Hyper Critical to Well Pleased

When was the last time you were a jerk? Maybe your answer is never because you are good and pure. For me, it was probably right before I wrote this sentence. My primary mode for jerkiness is being hyper critical. On the one hand, if one isn’t critical at all they may lead a pretty mediocre life. If all is good and fine, then it seems that noting is excellent. On the other hand, being hyper critical can lead to radical dissatisfaction and a fore mentioned jerkiness. 

While being hyper critical can weed out the hidden broken and soiled aspects of anything, being hyper critical also tends to find something wrong with everything. 

I think many modern folks tend towards being hyper critical. It seems to show sophistication to disapprove and disparage everything. To be critical is one of the ways modern people seem to show care, as in, “I care enough about this thing to criticize it.” Food critics hate most food it seems. Movie Critics hate most movies. Sports Talk radio is mostly ripping the local squad. It’s almost as if the only way we know how to engage with something is to criticize it. 

In the gospel we hear about Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. The heavens open, a dove descends upon Jesus, and the voice of God himself says, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” 

Well pleased. 

When was the last time you were well pleased? Maybe the answer is all the time because your life is perfect, but I’m guessing not. God is well pleased, I think, for two reasons. First of all, God is talking about Jesus. Jesus is perfect. Jesus is holy. Jesus is about to embark on the rescue mission of preaching, healing, and saving. God is well please because Jesus is obedient and submitting for the work he was brought into this world to do. 

Secondly, God says this because he is God. God isn’t hyper critical. God is hyper forgiving. God is hyper healing. God is hyper patient. God is hyper loving. Yes, of course, we can be critical of things we love, but the way I think most of us are critical is not done with the kind of love that God has for us. No, God is well pleased with Jesus because God is God. 

While none of us are Jesus and don’t deserve the praise Jesus received in the gospel, the God who was well please with Jesus is the same God who loves you and me. God was well please with you at your baptism as well. God loves you and can’t wait for every moment he gets to pour love and grace upon you. God wants to be well pleased with you and I every single day we take breath. By our Baptisms, may we be saved and may we hear God say to us, “This is my beloved child with whom I am well pleased.” 

Sunday Readings for January 10th. 2021.

(almost) Everyone Likes a Compliment

Listening to the radio the other day I heard something truly unexpected. Two comedian were engaged in what they called a “Compliment Battle.” I remember dis battles of the 90s where comedians would say mean things about each other, but a compliment battle is completely the opposite. Apparently it is a thing. There was a host and rules and at the end the audience voted as to who was the kindest, warmest, and most generous with their adversary. 

What was crazy was that I could hear the smiles through the radio. People were beaming with joy. Both participants cried at times for how blessed and amazed they felt in light of the other comedian’s words. Just listening to it (and even thinking about it now), I can’t stop smiling and feel like a million bucks. Compliment Battle – who knew?

Everyone likes receiving compliments (even when we pretend not to enjoy it – i.e. Midwesterners). Of course they are better from someone who really knows us and who specifically names things that are true about us. A good compliment is one of the simple, but powerful pleasures in life. Whether it is giving them or getting them, compliments fill us with light and life. 

So it is strange that in the gospel when an angel of the Lord comes to Mary and says, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” Mary doesn’t respond with joy. The gospel of Luke says that Mary was troubled by what was said. It wasn’t just that an angel appeared, but it was the words themselves that troubled her. What about the idea that she might be graced and near to the Lord would trouble her?

I’m not sure I know a great answer to that question. Rather than ask why she was troubled, I think it helpful to ask the question, “Why was she graced? Why did the angel say these things to her?” The answer is just a couple lines later on in verses 30-33. She is graced because she is about to bear a son named Jesus. That child of hers is about to save the world. 

Mary is especially graced and close to her Lord because of Jesus. It could be that Mary is troubled by the words of the angel because she doesn’t yet know why she is graced. Mary doesn’t think of herself as particularly blessed and holy because she doesn’t yet know the role she is to play in the salvation of all mankind. 

Mary is humble. She doesn’t see why she is so special. It is because of her closeness to Christ and her humble yes to bear the Son of the Most High that she is full of grace and near to the Lord. 

If we want to be humble and holy and blessed, then we must become like Mary – close to Jesus. At Christmas we too can say yes to God and welcome the Christ child into our lives. We too can say yes to Jesus being born into our everyday. Whether we thing we are worthy or graced or not, God wants to be near to us too. 

Live It: This Sunday, pray a simple prayer inviting God more into your life. Whether you’ve done this a hundred times, or never done it before, try it. If you go to Mass, say this prayer right before you receive communion. If you are streaming Mass at home, say it with your spiritual communion. The prayer can be as simple as, “Lord Jesus Christ come into my life.” or mirror the words of Mary, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

Sunday Readings for December 20th, 2020.

Take a Hike.

In the midst of the pandemic this past summer my family decided to spend more time outdoors. We began going on hikes. It started small, but eventually we went on day trips to State Parks all across MN. We would do a longish hike, find some lunch (or bring it), and eat some ice cream on our way home. They were pretty good days. 

Hiking in the time of covid, especially in Minnesota’s numerous State Parks, feels pretty safe. While there may be people in parking lots and around picnic areas, once we got out onto the trail we rarely encountered people. So when we did, it was a surprise. 

It would often happen that we would be going up a steep incline with what seemed like endless fields of poison ivy on both sides of the path at a sharp turn so we couldn’t see very far ahead of us. All of a sudden some other family would be briskly walking towards us around the bend. They alway had like 3 large, overly friendly dogs, and aggressive looking children. We would try to jump out of the way off the path, they would do the same. Everyone would be polite and try to socially distance. It was fine, really. 

That pesky bend in the path not only obscured oncoming traffic, but it would keep us from seeing our goal. Whether it was the end of the trail, the top of a crest, or a facilities stop, a curvy trail made it harder to see where we were headed. Knowing and seeing your goal is often an encouragement and incentive to keep walking. If my kids could see the goal, they could do it. When they couldn’t see where they were going, they would get discouraged. 

In the gospel this Sunday, John the Baptist is asked who he is. He denies being the Christ or Elijah or a Prophet. Instead he quotes the prophet Isaiah and says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord.’” John’s role, as he explains, is to prepare the way for Jesus to come. John’s job was to level the mountains and fill in the valleys and yes, to make straight crooked paths. 

In the spiritual life, straightening a path accomplishes a couple of things. First it aids us in being able to see obstacles and potential traffic on the path ahead. When the path is straight, we know what is coming and can plan better for those things that might push us off the path and interrupt our journey. 

Secondly, a straighten path helps us to keep our eyes on the goal. Often, I think we loose sight of our final destination and the reason we do all this religious stuff. The goal is Jesus. The destination is the Kingdom of God on earth and in Heaven. When we aren’t sure of our goal or can’t see what we are working for, we can easily be distracted and maybe even fall into despair. I think this is one of the reasons why the pandemic has been so difficult. We didn’t really have a clear goal for all that we were doing. We couldn’t see the end. 

One more thing, if you think that the on reason the paths are straightened are so that we can have a better spiritual hike, let dispel that misrepresentation. The paths are straightened so that Jesus can more easily get to us. The path is cleared and leveled and straightened so that nothing can separate God from us. Jesus doesn’t wait for us to climb the mountain and find him. No. Jesus gets out on the path and comes for us. He is willing trudge through any hardship, including death and the cross, in order to save you and me. 

Live It: Are there bends in the road of your life that makes it hard for you to draw closer to Jesus? Close your eyes. Imagine your life is a hiking trail. Where are the bends that aren’t spiritually helpful? Ask Jesus to make straight the path of your spiritual life. Ask God to inspire you to call out to him. If necessary, head to confession this week to fill in some valleys. 

Sunday Readings for December 13th, 2020.

G.O.A.T.

When I was a kid, no one wanted to be a goat. During recess touch football, if you were the goat, that meant you were blamed for your team loosing. You were the scapegoat. Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t call each other a goat, but we just knew it.

Now, people want to be the GOAT. As you may or may not know, GOAT is an acronym for Greatest Of All Time. Tom Brady is the GOAT. Michael Jordan is the GOAT. Muhammad Ali is the original GOAT. Everyone wants to be first and foremost. We want to be the best.

Sometimes we cloak this in language about being our best and competing against ourselves, but the reality is if we had a chance to be the absolute best at something we would take it. We revel in being the absolute greatest.

That is why John the Baptist’s statements in the gospel this weekend are so mystifying to us and our culture. John was at the top of his game. John was a tremendously successful prophet and spiritual leader. In the gospel it says that all of the Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem came out to be baptized by John. Can we even imagine what this was like? Literally everyone came to be blessed by this man. You could make a case he was the GOAT of his time.

In the midst of this greatness, he says, “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.” While he was at the top of the top, beloved and followed by an entire nation, he preached that we was #2 and it wasn’t close. John tells us he is worthy of the actions of a slave (loosening sandals), when it comes to the next spiritual leader.

Choosing second place is difficult for our culture. In fact, the way that we celebrate Christmas showcases this difficulty.  I see it in the way we give and receive gifts. We want the best gifts and we want to be the best gift giver. Some neighbors battle in Christmas light decorating. We want to make sure we have and give the best and greatest Christmas of all time!

This Advent, let’s seek to be a little more like John the Baptist. Let’s embrace second place. Let’s seek to let Jesus be the greatest in our lives. Let’s make our preparations and celebrations of Christmas all about Jesus and less about ourselves.

Live It: Choose to put someone else’s desires ahead of your own this week. Find a small way to be in second place. Pray that God gives you the grace and opportunity to do this in a meaningful way.

Sunday Readings for December 6th, 2002.

The Pleasure of Anticipation

When I was growing up, my mom used to say, “Often the anticipation of something is more enjoyable than the thing itself.” The older I get the more true I find this to be. Whether it is taking the kids to Disney or waiting for date night, the anticipation of something is a significant part of the enjoyment for me. 

These days in the midst of this pandemic the thing that I most often anticipate is online delivery orders. I know this sounds a little crazy but I have developed a whole system of anticipation so that I get the maximum amount of enjoyment from my order. Doesn’t matter if it is long desired wood shop tool or just a bottle of vitamin C, I try to maximize my anticipatory enjoyment.

Here is what I do. As soon as the website where I made my online purchase gives me a tracking number, I click on it. Usually all they’ve done is printed a shipping label, but no movement yet. That’s okay because then the next time I check the tracking number SOMETHING HAS HAPPENED! YAY IT’S COMING! Get it? Then everyday I click on that tracking number and watch my package travel from wherever in the USA slowly making its way towards my house. Then when my package is “out for delivery,” I watch the front door for a brown box. I listen for the talking computer that lives in my kitchen to tell me a delivery has arrived. As silly as this sounds, it is really enjoyable for me.  

With this in mind, I think the gospel this Sunday is less of a threat and more of an invitation to enjoy Advent/Christmas more. Let me explain.

In the gospel Jesus says we need to actively wait for the end of the world. He says, “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” What does he mean? Jesus explains it is like a rich man who travels abroad and leaves his servants in charge. Jesus explains that they have to be ready for him to return any time. God forbid he return and find them not ready. 

My whole life, I read this scripture like a threat. It’s as if, Jesus is threatening us with the end of the world. If not the end of the world maybe Jesus is threatening us with our coming death! I always felt like he was saying, “Better be good, because you never know when you’re going to die! Better watch out!” Yikes! But that is how I read it. I don’t think that is the whole story and the way we can know this that we read it on the first weekend of Advent. 

Advent is all about preparing to welcome Christ again this Christmas. Advent is all about waiting and watching. Advent is all about Anticipatory Enjoyment! Instead of dreading the end of the world or our end, Jesus is trying to given us clues as to best enjoy this life!

Jesus is inviting us to live lives of anticipation. Jesus is telling us to wait and watch because good things are coming and we will lead the good life now by anticipating the good life of heaven. 

What do you hear when Jesus says, “Be watchful! Be Alert!” I hope you hear his invitation to have the best Advent you’ve ever had. Don’t worry, anticipate with joy!

LIVE IT: Figure out a way to anticipate Christmas this year. Advent calendar, Jesus Tree, countdown calendar, traveling wisemen, put one decoration on your tree everyday, etc. When you do these anticipatory actions, say a simple prayer asking for Jesus to come and to fill your life with joy. 

Bless this Mess. (I can’t see.)

The other day my wife said, “I think I sleep better when our bedroom is picked up. You know, nice and tidy and clean.” 

This mystified me. I honestly can’t understand this at all. When I am laying down with the lights out and my eyes closed, I don’t see the mess at all. Even if I open my eyes, I have to lean over the side of the bed to see the pile of clothes or books or whatever. 

Having said that, I totally believe her. I have no doubt she does sleep better when things are picked up. My wife has always been able to see things I can’t. Whether it is a mess, dust, or the winter hat that no one else can find, my wife has super vision for certain things. 

In the gospel this Sunday, Jesus explains that at the end those who help the least and most vulnerable will be saved. Those who don’t help, will not. The funny thing is that neither those who helped and were saved, nor those who didn’t help and were damned saw Jesus in the poorest of the poor. They both lacked vision. 

When I sat down to reflect on this scripture, I thought I was going to write about how we must be able to see Jesus in the poor and marginalized. We have to be able to see Jesus in unexpected places in the same way my wife sees messes. We have to have super powered vision. 

But that isn’t what this gospel says. No, instead of super vision, we just have to have super willingness. We don’t have to perfectly see Jesus in every homeless person we meet. No, we just have to be willing to help. We don’t have to see Jesus in the hardened criminal in prison, we just have to be willing to visit him. We don’t have to see Jesus in the lonely dementia patient, we just have to be willing to call them. We don’t have to see Jesus in any of the people who have been pushed to the side and how are impoverished, we just have to be willing to love them. 

You don’t have to have super powers to love Jesus well. You don’t have to have super vision to see Jesus in unexpected people. You just have to do it. 

Loving Jesus isn’t a matter of ability. It all comes down to willingness. Are you willing to love the poor and vulnerable? Are you willing to love even when it is difficult? Are willing to love people who don’t deserve it? No matter what your answer is, talk to Jesus about it. 

LIVE IT: Are you willing, but don’t know how? Find a food shelf and bring an extra bag of groceries to them. I guarantee it will help someone. At HNOJ you can support IOCP (and find out more about IOCP) by clicking here.

Readings for Sunday November 22nd, 2020.

Useless.

The other day my two and a half year old son made a gigantic mess with flour. It wasn’t entirely his fault. He’s two, what did I expect? We had gotten out some flour for him to make homemade play-do with, but didn’t move fast enough and he started spreading the flour all over the table and floor and chair and himself. I tried my hardest to be cool and play it off as no big deal, but I failed when he started grinding the flour into the chair cushion with his tennis shoes. 

After I calmed down a bit, I got reflecting on the kind of children I want to raise. Of course I want them to be well behaved and cleanly. I desire for them to follow directions and be obedient. I also want them to have spirit and joy and fortitude and little twinkle of mischief. I want to raise kids who have gumption. 

I think God wants this in his children too. In the gospel this Sunday Jesus tells a parable about a master who has three servants. With each servant, the master leaves a large amount of money and then he goes on a long trip. When he returns he asks each servant to tell him how much money they earned with the wealth that he had given them. The first and second servants doubled their money, but the third servant says he was fearful of the master and so he hid the money and didn’t earn anything additional. At the end of the parable the master calls the third servant useless and throws out into the darkness.

The masters calls this third servant wicked, but in the end this servant is wicked because he is useless. 

Open rebellion against God isn’t the only way deny God. Few of us do rebel against God on purpose. Most of us think we lead pretty good lives and don’t sin too badly. The reality is that rather than commit real evil, we often fail to do real good. 

It’s not enough that we just avoid big sins. Following Jesus isn’t only about not doing the bad stuff. Following Jesus is about choosing to seek out the good stuff too. Jesus Christ made disciples who ended up being wild eyed radicals. Followers of Jesus have been intense and extreme and willing to do anything to follow Jesus for centuries. If you read the lives of the Saints you’ll see some wild stories and no shortage of gumption. 

Some think that opposite of love is hate. It’s not. The opposite of love is apathy. Hate is passion in the opposite direction. Apathy is nothing. Apathy is lame and boring and useless. If following Jesus means loving God and loving neighbor then we better make sure we are apathetic toward God and neighbor. 

If we are serious about following Jesus, then we should be serious about living lives of risk and adventure, lives full of love. We need to look forward to invest what God has given us. We shouldn’t wait for the perfect time to help or love. We should live with a little gumption. God help us if we are useless. 

Live it: Read the lives of some Saints. See if you can find some gumption. If you are looking for a list of saints, try this one

Sunday Readings for November 15th, 2020.

Other People’s Passions

In the past couple years I have fallen in love with woodworking. I enjoy the process of taking a raw material and crafting it into a useful and beautiful product. I enjoy the smell of sawdust and the feel of freshly sanded boards. I like the hum of power tools and the preciseness of sharp hand tools. I enjoy the time alone creating something that will last for more at least a couple years, if not longer. 

I listen to podcasts about wood working. I read articles and blog entries. I page through woodworking magazines and books. Consequently I like talking about it. I enjoy talking for hours about about grain direction, wood species, and shellac cuts.

My wife does not. 

No matter how passionate I am, no matter how enthusiastic I get, not matter how dynamically I talk about woodworking, she gets bored pretty quick. She doesn’t mind the results of my work, she just doesn’t care about the journey like I do. No matter how much I want to share my joy in woodworking, she hasn’t discovered it for herself. 

In the gospel this week Jesus tells the story of ten virgins waiting for a bridegroom. Five virgins brought enough oil so that their lamps were still lit when the bridegroom arrives. Five foolish virgins did not. Then a peculiar thing happens. The foolish, short on oil virgins ask to borrow some oil from the wise virgins. The wise virgins refuse to share. The five wise virgins are welcomed into the wedding banquet, while the five poorly lit virgins were denied entry.

This doesn’t seem like a very Jesus like story. Why wouldn’t the five wise virgins share their oil? The short answer – they couldn’t. 

The oil in this story represents faith. The five wise virgins had enough faith to wait for the bridegroom (Jesus Christ). The five foolish ones fell short. In other words, their faith ran out.

The thing about faith is that you can’t give your faith to someone else. You can share what you believe and share your passion, but someone else can’t believe off of your passion. No, they must discover it for themselves. Each of us must discover, cultivate, and grow our own personal faith.

Just as my teeth don’t get clean when my spouse goes to the dentist, I need to have enough faith myself. As much as I love woodworking and talking about it, my passion, my enthusiasm isn’t enough for my wife to fall in love with the hobby. 

St. John Paul II said, “Every generation, with its own mentality and characteristics, is like a new continent to be won for Christ.” As much as the wise virgins would have liked to share their oil they couldn’t. As much as we would like our faith to be enough for someone else, it can’t be. As much as we wish the the people in our lives who are short on faith can just borrow our faith, the truth is, they can’t.

For us, this is an invitation to make sure that our lamp is full. This parable is a reminder to consistently and eagerly grow our faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus asks us to seek a deep, personal, lived relationship with him so that we too are welcomed into the wedding feast of eternal life and not left outside with the bridegroom saying that he doesn’t even know us.

Live It: Find a candle. Doesn’t have to be blessed or fancy, any candle will do (left over jack-o-lantern candle, maybe). Of course if you can find your baptismal candle, even better. Light the candle and then say this simple prayer, “God grant me the grace of a deep and rich faith. Help me grow my lived relationship with you. God help me to love you more tomorrow than I did today.” 

Sunday Readings for November 8th, 2020.

9 ways to be Happy

A quick glance at the magazine covers at the grocery store or a couple minutes scrolling through social media and you will see a lot of people who promise to make you happy. Whether it is by eating the right food, working out in the right way, having the best sex, doing the best hobby, believing the right things, or even just by buying the right magazine, the headlines or clickbait all promise happiness. 

Whether we want to admit it or not most of our human behavior is guided by a desire to be happy. Why do we cut our hair this way or that way? Because we think it will make us happy. Why do we get married to the person we marry? We think it will make us happy. Small things or big things, we often choose them because of our innate desire for happiness. 

This isn’t necessarily bad. God made us to desire happiness. The thing is that we can’t and won’t find true, lasting, real happiness here on earth. C. S. Lewis said it this way, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” 

When Jesus preaches on the mountain top, he does the same thing that the supermarket magazines do, “If you want to me happy….” (What? The Savior of mankind can’t be good at marketing?)

Yes the beatitudes we read about this Sunday are a list of “if you want to be happy…” statements. The word translated as “Blessed” is Beatiudo, which is where we get name beatitudes. Ultimately, Jesus are saying, those who are __________ are happy, fortunate, or content.

What’s puzzling about Jesus’ preaching is that the things he promises will make us happy don’t seem very attractive. If you asked one of your kids how they were doing and they said, “Well I’m feeling pretty poor in spirit, sad, and meek. I wish the world was better than it is. I want to be merciful and have a clean heart and to be a peacemaker. I’m being bullied at school because I want to do the right thing and you should hear the things people say about me.” We wouldn’t instantly think that our kids are happy. Right?

Understanding what Jesus means by “happy” can help put together this puzzle. The original word in Greek that Jesus uses here is makarios which means good fortunate, happy, blessed. Jesus didn’t use eftihismenon which means blissful, feeling good. Jesus doesn’t promise pleasant feelings, but promises goodness. The things that will make us good and put us in a fortunate situation might not bring us blissful feelings. 

Another way to answer the seeming dissonance between happiness and suffering is that God’s goal for us often isn’t the same goal we seek when we want to be happy. If we seek happiness we will likely be left unsatisfied because we are bad at knowing what will make us happy and often follow the path of least resistance instead of the path to happiness. 

Jesus’ promise of happiness is actually a promise of goodness, beauty, and truth. In other words, if you are close to God, you will be happy. If you know God and God knows you, you will be happy. Happy is the one who has an intimate, lived relationship with Jesus Christ. 

LIVE IT: Make 2 lists. List 1 is all the things that make you momentarily, emotionally happy. List 2 are all the things that are good, beautiful, and true in your life. When you pray, pull out each list and thank God for each thing on each list one by one.

Simple.

In a popular TV comedy one female character is remarking about the male character that she is romantically entangled with by saying, “(He) is the most complicated man that I’ve ever met. I mean, who says exactly what they’re thinking? What kind of game is that?” We live in a world so used to misdirection and filtered conversation that to encounter someone who actually says what they are thinking can be startling.

In the gospel this weekend, a scholar of the law asks Jesus a simple question, “Teacher, which commandment of the law is the greatest?” He isn’t trying to trick Jesus, but is testing to see if Jesus knows the answer.

Jesus responds by reciting the Shema, a Jewish law found in Deuteronomy. Then he adds the law of love for others. What is the greatest law? Love God. Love others. Love well. 

Jesus doesn’t mince words or talk about how this may be interpreted. No, the law of God is straightforward and simple. Love. 

We struggle with this in three ways. First, we often get the word love wrong. In English we use the word love to mean a number of different emotions, behaviors, and attitudes. In the last week I’ve said I love pizza and I love my wife. I do not love them in the same way. I think it’s helpful to understand the Greek word for love that is used by Jesus here. 

Agape is a self sacrificial love. It is a self giving love. This is love that wills the good of the other. It isn’t affection, friendship, or romantic love (though they can and should have forms of Agape within their practice). What kind of love should we have for God? One that put’s God’s will above our own. What kind of love should we have for others? The kind of love that wants what is best for them even if it is difficult for us.

Second, we tend to complicate things when they seem simple. It’s as if we say, “Well, that can’t be all there is. It must be more complicated than that.” And then we go and muddy the waters of the commandment. We rationalize and theorize the kind of behavior we would prefer rather than what Jesus prescribes.

Third, the command is simple, but follow through on it is challenging. Even if we know, we fail to do it. It’s hard to make a gift of self to someone else. Love is costly. To love someone else costs us greatly and to love God costs us everything.

The question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not we are going to seek to follow Jesus’s simple command to love God and love others? Once we make that decision, now comes the work of loving well. 

LIVE IT: Double challenge this week. You can do this for a person or for God.  First, tell someone you love them. Stop them, look them in the eye and tell them. Second, show them that you love them.