Testing the Spirit

images“Beloved, do not trust every spirit
but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God…” (1 John, Chapter 4)

St. Ignatius often talks about the term presupposition in the spiritual exercises. This means that we pre-suppose that someone is good-intentioned. That we give others the benefit of the doubt without pre-judging their intentions.

And I’m pretty bad at that.

I often go into discussions thinking I know exactly what someone else is going to say, or what someone’s intentions are. Now at times, I am right, but often enough, I get surprised. Recently, I thought a friend was being snarky when I made a comment, when in fact, she was sympathizing with me. I read her intentions completely wrong and it ended up ruining my day until I found out otherwise.

Talk about stupid, wasted energy.

Today’s Gospel reading also reminds us to be wary about intentions. At first glance it sounds like the opposite of Ignatius’ presupposition remark. But actually, it is not coming from a suspicious, paranoid place. Instead, it reminds us to test everything!

If you want to know the truth, shed some light on it. Someone’s whispering in the room, ask what they said. If they lie, then that’s on them. Want to know what someone else is feeling, don’t assume you know what they are feeling. Ask them and then move from that place.

Many years ago, a colleague of mine was frustrated by another co-worker. She felt like he wasn’t taking her job seriously, so she told him that.

“Bob, I don’t think you take my job seriously.”

“Well, I don’t think you should feel that way!”

“Bob, but I DO FEEL THAT WAY! Don’t tell me how I should feel.”

Lesson learned. But on the flip side, Bob did take her job seriously and made efforts to stop doing things that made her job a lot harder. So presuppositions were lacking all around.

Today, let us make an effort to be better listeners, to shed light on situations and to give others the benefit of the doubt. But let’s also be wary, as not everyone has our own best interests at heart. So test everything and allow that test to open our hearts to see the truth and then and only then can we understand those around us in that light of truth.

Who Do You See?

IMG_0787Who do you see?

It’s an easy question, when you are looking merely with you eyes. But often we keep our eyes at least partially closed, remaining blind to the things that lie beneath the surface.

Often I think I do this because it’s simply too much of a bother to do otherwise. If I really look at someone, I just might have to get involved. I may have to take their needs, their hurts into account and decide what role I might wish to play in their healing.

But the truth is such that it is in fact easier to BE bothered than not to be. God’s saving power lies in this fact that we can see the great power that we have in simple acts that we do with great love.

Nobody expects us to turn everyone’s life around in an instant with one giant act of kindness. Our tendency towards instant gratification leads us down that path to think that each act needs to be one of grandiosity or it doesn’t matter.

My colleague, Campus Minister, Mary Matunis, once told me a story that a young man came up to her at an alumni event and said, “MARY! Oh my God it is amazing to see you. You told me something my sophomore year that CHANGED MY LIFE!”

Mary was shocked and honored and so she asked, “Really, thanks! What did I say?”

To which the young man replied, “I don’t remember! BUT IT CHANGED MY LIFE!”

And the truth is that it likely did—and it was likely something simple that turned around a bad period in that person’s life by offering a different perspective. And in that, lies the saving power of God.

Mary was able to see that young man and she also allowed herself to be bothered by him. She doesn’t even remember this, but it seems to have been a moment that helped this person find meaning for a moment.

Each day we are presented with moments. The key to each one is finding God lurking within each one to allow us to bother with them. To be just a touch kinder, just a second more patient, just a moment of gentle listening, just a second more present.

But the bigger challenge might also be our willingness to let others see us in our own vulnerability.

John the Baptist reminds us of this. How many people came to him to simply let him see them in all their sinfulness, to be baptized, to find, through John, the saving power of God’s sacramental love. How many, would come to see John later and perhaps told him that he changed their life!

And much like my friend Mary, perhaps John dampened that experience by pointing not to himself, but to Jesus. Who offers salvation to us, if we merely allow ourselves to be seen in all our vulnerability. And then because of that saving love, we too, are called to see others and offer our own mercy. To see them with a new perspective, to restore dignity to those who are alienated.

To see and to be seen so that the world might see, through us, the saving power of God.

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.

Of Gifts and Stars

This Epiphany we hear of the Three Kings, astrologers most likely, who come bearing gifts after following a star and finding the Christ-child.

While not Jewish the notion of the specialness of visitors who come not empty handing must truly have been a
Mitzvot for Mary and Joseph, two poor people with a newborn son who couldn’t even find lodging for the birth. Their stars were these men, three who brought gifts from afar. Gold which probably kept Jesus alive when infant mortality was quite high. Frankenscense which is given to kings, and Myrrh which prepares a body for its burial for a king who will offer his body for us.

Who is your unexpected visitor? Who has given you a gift that was most welcomed at a precarious time in your life? That gift may have been monetary or sentimental, or it may have been their presence that was more than enough. Whatever the case, remember and give thanks today.

Lord, send us stars that we might be overwhelmed by the light that reflects your love. Amen.

Leading by Fear

Donald Trump, among other candidates, has taken to a political style that I call “Leading by Fear.” He points out troublesome things going on in the world and then expect a fearful reaction and falls into a hasty despair.

Too often, I fear we all default to this mode in our own everyday affairs. Ignatius of Loyola would call this the fatal flaw of making decisions in desolation. Leaders would do well to not make a hasty decision, but rather a measured one.

This is age-old wisdom and it is in the heart of today’s gospel today. King Herod is also leading by fear and the reaction to Jesus’ birth is a perfect example of overreacting. Herod not only tries to hoodwink the astrologers into pointing out the Christ-child, but he later would kill all of the newborn babies in the land.

Despair drives Herod’s decision–always a bad way to go.

The astrologers, on the other hand, lead by intuition and a gathering of facts. They realize that the baby is in fact a threat to King Herod and they are troubled enough by their experience with Herod that they discern a better route to head home instead of heading back in Herod’s direction.

Anxiety and despair are always going to come our way. It finds us faster than we would like. But we cannot lead with our fear. We have to notice that we are feeling anxious and in that, it should signal to us that we need to push those feelings away and walk into the light of a new day.

So when someone annoys us, we have to stop and count to 10 instead of snapping back.

When we feel distrust, we have to ask direct questions from those we perceive as a threat to shine more light on the situation, so that cooler heads prevail.

And in all of life, we have to look for where God provides us with consolation. So that like the astrologers we can be comforted by the presence of God in our lives and then head down the path of life by a more discerned route, living by the light that God sheds on our experience.

Even the Dogs Eat the Scraps

There’s a reference to dogs in today’s gospel and I will take full advantage of that to talk about my dog!

Most people believe that the reference to dogs in the gospel of Matthew is a negative one. Jesus says to a Caananite women who asks his assistance “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

Ouch. Oh no he didn’t just call her a dog?

Well..wait a minute. My dog waits eagerly by my dinner table in anticipation that I might throw him a piece of meat. He never fails to do so. ANd he trusts that I will give him something. It’s a learned behavior and I know…I shouldn’t feed him from the table and I usually don’t. I take a piece of meat and place it aside and then put it in his dish when I am done with my meal. If he’s patient and certain that I am a good and gracious friend, he is secure in knowing that he will get a reward.

And perhaps that is also true for us.

How often are we unlike the Cannanite women and we have no faith that God will take care of us? How often do we fall into hopeless desolation and think there is no way out of situations? How often do we think we know better than God what is best for us? And we then fail to see good things when we can’t see beyond our own misery.

God calls us to be faithful. To look for some sign of consolation that surely appears if we but look carefully for it.

For even the dogs know that at the dinner table there may be a scrap or two for them and they are so grateful for even that much and eagerly await even that small morsel.

The Canaanite woman teaches us to be persistent in knowing that if we ask God enough, enough will be provided. Perhaps that is not what we think we want, but it will always be what we need.

And sometimes for me, the warmth of a loyal and loving dog is more than enough for me to see all that God has offered me.

But He Did Not Know What He Was Saying

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration in which appears one of my favorite lines in all of scripture in Luke’s gospel:

“As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus,
“Master, it is good that we are here;
let us make three tents,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

But he did not know what he was saying.

It makes me laugh each time I read it.

But then it makes me think…

How many times, Lord, did I not know what I was saying? How many times have my words been haughty, or arrogant, or just downright hurtful? How many times did I rush to talk to try to impress someone and have it blow up in my face when I said something stupid? How many times did I think I had all the answers and in reality had none and needed to take more time to listen before I would speak?

And then, how many times have I heard others say things that I found hurtful or mean and reacted with the same kind of hatred back perpetuating the cycle of violence in speech?

I did not know what I was saying.

There are plenty of times that I react harshly when just waiting in silence and contemplating what I should say would do nicely.

And here Peter clearly misses the forest for the trees. Jesus is overlooking Jerusalem, where his exodus will take place. Alongside Elijah and Moses, Jesus sees both His end and our beginning–a new kind of promised land.

And while Peter witnesses this…a foretaste of what will be for us…a glimpse of the Resurrected Christ…he also responds with the wacky…

“Let’s build some tents! Let’s never leave! This is awesome.”

Um, no…rockhead. You don’t know what you’re saying.

We can’t ever stay on the mountain top. We need to go to Jerusalem and it is there that we will need to suffer in order to die and rise to new life.

photo 1[2]I just welcomed back a group of women from Canisius who spent three weeks at an orphanage in Poland and if anyone knows about this it is them. They had their emotions pulled and prodded throughout that time of being with the children. How many would they have liked to take home with them? How many of them wanted to stay there forever? Jen, (pictured with me, right) the group’s leader even flirted with the idea of not returning.

But she did not know what she was saying.

For she was changed on this “mountaintop experience” and now the real work begins—for after we are transfigured, we can no longer be the same. We have been changed. When we experience Christ’s transfigured life and realize that this too is meant for us…we can no longer live in the happy-go-lucky world of the mountaintop. We need to go and do whatever this change calls us to do. For these women it might be to be more sensitive to children who need someone to parent them, even if for a short time. It might be to consider the needs of adoptive children here in the United States and to see how we can change laws so that children can find good families to keep them safe and loved. It might be something else.

What mountaintop do you wish to stay on that keeps you from the scary Jerusalem experience of your life? The place where you will most be changed is where you will meet Jesus on the cross and then transforming from THAT experience is where you will be changed the most. It is where you will most appreciate and find new life, better life.

And it is where you will most find God, even if you think it is somewhere else where you are comforted most by God’s presence.

In spiritual direction, I often tell people that it’s the things and the places that most frighten them, that God is probably calling them to look at most carefully. It’s in the relationship that needs to change or the job that just doesn’t work.

God just might be offering you something else.

And that might be a bit scary.

But it is also what gives us a deeper experience of God in our lives and allows us to live more richly.

For the women of Canisius who have returned from Poland, we say “Well done.” You left the comfort of the United States and ventured to another country and were a bit uncomfortable in serving the needs of others. And now we continue to challenge you to go beyond the next hill. To come down from this amazing experience of Poland and to see where you have changed. And to be changed again. To become women for others in a different way, one that may be difficult for you, but nonetheless, better for your growth as a person and better for the world who experiences the gift you are to all of those you encounter.

And most of all, know that on that journey you will meet God. And that finding that presence of God in these new experiences will be life-changing and will provide more than enough for you to be all that you are, nothing more, but more importantly nothing less.

And that gift of yourself is all that God asks of you.

And dayenu, it is enough! You are enough! And you are a blessing to each of us and to all you meet. Amen.

Don’t Bother

In reading today’s scripture the words don’t bother came to mind quickly. We have Moses asking God to kill him rather than to put up with the people complaining about not having meat and having to settle for manna. (Our vegans and vegetarians now love Moses).

Then we have Jesus who goes off to be by himself only to have people follow him and then run out of food. Jesus says the the disciples who can feel the weight of the burden of feeding all these people on them “Give them something to eat yourselves.”

And the disciples basically say that it’s impossible because some little kid is the only one with food (liars!) and all he has are 5 loaves and 2 fish. Now everyone thinks that it’s cute that the kid will give up his lunch, but that ain’t about to feed everyone.

And so Jesus could have said “Kid, don’t bother! Eat your lunch!” But instead he shows the meal to all and the crowd is moved. So much so that those hoarding food gave to others and that whatever shortfall there may have been was changed by God to satisfy those who were hungry.

The point of the story is that God never says “don’t bother.” God says “You darn well need to bother.”

We need to care for one another and when we do so others get involved too by our inspiring example.

There’s a further point in the gospel and our reading. Moses could have not bothered with the grumbling people, after all, he’s the one who is talking to God. But instead he asks God’s advice and is unafraid to complain to God. He could’ve said “don’t bother” but something inside beckoned him to grumble to God about it.

And so it should be with us. We need to grumble a bit and we need to take time for those who need someone to bother. It will take some time for us to care for the needs of others–but we can never say don’t bother. We need to make a minimal effort to care for the hungry, the needy—and we can never do it all. But God will redeem the suffering of those that we can’t reach.

I always resonate with the child who offers his lunch so that others can eat in the gospel story and then I resonate with Moses who basically throws his hands up in the air and says “Why do I even bother!?” But then he asks for God’s help anyway.

Today let us pray for the patience we will need to keep us bothering with everyone else and to know that we should be bothered by the fact that more than two-thirds of the world will be hungry today. We can indeed do something about that instead of not being bothered. Let us pray that for today, we will be bothered and in turn, bother to do something about that.

Can You Love Someone Who Tells You to Drop Dead?

A Jewish woman who survived the concentration camps tells the story of the train ride to Auschwitz. She was with her little brother…and she looked down at him on the train and noticed that he didn’t have any shoes on.

And she screamed at him, “What is WRONG with you? Can’t you keep you things together? You’re so stupid!”

Well, it turns out that those were the last words she would ever say to him. They arrived in Auschwitz moments later and were separated and she never saw him again because he did not survive.

And she made a vow to try to never say anything nasty to anyone because she didn’t want those to be the last things she ever said to them.

And it is a similar story that we hear in the Gospel today.

We have a son…who says to his father “Give me my inheritance now!” Which essentially means “Drop dead!”

And we don’t know what the father says in return, but I imagine that he says something like “Take your money and get out! And don’t come back.”

And perhaps those are the last words that he ever said to his son, who he presumes to be dead. Could the father be regretting what was said?

But then, there his son is! The father catches sight of him and runs to embrace him and then throws the biggest party you can even imagine. Because his son, that ungrateful, ne’er do well, carousing, wasteful son –has come back home! Who could ask for anything more!?

Scripture scholars often say that the story is pretty straightforward. We are the Prodigal Son and the Father is God. And God forgives us no matter how far we stray and rejoices when we come home.

And that’s true enough.

But in this story, Jesus is addressing the Pharisees who are upset because Jesus hangs out with tax collectors–who are the lowest of the low. They’re not the IRS guys we know. They’re more like slumlords. Nobody likes a slumlord: Their tenants hate them because they don’t do repairs, the neighborhood hates them because the place is falling apart, the government hates them because they don’t pay their taxes. Nobody likes a slumlord and nobody likes a tax collector.

And so the point of the story is not so much how we are forgiven by God. But rather it’s a challenge to us to ask ourselves if we can forgive as the Father does? Can we forgive those who wish we would drop dead? Can we forgive those who waste our resources? Can we forgive that one colleague who annoys you? And what’s more after knowing how much of a louse that person is to you—and after you may have cast them off and said that you’re not going to be bothered with them—can you not only forgive them but rejoice over them coming back into your life?

Can you throw a party for the person who loves you the least?

Well, we know two things: one is the older brother cannot. And two is that God always does. The older brother tells the father that he shouldn’t throw the prodigal a party but rather he wants a party for himself. But he goes even further and says “You’ve never thrown a party for me and I work all day long and do everything I’m supposed to! You throw a party for this, this SON of yours. I’m your son, not this guy! Now I want what’s coming to me! Why don’t you just drop dead!”

Who does that sound like? These brothers are not all that different, the theme of their life is “drop dead.”

And the Father…this is a man who has experienced the renewal of his life. He was hopeless and somehow God made a way out of no way. His son came home forgetting that his father has cast him off. And in this new life of seeing his son return home has caused him to rejoice and he can’t understand why this older brother doesn’t see that.

“I’ll be dead soon enough and all I have is yours. But tonight! We eat and drink!”

Can we celebrate or even attend a party for someone who we don’t think deserves a celebration?

It would be like throwing a party for the guy who gets promoted instead of you? The younger sister who gets married before you do? The boss who denigrates your decisions but leads the company into profit? The professor who failed you who becomes a Dean? The person who breaks your heart!

It’s not that bad things happen to good people that test our faith, it’s often that good things happen to bad people …and then we become the older brother.

And the truth of the gospel here is not that we passively see God’s forgiveness of both brothers but that we ask ourselves if we too can forgive those who have trespassed against us. So that we may not be led into temptation but delivered from all that is evil.

Because evil wants us not to rejoice. Evil wants to keep us angry, bitter and resentful.

And folks, that is no way to live. And Lent is all about casting things off–and maybe tonight God is calling us to cast off resentments.

And so we come here tonight with our resentments, with the people on our minds who annoy us, who we often find to be unforgivable. And we try to move beyond where we most often find ourselves, in a sea of resentment and try see if our hearts can stretch much farther than we think. To find a place where we can cast off resentments and rejoice in reconciliation. Like the father, whose words rejoice over two sons who once said they wish he would hurry up and die.

In our lives we may have often been the prodigal son and we may often have been the older brother. But tonight, Jesus calls us to be the father.

And if we can be the father may our last words to everyone we know, even those we don’t think much of, be words of love and joy and peace.

So that we might die without resentments but rejoice in a reconciliation that leads us all into eternal life.

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.