Reflection for Sunday’s Gospel


Today’s Gospel gives me much to reflect on

Taking a child, he placed it in the their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.”

We’ve been talking a lot here about children being a bit of a handful for parents at mass and indeed we all have had experiences of that being true. We’ve seen soccer moms who have all they can do to get their children to simply sit still at mass. We often talk a good game about passing on the faith to our children but don’t really know the best way to teach them about Jesus.

It is Catechetical Sunday and we owe a great deal of gratitude to those who formally teach our children the Catholic faith, prepare them for their first sacraments and in general, provide them with spiritual guidance. But ask any teacher and they will most likely agree that it’s these children who often teach us more about Jesus than we teach them.

A quick story…OK maybe not so quick…but I will do my best to condense each…

I was a camp counselor for 6 years and there is one story that I always remember.

Mark Kissell was a soft-spoken, introverted 5 year old who wasn’t very athletic. A bit of a hothouse flower, he was afraid of playing anything with a ball. I even rolled the ball to him once and he ran away from it. He wasn’t enjoying camp in fact, he was afraid of getting out of the car some days.

But Marc was such a sweet kid. He would always share toys and was polite to his counselors. In fact, his favorite words seemed to “excuse me.” His brother, Andrew, a bit more outgoing, would try to get him to play more but Marc was just afraid.

So I decided that Marc was going to be my project for the year. A small victory would be to get him to play catch with me. Everyday I’d start to throw the dodgeball to him a little harder and he’d become more comfortable catching and throwing and even missing the ball wasn’t such a big deal anymore.

He graduated to a heaver basketball. And began to learn to dribble and shoot. For days he got nowhere close to the basket. But a little practice got him to hit the rim of the basket on one afternoon. I knelt down to him and said “Marc, you are so close to getting that ball in the basket…just a little more ooompf this time and you’ll do it!”

Marc closed his eyes, visualizing that ball going in as I had taught him. He took the ball and launched it towards the basket…and as the ball floated into the basket…swish!…his eyes grew so wide and his smile so bright that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone look that happy again. I hoisted him on my shoulders and we ran around the gym. He hugged me so tightly and his mom was so proud at the end of the day. For me, it was a moment when I realized what joy really consisted of and what I had experienced was an opportunity not to experience accomplishment but to experience the joy of newness…of seeing things through the eyes of a child. The amazement of a child–the sheer pleasure of simplicity was a moment where Jesus was clearly present in a very vivid way. That moment for Marc and I was over 23 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. The world seemed to slow down and God was indeed fully present…I just knew I was there because I needed to understand this gospel passage:

“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.”

When we are with children we have a great responsibility to see the awe that they see, to recapture our own amazement for the mundane, to see world embued with God’s grandeur. We often miss that. We miss the giggling exuberance of children in favor of our own jaded adulthood. We look for God’s grace and often find it hard to find.

Until we see God all over again through a child’s eyes.

Jesus destroyed death and includes us in his life…but do we ever have a child’s enthusiasm for something so grand? When we get on line for communion do we have a childlike anticipation of receiving Jesus into our bodies, or is it just another “thing to do”?

Perhaps each time we hear a baby cry at mass, or a rambunctious child in church we might want to think that they cannot help their wailing because they can’t understand why we too are not stirring in our souls!

You Have Searched Me And You Know Me Lord

Psalm 139 is one of my favorite and it is the responsorial psalm today at mass. I used to love the Dan Schutte song “Yahweh, I Know You Are Near” which is based on the psalm. Soon (if not already) in honor of our Jewish breathren we will probably not be allowed to sing it since the term Yahweh is really not supposed to be said.

Actually, the term centers around the second commandment of not taking God’s name in vain. We often think this refers to uttering God’s name as a curse, but the commandment itself centers on vanity, meaning thinking too much of ourselves. Ancient Judaism took the idea of vanity very seriously. We can almost hear the stereotype of the Jewish mother saying, “Who do you think you are?” (Cultural note: My Irish mother has the same tendencies–we are united in guilt). And that indeed was exactly their point about the name of God. Jews don’t even write out the letters. Instead, they write G-D. God’s name is so revered that they wouldn’t dare say it or write in. How did the term Yahweh come into being? Try this.

Take a deep breath…all together now…. YAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH

And exhale together…..WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEHHHHHHHHHHH.

It is our very breath, our being that is centered in God, the sound of life. We don’t dare say the name of the one who is Lord who is as mysterious as the wind. For anything more would be our own vanity.

I still love the song and will share it here and hope that it’s still on the books as an OK hymn for at least a while longer. Here is a funky version by the Jericho Youth Choir:

I also have a fondness for the song because a priest friend who will remain nameless here used to sing a parody version:

Yahweh, I know you drink beer
Standing always at the keg
You guard me from the foam
And You lead me to bars that are cheesy.

I hope that I haven’t alerted anyone’s heresies. And if I have…well, it’s probably not the first time.

What is Inside also Reflects the Outside


A short time ago I worked alongside one of the loveliest women I have ever met. She was African-American and treated all of the people in her department at the radio station like they were her own children. In short, she loved us and we in turn loved her and worked hard for her. I would say that if anybody ever even dared to say a bad word about her dozens of people would come to her defense.

One day we had a guest at the station who was an elderly Southern born woman. She grew up as a white woman in the South on a plantation. We started to ask her about what it was like being on the plantation as a young woman. She replied that she would watch for all the new cotton crops to be ready. And she knew they were ready when she’d see the heads of the little (racial epithet for black) children bounce up and down near the crops to let them know that it was time to pick the cotton.

I was stunned. She had said this on the air and didn’t think twice about it. She even repeated a similar word later in the interview. The worst part was that the sound engineer didn’t catch it in time and her words went out over the air.

I walked down the hall ashamed and embarrassed that this happened on a show I was associated with. I went into the office of the woman who I admired so much to tell her what had happened and she insisted that i play her the recording of the incident. After I did I think I heard her curse for the first time ever.

We tried to calm her down and made excuses like “She’s an ignorant, old, redneck woman. She ain’t gonna change anytime soon. Just give her a pass. In her day those words were actually polite words that people used to describe black people (she did not use the infamous n-word).

What this eloquent, classy woman said next was spot on:

“For that kind of hatred to come out of someone’s mouth the hatred of black people has to be buried very deep within themselves. So don’t any of you tell me that I should excuse that kind of racism. It runs very deep and is very present. She needs to clean up her pre-conceived notions because she really believes deeply that black people are inferior.”

Wow. Was she ever right.

Jesus is telling the Pharisees similar words about themselves in today’s Gospel:

“You cleanse the outside of cup and dish,
but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence.
Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup,
so that the outside also may be clean.”

Appearances are often everything. NIke for years used the slogan “Image is Everything.” And in essence Jesus is saying the opposite:

What you are internally is exactly what you often show to the rest of the world. If you are vile on the inside, you will be vile on the outside. More importantly, if you hold hatred and prejudice deep within, then eventually those notions creep into your everyday speech, actions and ways of life.

Like the Pharisee, I too, need to look at my own pre-conceived notions and prejudices. Who do I pre-judge? How do I treat those who I have judged to be “less than” or “trash” or “low lives?” In my mind I indeed may think I am better than many. But in essence my cup is just as filthy with sin as anybody else’s.

Even those who I think are the dregs of society.

We all have our own cups to clean inside and out. Let’s make sure we do a holistic job of cleansing our own hearts and minds of the deep seated prejudices and sinful behavior that we often try to hide, even from oursleves–where we think “I’m not really like that.”

Much like our elderly Southern guest, we do in fact have vile parts of oursleves. Cleansing them will not be easy but merely glossing over the issues and presenting them in a prettier package does not make them any better. Sin is still sin.

Let us pray today for victims of race and injustice that they made truly be able to keep their cups hate-free and so that those who cause them injustice might see the love that they respond to them with and have their hearts changed and the inner parts of their souls scrubbed clean.

“Can anything good come from Nazareth?”


After a friend got a nice promotion at a company a fellow co-worker of ours claimed that he had a “better pedigree” and was more suited for the promotion. Another friend one time clearly was being denied a job because she was black and the white person who was also up for the job has “better connections.”

How often do we all pre-judge people because of their resume? How much of a parent’s reputation gets handed to their children? Older brothers and sisters often set a pace that the younger ones have to live up to…both good and bad.

For people like myself who come from a lower middle class background, this can be both a blessing and a curse. When my first book was published I remember being envious of another author whose first book seemed to reach a much larger audience than mine. A mutual friend said to me, “Mike, you had no connections, no inside track, nobody working for you and yet, you published a book, and a good book. You covered a lot more ground with a lot fewer resources at your disposal. If anyone should be proud of an accomplishment it should be you and your family. You did all of this from nothing.”

I didn’t know whether to be proud or offended. After all, it’s a huge compliment to accomplish so much to be sure. But it’s also somewhat condescending to hear that people don’t think much of your background.

For those who come from a prominent family, much is expected. Pressure can seem like it is insurmountable, especially when your gifts are not your family’s gifts. It can be unfair and unsettling. And you can be caught in a pattern of dissatisfaction because you end up living someone else’s plan for your life.

Jesus was from the backwater of all backwater towns. Infant mortality was high and the fact that Mary and Jesus made it to the ages that they did was quite an accomplishment on it’s own (and probably a testament to St Joseph’s hard work!). Clearly even some of Jesus’ own disciples doubted that a man from his neck of the woods could have accomplished as much as Jesus had already.

And Jesus’ snarky response: “Pal, you ain’t seen nuthin yet! We Nazoreans can do a lot more than you might think.”

So everytime we have the tendency to judge someone based on their background, we should remind ourselves of the following poem. Perhaps you’ve heard it. It’s called One Solitary Life and it is usually attributed to James Allen Francis:

He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant.

He grew up in another village, where he worked in a carpenter shop until he was 30.

Then, for three years, he was an itinerant preacher.

He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a home.
He didn’t go to college. He never lived in a big city. He never traveled 200 miles from the place where he was born.

He did none of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself.

He was only 33 when the tide of public opinion turned against him.
His friends ran away.
One of them denied him.

He was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial.
He was nailed to a cross between two thieves.
While he was dying, his executioners gambled for his garments, the only property he had on earth.
When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave, through the pity of a friend.

Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race.
I am well within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned–put together–have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that

one,
solitary
life.

We all can do much no matter who we are and we all need to see that others can do much as well.

Today may we think about the types of backgrounds that we usually pre-judge. Let us remind ourselves that Jesus own disciples thought less of him because of where he came from. And let us pray that our own solitary lives can contribute much even when others tell us otherwise.

Life’s Not Always a Day at the Beach


I just got back from the family beach party…

OK, it’s my wife’s family, the family I married into but they are also a family that has always treated me as one of their own.

They are a large Italian family and they “Let Irish people in the family once in awhile,” according to my wife’s Uncle Louis (Pictured here with Dominic, the newest member of the clan and Uncle Louis’ grandson).

It’s nice that we can all get together even in the midst of the hot and busy summer. We get to learn about each other’s summer trips, the usual family happenings and more serious matters like illnesses or job troubles.

This Sunday’s Scripture Readings talk much about family. Joshua gathered together his family and stated to all the tribes of the region that they were choosing as a family to serve the God of Israel over the many other Gods that were being worshipped by the tribes of the region.

“As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” – Joshua 24:15

But the reading that will capture everyone’s attention this weekend is the famed passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where he says “Wives be subordinate (or submissive in some translations) to your husband.”

I usually nudge my wife at that juncture to make sure she’s paying attention.

But we need to put the reading into proper context for us to really understand it. For to be subordinate to someone else means to put their needs ahead of your own. At the time of Paul’s writing, the Jewish people were oppressed by the Romans. The Romans enslaved the Jews and treated them as sub-human. It was a tough time for the men of a Jewish household to get up and go to work each day and be treated like dirt. To come home with the embarrassment of being treated that way, averting their eyes in shame at being essentially a slave.

And it was tougher for their wives to watch them. And the big temptation for the wives was to pile on the abuse with self deprecating remarks.

“Look at this canker sore of a man that I married. Oh woe is me to be married to a man who can’t even stand up for himself. If these men would just be men and revolt against the Romans we’d all be better off. But there’s a better chance of pigs (well maybe not pigs, Kosher and all! Let’s say dogs maybe!) flying!”

And Paul states simply that wives should avoid this temptation, to be subordinate to this man who they can’t seem to respect. That when it’s hard to respect your husband and you think that he is a slug, that you need to subordinate those feelings to care for a guy who has just been beaten down by life.

In turn, Paul also cautions husbands to love these wives as well. After all, they are traveling a tough road together. And that the most important thing is to stay together being subordinate to each other. Forgiving one another of their faults, of their own pre-conceived notions of each other, of their expectations of the way life should be in favor of accepting to live their lives together, come what may.

Jesus in today’s Gospel is looking for the Disciples to accept him fully and completely even though his “sayings are difficult.” For some the life Jesus was describing was strange and weird and maybe a bit too counter-cultural.

“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

But the message running throughout all the readings is really about having faith. The faith that keeps us together as one unit. Just as families stick together in tough times, just as husbands and wives stay together even though they know each other’s faults, just as Catholics and members of other faith traditons stick together even when the world tells us we are foolish to believe in God and in one another.

It is not easy to stay together, not every day is like my family’s day at the beach. We all will face hardships in life. Job loss, sickness, disagreements and even death. But the example that my wife’s family gives to us, is that we need to stick together. That’s something that I’ve really come to value in this new family and have not always seen in my own family at times.

But the lesson goes further.

Jesus tells His disciples that family has to expand beyond blood ties to all of humanity. Jesus calls us to stick together despite all the world’s hatred. There are may people who we forget about and who fall by the wayside. We must stick together with the homeless, with the elderly, with the children in and out of the womb who need our protection and with all of those who need our assistance.

Jesus’ “hard sayings” tell us that we even have to stick it out with those that hate us. We need to love our enemies; those don’t do their part in trying to stick it out with us. That indeed is one of the hardest things to do–to stay in relationship with someone who thinks that you’re not worth it. To pray for those who persecute us.

It’s a call to family. And when we realize that we are all family, and start treating all people as if they were brother and sister and cousin and aunt, we’ll call that the day The Kingdom of God is a reality.

And as great as my weekend with the family was, this will be a lot better than a great day at the beach!

The Greatest is to Be Servant


Did you ever have someone in your life who took it upon themselves to know what was good for you all the time? I’ve had about 10 of these people over my nearly 40 years come into my life. Roommates, friends, bosses, teachers, spiritual directors, many of them well-meaning people in their own right, but many who would tear you down in an instant just to make a point about what they think is good for you. They will all too easily know what the answers for you are, but don’t really lift a finger to help you in your deep need for assistance.

For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people’s shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them. — MT 23:6-10

Dorothy Day often remarked that if you are going to work with the homeless be prepared to work with some very difficult people. My mission trip crew often had to be restrained from acting like “the Americans who clearly knew better” than what they considered the more inferior local clientele (quite often they were very humbled by the simplest of tasks for the Nicaraguans).

Jesus is saying the same thing here. That it’s quite easy to tell someone that you know exactly what they should do instead of lifting a finger to suffer along with someone else and do some hard work that needs to be done.

We talk often about many who are “lost causes” in our society. These are people that we outside to the dregs of society, the kind of people that elegant people wouldn’t be caught dead with in the same neighborhood. At best, I might be able to throw some money at them and pity them, but I really don’t often really give any kind of care for these people. Most of us probably don’t.

I can’t recall the last time I learned the name of a homeless person, or listened to their story.
I’m apt to think if someone checks off that they’ve been arrested that they are probably someone i shouldn’t hire.
As the elderly get less “productive” do I ever really think beyond their career achievements to their personhood and wisdom?

Do I just forget about people that I don’t really HAVE to care about at all?

I’m embarrassed to say that I do.

And that I know what’s good for them, but wouldn’t dare move forward to help them really get some clothes on their back, food in their mouths, roofs over their heads…maybe even my own roof over their heads.

I pre-judge people without hearing who they are and what the circumstances are that have led them to where they are now.

And that right there, that breaking of a relationship with humanity, that is what we call sin.

And Jesus is all too familiar with seeing it from the religious leaders of his day.

I am not a better Pharisee nor scribe. These have been issues for all people to deal with and nobody has yet to stop the cycle of poverty that too often doesn’t get us angry, embittered or sad enough for others.

Today, may we continue to follow the example of Ruth who we mentioned yesterday and is mentioned again in our first reading. May we bless another with our time and efforts. May we challenge ourselves to become one with those that suffer and to move others to help us care and protect all those who are in need of protection and care.