Sunday, November 30, 2014

Not a Part of It

After the anticpated Mass, a parishioner slipped a few bucks in my pocket and said, "Put this in the CD donation box and ease your conscience..."
     First Sunday of Advent   B 

My best find on Black Friday
was not in a store, but in a church.
My dad almost always goes
to the 7:00am daily Mass 
at St. Peter’s in Plattsburgh
and, since I was home, 
I though it’d be nice to go with him.
After I’d concelebrated the Mass 
and gone to confession,
I was walking out of church
right past the rack 
of Lighthouse Catholic Media CDs—
much like the racks we have 
in each of our churches.
(I like to see if there’s anything new 
that we ought to order for here.)
And one of the CDs there caught my eye:
of Duluth, Minnesota.
This wasn’t only the best find of the day:
it was also the best deal…
...because I took the CD without leaving a donation.
(Sorry, Msgr. Duprey! 
Maybe I already need to go to confession again…)

While talking about Baptism to a group of college students,
Fr. Mike made a few points that we all ought to consider
at the beginning of this Advent season.
In the last few minutes of his talk,
he asked a question that keeps ringing in my head:
In the last seven days, have you lived any differently
than you would have if you weren’t a child of God—
if you’d never been baptized?

It’s only one question…
…but it’s just about the best examination of conscience
I’ve ever heard anywhere!

Fr. Mike points out that most of us look at our faith
a lot like we look at the IRS.
We treat Jesus like the big taxman in the sky.
“I’ll pay what I’m supposed to…
…but don’t ask for a penny more.
And if I can find a few loopholes…even better!”
No one ever says to the IRS, “Here’s my account number. 
Just take whatever you need!”
We don’t say it to the taxman…
…and we often fail to say it to Jesus.
We try to give Jesus just enough…
…but that’s not what Jesus asks for,
that’s not what Jesus wants: he wants it all.

My personal relationship with Jesus Christ
can’t just be another "thing" in my life—
one more item on a long, long list,
fighting to get a piece of my time and attention.
We’re very busy people!
Too busy, I’d say, and getting busier all the time.
Consider all the many things
that occupy your day and your week:
spouse, kids, parents, friends, house, job, school, sports,
health, hobbies, Church, car, bills, volunteering…
...and on and on.
My relationship with Jesus 
can’t just be one of the many things I do.
It’s not even enough to put it at the top of the list.
Jesus needs to be at the very center of everything.
He needs to be the Lord of my entire life—
not a part of my life, but the heart of my life.

Modern technology comes with many blessings.
But smartphones have a particular pitfall
that I see again and again:
they tempt us to lead very distracted lives.
We’re always trying to do a few things at once:
answer a call, read a text, respond to email,
look up something on the net—
all while not being fully present to the moment we’re living
or the other person who’s right there in front of us
(maybe on their smartphone, too).
All the hustle and bustle of this so-called “holiday season”
only increases our high level of distraction.
How desperately we need Advent—
to hear Jesus say, Be watchful!  Be alert!

What real difference does it make in my life
that I am a Catholic?  that I am a Christian? 
that I’m a follower of Jesus?
Can my life be distinguished at all
from the lives of people who aren’t?
In the last seven days, have I lived any differently
because Jesus Christ was born, lived, died, and rose
than if he hadn’t?
In the last seven days, have I lived any differently
because I’m waiting for Jesus Christ to come again
than if I weren’t?
In the last seven days, have I lived any differently
because I have met Jesus Christ,
and he has touched and transformed me?

Our first reading on this first Sunday of Advent
is a plea for God’s help:
We’ve made a mess of things!  We’ve gotten off track!
Lord, come and save us!
In Advent, we’re reminded of our deep need for God.
Left to our own devices, we tend to lose our way.
But the Lord does not leave us on our own.
“God is faithful,” St. Paul reminds us.
God once came in human flesh in times past.
We await his future coming in glory.
And in the meantime, he keeps on coming to us:
in the sacraments, in the scriptures,
in serving the needs of one another—
even in a CD stolen from another church.
But we need to be watchful.
Despite so many distractions,we need to stay awake and alert.

Don’t let Jesus become just another part of your life;
make him the very heart of your life.
Jesus isn't only "the reason for the season";
he's come to make a difference in everything.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

What We're Eating

Whatever you're eating, and with whomever you're eating it, 
have a very happy and blessed Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 23, 2014


   Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe    

A few years ago,
Fr. Stitt gave me an unusual but most enjoyable CD.
It was recorded 
by a rather quirky quartet of musicians:
a classical cellist, a Nashville fiddler,
a “new-grass” mandolin player,
and a guy on bass who does a little bit of everything.
They’d never performed as a group before.
What could have been a total disaster 
actually works quite well.
The album is aptly called, The Goat Rodeo Sessions.

I had not heard the expression before,
but it seems that a “goat rodeo”
refers to an especially chaotic state of affairs
that involves lots of risks, but uncertain rewards.
Just think about it: in a regular rodeo,
cowboys risk their necks…
…but they get to look pretty cool doing it;
if the cowboys were riding goats, however,
they’re still likely to get injured…
…but not nearly as likely to look cool!
According to the album notes,
the term is used by air traffic controllers
and others in high-risk fields to describe a situation
“that requires about 100 things to go right at once
if you intend to walk away from it.”
(There are, of course, 
some other colorful expressions out there for this,
but they’re definitely not appropriate 
to say in church…)

“Goat rodeo” described
this groundbreaking musical project to a tee.

And “goat rodeo” also describes fairly accurately
the kingdom of Jesus Christ, our King.

I know of a fellow 
who has recently come back to the Church.
He still has some issues with the Church
and plenty of his own personal baggage, 
but he’s nonetheless quite happy to have returned
to the practice of his Catholic faith.
While well aware of his own weaknesses,
there’s something he’s observed 
when looking around in the pews:
people he knows from other settings 
whose regular weekday behavior
doesn’t exactly line up well 
with their regular Sunday worship.
And that leaves him perplexed.

In effect, what this man is seeing
are sheep and goats all running together.
That can be disconcerting for all involved:
sheep frequently fear that goat-like habits might rub off,
cause scandal, or lead weaker lambs astray;
goats, meanwhile, can get pretty annoyed
with do-gooder sheep always trying to correct them.
It makes me think of a brilliant quote
from preacher Billy Graham:
If you find a perfect church, by all means join it!
Then it will no longer be perfect.
Although completely divine in her origins,
the Church is made up of sinful human beings
and, therefore, has never yet managed
to live up to her full potential—
not even when she was pretty much
just twelve Apostles following Jesus around.
Christian discipleship is messy!  It always has been.
Maybe you didn’t realize it at first,
but what you’ve signed up for is a goat rodeo.

From ancient times, the image of the shepherd
has been used as a metaphor
for the relationship between a people and their king.
It’s worth noting that this Sunday’s celebration
has not been “updated” for the 21st century
as the feast of “Christ the Chairman” or “Christ the President.”
The life of the spirit doesn’t operate like politics:
we don’t get to decide who’s in charge,
or how he ought to run things.
The reign of Jesus Christ—
along with whoever else comes under it—
does not depend at all on your vote of approval or mine.
Christ is, indeed, no less than the King of the Universe, 
and he demands to be the Lord of every aspect of our lives.
It’s completely his to sit in judgment of the living and the dead:
he alone has the final say.
But this king is no authoritarian tyrant,
simply throwing his weight around:
you can tell by his crown,
which is not of burnished gold but bloody thorns.
To submit to this king isn’t to be kept down,
but rather to be lifted up.
You see, this king’s greatest power
isn’t in enforcing uncompromising commands,
but in the way that, with some loving coaxing and merciful coaching,
he can turn rebellious, head-butting, quarrelsome goats
into humble, innocent, dutiful sheep.
If we surrender our lives to this Good Shepherd,
our very identity changes.
That’s why he’s willing to let this goat rodeo go on:
it’s risky, but it’s oh-so-worth it.

Whether we tend more to right or left, to sheep or goat,
our attention is much better focused not on the rest of the flock,
but on the Shepherd himself.
Even when we encounter the very least among us,
it’s this King we ought to see and serve in them.
Allow the Lord to rope you in and get good hold of you
in the midst of life’s crazy goat rodeo,
that he might then lead you beside restful waters
and into green pastures—
a sheep chosen to inherit the Father’s kingdom,
prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

Friday, November 21, 2014

11th Hour

Actually, it's the 11th month of my "year out."  I'm in the home stretch now!

On Wednesday, Fr. Scott Belina and I headed out into the snowy woods to spend the night in the lean to at Trombley Landing on the Raquette River between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake.  I had hoped to spend a night here back in August (but found the place occupied), and raced by here in a canoe back in September, but this time we had the place all to ourselves (other than the lone deer hunter we met on the trail on the way in, and the lone XC skier who appeared just as we finished packing up out gear).  The spot is understandably quite popular among boaters on the river, but we rightly figured it wasn't in such demand at this time of year.

The trail in from Route 3/30 is only 1.6 miles and relatively level, but not being sure what the snow conditions might be, and knowing it would be plenty cold enough, we figured that was as far as we needed to go for this camp out.  We walked through a beautiful, snow-covered forest... find a nice lean to not far off the river's edge.

Much of this trip would be spent fending off the chill.  (It was about 20°F when we left our vehicles, and dropped into the low teens overnight.)  That started with kindling a nice fire.

After a rather lovely winter sunset over the river...

...we were ready for some hot food.  Trouble with my stove meant rigging up a special set up, which didn't look like much but managed to get the job done.

And then it was into the sleeping bags, even before we were quite ready to go to sleep.  (I think we's been in 'em about 11 hours by the time we crawled out again the next morning!)

This was the first time I'd actually slept with some of my water bottles--which isn't the most comfortable arrangement in the world, but is pretty essential if you still want to have something to drink/cook with come morning...since the ones left out were frozen solid.

I'd kind of hoped for a "Indian Summer" experience in November (I'd suggested the possibility of making this a camping trip by kayak when setting these dates a few weeks in advance), but even with the cold and snow it was a truly lovely night in the woods.

Now, just one more to go...

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Rustic Retreat

I returned Friday evening from my annual retreat, having spent six days at Mount St. Francis Hermitage in Maine, NY.  As a guest of the the Franciscans of the Immaculate, I had my own cabin in the woods--one named for Padre Pio.  The place is, shall we say, "rustic": the cabins have electricity and a gas stove for preparing your own meals, but no running water and are only heated by a small wood stove.  I was about a half mile from the friary and the "retreat center," where I could get wood, water, and a warm shower.  To many folks, I'm sure this sounds less like a retreat center and more like hunting camp!  But it suited me just fine.  My quiet days were occupied with daily Mass (whether with the friars or privately in my cabin's small oratory) and quiet prayer, lots of reading, long afternoon walks, and the necessities of keeping myself warm and well fed.  It was a blessed week, and I'm so grateful for your prayers throughout it.


Only The Very Best

I'm back from retreat, and it was a silent that might be why I have so much to say this Sunday!

  Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time   A  

There are a whole lot of things that a pastor needs to know
that they never get around to teaching you in the seminary. 
You may recall that, early on in my time here,
I had to get a crash course in boilers
when the one at Notre Dame blew up. 
In my last assignment—in Old Forge—it was roofing. 
St. Bartholomew’s in Old Forge
is one of the newest churches in the diocese—
dedicated in 1991, if I remember right. 
But it fell to me to put the third roof on that rather young building. They just kept leaking. 
Part of the process was removing the church’s steeple—
and not temporarily, either, but for good. 
It was a tall, slender fiberglass unit,
ordered out of a church supply catalogue,
that looked alright from the ground…
…but when you got up to the base of it you could see
that it wasn’t really designed for Adirondack weather:
it was rapidly rotting away. 
About 10 days after the steeple was dismantled,
a family wanted to talk to me after Mass—
some of the many summer residents
who come-and-go in that resort town.
They wanted to talk about the steeple… 
…because they had donated it back when the church was built. 
They weren’t angry—thank God!—
but they were pretty disappointed. 
I can still hear them saying:
“But, Father…the great cathedrals of Europe…
they have steeples which stand for 500 years or more!” 
(Oh, how I wanted to add: 
“But they’re not made of fiberglass!”)
Unfortunately, the steeple they’d paid for
didn’t stand for 20 years, leave alone a few centuries. 
We seem to somehow have forgotten what we once knew:
how to build things to stand the test of time.

I had a similar conversation with some parishioners
a few weeks ago. 
I stopped by their home and found them
doing some exterior work to the house and yard,
getting ready for winter. 
He was putting new trim around the windows. 
“Those windows look pretty new,” I said. 
“They are,” he answered.  “They were just put in last year.  
But get up close and you can see they didn’t do a very good job. 
While it looks OK, it won’t last. 
It’s sad,” he continued. 
“Once upon a time, people took more pride in their work.
 I guess they cared more,
and they knew how to do this sort of thing well.”

These are just two examples of something, I fear,
which goes way beyond
how we construct our homes and houses of worship these days;
they’re signs of what I’ll call our “good enough culture.”
It’s funny, because we live in an age
when we want everyone to feel like a winner…
but, in the end, when everybody’s a winner…nobody wins.
We’ve seen a gradual, general lowering of standards.
In so many areas of life—manufacturing, education and sports,
politics, religion and relationships—
we appear increasingly less and less willing to strive for the best,
and more and more willing to settle for what’s merely “good enough.”

This Sunday, Jesus tells the parable
of the master, the servants, and the talents.
Just so you know: a “talent” in gospel times
didn’t refer to some personal skill or ability.
A talent was a unit of measure,
and a silver talent—the sort Jesus seems to be talking about—
wasn’t exactly pocket change:
it was 130 pounds of silver—
the equivalent or 9 or 10 years’ salary for an average skilled laborer.
Even the third servant, who’d been given “just” one talent,
had been entrusted with a veritable fortune!

Given that bit of background,
it’s fairly common when this gospel is read
to get a homily on parish stewardship—
on what contributions it takes from parishioners
in order to make a parish run well.
Don’t worry:
I’m not going to talk about giving money to the Church
(although, if you read our annual reports,
you’d understand why I might);
and I’m not going to talk about
donating your time and your talents, either
(although it is getting harder all the time
to find enough volunteers to do things around here).

Instead, I want you to consider
the stewardship of your own hearts.

We receive so much from God:
his love;
faith in Jesus Christ;
baptism, to wash away sin and make us members of the Church;
the Holy Eucharist, which is the bread of eternal life.
And that’s just the start of the list!
What return is God getting on his big investment in us?
When it comes to what you do for your faith,
what you do for your family—
in both cases, what you do for God—
are you settling for “good enough”?

Jesus makes it rather clear this Sunday:
when we appear before God,
“good enough” simply won’t do.
God doesn’t want “good,” 
and he doesn’t accept “better”;
God expects our best.
Now, that’s not to say he expects us to be perfect.
Doing your best is different for each one of us,
according to the particular talents you’ve been given.
And this isn’t a competition, either.
The only one we ought to aim to please is God,
who alone truly understands what we’re capable of.

We’re given an example of this principle in action in our first reading,
as we hear that moving hymn to a worthy wife.
It’s poetry that celebrates the beautiful life
of one who consistently gives her very best—
not out of obligation
(although she has one to her husband and children),
and not in hopes of gaining a reward, either
(although there will be one of those, too).
She does her very best in everything because of love—
and nothing else.

Not “good enough,” but her best.
Is that what we’re giving to the Lord?

We may react like that third servant in the parable,
who seems to find his master’s ways rather unfair:
He didn’t give me any clear instructions before leaving!
He didn’t say exactly what it was he wanted me to do with that talent!
He’s just a passive-aggressive tyrant!
Or is he?
Yes, God entrusts us with the treasures of his kingdom—
vast spiritual fortunes, in fact—
but he doesn’t then micromanage them;
God takes a great risk—he trusts us—
and in large part leaves their proper investment
up to you and me.
For one thing, God isn’t after cookie cutter Christians—
every one of them just like all the others.
We belong to a Church, not a cult,
and our diversity is a great blessing.
How boring the Church would be if we were all the same!
Instead, God is inviting our initiative and creativity.
And he respects our freedom.
Sin warps our sense of freedom,
and frequently turns it into what seems like a burden instead.
But God won’t unnecessarily restrict us.
The stewardship we exercise over our hearts
must be our own freely made decision.

St. Paul reminds us, as he reminded the Thessalonians,
that there will come a day of reckoning—
whether the end of our lives or the end of time—
we know not when.
Therefore, we cannot rest on our laurels,
lest we get caught unawares and left in the dark.
When we’re called upon—each one of us on our own—
to give a final accounting of our life
and the use we’ve made of God’s many graces and blessings,
to say, “I thought what I did would probably be good enough,”
won’t exactly be very convincing.

Now, you might be saying to yourself,
“Father, I think you’re quite mistaken
about this business of a ‘good enough’ culture.”
I very well might be.
So I challenge you: prove me wrong!

Not so much in building a church or a home,
but when it comes to everything that happens under their roofs,
God expects from us the very best.
And he has every right to, doesn’t he?
After all, the very best is always what God is giving to us.