Thursday, December 31, 2015

Families are Amazing Things

Holy Family - Yr C 2015
Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center

Families are quite amazing, messy, cracked and broken things. They are always...every single one of them...far from perfect.  Families are affected by things like unexpected teen pregnancy, poverty and homelessness; by family trees that don’t quite line up – foster and step and adoptive parents.  Families are sometimes on the run from the law; they sometimes hide out in strange places hoping they won’t be recognized.  Moms and dads sometimes have a hard time keeping up with the children leading to a lack of adult supervision that these days can result in the involvement of Child Protective Services, if not charges of child neglect and endangerment.
Families struggle with misunderstanding and miscommunication as they navigate the challenges of the growing-up years.  They experience challenges when it’s time for the young ones to leave the nest and begin their own lives.  There is the pain and drama of plans seemingly gone awry...  There is laughter and tears...joy and sorrow...heartwarming moments and heart breaking moments... amazing stories that have to be re-told and difficult memories that can barely be endured...  And that's just the story of the Holy Family! 
Jesus, Mary and Joseph are the model we are to imitate!  God gave us the Holy family as a 'shining example' the opening collect said; our path to eternal reward lies in imitating them. 
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But just imagine if the Holy Family lived in our neighborhood!  What looks they would get when they walked down the street!!  We’d know their story by heart as often as it had been whispered to us behind their backs. 'He's not the real dad...  She had him when she was just a baby herself...  Did you hear about the time they left him alone in the city...couldn't find him for days!!'
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One thing is for certain...the Holy Family was far from perfect...at least according to the standards we usually use to gauge family perfection.  If there's one thing we can learn right off the bat from the Holy Family it is this:  when it comes to families, holy does not mean perfect
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A Holy Family is not a perfect family, especially when we consider the kinds of unholy things we sometimes do to one another as we chase the false idol of family perfection.  Think of the lies we tell trying to paint the picture of family perfection.  Think of the time we spend chasing the finances required to live the perfect family lifestyle, and all the holy things that go undone because our time and effort are caught up in that pursuit.  Think of all the fights and arguments, the unnecessary discipline meted out, the lost time and energy spent chasing family perfection.  (As I think about it – I’ve been talking about the basic family unit – but all of these things could be said of the ways we live together as a parish family sometimes, too...)
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What does it mean to be a holy family – at home and in our parish?  If we’re willing to let go of perfection, what would it mean for us to strive for holiness?  Our opening collect reminded us to imitate the Holy Family in their practice of the virtues of family life and in the bonds of charity.  That is the first thing we must do – in our homes and in our parishclaim and hold on to at all costs the bond of charity, the bond of love – a bond that should be unbreakable.  No member of the family should ever wonder if they are loved.  Behaviors and boundaries and decisions sometimes result in some members of the family being distant for a while – but even that must be lived out, by all involved, in love.  The first thing we must do in our homes and in our parish is to make the family bond of charity as real and unbreakable as Christ’s love for each one of us.
And what are the virtues of family life mentioned in that first prayer?  I can think of no better list than what we heard in our second reading today.  Take a moment, and consider your family – and our parish family.  Let’s grade ourselves according to this standard:  A holy family is certainly not perfect, but the holy family lives and breathes with heartfelt compassion for one another, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  A holy family is far from perfect, but the holy family bears with one another and forgives one another because the holy family never forgets that Jesus forgives each one of us.  The holy family is thankful – thankful for what it does have more than lamenting what it doesn’t have.  The holy family is controlled by the peace of Christ; even when the ridiculousness and brokenness and messy-ness of real life come crashing in, it is the peace of Christ that takes hold and navigates the holy family through the storm.  Above all – the holy family’s and the holy parish’s life is governed by the bond of charity – the bond of love – living in unity through the ups and the downs. 
Finally, brothers and sisters, our prayer today reminds us that the key to being a holy family is not in trying to achieve perfection in the moment, but rather to set our eyes on the real goal of heaven.  Every family – every home and every parish – is holy when it sets its eyes on the goal that is far beyond this life; families are holy when they claim, loud and proud, that this life is a journey, a pilgrimage, a means to an end... Families are holy when the passing world is just that – passing...when the world and its allures and opportunities are not avoided, but neither have they become the primary focus of living – rather, families are holy when all the members of the family make use of the things of this world for one purpose alone – as a way to reach our heavenly home
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I think families are amazing things.  God the Father thought so, too – the plan to redeem us was to send us the Savior whom we celebrate this Christmas season.  He didn’t appear on the side of a mountain.  He could have – but He didn’t.  He was sent to a family to show us that family is an amazing thing; to teach us that the basic unit of life and living – the family – need never be perfect, but it must always strive to be holy. 
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Families are quite amazing, messy, cracked and broken things. They are always...every single one of them...far from perfect.  But each and every family can be holy.  In our homes – and, brothers & sisters, here in our family of faith – can we let Jesus, Mary, and Joseph teach us how to be a Holy Family?

That Moment Is...

Christmas Day Yr C 2015
Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center

          On December 26th 1957 a usually fun-loving and joy-filled man woke up in a foul mood.  As he stood there brushing his teeth and staring at himself in the mirror his own reflection seemed monstrous.  Sure, it was his face, his eyes, his nose, his mouth and eyebrows.  It was indeed his own teeth that he was brushing – there was no doubt about that.  But there was a strange, gloomy, joyless countenance that he saw staring back at him.  He could almost see the gloom that had settled over him floating around his reflection.  And he began to think – there had been no real joy that year during the holidays at all. 
He was befuddled – and a slight bit angry at first.  He thought to himself, ‘Something must have gone wrong with Christmas!’  And then he felt a bit betrayed – after all, if Christmas couldn’t give him some joy and life, what could?  What good was Christmas anyway if it couldn’t bust him out of his funk… Something must have gone wrong with Christmas…so much for Christmas.  All he saw in the mirror that morning after Christmas in 1957 was (in his own words) a “nasty anti-Christmas monster that was really [himself].”
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Then something clicked …telling the story later, he says he realized that Christmas wasn’t to blame; it was more likely that something had gone wrong with him.  “I wrote the story about my sour friend the Grinch to see if I could discover something about Christmas I had obviously lost,” Dr. Seuss said.  How the Grinch Stole Christmas tells us the story of finding the light and love of Christmas when we’ve lost it.
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I think we all have Grinch-like tendencies from time to time.  Think about it – isn’t there a moment every year when you realize you’ve not quite got into the season yet?  We might not be roaming around sneaking into the houses of our neighbors stealing their Christmas toys and decorations.  But nearly every year there is that moment when I looked around and see all the Christmas preparations taking place around me and began to wonder why it all seems to be happening out there and nothing seems to be going on inside
I’m not talking about what we know in our heads about Christmas – we’ve got that pretty much down.  Knowing wasn’t the Grinch’s problem, was it?  ‘Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot – but the Grinch who lived just north of Whoville DID NOT!  Now please don’t ask why, no one quite knows the reason… I think the most likely reason of all – may have been that his heart was two sizes two small!’  You see – all the ideas and truths about Christmas can be firmly planted in our heads – but the struggle to get into the Christmas spirit is that we can’t do it with our heads – we have to do it with our HEARTS.  Until our hearts experience the joy and truth of what we’re celebrating, we’ll be Grinchy – if not on the outside, then certainly on the inside.
Remember what happened to the Grinch that changed everything?  It wasn’t a change in ideas or reasoning – he tried to think things through – in fact, he ‘puzzled three hours until his puzzler was sore!’  That didn’t work for him, and it won’t work for us.  Do you remember what made the difference?  ‘What happened then?  Well…down in Whoville they say, that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.
The secret of Christmas – the secret to being transformed by the joy and beauty and miracle of Christmas is to let the small baby in the manger into our hearts.  And then – in those moments of pure joy – to realize that we didn’t do that to ourselves…but that it was really Jesus – really the One born that first Christmas – really the One John tells us has been here all along – that it was really Jesus who has come and transformed our hearts.
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Every year when I notice that the world around me seems to be getting ready for Christmas ‘out there’ I find myself missing what I know should be happening ‘in here’…and I get…well, I get Grinchy.  But then something happens.  I find a gift to share with someone I love.  Or I hear a Christmas song on the radio…I bake some cookies or make a Christmas cake.  And then it happens…without even noticing it’s happening I discover that my heart has swollen ‘three times its size’ – and I’m singing along with the songs or whistling a Christmas tune; I have a little more giddy-up in my step…and all of a sudden what’s been happening ‘out there’ has made a home ‘in here’ …and I discover, I’ve been made ready for Christmas.  And just in time, too.
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Whatever has brought us here this morning – Grinchy or as happy and filled with joy as little Cindy Lou Who – whatever has brought us here this morning…Jesus is doing everything He can to break into our hearts.  He was in the beginning…but that wasn’t enough.  And so He came in the flesh…he came as a baby…he broke into the darkness of our shrunken hearts in His miraculous birth in Bethlehem that first Christmas.  And every year at Christmas – He bursts in again…
It’s that moment when Christmas finally comes to you – that moment when you feel the joy of Christmas through the eyes of a child.  It’s that moment when Christmas starts to feel like it’s happening ‘in here’ not just ‘out there’.  It’s that moment of happiness and peace, that moment of relief and nostalgia and fullness – fullness that wells up into a fountain that love starts to pour out in laughter and stories (and yes, sometimes even in tears) – that moment when Christmas is different somehow than any other day of the year…that moment when even the most calloused and hardened parts of your heart swell into joy…
…you know the moment I’m talking about…
…you’ve felt it……you might be feeling it now…
...don’t fool yourself – that moment is real…that moment is Sacred…

That moment …that moment is Jesus.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Where Are You Headed to Get Ready for Christmas?

Advent 4th Sunday - Year C - 2015
Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center

          Christmas is coming!  For weeks now we’ve been preparing the way of the Lord.  For some of us, there is still lots to do.  Trips to the mall, presents to wrap, decorations to put up, house cleaning and straightening to welcome family & friends for the holiday.  Prayers to pray, confessions to make, relationships to heal, habits to be broken, and room made in our hearts for Jesus. 
          How did Mary get ready for that first Christmas?  It’s a bit odd really.  She “travelled to the hill country with haste."  Where are we headed to get ready for Christmas?
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          Go visit a coffee shop and you’ll see.  People coming and going all over the place.  Some dead tired - just coming or just going to work.  Some full of energy and excitement - just beginning or just finishing their Christmas shopping.  Some dressed festively, some dressed plainly.  All of them people on the go.  Their conversations sound something like this:  'After this I'm heading over here to do that, and then I'm heading there to do this one last thing...'
          Mary knew Christmas was coming - she had it on great authority.  Think of all the things she needed to do to prepare.  But where was Mary heading to get ready for Christmas?  "Mary set out and travelled to the hill country with haste...where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth."  She WHAT?  She went WHERE?  Christmas was coming, and there were a million things to do to get ready, and Mary just takes off to visit family - with no apparent invitation, leaving all of her Christmas preparations on a ‘things to do’ list sitting on the kitchen table.  WHY would she do such a thing?  What was she thinking?
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          Well, we don't really know, do we?  We know that the angel had told her of something amazing going on in the life of her kinswoman.  We can imagine that there was some small voice in her heart telling her she should go see what that was all about.  That voice was probably competing with many other loud voices in her mind rattling off other more obvious, more pressing things she needed to do to get ready for that first Christmas.  But somehow, the blessed Mother was able to tune in to that small voice; she was able to hear and follow that quiet invitation to leave the seemingly pressing things alone long enough to go find out what God was doing in Elizabeth's life. 
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          I think all of us have that still, small, quiet voice speaking to us amidst the noise of our Christmas preparations.  All too often, we stifle that voice; we don't heed it.  And where we're heading as we prepare for Christmas is governed exclusively by our own sense of what we must do.  I wonder what miracles we're leaving un-experienced in our own life because of it.  I wonder how unprepared for Christmas finishing our Christmas preparations is leaving us...  I wonder if all that focus and attention on our Christmas preparations is leaving us unprepared for Christmas.
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          In these last few days before Christmas, what is that quiet voice in your heart prompting you to do that’s going undone in the hustle and bustle of your holiday preparation?  Maybe there’s someone we haven't spent any time with because it seems we’re just too busy getting ready for Christmas.  Is God asking you to set off with haste to visit with them, setting aside your all important Christmas list to encounter the work of God in their life?  If you make time to do that, I'll bet you leave that encounter with some new knowledge or appreciation of what God is doing in YOUR life, just like Mary did.
          Maybe there is a relationship that is faltering; or perhaps there's a relationship that need mending somehow.  At this busy time of the year, we might not think we can gather the spiritual or emotional energy to do our part of the mending.  But if that voice in your heart is whispering a name to you right now - the name of someone you know you need to reconcile with - then why not take what might seem like a detour in your Christmas preparations to make things right?  Maybe that someone is God…and you know you need to meet Him in the Confessional before Christmas comes to set your relationship with Him aright.  As we get ready for Christmas, can't we head with haste toward reconciliation with one another and with God?  We'll be surprised to leave those encounters knowing in a deeper way how God is working a Christmas miracle in our life just like Mary did.
          Maybe your heart is whispering to you about someone in need - maybe your Christmas preparations could get around to sending Christmas cards to men or women in our local jails or prisons; or maybe you could take the time to donate that coat you don't wear anymore to the homeless shelter.  Who is that small voice inviting you to serve as preparation for Christmas?
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          Take just a moment to listen - in the silence we share right now - what hidden detour is the Spirit prompting you to take to get ready for Christmas?  That same Spirit that prompted Mary to visit Elizabeth is speaking to you today, right this moment ... what are you hearing?  

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Oh...Right...Pray...

Advent 3rd Sunday - Year C - 2105
Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center

Two weeks down – twelve days to go; Christmas is just around the corner…are you ready?  I confessed last week that I hadn’t bought the first present or sent the first card; that there wasn’t a single twinkling light shining in the rectory.  I haven’t made any progress at all.  I don’t feel any more ready for Christmas than I did in July.  There’s a light at the end of the tunnel…but it feels like a freight train headed straight for me; I’m just not ready…but still, Christmas is coming!
Forget the cards and the presents and the lights – what about the spiritual preparations?  Prepare the way of the Lord – lower the mountainous obstacles of sin and vice and selfishness and self-centeredness that obstruct our relationship with Him, fill in the chasms of indifference and busy-ness and poor priorities that seem to keep us from being ready – straighten out the twists and turns that are knotting up our relationships with one another – prepare the way of the Lord!  For two weeks now that voice has haunted us like Marley’s ghost…and sometimes it seems like we haven’t made any progress at all.  Will the coming of Christ catch us like a trap as Jesus warned us it might?
Last week the voice reminded us that we don’t have to do this work alone; God Himself has commanded the mountains to lower themselves and the valleys to fill themselves in.  Whatever obstacle we’re trying to remove or shortcoming we’re trying to improve, Jesus is right there with us working away.  Last week we found hope because we don’t have to make these preparations alone…but if you’re like me…there still seems so much to do, and so little time left to do it in.  Presents to be bought.  Decorations to hang.  Apologies to offer and accept.  Sins to confess and penance to make.  Attitudes to be changed.  Room made in our hearts for the baby in the manger.
And just when we seem to be getting to the end of our ropes, right when we’re about to panic…right when we’re spiritually out of breath and just one more “Prepare the way of the Lord” away from a full blow panic attack…the Church stops for a moment and tells us to…pray…
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Uh… what?  You gotta’ be kidding me, right?  Aren’t you listening at all?  Who’s got time to pray?  Cards and presents and apologies and charity and mountains and valleys and confessions and sins and virtues and twinkling lights and what in the world is this Advent Angel thing the parish staff is doing (I still can’t figure it out) and paths to straighten and claymation to watch and cookies and candy to make and parish volunteer activities to sign up for and Sister’s petitions to sign and announcements at the end of Mass – so many announcements – and did I mention the cards and presents and twinkling lights and prepare the way of the lord and make straight his paths and what was it that you just said?
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Pray.  Pray?  Oh…right…pray.  How did I forget that?
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All too often when things get frantic, and there is so much to do – when our field of vision fills up with our things to do list, our preparations, even our spiritual preparations; all too often we get ‘in the zone’ and are so focused on ‘getting it all done’ that we forget the only hope for getting any of it done well is to pray. 
We count the days left until Christmas, and our head starts spinning like a top:  Oh no – I’m not ready!  What will I do?  I know – I just won’t sleep!  I’ll study all night and write that paper first thing in the morning; I’ll work those extra hours to have enough money for those gifts, and I’ll wrap them as soon as the kids go to sleep.  WalMart is open 24 hours, I can get my shopping done at 3am. 
We hear St. Paul tell us the Lord is near, and we’re off to the races:  Oh goodness no – I’m not ready?  There’s so much to do…how will I ever get it done?  He’s near?  He’s coming – but I’m not ready…there’s not enough time…what shall I do? 
We forget sometimes that what we most need to prepare for Christmas always starts with prayer:  “The Lord is near!  So – have no anxiety at all!  But in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving – make your requests known to God.  Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”  Pray – and rejoice. 
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I don’t know quite how it works, friends – but it does.  I don’t know what mountains need to be lowered – what valleys need to be filled – in your life to prepare for Christmas.  I don’t know what relationships need to be mended, or cares or concerns are weighing heavily on your heart that need to be tended to before Light comes into the world in twelve days.  But I do know this – if you pray, if you tell God your burdens and then rejoice…then…well, then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus…and Christmas will find you watching and waiting…ready for the coming of the Lord.  And you’ll be blessed.

Gaudete Sunday is our rest stop on the long trip to Christmas – we take stock of where we are, we’re reminded who we’re preparing to meet, and we are refreshed by the sacraments.  And today we’re reminded that while this season – this hectic, busy, too-full season – we’re reminded that while this season is about preparation, it is ultimately about peace and joy.  And peace and joy come from sharing all the burden and heartache and challenge – all of it, no matter how shallow or how small – peace and joy come from sharing everything with God in prayer.  

Can We Get a Little Help Over Here?

Advent 2nd Sunday - Year C - 2015
Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center

All this talk of getting reading is wearing me out – and we’re just eight days in.  Everywhere we’ve turned so far in Advent, there’s a voice shouting at us – getting right up in our face, right up in our grill – that voice telling us we have to get ready.  Last week that ‘voice’ was Jesus Himself telling us if we don’t get ready – if we’re not vigilant, standing up straight with our eyes on the horizon – Jesus got right up in our face and told us that if we’re not ready, His coming will catch us like a trap!
Everywhere we’ve turned so far this Advent – the Scripture readings, the prayers of the Mass, the Divine Office – everywhere we’ve turned we’ve heard this voice “crying out” – right in our face – telling us to get ready, and I’m already worn out.  I mean – doesn’t the Church know how busy this time of year is?  I haven’t bought the first Christmas present yet, sent the first card, and I don’t even have a clue what this Advent Angel thing is that the parish staff is doing.  There isn’t a single twinkling light at the rectory yet, not a stocking in sight, and the animals of the manger scene aren’t even unpacked to start gathering around the empty manger. 
You know what I’m talking about.  Our calendars are even more full right now than the rest of the year, and we thought that wasn’t possible.  Parties, gatherings, family coming in or family to go visit.  Work deadlines to meet those end of the year revenue and productivity goals.  Finals, presentations, term papers, research papers, projects, all-nighters, and coffee, lots of coffee.  And what in the world is our Elf on the Shelf going to be up to tomorrow morning?  And in the middle of all that, at the end of Mass today we’re going to ask you to add to the list, because we can’t do Christmas as a parish without your help.
So you can stop telling us already that Christmas is coming and we’ve got to get ready…we know that…and if you knew all the things we had to get done between now and then, maybe you’d back off a bit from talking about ‘lowering the mountains’ of obstacles to real relationship with God in our lives, like finally overcoming that habit or vice.  If you knew how stressed we were about taking care of everything you’d hush all that talk of raising the valleys in our life over which we can’t leap to get closer to God, like carving out some time each day for prayer or trusting God more fully with our lives and our vocations and our future and the futures of those we love most.  Not a single one of us feels like we have any room left in our world right now for straightening out the relationships and situations in our lives that are the winding paths that voice keeps talking about making our journeys to God so long and hard and difficult…
*sigh*
Everywhere we turn that voice is right there – telling us we have to get ready… and we’ve been working so hard all along and it doesn’t seem to be working!  The sins and hurts and resentments we’ve been trying to let go of keep haunting us, and our bad habits and disordered priorities and appetites chase us around like our shadows…and sometimes all this ‘getting ready’ talk just seems pointless because when we’ve tried – when we try – nothing much seems to happen sometimes.
And still – everywhere we turn there’s that voice – that dang voice – right up in our face…prepare the way of the Lord.  Can we get a little help over here? 
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Today the voice answers back…you don’t have to do this alone!  Yes, we have to get ready – we have to prepare the way of the Lord or His coming will catch us like a trap, that’s true.  But we don’t have to do it alone.  Did you hear that today?  That same voice adds something new today:  God has commanded the mountains to lower themselves!  God has commanded the valleys to fill themselves and the twists and turns to straighten themselves out “so that we may advance secure in the glory of God,” so that we “may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ”, so that we may “see the salvation of God.”
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This time of year is busy and full to brimming and sometimes running over to overwhelming, and sometimes we just want to give up.  And right when we cry right back, “We could use a little help over here!” the voice answers back – lovingly, compassionately, tenderly even:  OK.  Help is on the way.
Yes – friends – we do have to prepare the way of the Lord or His coming will catch us like a trap…but we’re not working alone.  Whatever mountain obstacle we’re lowering one teaspoon at a time God has commanded it to be lowered and He’s right there with us digging away.  Whatever valley of indifference or courage or growth we’re trying fill in a drop at a time, Jesus is right there with a fire hose of grace.  Whatever relationships or situations or shame or guilt we’re trying to untangle one strand at a time, He’s with us with the nimble hands of a surgeon freeing us.  He is faithful…He is coming…yes, we have to get ready… but not alone

And so…instead of giving in to being overwhelmed or giving up because of our lack of progress, we pray ever more confidently:  Maranatha!  Come, Lord Jesus.  And I believe, like Saint Paul I truly believe, that the One who has started this good work in us will bring it to completion.  Maranatha!  Come, Lord Jesus.