To Deny the Gift

I can’t force my older kids to do things. They haven’t totally figured that out yet, which is nice. I think the oldest one suspects the truth and every now and again pushes a bit. For the most part they are obedient and respectful kids. I’m blessed and they are blessed because of it. Consequently, I rarely seek to make them do or not do something.

Sure there are times that I put my foot down, but usually we give our children choices and then make the alternatives we prefer the clear winner. Sometimes our outside the box thinker tries the alternative option. Usually it doesn’t work out well. We give options and make clear consequences. That’s what we are supposed to do right?

God doesn’t force anyone to do anything either. God doesn’t make us love him or make us worship him. We are free to follow or not to follow Jesus. We are free to go to heaven or no to go to heaven. Because grace is a free gift and we do nothing to earn it, we can sometimes erroneously get the idea that we also can’t deny it. But that isn’t how gifts work. Just because we didn’t earn it, doesn’t me we are forced to accept it. 

In the gospel this Sunday, Jesus says, “Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.” In other words, God doesn’t force us to accept the gift of grace, the gift of salvation, the gift of his love. God freely gives grace, salvation, and love, but we can deny it, just like any other gift. 

If we can deny it, then it follows that to receive it we must accept it. The ability to accept it is a gift from God too, but that doesn’t mean that our choice to receive the gift is unimportant. No friends, if we want the free gift of God’s love and grace, we must cooperate with God’s action in our lives. 

The Good News is that God wants us to accept the gift of his love more than we want to. God wants to give us his grace more than we want to accept it. God wants us in heaven, in perfect intimate relationship with him, more than we desire heaven for ourselves. 

God doesn’t force us to accept the gift of his love and grace. This means we have to participate in the reception of that gift. Here are 3 ways to accept that gift today:

  1. Sacraments – Go to Mass. Go to Confession. Go to a Wedding or ordination or baptism. Pray for and receive grace. If you haven’t been in a while, start with confession. It’s personal, private, and easier than you remember. 
  2. Scripture – Read the Bible. It’s pretty straight forward. Start by reading a gospel, Mark. Just read one section. Do it 3 days in a row and then keep it going. God will reach out to you through the words on the page. 
  3. The Poor – Find a way to give to someone in poverty. Bring food to a food shelf (or HNOJ collects everyday). Check in with your neighbors. Give to someone’s poverty even if their poverty isn’t material. 

Live It: Try one of the three suggestions above on how to receive God’s grace and love. Make a plan and follow through before next Sunday.

Famous.

I met famed Minnesota Twins pitcher Jack Morris. Okay, truth be told, he rubbed up against me on an airplane and then sat down right behind me. Everyone else was bothering him and I could tell he just wanted to watch Avengers on his phone in peace, so I didn’t bother him. But I watched him a bit. 

I knew his reputation as being a little bristly or salty. I’d heard he was polite, but didn’t totally enjoy being bothered all the time. I’d heard him rip on a broadcast of a Twins game, mercilessly the younger players and their style. And by the time I got done watching him interact with people, I was convinced that all those things I already knew about him were probably true. 

I think fame and reputation make it heard for people to really see the famous person. Naturally I think we fill in a lot of information about a person, especially a famous person, from what we already know about them. If we’ve heard they are difficult, we interpret everything through that lens. I mean, come on, Tom Hanks can’t be that great, right?

This Sunday we will heard proclaimed maybe the most famous piece of scripture that appears in the New Testament. John 3:16 is painted on the wall of our worship space at HNOJ. It is held up on signs at sporting events, at least it used to be. It might be the most memorized piece of scripture. Rightly so. It’s been said it is the entire gospel message in one sentence. 

Like a famous person, we can fill in what we know about this scripture and not really hear what it is saying. We hear the first three words and we go on autopilot. The way around this is to take it slow and break down each and every phrase we read. Let’s try it:

God so loved the world – God chooses to love the world. The world is broken and ugly and diseased and on fire, and he loves us anyway. God loves you, personally and intimately. 

That he gave his only Son – God has only one Son, and he was and is willing to sacrifice him for you and for me. 

So that everyone who believes in him – We can believe in Jesus. Believing isn’t just acknowledging his existence, but it is believing who Jesus is, what he says, and following what he does. Believing means calling him Lord and doing what he says. Believing is cooperating with God for the salvation of the world. 

Might not perish – If we don’t believe, we will perish. Following Jesus is life, to deny him is death. 

But might have eternal life. – Choosing to believe and be 100% sold out for Jesus means eternal life and joy with God forever. 

John 3:16 is a famous piece of scripture, and so, we have a choice to be a fan of it or to live it. We have a choice to marvel at a distance or to come up close and let its meaning rule our lives. God loves us. He sent Jesus as a gift for us. We are called to believe in him with our every action and decision. By his grace and our cooperation, we will have life with God forever. 

LIVE IT:
Take out a piece of paper and a pen. Write out entirety of John 3:16. If you are a crafty/artistic person, do your thing. If not, just take your time and write it out slowly. After you’re done, read it out loud. Believe it. 

Sunday Readings for June 7, 2020.

Paradise

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I distinctly remember watching an 80’s sitcom (though I can’t remember which one) in which a young female character was being wooed by an older man. He kept saying that he had two tickets to paradise if she would trust him. The whole show comes to a head when the female character goes back to this man’s dingy one room apartment where she finds “two tickets to paradise” to be an unnamed pill and vague promises of intimate pleasure. Needless to say, she flees, the man is confronted later, and the whole seen is lesson for us impressionable children of the 80s. 

Yet, I think the lesson is a true one. Again and again we try to find a shortcut to paradise. Maybe it is the obvious substance use, pleasure seeking route. Maybe it is more hidden like avoidance of any pain or suffering. Maybe we think if we are rich or successful or comfortable enough we will make ourselves a heaven on earth. 

The gospel this Sunday is a clear reminder that the one and only way to paradise is Jesus Christ. The only door on the way to heaven is Jesus himself. In some ways, this is bad news for all who try to gain entry to a heavenly experience in some other way. Yet it is very best news for all. It means we know the way to heaven. We know who can open the way and bring us to eternal paradise – Jesus. 

Jesus isn’t only the way to heaven when we die, but is the only way to peace and joy now. Jesus can heal our hurts in a way that no other method or practice can. If another way of healing works it doesn’t work outside of Jesus’ power, but, ultimately, through it. 

How do we enter into the sheep fold? First we have to stop trying to jump over the wall. We must actively and purposefully chose Jesus over what we think is a shortcut. The next step is to trust fully in Jesus as our gate to heaven. Pray and rest in him. Let Jesus heal your brokenness. Make a statement of faith in him. Jesus is the gate. 

Live It: Make a statement of faith. How? It could be as simple as prayerfully repeating a short phrase. Options: “Jesus I trust in you.” “Jesus you are my Lord and my God.” “Jesus I believe, help my unbelief.” Or you could recite the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed. You could also just speak to God from your heart like, “Jesus I give you my life. I trust totally in you. I want to be yours and follow you all the days of my life.” 

Sunday Readings for May 3, 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.

Don’t be a Windsock.

marino-bobetic-_O_jDkWRN3U-unsplash.jpgSunday Readings for December 15th, 2019.

What is the purpose of a wind sock? 

Okay, so I guess I understand that a wind sock at small airfield could tell pilots which way the wind is blowing. I understand why on a golf course the holes have flags. The flags mark the location of a hole and help the players to see which way and the degree to which the wind is blowing at the green. But why do people sometimes have windsocks at their homes? 

The design of the windsock is such that it fills with wind and flutters in the direction away from which the wind is coming. It is controlled by the wind. It is blown directionally any which way the wind is blowing. I guess some people have them for decoration.

In the gospel this Sunday, Jesus asks those gathered why they went into the desert to see John the Baptist. One of the things Jesus asks is, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?” In essence, Jesus is asking, “Did you come to the desert to see a windsock?”

The rhetorical answer that Jesus is looking for is a big NO. The crowds didn’t go into the desert because John dressed well or just because he was a prophet. They followed John because he wasn’t a bruised reed, but because he stood up to the winds of his time. John had backbone. 

People are attracted to people who believe in what they stand for. I have a friend who likes to say, I am passionate about passionate people. Other people’s enthusiasm and strong stance can be attractive at the right time and when expressed in the right way.

There might be nothing worse than someone who moves whichever way the wind is blowing that day. To just listen to the crowd and ignore the truth is cowardice and weak. 

John is attractive because he had backbone. John believed in something and was sold out for it. How sold out? He dressed in a hair-shirt and ate bugs because he thought that is what he would best serve the Lord. 

Following Jesus Christ, preparing a way from him is rarely convenient. If want to be people who serve God well and prepare a way, if we want to attract people to the gospel, we have to have backbone too. We have to chose the inconvenient path. We can’t be a windsock. 

Live It: Put on two different socks tomorrow. It isn’t as weird as a hair-shirt or eating locus, but us it a reminder to have backbone. Believe in the gospel. 

Surprise!

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Sunday Readings for November 17, 2019. 

My two year-old is obsessed with Lemons. I know we aren’t supposed to let him have them because of teeth or enamel or something like that, but I pick my battles, okay? The other day he whined when he saw a lemon slice in my water. As I acquiesced and handed him the lemon slice I said, “Now, you know it is sour?” 

Immediately he popped it in his mouth, took a big bite, and then made the sourest, squintiest, puckeriest face of all time. Then he looked at me in total surprise like I had tricked him in some way. I laughed. He laughed. It was all fine, but I couldn’t help but think, “What did you expect?”

Sometimes I think good Christian men and women are surprised when we get the short end of the stick from the world. We are surprised when we actually follow Jesus, that we might get putdown, ignored, and dismissed. I won’t speak for anyone else, but I often think I can follow Jesus and still be fully, comfortably, completely embraced and loved by the world. Consequently, when someone thinks I’m a religious weirdo who is “way too into church,” I’m surprised and disturbed. 

Jesus promises us we will be hated – not only disliked or disapproved of, but straight up hated for our belief in God and our following of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the king of good news (life over death, all sins forgiven, unconditionally loved by God, etc.), but Jesus also reminds us that there are forces that oppose the gospel and those forces will encourage hatred of all who seek to do the will of God. 

The question we must all answer as followers of Jesus is whether we are willing to be hated because of our love for Jesus. the truth of the matter is that we answer that question with our actions and our words.

Live It: Turn off the radio or podcast or music for 1 drive this week and think about the question “Am I willing to be hated for my love for Jesus? Am I willing to endure hatred for how I share the good news of Jesus Christ?

An honest reaction.

Sunday Readings for September 15th, 2019.

I want to direct a short film which depicts the 3 lost parables of Luke 15 (spoiler alert, kal-visuals-6JNdQAitqWU-unsplashthis is the gospel for this coming Sunday.) 

The reason I want to artistically represent these parables is because I think most people’s reaction to hearing them is fake, lame, and personally dishonest. It’s not our fault really. We’ve heard these parables so many times that I think we tend to ignore their je ne sais quoi. I think we easily dismiss them as a lesson in acceptance and general nice-ness.

When it comes down to it I want to show the part of the story that Luke leaves out – namely, the honest and real reactions of everyone listening to Jesus. 

When Jesus says, “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” and then have one of the Pharisees say, “Hey Jesus. No one. Not a single one of us would do that. That is stupid. That man is a bad shepherd. Why are his sheep in a desert anyway?” 

Then when Jesus describes the woman who loses a coin and throws a party to celebrate the finding of said coin, I want catch on film, the emphatically confused and questioning glances shared between Scribes (and maybe between the disciples too). Why waste more money than the coin is worth celebrating finding it? Please someone with a finance background talk to this woman about retirement planning. 

Then when Jesus really goes for it and tells his audience about the dignified Jewish man who gives away his inheritance and then runs (like a common slave) to meet his now gentile son (you know – the one who not only wasted his financial inheritance, but also his very identity as a Jew), I want to see half the audience roll on the ground laughing at the wildly unlikely story while the other half shout with great support for the righteous older son. 

God’s mercy is crazy. It doesn’t make sense. We don’t deserve it. But he offers it to us. God gives it freely because we don’t deserve it. The moment we think we don’t need God’s mercy is likely the moment right before we do something that proves our need for mercy.

I need mercy and need it badly. I need mercy to be excessive and irrational and free. I don’t just want God’s mercy and love – I need it. Without it, sharing a trough with a sounder of swine would be a dream. 

Do you need God’s mercy? Why? How do you know?

LIVE IT: Go to Confession. There is no greater moment of mercy than a full, rich, specific, honest, life giving Confession and the absolving of sins. Even if you’re not sure you have any mortal sins on your heart, go and receive the grace given in the sacrament. 

 

Are the Avengers, real?

Sunday Readings for August 4th, 2019.

clement-m-JIOP2qvo8yk-unsplashIn addition to long walks, running through sprinklers, and late night bonfires, my family has been watching all of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe this summer. Good versus evil, superheroes, mostly quippy dialogue, self-sacrifice – everyone in my family finds something they enjoy in these films. 

Last night we watched Avengers. In the middle of an intense battle scene, Captain America jumps between two uneven pieces of the flying Helicarrier. When he lands and then saves the day, both of my daughters snickered. They giggled. And I heard their eyes roll in unison (I’m a dad, I can hear eye rolls). 

I asked them why they were snickering and almost in unison they both replied, “Ha, well, that isn’t real.” I ignored for a second the desire for reality while watching a movie about superheroes, interdemensional travel, and Norse gods, and I asked them why they thought it wasn’t real. My older daughter said that it just didn’t look real. Like you could tell it was computer animated. It just didn’t look authentic. 

This 2 seconds of video from a 90+ minute movie that is almost entirely unreal was the only time my kids scoffed at how real things looked. When an army of aliens, with 4 thumbs each, attacked New York City, my children didn’t bat an eye.  

We aren’t as good as we think we are at recognizing what is real and what is not. Even in our own lives, we can find countless examples of times we perceived something incorrectly or were tricked into seeing something that wasn’t there. This is the whole basis of the TV show Brain Games. 

In the gospel this Sunday, Jesus warns against greed. Not only because greed rots the soul and drives us mad with self obsession, but also because greed causes us to care deeply about things that aren’t real. Greed puts value on what isn’t ultimately valuable. 

In C.S. Lewis’ work The Great Divorce, when the main character goes to heaven, he finds a place more real than Earth. Heaven is so real that the people who were flesh and blood a mere moment ago are now ghost like. The grass is so hard, so real, that it cuts into people’s now ghost like feet. 

All we take for granted as real, we perceive through our senses. We see, hear, taste, and the rest what we consider reality. 

Jesus comes to tell us that there is something even more real than what we perceive now. Jesus warns us that if we care too deeply about what we believe to be real now, we will put far too much value on what is truly nothing more than dust. When we value what isn’t valuable, we will miss what is truly real and valuable.

My prayer is that each of us grows rich in what matters to God. May we fall in love with that which is most real. 

LIVE IT: Take a screen fast for 24 hours. No TV, no phone for entertainment, shopping, etc., just use it as a phone as necessary. During that time consider praying, asking God to show you what is real. 

3 ways to find Peace.

Sunday Readings for June 9th, 2019.

Last Wednesday was a good day. I worked out in the morning, prayed morning prayer, jordan-wozniak-256456-unsplashgot a tremendous amount of work done, met a friend for lunch, spent time with my children and wife, hit golf balls, cut the lawn while listening to an inspiring podcast, and watched my St. Louis Blues win a Stanley Cup Finals game while sipping a cold beverage. It wasn’t my perfect day, but it was pretty darn awesome. And yet I woke up the next day with a lump of anxiety lodged in my gut. 

I examined careful the rest of the week, but found not a single anxiety producing plan. I examined my conscious to make sure I wasn’t carrying some hidden sin that was pricking my anxious heart. I didn’t but I made a point to plan a Confession time just in case. I even bravely asked my wife if everything was okay, just in case she knew. Nothing. Everything was good. The sun was shining, and I couldn’t find the cause of my fretting. So I went back to reading the news (oops). 

I don’t know about you, but for me, even on my very best days, I can feel pretty anxious. Some of my worries can easily be attributed to a source, and other times I can’t quite identify why I’m worried. Truth be told, when I can’t identify the source of worry, it is usually because I am reading the news or paying too much attention to social media, or am taking on other people’s concerns. It’s almost as if I find comfort in worry in some weird way.

In the gospel this weekend, Jesus offers his disciples Peace. In fact, twice Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” to his disciples. With this Peace Jesus calls them to continue his mission of preaching the gospel and trying to save the world. Then Jesus literally breaths his Spirit into them and gives them authority to do this mission. 

Jesus wants to offer you and I that same Peace. I need it. I want it. Most of the time, I live in such a way that I deny it. Rather than receive the Peace that Jesus offers me, I try to distract myself from my daily stress and, in turn, only stress myself out more. 

If we want to receive and accept the Peace Jesus offers us, what must we do? I think there are 3 steps that will help us know the Peace of Christ. 

  1. Get Quiet – Find a small period of silence in each day. Turn off the car stereo. Hide your phone in a drawer. Turn off your TV. How can we find peace when our day is filled with noise? Maybe even make a news or information fast – don’t read the news or look at social media for 3 days or a week. See if you find some peace.
  2. Receive the Holy Spirit – Jesus Christ offers us the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity (like literally God) to be our guide, helper, and dynamic catalyst. The Holy Spirit will help us find peace if we ask. Invite the Holy Spirit into your life and then ask the Holy Spirit for peace. 
  3. Go on Mission – There could be loads of reasons why we don’t have peace, but one reason could be is that we aren’t doing what we are meant to be doing. Maybe we’re stuck in someway that isn’t God’s will. We are all called to help other know Jesus. Ask a friend how they are doing. Invite someone to Church with you. Start a Bible study or book club. Go on Mission and you might just find peace. 

LIVE IT: Choose one of the three steps above and give it a try. Or be bold and go for all three. Peace!