God Is Not Fair And Thank God For That

God Is Not Fair And Thank God For That

This Sunday’s Gospel reading challenges every one of us to come to a deeper appreciation of the generosity of our God. It seems like a universal reaction to complain when we have been deprived of something we think is owed to us. This sense of dissatisfaction with unfair circumstances can fuel the changes that make a more just world. But sometimes, this sense of dissatisfaction is misplaced and can even make the world less just, less merciful.

Imagine winning a million dollars in the lottery and griping that it’s not two million. Or receiving a miraculous cure of a terminal illness and complaining that it didn’t also cure a less serious condition. I remember going on pilgrimage to Rome for World Youth Day in 2000. It was hot the day we celebrated Mass with Pope John Paul II. A local beverage company handed out hundreds of thousands of bottles of water—for free. Someone in my group complained that it wasn’t cold water. Complaints like these fuel bitterness and envy.

Think about the complaint of the “early shift” laborers in the vineyard. They worked the whole day. I’m sure that working the whole day gave them the benefit of establishing a rhythm. Not only were they working longer, but they were likely more effective and efficient workers because of it.

Then come the “late shifters.” I bet they showed up, with an hour or two to go, and had no idea what they were doing. They likely caused more harm than good by messing up the efficient technique of the veterans. Some of them might have even voiced ideas on how to improve the system as if they knew what they were talking about! And in the end, they got the same pay. The injustice of it all.

We may have a tendency to view our fellow vineyard workers in the same light. “They’re not as committed as I am,” we might say. Or, “They don’t give as much time, talent and treasure.” Or even, “They’re not as morally good as I am!” Yet all are given the same work of evangelizing and offered the same reward of eternal life.

The reality is that none of us deserves the opportunity to labor, nor do we deserve the generous reward. In reading this parable, we shouldn’t get too caught up in trying to identify whether we are early or latecomers. That might lead to comparison. Love doesn’t compare, it doesn’t weigh benefits, and it doesn’t hold back. This parable is an opportunity to stand back and marvel at the generosity of our God, who desires that all be saved and gives us each a role to play in His Divine plan.

The response to Jesus’ love is to look within and ask, “Lord, how can I give more?”

Saint Paul talks about his dilemma in the second reading. He desires an end to his labor in the vineyard, that he might live with Christ forever. But he also has a strong yearning to continue his mission of evangelizing, sharing the love of Jesus and the message of salvation with anyone who will listen. Keep in mind that Saint Paul was in prison when he wrote to the Philippians. His mind was not focused on receiving fair treatment, but on Jesus. For him, and for us, every soul brought to the vineyard and given a reward is a reason to celebrate with joy the undeserved, unmerited, and unconditional love of Jesus Christ.

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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?

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.

Click Here and You Could Have a Free Fiat!

Click Here and You Could Have a Free Fiat!

Did I get your attention?

Now I get to be a huge disappointment. There is no car giveaway. Sorry.

There’s good news though. Keep reading and there might still be a free fiat in this for you.

I love the Immaculate Conception. And by that I mean the Solemnity we celebrate today as well as the person. After all, the BVM did tell Saint Bernadette that she is the Immaculate Conception. Immaculate Conception is one of those Catholic buzzwords that can easily end up being so heady and profound that it loses any useful meaning. It did for me until a few years ago when I read for the first time what Immaculate Conception meant in terms that were so simple even I understood them.

Saint Maximilian Kolbe (a recurring hero you know if you follow this blog) taught that the Holy Spirit is the “uncreated, eternal conception” of the love between the Father and the Son. And the Spirit is, by His divine nature, immaculate or free from sin. When Mary declared to Saint Bernadette that she is the Immaculate Conception what she was really saying was that she has identified with the Holy Spirit from the very first instant of her existence. As long as she has been, the Holy Spirit has dwelt with her and in her.

Because of this indwelling of the Spirit, Mary’s “yes” to the Angel Gabriel was the freest “yes” ever uttered by human lips. For where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

(She actually said, “Let it be done” which is fiat in Latin. So…there’s the free fiat. I never disappoint)

This is a special grace Mary received from her Son Jesus–the indwelling of the Spirit. A few years after I learned this, I found out something else too. The exact same grace given to the Blessed Mother at her conception is offered to us as well. The prayers for today’s Mass make clear,  the grace of the Immaculate Conception is the foreseen grace given by Christ from the cross.

The Holy Spirit desires to dwell in you and me. And by receiving Him we will be made free. Hopefully, we’ll be made free enough to echo the fiat of the Immaculate Conception. So we offer Mary our veneration*, ask for her intercession, and look to her as the model of perfect discipleship.

“And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.'”

 

*Hyperdulia if you’re looking to get fancy.

Feet Fit for a King

Feet Fit for a King

On Monday we wrapped up another amazing EDGE middle school night. It was truly a blessed night touched by the Spirit in every way. Then I went to leave. As I was turning off the lights I heard a small and but unmistakable voice say, “Please use your iPhone flashlight.” As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, it was my feet. Specifically, my toes.  

Let me back up here and explain.

See, EDGE gathers in the lower church meeting space. And the lower church was not designed in a way that anticipated my exact needs (the nerve). The light switch is at the front of the room. The exit is at the back. When leaving, you have to switch off the light and then make your way to the back in complete darkness. It’s a treacherous journey fraught with perils such as Folding Chairs, Round Tables, and of course Solid Oak Pews On Which You Can Whack Your Knee.  Each time I make the journey I feel like Frodo going through Mordor with Sam to destroy the One Ring.

And each time I make this journey I have the same internal trialogue. My toes say, “Kindly use your flashlight app,” and my knees agree wholeheartedly. My eyes say, “Nonsense, I’ll adjust to the darkness in no time and see just fine.” And my brain, who is probably the worst of the three, comes up with these grand ideas about memorizing the position of each chair prior to shutting the lights off, creating a mental map and then using its superior Spatial Relations Skills to make an incident free exit.

And almost each time my toes (and knee) are right to worry. My eyes and brain don’t have evil intentions (though they do suffer from the sin of pride), they’re just not down there at the bottom where the impact of what they do is felt the most. It makes so much more sense to think of the concerns of the member of my body that stands to suffer the most by my inevitably fallible decision making.

In Catholic teaching on social justice we have this principle called the Preferential Option for the Poor. What that means is as Catholics we must, in all circumstances, consider the full impact of our actions on the poor and act in a way that promotes their well being. Or in other words, think first of the concerns of the members of the human family who suffer the most. That’s the rule of Christ’s Kingdom. In His Reign the first are last and the last are first. Jesus Christ is our Lord, King of the Universe and His vast and cosmic Kingship begins with and sees from the viewpoint of the toes.

If we are to be faithful stewards of Christ the King then we need to be more aware of who the toes are in every situation. Poverty is not merely about money. That’s far too narrow a view. There is material poverty all around us, true. The young, especially the very young, most especially the unborn are among the poor. The elderly, and people suffering from illness of mind and body are also among the poor. Immigrants, ethnic, racial and religious minorities, people who identify as LGBT, people suffering from addictions, people imprisoned whether justly or unjustly—all are counted among the poor. Even more, there is spiritual poverty. Spiritual poverty is far more pervasive in our society—those who suffer a poverty of love, a poverty of joy, who are deprived of peace. These suffer the greatest poverty of all—to not know and trust Jesus.

There are countless spiritual poor who have never heard the Good News that there is more to this life, that the God who made them desperately loves them, that He entered into the state of being a fellow toe, died on the cross for their sin and brokenness, rose again on the third day and calls them to Life Eternal. In Jesus’ reign the needs of the poor, both the spiritual and material, come first. And not their needs as they perceive them to be, but as He knows them to be. The hungry need food, the ostracized need a loving embrace, the lost sheep need the Good Shepherd.

We must avoid the temptation to see Christ and His Church as the means to ultimately ending poverty. That makes an idol of social justice and thwarts any effort to build His Kingdom. The noble pursuit of true and lasting justice can only flourish when we realize that life in Christ is the greatest good. If only we could live life fully devoted in service to Him, longing for the day when we hear the words, “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into my joy!” (Matthew 25:21) Because Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe doesn’t long for a kingdom of servants and slaves, but of friends— of Saints.

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.

 

And Heaven Meets Earth Like a Sloppy Wet Kiss

And Heaven Meets Earth Like a Sloppy Wet Kiss

I hate boogers. I have a pretty strong stomach. There are very few things that gross me out. Before I worked for the church I was an EMT at a private ambulance company. People would always ask what was the most disturbing or disgusting thing I had ever seen. Blood? No. Broken bones? Easy to handle. Burns? Nope. That disgusting distinction went to mucus and anything else that emerged from the nose. I’m getting sick just writing this.

I’ve noticed something about my son Caleb. His desire to give me kisses is in direct proportion to the amount of runny nose that has made its way to his mouth. I wish I were making this up. Dry and clean nose? Get away from me dad! Slimy, salty river of snot? You’ve never seen such an affectionate child. But you know what? Much to my surprise it doesn’t gross me out. I’ll take the gross kisses. After all, I love him. If love is stronger than death I have to believe it’s stronger than boogers. So when Caleb leans in for a kiss with a shiny upper lip, he gets a kiss. Then I wipe his face clean. But always love first, without delay, without condition. I’m compelled to. It’s never even a question.  What if I demanded a clean face first? That would place conditions on my love for him. “I love you, but only if…”

Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Tax collectors are corrupt traitors to their people. Their faces are absolutely covered in snot. Zacchaeus knew this, but he also knew he needed Jesus, who had come to town. Zacchaeus raced ahead of the crowds and climbed into a sycamore tree to get a better view. And then Mercy was compelled to act. Mercy is what Love looks like when it meets brokenness, messiness and sin. Listen to Jesus’ words, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” Zacchaeus steps out in faith, literally “goes out on a limb” for Christ and the response is immediate. Jesus must draw closer to Zacchaeus, quickly and without condition. Zacchaeus’ decision to repent of his sin and make amends for any dishonesty is not the cause of Jesus’ love, but the fruit that comes from it. His encounter with Jesus transforms him in an instant.

Jesus calls us to run to him quickly. He must come to dwell with us because He loves us. He wants me and you, snots and all, to know Him. By faith we go out on a limb like Zacchaeus and with the grace we receive through the sacraments “God makes us worthy of his calling.” I pray you have that same transformational encounter with God, who is love and mercy, in the person of Jesus Christ.