Why?

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In times of great suffering it is common to wonder, “Why is this happening to us?” It’s a question that at its core is asking, “Why do I have to suffer?” I have been asking this question a lot in these days. Rather than settling on a perfect or definitive answer, I’ve been left holding the question in my hands. 

The good news is that the scriptures we read or hear at Mass this Sunday give us a little help with the answer. We’ll find some meaning in these scriptures because the reason we suffer is intimately tied to the answer to the question, “Why did Jesus have to suffer?”

In the gospel this weekend, we hear the familiar story of the road to Emmaus. Two characters are leaving Jerusalem to return home after Jesus’ death. When they meet a stranger along the road, who asks the travelers what they are talking about, they say, “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, how our chief priests and rulers both handed him over to a sentence of death and crucified him.” Jesus then calls them fools and explains the events.

For me the phrase that gets me is when the two travelers say “The things that happened to Jesus…” Certainly Jesus suffered and was killed and those events happened to him, but the way it is phrased, clearly missed the point that Jesus choose his path. Jesus wasn’t a helpless victim, but glorious sacrificial victim. He suffered and died because that was the way to accomplish his mission to save humanity from death and sin. 

This gospel is from Luke, but in John’s gospel, Jesus always seems to be in control. The things that happen to him happen because he ultimately wants to accomplish his mission of love. Certainly Jesus asked for the cup to pass, and then he submitted to God’s will. Maybe he didn’t desire the cross, but he absolutely embraced it. Jesus’ desire was for love and a suffering sacrifice was the only way to love enough.

None of us would choose suffering for ourselves or our loved ones. Love requires sacrifice which often means suffering. We see it in small ways like doing the dishes when it is our spouse’s turn. And we see it big ways when someone sacrifices their life to save another. 

The suffering that we are experiencing doesn’t make sense unless we unite it with the suffering of Jesus Christ. Unless we offer it up to him and embrace it so that others might be loved, we might just think it is all meaningless. 

So what do we do in the face of great suffering? Love. I know that seems overly simplistic and trite, but it is the right answer. It has always been the right answer from the beginning of time and no one teaches us that more than Jesus Christ. 

When correcting the two travelers Jesus says, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Our salvation was dependent upon it. Now we can follow in Jesus’ example, and sacrifice, maybe even suffer, so that others might know love. 

LIVE IT: When it comes to loving the first battle ground is our own heart. This doesn’t mean just be nice to yourself, but instead it means sacrificing something so that you get what you really need – Jesus. While the world is upside down, find 10-15 minutes extra each day when you can give up what you would normally be doing in order to listen to Jesus. Speak his name and sit in silence. BONUS: Show your family you love them this week. If they are the only people you see, they are the people you are being called to love well. 

It was an accident.

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As a parent, I have lots of moments where I try and teach my kids a lesson that I, myself, haven’t yet totally mastered. Don’t hit your sister (sorry Kate) – Maybe you should get the small ice cream – and please excuse yourself from the table next time – are just a few. But the lesson I feel like I am constantly teaching, and constantly failing at myself, is the lesson of purpose. 

The other day one of my children knocked a glass of water off the table. The glass shattered, the water sprayed everywhere. I helped them clean it up and when I asked them to be more careful, they responded with hurt in their voice, “But I didn’t do it on purpose!” I said in response, “Yes, but you didn’t do things on purpose to avoid the situation like moving the glass in from the edge of the table or going slow or not swinging your arms wildly while singing a show tune.” I tried to explain that there is a difference between an absolute accident, doing something on purpose, and not doing things to avoid a potential accident. They stared at me blankly and we moved on. 

I think this kind of thing happens to Thomas in our gospel reading for this Sunday. Thomas gets this horrible nickname of “doubting Thomas” simply because he wasn’t present when Jesus appeared the first time. He didn’t purposefully try to miss out, but he did. He just didn’t do the thing he could have to not have missed the resurrected Jesus. 

However, I think this missing out moment has even deeper meaning than a way I teach my kids not to spill glasses. In this story we see that Jesus was there. Jesus was present right at the moment that everyone thought it had gone. Jesus wasn’t absent from his friends and followers. It was Thomas who was gone. When we feel far from Jesus, it isn’t that he leaves us, it much more likely that it is us who have left him. 

Also, Thomas missed Jesus when he was away from the community of Christians. The same is true for us in a certain sense. When we are separated from our Church, we can miss seeing Jesus. 

I recognize that is a horrible thing to name in the midst of social distancing and the stay-at-home order that are all experiencing. The reality is that we are physically separated from each other, but we can be spiritually united. What we can do, is what we can do. We must do things on purpose to avoid an accidental separation from the Church and from Jesus. We must be Christians, we must be the Church on purpose. 

Live It: Reach out to a friend you haven’t connected with in the last month. Pray for them then give them a text message or phone call to connect. Maybe ask them “Is there anything I can pray for you on your behalf?” or just go ahead and offer to pray with them on the phone. See what happens.

Sunday readings for April 19th, 2020.

Empty Tombs.

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If I close my eyes, I can clearly see the mausoleum where my mom is buried. No matter what time of year it is, I always see it as summer. Her tomb is on the outside of the building facing a large open field and a small wood and creek beyond. The face of her tomb is a beautiful marble or some other stone. 

My dad always does a good job keeping a small floral arrangement that matches the season in the flower vase that sits on the front of her tomb. Of course when I imagine it, it is always the same floral arrangement. In my mind’s eye, it is the one we placed on her tomb the day we placed her remains inside. I would say that I will always see those same flowers on my mothers tomb, but I don’t believe that. 

What I do believe is that there will come a time when those flowers will no longer be necessary. There will come a time when the nameplate on the front of the tomb will be inaccurate. There will come a time when my mom no longer lays in that tomb. I believe Jesus Christ will raise my mom from the dead. I believe at sometime in the future her tomb will be empty just like Jesus’ tomb. 

We are getting ready to celebrate Easter this Sunday when we stand and proclaim that death is not the end. On Easter we ardently proclaim from the rooftops that Jesus has risen from the dead and death is conquered. Mary of Magdala and the Disciples found an empty tomb, and in short order they are going to find a resurrected Lord. Alleluia! 

But the good news doesn’t end there. Yes, Jesus’ tomb was and is empty. Jesus is raised from the dead. Scripture tells us that he is just the first of those who will be raised. Jesus’ death and resurrection means that when we die, we too will be raised. Praise be to God!

St. Paul says it like this in 1 Corinthians, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came also through a human being. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ…”

Yes I when I close my eyes, I can see how my mom’s tomb is today. When Jesus comes again, her tomb will be empty just as all of ours will be by the grace of God. 

Live It: On Easter Sunday go outside and say out loud (shout, if you dare), “Alleluia! The tomb is empty! Jesus is risen! Alleluia!” 

Sunday Readings for April 12th, 2020.

That’s Heavy.

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In the cinema classic Back to the Future, Marty McFly uses the 1980’s slang term “heavy” to describe the hi jinx he has unleashed with his unplanned trip to 1955. His friend Doc Brown responds by saying, “There’s that word again. ‘Heavy.’ Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the Earth’s gravitational pull?”

This is funny not only because of the mash up of 1955 and 1985, but also because Doc seems clueless to the meaning of the word “heavy” in this context and we the audience know exactly what Marty means. We know because the feeling of heaviness isn’t just 1980’s slang.  

We all know when a situation is heavy. We all know when we hear a story or statement that weighs upon us. We can feel it when we walk into a room and sense a heaviness among those already presence. 

On Monday I read the final three paragraphs of the Passion of Jesus Christ from Matthew’s gospel at a Bible Study (online) in preparation for this coming Sunday. When I read about Jesus crucifixion and death you could feel the heaviness in the group. When we heard of Jesus’ suffering one could sense how heavy we all felt. When Jesus cries out and breaths his last, we paused, and we could feel the weight of this reality upon us. 

This Sunday is Palm Sunday and Catholic Churches everywhere will read the Passion of Jesus Christ from Matthew’s gospel. Granted it will be proclaimed to an online audience or to empty Churches in many places in the world. More than ever, it seems we know what it means to feel that somber weight of death and rejection. 

Another reality remains. While we may know what a heavy situation feels like, our God, the source of Light and of all creation, knows what our heaviness feels like. Jesus dying on the cross isn’t just about his suffering, but about ours as well. We have a God who knows what it is like to be us. We have a God who loves us so much that he wouldn’t let us persist in suffering without changing the story. In fact, he came to save us from suffering and death. Jesus died on the cross to conquer death forever. 

This week when you feel heavy, when the weight of the world falls on your shoulders, remember that you don’t bear the weight alone. Remember Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (Mt 11:28-30)

LIVE IT: Let God give you rest. If it means an extra nap or a vigorous walk, when you feel light or rested, thank God for his gift to you. 

Read for your self: Sunday Readings for April 5th, 2020.

Faith Enough.

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A few days ago I read a tweet that said, “It’s easy to pray that God’s will be done when it lines up with what we want done.” I found this to be true. Recently I’ve found it much more difficult to accept what is happening in the world as either God’s will or what I want. For me at least it has been harder to pray that “God’s will be done.” 

Martha and Mary must have been scared and anxious when Lazarus got sick. They must have found a glimmer of hope that they knew a healer who they thought might be able to save him. Can you imagine what they felt when Jesus didn’t show up in time? Can you imagine what must have been like to be let down by Jesus? 

Jesus arrives too late and cries over the death of his friend. He asks them to take away the stone to Lazarus’ tomb. When the protest about the stench, Jesus says, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?”

He then raises Lazarus from the dead. Jesus prays to God out loud so that the crowds know that Jesus comes from the Father. Then he calls Lazarus out and the dead man rises. 

And that’s that. That’s kind of the end of the story. Many people came to believe in Jesus, but the scene changes in John’s gospel to the beginning of a plot to kill Jesus. 

When do we decide to believe? Do we believe Jesus and what he says about himself or do we believe only after Jesus has proved himself and do what we want? To be honest, I’m writing this question for myself because I need to hear it right now. 

We are living through the most uncertain of times. What I do know is that someone believed before they moved the stone and before Lazarus was raised. There’s nothing wrong with believing in Jesus after the miracle has occurred. However, someone has to trust God enough to believe him at his word and move the stone. Will it be us?

Live it: In Mark 9, a boy with a demon is cured and Jesus tell the boy’s father that things are possible for the one who has faith. The man responds, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” Say that prayer as many times as it takes – “Jesus, I do believe; help my unbelief” “Jesus I trust in you; help me to trust you fully.” “Jesus I love you; help me to love you completely.”   

Do You Fear the Lord?

When my wife and I were first married but before we had kids, some friends asked us to family-sit their brood of children while they traveled out of town for a weekend. We had a blast. We fed them meals. We did their activities. We played games. The only thing was one of the boys wouldn’t talk to me. In fact, he usually rushed out of the room when I entered. Mystified we asked our friends what was he so afraid of. They told us, “He knows that you are friends with the priest and the priest is close to God on the altar. He figured that you are close to God and he is scared of God.”

Honestly, I’m pretty humbled by this. He thinks I’m close to God. As the tremendous sinner that I am all I could think about was how far away from God I usually am! Then it occurred to me that while it is true I can choose to turn my back on God, God chooses to be close to me.

In the gospel this Sunday we hear the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. He goes up on a mount with three of his disciples. His clothes insta-bleach themselves and the very voice of God speaks. They were walking next to God this whole time and only now understand exactly how close to God they had been.

The gospel writer says that they were very afraid. Jesus says, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” The very disciples, the ones closest to Jesus, Jesus’ senior leadership group, were scared of God.

There is a way that we shouldn’t be afraid of God. Signs of this kind of fear of God can be if we pull away from him, if we hide from him, if we avoid church or prayer or even identifying as a church person. If we only see God as a spiteful judge ready to damn us for every mistake, that isn’t a real healthy vision of God.

However, I don’t think that is most of us. Most people don’t hold enough of a healthy fear of God. If you catch me in a moment of honesty, I will tell you that most of the time our understanding of God is far, far too small. God is too much like us in our minds. God is a “just bigger, smarter, more mysterious” version of a human. Because of that we don’t fear God. We don’t fear what we know as much as we fear the unknown. If we don’t fear God it might be because we feel like we know him much better than we really do. If we don’t have a healthy and holy fear of God, it’s because our understanding of him is just too small.

We do fear the powerful. We fear what could end our life like heights or snakes. Public speaking is the fear of the unknown – we don’t know what everyone thinks of us.

Acknowledging that God is marvelous and amazing and big and a little fear inducing while still trying to get close to him is an act of trust. Bowing down before him, holding the dual truths that God is far, far beyond us and yet desires to grow closer to us than we can imagine is an act of worship. Acknowledge the fear, draw close anyway.

LIVE IT: Take 3 minutes before bed tonight to think about your image and understanding of God. Answer these questions – Am I afraid of God? Why or Why not? How does my understanding of God influence my daily life?

Sunday Readings for March 8th, 2020.

NEW & IMPROVED LENT!

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I read online recently about a new concept that helps people control weight, have more energy, have a clearer, focused mental state, and sleep better. This new behavior seems to fix a number of problems plaguing Americans today. I fell for the click bait and read the article. 

What was the new miracle behavior? Fasting. The article explained the various ways athletes and celebrities are fasting from food to solve all their problems. Whether they were not eating very many calories on a particular day of the week or only eating for certain hours of the day and going 16 or more hours in a row without consuming anything, the article examined the tactics and benefits of this brand new way of self mastery. 

As a Catholic I tried not to roll my eyes and instead tried to find joy in the fact that people are discovering the temporal benefits of a 2000 year old traditional practice of Catholicism. It reminds me of a couple years ago when it was fashionable (and may still be) to give up meat one day a week for the environment. Well, duh. 

We hear this Sunday of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert and his temptation at the hands of Satan. The very beginning of this reading says, At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry.” I think it is good to note that it is the Spirit of God who led Jesus into the desert. It was God’s will that he enter into a period of testing and self denial.

Also, I think the fasting was something Jesus chose to do. Maybe that is obvious to you, but in the past I kind of thought it was a trick of the devil to make him hungry. But that isn’t what the text says. Jesus’ 40 day fast wasn’t part of the devil’s plan, it was part of what Jesus went to go do in the desert. So why did he do it? Why fast?

Jesus was about to embark on his ministry to save the world. He was about to teach, preach, heal, uplift, convict and minister to those he encountered. Jesus was about to allow the very humanity he came to save to crucify him on cross and kill him. Jesus was getting ready to open the gates of heaven and triumph over Satan and death once and for all. To prepare for this, Jesus went into the desert to fast and to pray. 

This is why we go into the desert of Lent to fast and pray. To prepare to remember the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.  We fast and pray to get ourselves ready for the most momentous moment of your year – the remembrance and celebration of when you and were saved from certain death and eternal suffering. 

Why fasting and prayer? Because these actions are powerful. Saint Pope John Paul II said this, “Prayer joined to sacrifice constitutes the most powerful force in human history.” My encouragement this Lent is to actually try purposefully fasting. Really do it. And do it tied to prayer. 

If you have something you are praying for, big or small, I would encourage you to try uniting that prayer with sacrifice. If you know someone struggling or who is sick and needs prayer, offer those prayers, but tie in some fasting with it too. It is powerful. 

LIVE IT: Add fasting into your Lenten practice in some way. It isn’t just giving up food (although there is something to be said for fasting from food), but purposefully going without in an intentional way. Whenever and whatever you sacrifice, offer that sacrifice up in prayer by simply telling God your reason why. It’s that simple. 

Sunday Readings for March 1st, 2020.

Absolutely Perfect.

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Two kinds of people inhabit this big blue marble we call home – those who love the Olympics and those who don’t. I for one love the olympics. The grandeur and spectacle of the opening ceremonies. The triumph on the faces of the athlete replete with medals. The agony of the defeat of those who get edged out into 4th place. The celebration of the unlikeliest athletes from the unlikeliest countries just competing at all. It all is exciting to me. 

I much prefer the timed competitions, but there is something exciting about the judged sports like figure skating, gymnastics or diving. That moment when the culmination of years of work has just completed and the athlete is awaiting their scores – wow, high drama. It doesn’t happen often, but when the judges deem that performance to be perfect – exhilaration. 

While perfection is something we think we know and experience in this life, it is quite rare. The perfect morning, the perfect cup of coffee, the perfect kiss – we may say these things, but how do we judge something is perfect. Is it perfect until something better comes along? By perfect do we mean that it couldn’t be improved? How do we know?

That is why this gospel is so difficult to get our arms around. Jesus preaches about our need as his followers to no longer seek to fulfill the bare minimum of the law, but to seek the law’s radical and greatest expression. In the end Jesus says, “So be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Does this seem impossible? I feel totally ill equipped to be perfect. Nothing in my life feels perfect. How am I supposed to be perfect?

In praying with this scripture I found some direction in the second half of the directive, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.” How is God perfect? Of course we could say he is perfect in every way. But I think Jesus is trying to say something specific. 

God is perfect in his LOVE. Each person of our triune God loves the others perfectly. That love spills out into creation and God loves his creation perfectly. God loves us so much that he sacrificed his only son to save us from death. God loves us perfectly. 

If we are trying to be perfect as God is perfect. We must try to love perfectly. The kind of love we are talking about is the love that we choose. It is self-gift. It is the kind of love that is self sacrifice. This is the love that Jesus had for us when he died on the cross. This love is divine love. Since you and I are made in the image and likeness of God, we were made to love in this way. It is the love that God can perfect in us. How should we be perfect? We must seek to love perfectly. 

LIVE IT: Take out your phone and set a reminder for right after your alarm goes off in the morning – ask God to help you love perfectly that day and to give you opportunities to love someone else. Then prepare yourself to love and be giving the chance to love. 

Sunday Reading for February 23rd, 2020.

No Rules. No Right.

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I have eaten my fair share of bloomin’ onions. I’ve sat and wondered if they actually have steak houses down under. I’ve sipped a frothy beverage and annoyingly repeated lines from Crocodile Dundee while waiting for my food. What I mean to say is, I’ve eaten at Outback Steakhouse. 

A while ago their tagline was “No Rules. Just Right.” This has always struck me as odd. Sure it captures what I can only presume is a rebellious Australian spirit. No rules. Yet, just as we are fully bought into the no rules aspect of dining, they get you with the just right. I think this was to give the impression that your steak would be cooked just right. It could also mean everything about one’s experience at Outback would be – just right. 

Both halves of this tagline are lies. The varied ways that Outback Steakhouses aren’t “just right” are probably self revelatory. But the real hypocrisy is first half of the line “No rules.”  The moment you get up from the table and try to leave without paying, you will quickly find that there are indeed rules. If you were to throw your cutlery on the floor or mistreat the staff or bother other patrons, they will show you the door for breaking the, well, rules. 

Further, If you order a steak Medium Rare (as one should), the only reason it would come out cooked to the state of Medium Rare is because the chef followed the rules of how long or hot to cook the steak. If your steak was black and charcoaly and you sent it back to the kitchen, you could do so only because there are, in fact, rules about steaks and steakhouses. 

Some people think Jesus threw out all the rules. Some believe Jesus tells us we don’t need and shouldn’t follow rules. They might even come to the opinion that rules are for pharisees and reactionaries (they would be partially right here). It is as if they believe the tagline of Christianity is “No Rules. Just Christ.”

As attractive as that line might be (especially to us Americans), it isn’t very Biblical and doesn’t follow our Tradition. This Sunday’s gospel shows us that Jesus didn’t come to destroy the rules, but to fulfill them. He preaches clearly and decisively that not only are the rules not too harsh and shouldn’t be abandoned, but in fact the rules don’t go far enough. If the old rule was that violence against your neighbor was bad, Jesus ups the ante to anger with your fellow man is wrong. He goes on to increase the demand in several other areas. 

Jesus teaches us that it isn’t that the rules should be dismissed, but the rules will never be enough to establish the Kingdom and save our souls. In fact, Jesus preaches the radical and difficult reality that we are not enough. He says that we can never do enough to earn salvation or approval. It is only God who is enough who can save us in the face of the high bar of following Jesus Christ. 

Should we follow the rules of following Jesus? Absolutely. Should we only follow the the bare minimum of the rules? Absolutely not. The rules are good and we must abide, but we must go on to love and love well. When asked what is the greatest rule, love for God and love for neighbor was Jesus’ answer. 

Live it: Make a rule for yourself to follow for one week. Try something like: Drink only water. or No TV. or Say “Hi!” to everyone you walk past. or Introduce yourself to strangers. See what works. Maybe you’ll fine something new for Lent this year. 

Sunday Readings for February 16th, 2020.

All the Flavor.

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About 5 years ago, my dad and I tried to make our own, from scratch, Italian sausage. We found a recipe in an older cookbook that we thought sounded authentic. We ground up the pork shoulders. We prepared the casings. We added various spices and finally the kosher salt.

While we were adding it, I remember thinking, “This seems like a generous helping of salt, but I’m sure the author of this recipe has more experience and expertise than I do.” But something went wrong. 

After filling the sausages, we fried up a little of the bulk sausage meat just to taste it. WOW SALTY. No one could eat the sausages. We tried cooking them in tomato sauce, but even then we found our family suffering through dinner. This salt was salty and our sausage experiment was a failure. Bummer. 

In the gospel this Sunday, Jesus tells us that if salt loses its flavor it should be thrown out. The thing is, salt can’t loose it’s flavor. Salt is salt. So what is Jesus talking about?

We, in the 21st century, have refined, pure salt in our spice drawer at home. But imagine a time when one bought salt from a neighbor who only sifted it enough to get the large chunks of dirt or rock out of the salt. As one used the container of salt and get near the bottom, one probably got to the point where one had less salt and more dirt. Thus it no longer was salt.

Salt seasons and salt preserves. Salt does particular things. If you tried to use something less than salt to do either of these we are going to end up with dirty or spoiled food. What we need in cooking and food preparation is authentic salt. We need the real deal.

When it comes to sharing our faith, we need to have the real and authentic faith. Can we have questions and moments of weakness? Absolutely, that is part of growing in faith. But when it comes to sharing our faith, we can only share what we actually own. When it comes to inspiring and preserving faith in our family and our friends, we can only do so to the extent that we hold true faith. 

You and I can fake it till we make in terms of our own faith life and devotion (and sometimes we must!), but we can’t fake it for anyone else. We can’t share what we don’t have. We can’t lead where we won’t go ourselves. If we desire or feel called to help influence the faith of our children, spouses, neighbors, coworkers, or friends, then the first person we must help grow in faith is us. We must get salty, if we are going to season the world. 

LIVE IT: For the next 3 meals add this following prayer to your food blessing. If you make these meals, saying the prayer when you season the food. If you are picking up food, say it during the blessing.

“God, Give me the true and authentic faith you desire for me. Help me to be salt for those around me.”

Sunday Readings for February 9th, 2020.