. When I mumble responses, only sing the hymns I like, and let distractions pull me from praying as best I can, I drag you down. To make the communal experience of the Mass more real, try this: Turn to someone near you before Mass and introduce yourself if you don’t know them. Now—here’s the hard part—ask them to pray for a specific intention you or your family has, and ask them if there’s anything they need you (and your family) to offer as part of your Mass intention. And then really, earnestly pray for that person.

In the Eucharist we have access to infinite Mercy and Grace! When we receive, our hearts should be burning with desire to know Jesus and to make Him known. I hope these small suggestions can be kindling for that fire.

On Deflated Hope

On Deflated Hope

Hope? Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”

– Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding

I must admit, to my great shame, that I lost hope. It was for a fleeting second, and I’m not even sure it was an intentional thought. It snuck up on me. The New England Patriots had just scored making it a 28-18 game with 5:56 on the game clock in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI. They were attempting a 2-point conversion and I had this thought: “Please miss this.” I know, I’m so embarrassed. I immediately dismissed the thought but I’m still ashamed that it was even hiding in my head somewhere. But I understand it’s origin.

At that point in the game I had already begun the difficult work of accepting a disappointing outcome. I had let myself grow detached from any desire for victory and simply wanted to see my team erase some of its huge deficit to make the loss respectable. I’m not a football expert but I have gleaned some things from listening to my fair share of angry sports radio. Being so far behind, with so little time left, they couldn’t just be good. They had to be perfect. And they would need some absolute miracles along the way.

And they were perfect. And they got a few miracles (Edelman’s catch, are you kidding me?!) And I was wrong to despair. Haven’t I seen Brady and Belichick do this before? I had every reason to hope, but the difficult road ahead let despair creep in.

 I think we lose hope because of how dangerous it is. Disappointment is easier when we can brace for impact. So we settle for being “good enough” and resist anything that draws us up and out of being merely good to being perfect. Internal voices and those people around us ask the question, “What right do you have to desire and to expect perfection? You’re just so far from perfect!”

Over the last few Sundays we’ve been hearing Matthew 5. Jesus has been laying out the structure of His Kingdom and describing the attributes of its citizens. After all, winning citizenship in the Kingdom of God is our greatest hope—far greater than the hope of winning a Super Bowl. But His demands so are hard. We are blessed when we’re poor and mourning? We should pray for those who hate us and go the extra mile when our service is demanded? We should give until it hurts? Maybe what he means is that we should generally try our best to be a good person and show kindness most of the time. But no. He clarified it for us with these words: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

It’s enough to cause that same voice in my head that said, “please miss this,” during the game to say something similar in response to Jesus. Because if hoping for the Kingdom of God relies on my being as perfect as our heavenly Father, then part of me would rather not try. Part of me would rather accept being “good enough” and losing in a respectable way. In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus speaks directly to that part of me:

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

Jesus speaks of worrying about food, drink, and clothing and tells us not to worry about where we will get them. In some sense He is talking about literal food and drink and clothing, but He means more than that. He means that God will provide exactly what we need to be citizens who have a right to desire and expect our own perfection in His Kingdom. Brady and Belichick are a fantastic team, but they have nothing on the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The road to victory is difficult, demands perfection and seems impossible. But nothing is impossible for God. He gives us the church, where we pray for and build each other up. He gives us the Holy Spirit who makes us holy and begins the process of perfecting us. He sends miracles along the way, the greatest of which is the Eucharist—Jesus, truly present and alive in our midst. The sacraments are all miracles, Edelman-like catches that provide a spark and ignite us onward and upward.

If being perfect, as the Father is perfect, completely depends on my efforts, then there is no hope. I’m more likely to lead a fourth quarter down-by-25–come-from-behind Super Bowl comeback win. But thanks be to God that perfection and eternal citizenship in His Kingdom are not up to our efforts alone. Because we have Jesus, we can hope.

God of the Living

God of the Living

This past summer I took Caleb on his first major hike. We had done a bunch of other hikes in the Blue Hills, but none of them were more than a few hundred feet in altitude. This hike was decent. We went up Loon Mountain in Lincoln, NH.  Loon is just over three thousand feet (3064’ to be precise) so I’m proud to say Caleb has summited a three thousand footer. He did a fantastic job too.

I did have some initial reservations about whether he could make the climb. I didn’t know what the weather was like up there or if some parts of the trail would prove to be too steep or treacherous. So to put my mind at ease as to its “doability” I decided to first hike it without him. It was a rainy day and everyone was watching Netflix at our rental home, so I stepped out into the mist alone and climbed up Loon Mountain as a trial run. The view was terrible img_2665

The next day I decided it would be possible for Caleb to make it to the summit. Having been up that trail and on the mountain top I was confident he could go there too. Of course, I also carried him on my back the whole way. For the most part he enjoyed the hike. His favorite part seemed to be pulling my hair, but to be honest I think he was trying to steer me like a horse.

Following Jesus in this life also leads to a mountain top. And being His disciple is scary, because that mountain top is Calvary. To follow Jesus necessarily means denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and dying to sin and selfishness. Not all of us will be called to the bloody martyrdom that was the fate of so many of our saints, and is still the fate of so many Christians in the world today. But all are called to loving sacrifice. Saint Maximilian Kolbe taught that there is no love without sacrifice. And following Jesus up this trail of sacrificial love isn’t always easy. It can mean rejecting pride and embracing humility,  or going beyond what is comfortable, or letting worldly measures of success fall by the wayside, or charitably expressing difficult truths to friends and family. And we know that the Cross is what waits at the end of the trail. But we can take heart. Our Lord knows the trials of this trail but He has confidence in our ability to walk the narrow and difficult road. After all, He did it first. And Jesus reminds us in the Sacraments, in Sacred Scripture, in the friendship of fellow disciples and in the refuge of prayer that He is willing to carry us.

One last thought: This Sunday’s readings are a reminder that while the journey of discipleship leads inevitably to the cross, it doesn’t end at the cross. We know that God who called us along this trail will again call us forth to eternal life.  And on that day when His Glory appears, our joy will be complete.