Who Else Was in the Manger?

386097_10100277295624250_1163952968_n When I put together the manger scene in our house, it has the usual cast of characters: Shepherds, Wise Men, sheep, cows, donkeys, a dog and of course, Mary Joseph and the baby Jesus (who we argue about the time he gets to go into the manger).

But our gospel today tells us that the Shepherds went in haste to find Mary and Joseph and the child in the manger. It was there that they let everyone know the message that the angels gave them.

“All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the Shepherds.”

It occurred to me that perhaps the stable was already inhabited by other people. After all, I’m sure there was no room in the inn for plenty of other people who were in town for the census.

My friend and colleague, Fr Jack Ledwon, reminded us recently, that “when God comes to us, He never comes alone. He always brings someone with him.” Here in this scene he brings shepherds and animals but who knows who else?

We too, are a manger. Housing God in our hearts. Opening the doors to suggest to us that we need to let more than God into our hearts. Each time we let God into our hearts we might just find that God calls us to open the door to our hearts just a bit wider to let someone else inside as well.

Who in your life is knocking on those doors this day, this first day of the year? Might we start the year out by letting someone that we often choose to keep out into our lives more readily? Is there someone who has hurt us that we now have shielded ourselves from in an unforgiving fortress? Does someone make us uncomfortable and we react by pushing them out? Are there lonely people, neglected, that are all too easy for us to ignore and not care to be be bothered.

This day, God calls each of us to be blessed by the presence of another. And each time we do, we find that we are blessed by God as well–who opens our hearts to help us find that we have a greater capacity to love than we think we do.

Love the Squirrel

So this summer the four spiritual interns here at Canisius asked me if I could approach my colleague, Fr. Tom Colgan, SJ about delivering his “squirrel homily.” Turns out that he gave this homily on their freshman retreat about a squirrel that fell out of a tree and nearly landed in his head, it startled him, but he received much grace from this incident, because indeed life often throws us unexpected things–things that can startle us.

“But…” he said, “You have to love the squirrel that is in front of you.”

A great insight! And a memorable homily for our students. And it draws from St Ignatius’ first principle and foundation. It matters not, what we will face in life–what matters is that God will face those matters with us and never leave us alone. And that with God’s grace in our lives that gives us the opportunity to love others and to overcome the obstacles that are put in front of us. A bit like this critter:

So, to our dear spiritual interns, Kaitlin, Ben, Darby and Alison…and to Fr Tom Colgan…Keep loving the squirrel that is in front of you. For you all have received the grace from God to overcome anything with God’s help.

Holy Innocents

Today is the feast of the Holy Innocents, for those not aware, the Holy Innocents are the children who were slaughtered by King Herod who, in his madness, was trying to make sure he killed the newborn King, by killing all male babies in the vicinity. It’s a horrible story. Joseph takes Jesus and Mary to Egypt to protect them after hearing of the danger in a dream and thus, the King escapes anyway despots Herod’s attempt to insure his murder.

We need not think too hard to discover that we have many Holy Innocents today. Newtown, CT comes to mind, of course. And perhaps Herod’s failure gives us an opportunity for spiritual reflection today. Despite the worst atrocity that those parents we read about in scripture face, God continues to be with us anyway. Imagine the horror on the faces of Mary and Joseph when they receive word of the slaughter and I suppose, the relief that they were able to protect their child from it. I imagine that they had some survivor’s guilt. I wonder about the parents who wouldn’t relinquish their children to the authorities and I wonder if they perhaps too were killed. The men who carried out the order that day, who were just “following orders” remind me of the Nazis in World War II as well. We all have our own individual liberty and can choose whether or not to follow an immoral order. I wonder too, if there were not some soldiers unwilling to kill a child?

And God was sad. I’m convinced of it. While God warns Joseph in a dream, it seems heartless that God doesn’t warn all the parents, doesn’t it? Evil indeed is strong in the world and perhaps the wise on amongst us begins to realize that some days evil does gain a foothold?

But evil never gains the final word. While children get slaughtered, God redeems suffering, changes that incident into everlasting life for those harmed. Something that evil can never take hold of, despite the evil that always lurks in the world. Sometimes innocent people are harmed. Sometimes children get trafficked. Sometimes evil gets the best of ourselves too when we sin and especially when we sin horribly.

But God always has the last word. And that is what we must have faith in today. That each time evil happens in the world we need to be saddened by it, even angry about it. But our anger needs to be channelled through faith. We need to have the faith that says, “Evil will not control my hope. I will not fall into despair and hopelessness because I know God will somehow make all of this brokenness whole again.”

That’s a tough message to believe in, when we still have horrible slaughters of innocent children today. But believe it we must. So today, let us pray for all of the Holy Innocents–not just those in today’s gospel, but the children of Newtown, the children abused by clergy and other trusted people in their lives, children killed for no good reason, victims of war and poverty, children lost in abortion. All those who have had a right to live taken away by another. We lift our lives up to God in hope today and have faith in their name that they might be willing to also pray for us, so that we might be better able to believe that they are with God.

And may that provide more than enough hope for us today.

What Makes a Good Preacher?

I’ll admit I’m spoiled. We have what I consider great preaching in my parish. For the most part, I choose a parish based on the preaching more than any other element. While I enjoy good music and consider a welcoming atmosphere to be of paramount importance, I also want to hear good preaching more than anything else at mass.

It seems as if the Bishops have finally realized the importance of good preaching or rather, the lackluster preaching performance of late in the Catholic Church in the United States. They devoted a good deal of their meeting to the importance of preaching this year.

According to the bishops’ new document, and using the Catholic term, “catechize,” for teaching the faith, today’s preacher “must realize that he is addressing a congregation that is more culturally diverse than previously, one that is profoundly affected by the surrounding secular agenda and, in many instances, inadequately catechized.”

Fr. Wester (A pastor in Missouri) said he believes the document does a good job suggesting a balance. On one side is the responsibility of the priest to use his time in front of a captive audience each Sunday to teach, and on the other is the duty to foster a mystical connection between God and his flock.

“If we want people to understand their faith, catechesis has to make sense for them in their own life,” Wester said. “Sometimes I want you to know I’m your pastor, an authority. Jesus was not afraid to speak the truth, and then love people.”

Some of this makes me wonder what most people think about preaching? Do some really like “fire and brimstone” homilies? I’m sure others prefer a lighter touch. Some want a short homily 5-6 minutes while others are offended if the homily is less than 10 minutes. I’ll say that for myself, I want to be moved by the preachers words and I want the homily to be thoughtful, make it obvious that you’ve put some time into this.

Good preachers are really good story-tellers. They can weave a good and meaningful story around the message of the readings of the day and then most importantly point us back to the altar of sacrifice where we hear the challenge of the readings along with God’s undying effort to re-connect with humanity and to give them His entire self so that they might have strength for the journey.

Good preaching always refers to the readings of the day and always mentions Jesus Christ at least once. It’s lively and engaging and holds people’s interest. It grabs them “where they live” and tries to move heart and head to live the message of Christ in their daily lives.

I get to preach from time to time at various events where it’s appropriate for me to preach as a campus minister. If I do say so myself I think I’m pretty good–people often tell you when you are good. They rarely tell you when you suck.

A preaching professor once told a friend that preaching always refers to the scripture and that “the scripture is only about salvation.”

My friend replied quite strongly by saying, “Funny, I thought the SCRIPTURES were about love!”

It does seem to me that many people have quite different ideas about preaching. Some really want that fire and a “you’re going to hell if you don’t straighten out your life and others would find that hurtful and condescending (myself included).

What moves you in preaching? The challenging homily? The moving story that you relate to? The guy who doesn’t hold back and says tough things that makes you squirm in your seat? The guy who teaches you about the history of the Bible? What keeps you coming back week after week?

Fr. Tom Foley, CSP once said to a bunch of people:

“You need two things to preach effectively. One is a trip to your local K-Mart and the other is three hours of silence. The trip to K-mart is where you’ll meet the people you’re going to be preaching to. You’ll see the concerns of their lives and follow them as they look for that elusive blue light special.

The three hours of silence?

You need that reflective time because the message that you preach to them is ultimately one that you need to hear yourself.”

I think that’s on the mark. I think every preacher should have a sounding board, one person who they can ask about their preaching–maybe even a team of people–and get some feedback from. Fr. Jack Collins, CSP does that for me and he’s been an amazing help. My preaching is so much better because of his guidance.

“One idea..not four.” “Less theology…more down to earth.” “You’re being too harsh…I wanted to tell you to go jump in the lake when you said that I don’t care enough about the poor.” “You’re meandering…tell me in ONE sentence what you want the message you’re sending to say.”

All good advice from one of America’s best preachers in my opinion.

I’ll say this, I think ordination alone doesn’t qualify someone to preach at mass or anywhere else for that matter. There are some great lay people who are outstanding preachers, some great women religious as well. Priests and Deacons perhaps should have to pass some kind of board to get preaching faculties and perhaps there should even be an order called “preacher” that could be offered in the church that goes beyond priests and deacons and gives laity an opportunity to participate more often and at mass, under certain circumstances.

So what about you? What’s the best homily you ever heard? Who’s the best preacher you ever heard? What makes a good homily?

I’m sure there are a bunch of preachers who are dying to know your thoughts.

When It Seems Like the Stars are Falling Out of the Sky

Here is a reflection from last night’s apocalyptic Sunday readings:

Hey! What’s new?

That can be a catch up line…But “what’s new” can also be scary. After all, who knows what day it will be when our world ends? The Mayans tell us that the world will end of December 21, 2012 at 11:11 …I’m not sure if that’s Eastern Standard Time or not–so don’t hold me to that!

And while I’m not buying that prediction and hope you’re not either, it has given me reason to reflect on the question of:

Where will you be when your world ends?

And we can take that any way we wish…because the truth is that your world ends pretty often.

Let’s face it….Your world ends when something unexpected or tragic happens…someone dies, you lose a job, you break up, there’s a hurricane.

What’s new…sometimes is not at all good!

And the truth of today’s readings is not merely to be careful, or even fearful because life can change in a moment’s notice–it’s precisely the opposite.

The message of the Gospel is to live more boldly—not just because our time on earth is fleeting but also because Jesus reminds us that even when our world ends: God is always near, caring for us anyway—making all things new.

For people of faith, even the end of the world is a new beginning.

Jesus tells us in the Gospel:

“In the same way, when you see these things happening,
know that he is near, at the gates.”

What a great image because a gate often represents a time of transition. And whenever a gate closes we stand on the opposite side of it at a new beginning. And we have the freedom to go any way we wish and God will be with us on that journey.

And we need to trust that when all kinds of horrible things surround us each day: War, hurricanes, break-ups, deaths…that God continues to be faithful to us.

And that is not an easy thing to remember.

Because in our most challenging moments don’t we often let fear and even hopelessness take the lead? Don’t we often question if God is even there at all? Don’t we fear, just a bit, that when the world ends there just might not be a Jesus on the other side of it all?

Do you know what I fear more than anything else?

That I simply just don’t become forgotten!

And I have some logical reasons to fear that. Because how many of us can remember our great-great-grandparents? Probably very few of us. What about people even older than that in our heritage? Oh sure, we can look up the geneology records but honestly the truth is that most of us will eventually become just like them. Forgotten.

And think that is why we come here. Because God reminds us that becoming forgotten on this earth doesn’t matter.

Because even when our entire generation, all those with first hand knowledge of our very existence passes away… God still remembers us.

What’s even better is that God embraces us, each one of us, and all he asks each one of us to do is to remember that.

And if we do, well, shouldn’t we live a bit more joyfully? Filled with this good news, shouldn’t this call us to not be afraid of what will happen at the end of our world because we know and believe that God makes all things new?

And when we come hear each week, we come not merely to fulfill an obligation out of fear but also, don’t we also come to be reminded of the great hope that God gives us here at this altar where we see God provide for us his body and blood, our reminder to us, that just as God changes bread and wine into His body and His blood, He also changed death into life.

And because God makes all things new again, shouldn’t that call us to do the same?

When tragedy strikes often everyone else tells us we should lay down..but God tells us to get up. Everyone tells us it’s hopeless…God tells us to hope. There is always more to talk about than despair.

These are the last few weeks of our Church calendar. In just two weeks, we move into the season of advent. And what do we do at the end of the year? We make resolutions. We try to die to some old ways of living that aren’t healthy. Lose a few pounds. Eat healthier. Spend more time with family and friends. Get rid of some bad habits. Forgive someone… or ask forgiveness ourselves.

Why do we do that? Because in the deep recesses of our soul we know that we too are called to make all things new. And we need to be mindful of the fact that just as we live a bit more each day, we also die a bit more each day.

So, there’s one question for us to answer tonight: What do you want to make new in your life?

This week know that God is ready to help you make something new on that journey. And even better….

when it seems like the sun has been darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars seem to be falling from the sky,
and one might think that the powers in the heavens have be shaken.

That’s when God is even closer to us, embracing us, and inviting us to stretch ourselves just a bit farther to believe that God still exists at all, despite all the problems we are going to face over the course of our lives.

As we begin to move towards Advent–let us remember that God is already here.

And guess what…that’s nothing new.

Abraham’s Faith

Today’s first reading is one of my favorites. I know someone is thinking…”FAVORITES? God asks Abraham to kill his only son–why in the world would that be your favorite reading?”

Well it is. And here’s why.

First of all it’s a dramatic story where God seemingly asks Abraham to do something unthinkable. And the question we have to ask is the one we should ask: Why?

In some ways I wonder why Abraham wouldn’t ask the same question. And I’m sure he did. I can see him standing there wondering why God would ask such a question of him. But I can also see him humbly standing before God, assured that it was God’s voice that asked this of him–because Abraham knew God well–and after all, Isaac was given to Abraham and Sarah in their old age by God. “Who am I to not give him back to God if he wants him?” is something I can imagine him saying in a deep Brooklyn Jewish accent (as I hear almost all biblical characters speak)–a resignation that simply in the retelling of the story says: “So I went. What could I do? I could do nothing else but what God commands.”

But even deeper thinking reminds us not of the horror of the command, but of God’s promise.

God further said to Abraham: As for Sarai your wife, do not call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah.
I will bless her, and I will give you a son by her. Her also will I bless; she will give rise to nations, and rulers of peoples will issue from her.j
Abraham fell face down and laughed* as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah give birth at ninety?”
So Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael could live in your favor!”
God replied: Even so, your wife Sarah is to bear you a son, and you shall call him Isaac. It is with him that I will maintain my covenant as an everlasting covenant and with his descendants after him

Isaac is Abraham and Sarah’s only descendant. So God MUST have a plan. Abraham knows to trust God that he must be going to make this OK.

I can see Abraham’s eyes well up with water when Isaac asks him where the lamb is for the sacrifice. “Son, God himself will provide the lamb.”

I hear that voice of the angel shouting “Abraham, ABRAHAM!” stopping the forward thrust of the knife just in time. And the shock in the angel’s voice “Do not do the least thing to him.”

Child sacrifice was common at the time of Abraham. And God’s test is one of Abraham’s faithfulness. I often think that God wanted to see if even a righteous man like Abraham would think that this could possibly come from God and the truth is that the child sacrifice was so common that even Abraham thought that God could require it. Legend tells us that sacrificing children was ceased after this.

How do we listen to the voice of God in our lives and can we trust enough that we might go somewhere where we might not wish to go? Can we discern between God’s voice and the evil one and know what voice to listen to?

Can we believe that the promise God makes to Abraham is also one he makes to us? That all good things come from God and that our job is to trust God enough to know that God is all we truly need.

And that when God truly calls us, we just might look beyond everything and remember all that God has promised to us.

A Unitarian on Faith Formation

Since the Unitarians are a creedless faith, The Rev. Peter C. Boullata took up the charge of hoping that they haven’t “institutionalized narcissism. He talks about the challenge to do faith formation in their denomination. I was both excited and troubled that they have some of the same problems that we Catholics do at times with proclaiming “Just who they heck are we as church anyway and how do we teach others to proclaim that?”.

Rev Peter writes in post entitled The Liberal Church Finding Its Mission: It’s Not About You:

A good deal of this slippage comes from a lack of opportunities for faith formation in our congregations, especially among adults. A disciplined search for truth and meaning takes effort; it takes discipline. Being unencumbered by doctrine ought not imply that doctrine is not examined for the truth it may contain. Indeed, not being constrained by creedal formulations seems to have been translated into an abandonment of theological reflection altogether. We offer a non-dogmatic approach and context to religious inquiry without equipping members of our communities for the search. Discerning your spiritual path is difficult without tools, without support.

Faith formation is not simply adult religious education. Run a couple of classes on building your own theology and spiritual practice and then you’re done. Formation involves worship and preaching, mission work and governance. It’s the work of the entire enterprise of being church together. It takes place collectively, mutually as well as individually. We are also formed as people of faith in conversation with the tradition, with our historic testimonies. The tradition speaks to us and we respond. We respond lovingly, critically, thoughtfully–but recognize that our historic context has a voice shaping today’s conversation about who we are and what we’re about.

At times, I think we Catholics too tend to overlook our creed in favor of highlighting a God of love and casting “what we stand together on” to the wind. Obviously, even within churches people have healthy disagreement and even dissent at times–a church this big is bound to see that. Yet, we can’t just be a “God is love, now draw a rainbow” church. We also can’t just highlight the social justice aspects without some theology to back up why the heck we care about the poor. We also can’t afford to not help people with their own personal spiritual journey. How do people come to know God and form images of God–and most importantly, how do they let God be God and work on them so that they might become all that God made them to be?

A final comment from our Unitarian friend:

Inasmuch as Unitarian Universalist communities continue to neglect discernment, theology, discipline, spiritual practice, faith formation, vocation and engagement with our historic testimonies and tradition, we will never be a missional religious movement. As long as we are known as the church of individual seekers we will never have the kind of impact that a missional religion has on transforming the world. It should go without saying that the chronically self-involved have no interest in serving the needs of others.

What would it take for us to be known in the wider community for some of the traits, characteristics and perspectives we hold in common and that we continue to share with our historic legacy? What would it take for our communal calling as a faith community to become as important as our much-vaunted individual spiritual journeys?

What do people say about your church as they drive past it to others? Are we the church where they believe that we should serve the needs of the poor because Jesus held them in special regard? Are we the church that encourages people to explore their relationship with the divine and to talk with others about that? Are we a church with a mission to change not just the world but also our own prejudices, biases and other shortcomings? Are we a church that encourages dialogue and yet can hold on to truths we’ve come to know in a dynamic tension?

I hope we are. But I fear sometimes, we just have people, especially young people to draw a rainbow and call it a day.

A hat tip to my favorite Unitarian Peacebang

An Old Man’s Advent Dream

Deacon Bill Ditewig, one of my heroes, wrote possibly the most beautiful advent reflection I’ve read to date.

Here’s a snip:

Right now we have many Catholics who don’t even like to reach out and take someone else’s hand at the greeting of peace before communion. Those folks are really not going to like my dream, since not only do I hope that they will shake someone else’s hand, but actually, beginning at Midnight Mass this Christmas, I’m hoping that they will open their arms and embrace tightly that dirty, smelly homeless man who’s been living in a cardboard box down the street from the church. In fact, it is precisely to those who have been excluded by everyone else that Christ is coming into the world.

My dream is really quite simple. Christ willingly emptied himself completely into human nature. We either believe that or we don’t. Human nature is the common denominator here. If Christ is to be found there, then we are to be found there. The “Church” isn’t a place for those who have successfully navigated life. It’s a haven for all those who admit their sinfulness, their brokenness, their need for others and for God.

Amen, brother. What can we all do to make this dream a reality this Christmas?