(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.

The Question

Deacon Sam Catapano used to say that the central question of every single human person’s life was this, “Who do you say that I am?” And the person asking the question, as he does in this week’s gospel, is Jesus Christ. Deacon Sam used to say that the answer to that question and how seriously we take our answer determines everything else in our life. 

In the gospel, there are many rumors floating around about who Jesus is, but when he asks the disciples, Peter clearly and definitively states, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” The result of Peter’s proclamation is that he is made the leader of the followers of Jesus and our first Pope.

Peter’s answer certainly influenced the rest of his life. Sure he failed at times, but in the end Peter spent the rest of his life telling other people about Jesus and eventually gave his life because of his faith in Jesus. 

If we say that Jesus is only a teacher or a revolutionary with radical ideas, then we can easily dismiss him and build our lives on something else. But if we say that Jesus is God, then what he says and how he lives must inform every one of our decisions, actions, and beliefs.

If Jesus is God, how can we keep that incredible reality to ourselves? Who is Jesus?

LIVE IT: Two stage live it this week. Stage 1: When you wake up tomorrow morning, say outloud, “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Say it like you mean it. Stage 2: Say it to someone else. It will be awkward, I promise. But do it anyway. Stranger, spouse, children or otherwise, but say the words to them, “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Trust the Leftovers

In the last year I’ve taken up a new hobby – woodworking. Yes it is the most “old man” of hobbies, but I really enjoy it. The temptation at every stage is to buy the very best of the best of every tool. The thinking goes, “If I could just have that new $400 smoother handplane, then I could make really fine furniture.” The reality is that there are many woodworkers who have thousands of dollars of the very best tools and very few finished wood items to show for it. 

This problem isn’t unique to woodworking. Photography, biking, sailing, cooking, and many other human endeavors have this issue, “If I had the best, I could do this activity better.” While this isn’t untrue, the reality is that most of the time, we just need to go for it and let our tool collection catch up. Often we need to go ahead and make something with the tools we have before we can move forward. 

In the gospel, a caaninite woman approaches Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter. Jesus doesn’t even respond to her. He seems to ignore her completely. When she persists, Jesus tells her that his mission is to the children of the house of Israel. When she asks again he tells her that one shouldn’t give the children’s food to the dogs. How does she respond? She says she would take the scraps, the leftovers, if they came from him. 

Jesus responds by announcing her great faith. She is the only person in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus says has great faith. 

This gospel calls us to have the kind of faith that is okay with scraps. Sometimes we approach faith like we approach our hobbies. We need the best of the best. We need the newest book by a famed catholic writer. We need a cooler, nicer rosary. We need the slickest faith app for our phone. If only our tools were better and cooler and more engaging, then we could be people of great faith. 

The reality is that great faith means trusting that God will give us everything we need to be healed and saved. Great faith is not waiting till we have the best of the best or until things are perfect, but to believe now. Don’t wait until things are perfect, pray now. Great faith is trusting God’s scraps will be enough. 

LIVE IT: This sounds crazy, but after dinner when you are putting away your left over food, say this quick prayer (or something like it), “Dear God, than you for the abundance of food that we would have leftovers from our meal. Thank you for being so generous with the gift of yourself that we have an overabundance. Help us to trust in you so much so that we would be okay even with your scraps.”

Sunday Readings for August 16th, 2020.

Homage

I have a two and half year old little boy at home. My son is about as 100% summer boy as you can get. Despite plenty of sunscreen he has a great little farmer’s tan going. He’s got bumps and bruises from a summer of jumping off play sets, climbing on rocks, and chasing frogs and rabbits. At the end of the day he is usually pretty tuckered out from playing so much outside. I’m telling you, it’s the good life. 

The other day we were playing catch (more like fetch as his catching ability has room for improvement), and after a particularly good throw on his part, he got all excited and did a sort of running handstand on the downward slope of the driveway. He isn’t strong enough to hold his handstand for very long and consequently banged his face into the asphalt. A minor bloody lip and a bit of a surprise was all he had, but the look he gave me said, “Am I hurt?”

I learned long ago that the appropriate response to when one of your kids falls down is exuberant positivity.  Sometimes we yell, “Safe!” as if they just swiped second base in a baseball game. Sometimes we shout, “You’re okay!” Which is a terrible response for an adult, but perfect for a two year old. Most of the time we just say, “Whoopsie!” and pick them up and smile.

Learning the appropriate response to any situation or event is a key step in growing in maturity. For the same reason we bristle at the teenager who is disgusted when they encounter a homeless person, we snicker at the audience member who dozes off at a concert. Responding in the best way to a situation matters. 

In the gospel this Sunday, we hear about Jesus walking on water, inviting Peter out of the boat, teaching about faith, and calming the storm. What an incredible miracle. Simply because it is so amazing and radical, this walking on water miracle is the subject of many a comic strip, bad golf joke, and comedy sketch. Walking on water is so incredible that one way to respond to it is to make it a joke. 

However, the disciples don’t respond that way. Instead they “did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” (Mt 14:33). Following this miracle, they worshiped Jesus as God. The appropriate response to Jesus and to his miraculous work is homage. In our modern use homage means to publicly honor someone. In other worships, to worship him. 

However the historical use of the word is a reference to the public declaration that another person is your lord or superior. Homage originally made reference to the ceremony by which a feud would declare his loyalty and submission to his lord or king. 

So when we encounter Jesus, the right response is worship. When we experience a miracle, the fullest response is paying homage to Jesus Christ the miracle worker. 

Live It: When was the last time you declared your faith in Jesus publicly? If it’s been a while, come to Mass where we declare Jesus as Lord every time we say the Creed. 

Sunday Readings for August 9th, 2020.

It’s a Miracle! Why?

When I was in college and dating my future wife, we would go to crazy lengths to see each other. Summer between Junior and Senior year, I lived in St. Louis, MO and she lived in MN. Somehow we ended up seeing each other multiple times that summer. She drove down to visit me. I drove to go see her. We would do whatever it took to just be near each other. Hundreds of dollars and many tanks of gas, just to be close.

In the gospel this Sunday Jesus performs a miracle. Jesus takes a small amount of food, five loaves and two fish, and he multiplies the bread until there was more than enough for 5,000 men (probably 20,000 – 30,000 people total). Jesus transgressed the laws of nature to create a superabundance of food. Why?

The miracle both harkened back to the Old Testament when God gave Manna to the Israelites as they wandered in the desert. It reminds us of the prophet Elisha multiplying meager rations to feed 100 hundred men. It looks forward to the Last Supper and Jesus instituting the Eucharistic celebration and to the heavenly banquet of the saints and angels.

Of course, Jesus performs this miracle to demonstrate his power and to allow the people to witness a miracle of a messiah. Jesus multiplies the loaves, because the people are hungry. All of this is true. 

In this version in Matthew, Jesus multiplies the loaves to keep the people close. The disciples were ready to send the crowd away because they didn’t have enough food for them. But Jesus performs this incredible miracle because he doesn’t want to send the people away. Jesus wants to keep the people close to him. 

The truth this teaches us is that through the Eucharist, Jesus brings us close to himself. It is in and through the Mass that God draws nearest to us. In fact, we take him inside our bodies and we become one flesh with Jesus Christ King of Kings. Just as the multiplication of loaves was a miracle that allowed the people to stay close to Jesus, the Eucharist is a miracle that allows us to get intimately close to Jesus. 

If you feel far from God, one surefire way to get near him is to go to Mass. If your faith is wavering, it is in the Eucharist that you will feel closer to the God who loves you unconditionally. 

LIVE IT: Go to Mass. Whether it is a daily or Sunday Mass, get there and be near to Jesus in the Eucharist.

Sunday Readings for August 2nd, 2020

Overheard

Have you ever been in a crowded restaurant (not lately…), and overheard the conversation at the table next to you. One time my wife witnessed the breakup of a long term relationship. It was messy and horrible to be a part of. Another time we accidentally sat in on a business meeting of a local pro sports team, and heard that they weren’t planning on bring the coach back the follow year (can’t make it up).

Overhearing an intimate conversation or an intimate moment is a little cringy. Maybe you’re the kind of person who likes to eavesdrop, but for me the more intimate the conversation or moment, the more I just want to run away or plug my ears. One of the reasons I don’t like is because that means there has probably been a time when some overheard an intimate conversation I was a part of. No one wants that. 

When a conversation is general or mundane, I don’t have the same reaction. Who cares if I overhear someone talking about trash day or the weather?

In the gospel this Sunday we overhear Jesus making an intimate prayer to God. Only three times in Matthew’s gospel does Jesus pray like this. One time is when he is suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane. Another is when he is dying on the cross. This Sunday we hear the third time Matthew records Jesus’ intimate prayer. 

Jesus is praying in thanksgiving to God for his disciples, in fact, for all people who believe in him. He calls them (us), the little ones. What do these little ones know that the wise and the learned don’t know? Him. The little ones know Jesus. If you know who and what and why Jesus is, Jesus says then you know the Father. If you have intimacy with Jesus, you have intimacy with God Almighty. Jesus reveals who God is. Wow. Awesome. 

I think overhearing someone’s prayer is a lot like overhearing someone’s conversation. When I am praying in a group, my prayers are more what you would expect me to say in front of other people. But when I am alone and really in need of my Lord, my prayer is intimate, personal, and not something I would love for someone else to overhear. 

Maybe this is why Jesus says “But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matthew 6:6).

I think there is a time a place for all kinds of prayer (no wrong way to pray, honestly). Yet I do think our goal in life is intimacy with God (heaven) and that means our prayer needs to move in that direction too. Pray like Jesus – intimately. 

LIVE IT: Go somewhere totally alone – Car, a hike in nature, basement, bedroom, bathroom. Say to God a prayer from your deepest place. Tell him what is really going on. Ask the thing you can’t imagine asking him. Say the prayer to him you wouldn’t say in front of anyone else. 

Sunday Readings for July 5th, 2020.

Embrace

In the the movie The Passion of the Christ, there is a brief, fleeting image that I will never forget. Jesus has already been scourged and is now carrying his cross to Golgotha. He falls hard to the stone paved ground. In his effort to lift up his cross again, Jesus embraces his cross. The scene makes reference to another moment when Jesus embraces his mother. The question left for us the viewers is this: “Does Jesus love his cross?” 

In the Gospel this Sunday Jesus warns us that if we love anything, prefer anything to God and to Jesus’ mission, we are not worthy of the mission. Then Jesus instructs us that whoever doesn’t take up his cross isn’t worthy of following Jesus.

I think this tells us two things:

  1. Following Jesus is something we do on purpose. We don’t accidentally become disciples of Jesus. Whether it is one big decision or a hundred little ones (probably a little of both), if we want to follow Jesus we have to “take up” the mission. 
  2. It’s not enough to accept the idea that we will suffer and maybe suffer for our faith. We have to embrace our cross. 

I don’t suffer well. I am bad at suffering. I don’t want it and I will do nearly anything to avoid it. I think a lot of people I know are like this too. This makes us vulnerable to the temptation to chase comfort and ease. If I am constantly just trying to get comfortable and satisfied, then my comfort is my highest value. If comfort is my highest value, then I won’t embrace, much less love, anything that causes me to suffer. 

I think this is a daily battle for many of us. We are sold comfort, security, entertainment, and convenience on every screen, billboard, broadcast, and notification. If all day long I choose ease, ease will become my God and I will prefer it to Christ. 

Which leads me back to the first point – We have to embrace the Cross on purpose. Maybe that means fasting or giving or doing something beyond our comfort zone. Maybe that means actively accepting and owning the suffering we already face. Whatever the case, to follow Jesus means to take up our cross even if that means suffering. The only way to embrace suffering is to trust in God. The only way to trust in God is to embrace suffering. 

LIVE IT: Pick up a cross. Literally. Go a find a cross or crucifix and hold it for 5 minutes and during that time ask God to help you take up your cross that day. 

Sunday Readings for June 28th, 2020.

I’m your huckleberry.

Quarreling is our current national pastime. Whether it is politics, covid/stay-at-home orders, race, religion, the environment, sex, parenting, sports, money or whatever – we quarrel about nearly everything. Not only do we like to quarrel, we enjoy watching other people quarrel. A significant portion of cable networks is just video of people quarreling about some topic. We have build vast online frontiers where we can pick a fight at a moments notice.

Somedays I wonder if people want to change the US motto from “In God we trust.” to “Well, actually…” It seems it would be more accurate. In the Gospel this week we read about Jesus teaching a truth that caused the Jews to “quarrel amongst themselves.” What caused them to quarrel? Jesus said that his flesh was bread and if they ate his flesh, they would live forever. Later Jesus preaches this:

Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever. 
John 6: 52-59

Jesus wasn’t speaking in metaphor. Jesus wasn’t talking symbolically. Even those of us who enjoy quarreling won’t argue with a metaphor (though we might argue how accurate it is). Jesus teaches this truth over and over again in John 6. Jesus was so committed to this teaching that he was willing to loose every single follower if necessary. 

What would make this teaching necessary? It is true. Jesus gives us himself, his own body, both on the cross on Calvary and in every single Mass in the Eucharist. The truth is is that if we eat of his flesh, we can have eternal life with him forever.

If we have the true intimacy that comes with full communion through the Eucharist, we will draw ever closer to Jesus. Just as Jesus will enter into us through our consuming of his flesh and blood, we will enter into the inner life of the Trinity in Heaven. There is no more intimate relationship than this. 

People have and will quarrel about this truth. That doesn’t make it any less true.

The decision each of us has to make is whether we will walk away because that teaching is hard, not modern, and weird, or whether we respond like St. Peter and say, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Do we believe what Jesus says is true or will we quarrel?

LIVE IT: 2 steps to this micro challenge: 1) Read the entire chapter of John 6. 2) Go for a walk and think about what happens and what Jesus teaches. 

There are two types of people…

GoodWord.May20203

Have you ever heard someone start the phrase “There are two types of people in this world…”? The second half is usually something silly like, “Those who like Chicago style pizza and this who like New York Style pizza.” That, of course, is ridiculous. All pizza is amazing and delicious. Or maybe they say, “Those who like Star Wars and those who like Star Trek.” Also silly because most people actually either like both or neither (right?).

As much as I think that most of the time when we use this phrase we are setting up a false dichotomy, there is one topic that I think is true:

There are two kinds of people in this world, people who think God is active and working in our lives and people who don’t.

Of course there are many ways to categorize and break down each of these two groups, but in the end either you think God is working or you don’t.

It is tempting to think that maybe God exists and He started this whole existence thing and now we are on our own. This way of thinking is helpful when we consider why bad things happen if we supposedly have this good God. It even helps comfort people when they question why their prayers are not being answered. Some call this the Watchmaker God. As if God built the world and now it just runs on its own.

Of course there are problems with this way of thinking. The biggest issue is that if you believe this, then it is impossible to be Christian. In the gospel this Sunday, Jesus gives us his word that he will not abandon us. He tells us he won’t make us orphans. Jesus promises us another advocate for us, namely, the Holy Spirit.

Further, Jesus himself is proof that God didn’t just make the world and abandon us. No, God sent his Son into the world and changes the course of history and salvation for us all. God’s interjection was the most profound and real example of God actively working in our world. And Jesus promises to never abandon us.

Do you believe God is actively working in our lives? Do you believe Jesus is the greatest example of God’s saving work? Do you believe Jesus when he says he will never abandon you?

If the answer is yes to all three, then be confident that you believe the truth, that you not only have a God that breathed the stars and invented gravity, you have a God who cares deeply for you personally and will never abandon you.

Live It: Jesus says he won’t abandon us and that he will send an Advocate – the Holy Spirit. So pray this prayer at least 1 time this week:

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.

O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.

(And then eat some pizza to celebrate.)

Sunday Readings for May 17th, 2020.