Let’s Not Rush Jesus, Shall We?

With over half a dozen radio stations moving into all-Christmas music formats these days and the malls filled with stuffed bears singing Christmas Carols and everyone generally getting into the holiday spirit with Thanksgiving squarely behind us and Advent just a day away, I have only one thing to say.

Stop rushing Jesus.

How often in our lives do we want God to come on our time? And what we most often find is that when God does actually enter into our lives (which is, in fact, daily) and we bother to notice God, that God is right on time.

Most often, my picture of God is in the person of Jesus. I can imagine Jesus walking with me in my most desperate hours and me asking Him why He has waited so long to intervene. And instead of some schmaltzy hallmark card answer like “those times when you see one set of footprints were the times I carried you,” I hear Jesus saying…

“Um, I’ve been right here all along, dumbass!”

Often people reach out to me when they are in great pain and I hope that most of the time I can journey with them in their pain. Because that is what I believe that God does with us as well. I know I’m far from good at this because most of the time I don’t want to be bothered–and even mores, I don’t want people to bother with me when I’m down and out. I choose to push people away and say that I can face matters all on my own.

And when you ask people who are facing suffering about their experience, most often their understandable reaction is that they feel God’s absence. As if God is a sadist and is the one inflicting their pain.

But the truth is that God suffers with us. God doesn’t like cancer, or car accidents, or when kids get shot in schoolhouses. God hates it just as much as we do when young people die accidentally, or someone commits suicide, or someone we love gets sick and never recovers.

And because God loves us enough to give us free will, inevitably bad things happen in the world. And faith calls us to trust that somehow, God redeems our suffering. That tragedy never has the final word and that evil really wants us to believe otherwise and keep us all in desolation.

We all hope to rush consolation..but suffering has a time commitment. We all need to take time to heal–to allow God to heal us, so that we might stand a bit stronger next time out, so that we might learn from mistakes we may have made, so that we might be a bit more sympathetic to others when they end up in the same boat.

And so we might realize that we are not God.

But that God loves us anyway and will redeem all that we suffer and cries when we cry.

We often want to hold someone in suffering and tell them that it’s OK. And the truth is that at the moment, it is very much not OK. Last year I watched a family howl in despair when they gathered to mourn the death of a young man. He was their son, their brother, the father of their child, a friend. A distinct voice of a young woman cried out “THIS IS NOT OK!”

And darn it, if she wasn’t right?

And I hope she knows this day, that God didn’t think it was OK either. None of us could rush her healing. None of us could bring God a bit closer to her in that pain. Desolation and grief are sometimes too overwhelming even for those of us with the strongest of faith.

But when we realize God’s care for us, God’s presence with us…

That’s when God comes right on time.

I believe that this is what Advent is all about. We wait for God, but most often, it is God who waits for us. God waits until consolation can show to us that God is already present. We wait for the mist to lift from the fogginess of our desolate doldrums, so that we might see a bit more clearly the tears of God, crying with us in our pain…crying out from the cross in agony when we are too, crucified by our own crosses.

And God hopes that our fears, our anger, our hatred at times, will not get the best of us.

My colleague, Fr. Tom Colgan, S.J. had a remarkable insight last week. He was meditating on the scene where the “bad” thief rebukes Jesus on the cross. He thought about this guy and the soldiers and all those who jeered at Jesus and mocked Him.

“Man, I hate those people!” he thought.

And the voice he heard from Christ on the Cross was: “I don’t.”

He then thought about all the people in his life who drive him crazy. And he felt the same anger and said “OK, maybe I don’t hate them, but I don’t like them very much.”

“I don’t.” Again, that same cry from the cross.

I took up this meditation myself recently. For me the scene had me at the foot of the cross feeling helpless. “There’s nothing I can do to change this!” was my only thought as tears streamed down my cheeks with John and Mary standing arm in arm with me.

“I can.” came the cry from the cross.

And then…”You just wait.”

Later I meditated on the journey that Mary and Joseph may have taken to bring the Christ-child into the world and I thought of Jesus stirring in Mary’s womb saying, “Don’t rush me, I’m right here and you just wait.”

Perhaps that is our need for this advent. To ask ourselves what is it that we are rushing in our lives? And what might we need to slow down and savor for just a few extra moments?

In those few extra moments, we will find God.

And it will be more than worth the wait.

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Eclipsing Advent?

Read this in a heavy Yiddish accent:

“And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.”
– Elizabeth to Mary.

It makes the whole scene come alive, as if it were taking place in a Jewish deli in Crown Heights!

I’ve learned a lot from Jewish people over the years. Friends and colleagues and now even family have offered me much from their tradition. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from these folks is gratitude. When something wonderful happens, every Jewish person I know says the same thing!

Who am I? Why should this have happened to me?

And so Elizabeth’s greeting of Mary sharpens that scene with her own Jewish lilt:

Who am I that the mother of our Lord should come to me?

Who are any of us that God should come to us?

At mass today, Fr. Xavier reminded us of the truth of today’s gospel. Which is that in fact, God had been with His people all along. But now, God is no longer removed from human experience, God comes to us as a human being, a baby that needs the humanity surrounding Him for protection, but ironically it is us that end up needing the baby far more.

It’s easy for us to forget that we need God. It’s why these holidays are so important to celebrate. They remind. We bring God into our consciousness when we amble along in our own day to day lives. We forget about God so often that the church insists one returning to church once a week. Jesus reminds his disciples in the garden that they couldn’t stay awake for even an hour.

Perhaps advent is our opportunity to remind ourselves that God is in our midst always….not merely once a year at Christmas. It’s also an opportunity to remember that even when we do forget, God is always waiting for us.

The eclipsed spirituality that we all have from time to time means that other things in our lives often take precedence over our need to express our spirituality. The kids, the work, the to-do list, the never ending rat race…all of that muck.

But could it be? No, it can’t be…

Somewhere in the mess of our lives we find God in all of that activity!

We just need to be awake enough to notice it.

Mary DeTurris Poust,in her latest book, Cravings (full review coming in January), reminds us about the need for us to be mindful of God in the rhythm of our lives. We all need to eat and Mary reminds us of how the cycle of our meal preparations can take on a more prayerful meaning. Eating slowly and more purposefully, concentrating on the food can bring a sense of connecting with the divine and with gratitude in our lives.

I often eat breakfast alone. And as I do these days, I find myself falling into the silence of the morning and finding that time to pray amongst the bites. This afternoon my wife and I ate at a local Panera. I found myself taking a bite and clasping my hands…a prayer position and a healthier way to eat as well. It brought to mind the fact that the Holy Family may have been quite hungry that blessed night. Joseph worked hard and must have appreciated a good meal when he got one after a hard day and a long journey.

And the coffee clatch we see today of Mary and Elizabeth speaking of the miracle of God coming into our humanity—a huge surprise— gave me such joy to hear. How much they enjoyed each other’s company that day. Do we use a meal to connect with God and reconnect with one another, looking for God in our day? Or do we eclipse the spiritual moment and shovel food in our mouths and distract ourselves with texting or iPads, or sports scores or other “fillers” that don’t fill us at all?

This advent may our spirituality not become an eclipsed moment, but rather may all of our moments now become an opportunity to find God, lurking amongst us!

Emmanuel, God is with us! Alleluia!

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God Whispers It’s OK

Fran over at Albany’s There Will be Bread blog has a really inspiring post today and reminds us that God has seen us through countless tragedies and asks us if can trust that?

This is something that I and friends in the past few days have struggled with. Straddling the line between forgiveness, horror and trying to move past this without falling into indifference and reminding ourselves that God redeems all suffering. Fran takes the experience of St Joseph and comes up with a great reminder for all of us.

If you were here last week, you heard me refer to the artwork of Brother Mickey McGrath, and I’m about to do that again. Yesterday, when researching images for this post, I came nadcross a video in which Brother Mickey was talking about Joseph and this dream, while showing a painting of Joseph asleep. In the image, the sleeping Joseph’s head is angled down in rest. Above his right ear we see an angel whispering, “It’s OK.”

In those two words we hear what God is trying to tell us – “it’s OK.”

Right now it is very easy to feel like nothing is OK. We have had significant tragedy here locally and we have seen tragedy in Newtown. The “are-we-there-yet?” we were feeling, might be replaced with “can-we-leave-now?” In fact, mentally, maybe we have left, we are just checked out.

Yet – God is with us! God is with us! God is with us!

The reality is that there is always tragedy somewhere, everywhere, even if not in our line of sight. This does not reduce what has happened here, or in Newtown. In places all over the globe, in our own homes and hearts, countless tragedies take place every day, in ways great and small.

Yet – hard as it may be to believe – God is with us. I mean – God is with us! God is with us! We may not always be aware of that angel hovering over our ear whispering, “it’s OK. But that is what is happening, all the time, because God is with us. What will we do with this when we “wake up?”

God asks us to live and believe the great “it’s-OK-ness” that God has promised to us, that God gives to us, this God-with–us, found in Jesus, our Emmanuel.

Go read it all now.

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Jesus: In or Out

So the debate rages on in our house regarding this Christmas tradition:

Do we put the baby Jesus in the manger or do we wait until Christmas for the bambino to make His appearance?

Here’s my wife, Marion’s take. “No. You wait until Christmas Eve and when you come home from Midnight Mass you put him in!”

Mind you, it’s hard to find a “Midnight Mass” that’s not at 10PM anymore, which by the way, is my all time biggest pet peeve. You’ve ruined a great joke: A guy calls the rectory and asks: “What time is Midnight mass, Father?”

“Um, Midnight?”

Not any more! Even the Vatican has moved the time back. We’ve taken one of the most identifiable Catholic traditions in the world and blown it all to bits. And for what? An extra couple of hours of sleep for our choirs and staff? It’s once a year people! There’s just something about Mass at Midnight and I long for it.

So back to the manger. My second point is that I love my wife but about five years ago, she insisted on keeping the baby out of the crib and every time I’d put the figurine in, she’d take him out. So what did she do to fix my wagon? She hid the baby Jesus! But she ran into one small problem.

She hid Him so well that she LOST Him! We had no baby Jesus that year which I’m certain equates to like 4 millennia in purgatory for her and maybe for me for causing her to hide Him in the first place! In fact, we never found Jesus again. I sang amazing grace when we put up the manger the following year. Stand ins for Jesus included some kind of Lego Jesus, a snoopy figurine (which I immediately removed!) and some other kind of baby figurine in a stroller. I finally went out and got a new one a few years ago. Truth be told he’s bigger than Joseph, which can’t be good for his ego and I can clearly hear the Mary figurine saying something like “That kid had a head like a basketball!” (But her labor pains are a whole other post)

My take is simple: The Mary and Joseph figurines are kneeling. Why might they be doing that? For their health? Praying for no labor pains? (Again, that’s a whole other post!). The scene is the Nativity and without Jesus there IS no scene. So put that baby in the manger please!

But perhaps my view is indeed more reflective and theological? Removing Jesus from the manger would be much like what we often try to do: Control God. We want God when we want Him–only exactly when we need Him, even if we’ve forgotten about God for some time. Most of the time, Jesus can be out of the way until we call for him and that suits us just fine.

A manger scene calls to us a simple truth. We are not in control, and God comes to us to experience our humanity in all of it’s fragility. As a baby! God knows our life intimately. God becomes a baby at a time when infant mortality was likely to be quite high. Joseph probably had his hands full in protecting this child and Mary probably worried non-stop.

Taking Jesus away from the manger eliminates the need for the rest of the players with the possible exception of the animals who lived in that manger.

And speaking of animals, I hope you notice the sheepdog (Ripley!) and the Chihuahua (Haze) in our manger scene. So see, I’m not so inflexible with the scene that I won’t take a bit of poetic license. Besides, every kid should have a dog or two.

Friends who agree with my wife say that I’m denigrating the whole purpose of advent by “not waiting” for Jesus. But God is already with us. Maybe it’s God who waits for us? Maybe God is calling us to pay attention to His own vulnerability, reminding us that there are so many vulnerable in the world who live in poverty just like this Holy Family?

Whatever your thoughts are on the manger scene, I hope that the baby Jesus inspires you this Christmas season. And that leads me to one final question:

Three Kings? In the manger or on the other side of the room, getting closer each day?

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We Need a Little Christmas…Sez Fr. Austin

My dear friend, who I only know through his blog, Fr. Austin wrote an amazing homily for the 2nd Sunday of Advent. Included is his Christmas letter to God (as opposed to Santa). And he gives us several things to think about, so be sure to go and read the whole post over at his blog. But here’s a snip:

Once again this year,
I see that I’m quicker to tell the Lord what I want from him
than to listen to hear what he might want from me this Christmas.
After all: it’s his birthday: he should get the presents!

There’s no Christmas tree here, no stockings are hung,
but there’s a table in our midst
and even today we’ll find here the very same gift we received
on the first Christmas, 2000 years ago.

Here, in the Eucharist, we’ll find, we’ll be given, the Son of God.
He came to us in the flesh, born in a stable in Bethlehem,
and he comes to us this morning in his Body and Blood
in Communion.

Pray that this gift open our eyes to the gifts we really need
and, more importantly,
to the gifts we really need to give to others.

We don’t need to wait until December 25th to find the Lord.
He’s already here with us, “right this very minute”
in our prayer, in our hearts and in our waiting…
Yes, we need a little Christmas,
right this very minute,
we need a little Christmas – now…

Amen! Amen! And indeed I say Amen! We all need just a little Christmas—the birth of a savior–and a little Christmas goes a long way. God gives more than we ever can imagine—and it is more than enough! God gives us all of Himself.

We need a little Christmas…on merely on December 25th…but each and every day. And that means that the world also needs US each and every day.

Because Christmas has indeed changed us. Forever.

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Wait for It

We’ve heard the term a number of times…mostly made famous now by Barney Stinson, the character on How I Met Your Mother played brilliantly by Neil Patrick Harris.

Wait for it….

But what indeed do we ever wait for?

I was chiding a friend yesterday for not being on Facebook. I told him that he’d know half of the stuff that is going on with his friends if he was. He seems left behind and I’m trying to tell him, a media professional, that this is how people are choosing to communicate today.

ME: “People don’t have time to make 24 phone calls anymore. One post and everyone knows what’s happening!”

Him: “Oh yeah, well make the time.”

Me: “Um the last person who could make time died on the cross.”

Him: “Look, I’ve got two kids. I have less time than all of you. But I find the time to make a phone call.”

Me: “I suppose. But most people are not going to do that, now that we’ve got this new tool. And as someone in the media, you’ve got to keep up with these things.”

We went back and forth to no avail. But in this world of instant gratification, I wonder if he’s not right?

We don’t want to wait to connect with 25 people individually and have a protracted conversation anymore. And perhaps these less intimate invitations lead us into looser connections with people as a whole. But I find that those I’m connected to on Facebook I actually feel closer to than those I call. I’ve re-connected with many and have gotten close again with people. Those not on facebook don’t call as often as I post on someone’s wall (or they mine). Chances are you’re reading this post because you saw it on Facebook.

Indeed even on Facebook or twitter we find ourselves waiting for something more or someone we love. In fact, we crave connecting with others so much that we’ve found faster and easier ways to do that.

We don’t want to wait to feel closer with those we love.

And that indeed sounds a whole lot like what God does for us.

God could have not entered the world, become like us, became a baby.

Instead God could’ve remained apart from his creation and stayed aloof and distant, like the guy who is out of the loop.

But God chooses to join the social network of humanity. God takes on our human likeness and goes all the way to experience not just our human birth, but our human death. And that also took waiting..growing…becoming and yes, even fearing what one might be waiting for.

While we’re often not willing to wait for things, we indeed also seem to have caught sight of the desire and the need for connection. How then, this advent might we deepen these social networking relationships?

Maybe we do need to make a call this advent, or pay an extra visit, or write a Christmas Card that has your picture in it and not just the kids?

Maybe God is calling all of us this advent not to denigrate the social networking phenomena, but rather to ask ourselves what has this awakened in us?

God could not bear to be apart from us. Who might we want to be just a bit closer to this Advent? Who needs some more time than we are usually willing to give? Who craves our presence and could use just a bit more of our time? Who is often ignored and shoved to the side in society that we just might give a smidgen of our time for them in this busyness of the season.

Who is waiting for us? What are we waiting for in our lives? What do we always shove aside for later? A phone call. A visit. A kind word. A volunteer commitment. They all wait for us this advent.

And in no longer waiting we become more like God, who waits for us constantly to awaken to God’s presence among us in our lives.

God chooses to NOT wait for us. Like the father of the prodigal son, he runs to us, embraces our life and shivers in the cold of the manger. And it was enough.

What more could we be waiting for?

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A St Joseph Advent Prayer

I held him in my arms
While Mary rested
Overwhelmed we were
A long journey behind us
A longer one in front of us

I rested him
in the wood of the manger
with the itchy hay
and a donkey eating his pillow
now and again.

The wood called to me
Working with wood
Is my trade
But this wood
Supports a baby
A baby that is not mine
But that I was called to support anyway

I didn’t even get any lines in the Gospels
A silent saint, who dreams and runs
to and fro with precious cargo.
We were the tabernacle back then.

And when we lost him in the temple
Oy vey! That was frightening!

The carpenter’s son
That seems right

For the night I laid my baby in the wood
I knew that the wood
Would also save me
Not from responsibility
But from my own mistakes
My arrogance and fear
And help me trust that God
knows what he’s doing.

My son is still the savior
Who was nailed to the wood
To save us with his pierced and
splintered hands
And while I was not his father
By any biological means
I was called to be his DAD!
And that was more than enough
To help him save us all.

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From the Archives: St. Joseph Who?

Fr. Jim McDermott, S.J. produced this short video with me playing the role of St. Joseph in 2008. I dug it up the other day and it still makes me laugh. And now St. Joseph is the patron saint of my parish in Buffalo.

Enjoy and Happy Advent!

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Outward and Inward Hearts

On today’s feast of Christ the King, Fr. Jack Ledwon, my pastor, reminded me in this morning’s homily that Jesus is really the King of Hearts, a king like no other. The only space that Jesus looks to own is the space of our hearts.

It gave me pause when he asked “How much of your heart are you willing to let him rule?”

The truth of much of our lives is that of our quiet desperation to belabor an old adage. Often we go unreflective, not taking much time to pray and just moving from one thing to another…perhaps even one sin to another at times. And we do very little reflection about who we are and how we are living, hoping that matters just sort themselves out.

Recently, I wrote about how we ministers in parish life spend most of out time maintaining. We maintain the programs and existing ministries that we’ve established. We maintain the important sacramental life of the church–those outward symbols of our faith. I argued recently that we need to spend less time looking at these inward matters and spend more time encouraging parishioners to look outward…to spend more time outside of the pews as a community serving the needs of others, especially the poor. How do we convert others to our side? By letting them see who we are and they will KNOW we are Christians by our love.

But how will we know that we are Christians? How will we deepen our experience? How do we take our OUTWARD experience and move INWARD reflecting on what we’re doing and asking ourselves what is going on in our hearts? How much of our hearts do we allow to be touched by our experiences and how have we had our hearts changed by Christ?

How much time do we spend thinking about how our hearts might be and are already being changed by God?

The truth is that our hearts can stretch much farther than we think they can. But in order for that to happen, we have to be willing to look inwardly at the deepest part of ourselves and be unafraid to see where God is touching our hearts and where we shut God out, when we are unwilling to let God or others in.

And that means we must take time to reflect and our parishes need to take some time to encourage that.

I can already hear the groaning from some. Don’t we all have some resistance to looking deeply within our own hearts? Don’t we all complain about not having enough time for all the various activities in our lives already? When will we squeeze in our prayer time?

Perhaps where God is speaking to us most in our busy world is in this uncomfortable space where we know and understand that we need and want to reflect, but that it also isn’t a priority for most of us. And maybe it should be. What if we prioritized that prayer-relationship with God just for the period of Advent?

If God is with us and more importantly within us, then we don’t have that far to go to reach just a bit more often to God in our hearts. In this season where we often believe that we wait for God at Christmas may we realize that God also waits for us.

Let us rush towards God with our whole hearts this Advent and spend more time with God in our hearts.

That might just be enough to change our hearts forever.

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Seeing Christ in the Telemarketer

While I was in college one of my work-study jobs was to work at the phon-o-thon center where our job was to call alumni for donations. The result of every phone call was one of two reactions:

1) “OMG FORDHAM! I love Fordham! I remember hanging out until 4 AM on Edward’s Parade my senior year after hanging out at Clarke’s bar. Sure I can donate something.”

or

2) “I hate Fordham and the Jesuits and everything associated with them, you SOB and never EVER call me again, you bleep.”

The latter helped me develop a thick skin for those kinds of comments, realizing that the caller had experiences that had nothing to do with me. It was difficult to hear at times and my editor at Orbis, Mike Leach, reminded me of this experience in his recent column in the National Catholic Reporter.

Leach talks about trying to find the face of Christ in everyone he meets and that he often fails at it. But he cites several people who enter his life who he has to remind himself that they are Christ. Especially those who we find on the other end of the phone, invited or not.

This worked beautifully for most of my work life (one author said, “Every time Mike picks up the phone you feel like he’s been waiting his whole life just to talk to you” — that’s how you feel when you really know it’s the Christ on the line) until I semiretired and just about every time I picked up the phone it was a telemarketer who wouldn’t let go of my ear. That wore on my patience until a friend told me that my favorite spiritual teacher, Dr. Thomas Hora, had this telephone maxim: “Before you say hello, say I love you.” Now I don’t always say that to myself before I pick up the phone (or before someone I am calling picks up their phone) and I only sometimes remember that is the voice of Christ on the other end, but I am discovering that both of these practices are beneficial habits that put me in my proper place. Even with a telemarketer.

I hope I can be as gracious as Mike Leach is and has been to me.

Perhaps that’s not just a lesson for advent but for every day.

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