Tuesday, December 31, 2013

In the beginning. . .



As we are poised on a new adventure to be known as 2014, I would like to pause for a moment, not so much to reflect on the year just passed, but to look ahead at the upcoming twelve months.

I would like to take a look the prospects for this next year through the lens of what I consider to be one of the most beautiful, poetic and thought provoking passages in all of Scripture.  It is taken from the opening of Saint John's Gospel and sums up succinctly and reverently the core belief of all who purport to follow Jesus Christ.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God, all things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overcome it."  (Jn 1:1-5)

In this simple, yet most profound statement, we find our identity as Christians.  We find our hope as believers and followers of Christ Jesus.  For in this statement it is revealed exactly Who we believe and the marvel that we have celebrated during these last few days--Christmas.  Namely, that God condescended to become man in the person of Jesus Christ, true God and true man.  It is through this event which we have come to call the Incarnation, that our salvation is ushered in to the world.  
We know that God is God because only God could do what He did in the way He did it!  God became a part of His very creation.  Through Jesus, He became one of us, living as we live, possessing the same desires, the same disappointments, the same hopes and dreams that we all have.  One of the most amazing things about this fact is that in doing so, God lost none of His identity.  He did not suddenly lose half of Himself because His Son became man.  He retained His identity and, as a matter of fact, through Jesus Christ, we have come to know the Father ever more intimately.

The fact that the Word, Jesus Christ, became man, gives us the right to divine hope. This is not mere human hope, finite and mortal.  We know that the promises of God, the promise of eternal life and peace are true because God promised us that He would send to us, in due time, a Savior at the very moment that sin entered the world through Adam and Eve.  (cf Gen 3: 14-15)

Mankind is capable of creating.  Look around and you will see the results of the creative nature of the human race.  However, it is impossible for one of us to become a part of the things we create.  For instance, if we wanted, we could not become a part of a bridge.  Now I know this sounds far-fetched, but, really, is this any more far-fetched than God becoming man?  If we were to become a part of a bridge, we would lose that which gives us our humanity and we would be drastically changed.  With God, this is not so.  In becoming Christ, the Son of God, the Father is not diminished, but enhanced.  It is through Christ that we enter into a much deeper relationship with the Father precisely because it is through Jesus that the Father is more fully revealed.

What does all of this have to do with the New Year upon whose doorstep we now find ourselves?  Plenty!

We live in a world of agonizing loneliness and darkness.  It surrounds us and often threatens to overwhelm us and engulf us.  We become embroiled in the things of this world, ending up addicted to a world of empty promises that come in the form of bright, sparkling objects such as wealth, power, and influence, but which, in fact, offer only a shallow moment of what our human nature thinks it craves.  We are so prone to follow our passions unchecked that we often find ourselves in places we would have never thought we would go in an instant.

To know that God loves us so very much, so much so that He became one of us, walked the earth teaching us and revealing Himself to us, should be all we need for a life of prosperity and peace that was meant for us "in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth."  (Gen 1:1)  For the hope and joy of the love of God is what we were created for in the first place.  We lost that through sin, but, through the sacrifice and death of Jesus Christ on the Cross, His glorious Resurrection from the dead, we retain the right to that inheritance.  It is ours because of the love of an all merciful and forgiving God.  And that mercy and forgiveness is for all of us.

Therefore, as we stand at the beginning of a new year, let us not for one minute forget this hope and peace that is ours because of what has been done for us in the name and act of love.  We should not only think of "in the beginning" at the start of this new year, but at the start of each and every day.  Every morning represents our resurrection from a slumber of the previous day's labors and the opportunity for new growth and service of the God Who has no beginning and no end.

May God's peace and joy and love be yours at the start of this new year and at the start of every day whether that day brings sadness or joy.  Every day is a gift from God to be cherished and treasured because it comes from Him.  We must not waste one moment of those treasures by following those enticing bright and shiny objects that the world offers.  For in those "treasures" we will find emptiness and darkness.  They have no ability to sustain us for eternity.  Only God's new beginning for us each and every day have that ability.  We must lift each other up in this divine hope and, together, united in the love of God through Christ Jesus and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we shall find that peace and joy that was once the birthright of Adam.

Happy New Year!!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

And the Good News Is. . .



We are called to joy!  We are called to rejoicing!  We are called to the proclamation of the Good News that Jesus Christ is born.  Jesus Christ, true God and true Man is born!  Our God, our Creator has become man, one of us.  Not merely with us.  One of us!  He shares our struggles, our weaknesses, our heartbreaks, our woundedness, but He also gives us our happiness, our victories, our ability to love even in our bleakest of hours.

We live in a world awash of sadness and tragedy.  It is easily to be dragged down into the mire of human misery.  We seem to be surrounded by it day in and day out because of our ever present media which needs to fill unending hours with programming that will hopefully somehow garner enough ratings to justify it's existence.  Unfortunately, because of the world's darkness, this news is mainly tragic, revealing the tragedy of humankind immersed in sin.

Once enmeshed in this misery, it is very difficult to extract ourselves from the notion that there really is no hope and that any hope we may ultimately feel is self manufactured.  In this atmosphere it is easy to be drawn into the fighting and pettiness of broken relationships and embittered people who profess a belief in the Kingdom of God, but whose lives reflect none of the joy that Christians see as their birthright.  

Think of the plight of Mary and Joseph as they arrived in Bethlehem of Judea to participate in the census ordered by Rome.  Upon their arrival, Mary, we can presume, began to go into labor.  Time was of the essence from that point on because infant mortality in the ancient world was quite high.  But because the town was so packed with visitors obeying the Roman decree, the young couple could find nowhere safe and warm in which to welcome their newborn child into the world.  

They could have easily given into the negativity that greeted them.  They could have turned bitter, cursing God for their misfortune.  They could have grown angry toward the innkeepers they spoke with who refused them entry into their establishments because "there was no room in the inn(s)."  Giving birth was difficult enough in that era, but with nowhere to ensure the best outcome, the task ahead was potentially even more difficult with a tragic ending.

However, Joseph and Mary did not give into the anger and bitterness they found that night.  They kept God at the center of their lives in that very difficult moment because they not only believed in God and His promises to them, but they believed God.  They believed His promises and somehow understood that God would deliver them safely and securely.  And that is precisely what happened.  

The story, of course, perhaps the most famous and certainly the most important story of a birth in human history, ended happily with the birth of a healthy baby boy.  Although this baby boy was no ordinary human being and this birth was no ordinary birth.  The baby boy was, of course, the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Joy could not be contained that night.  Choirs of angels announced this extraordinary arrival.  A special star appeared in the sky so that those outside of the Jewish nation could be introduced to the newborn Savior of the world; news that would be taken out to the larger world.  

The darkness and bitterness of the world, in the person of King Herod, attempted to snuff out the light of joy Who is Jesus Christ by destroying scores of boys aged two and under.  From the moment of His birth, darkness and light clashed in an epic battle for the hearts, minds, and souls of the human race.  And in the end, joy triumphed through the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of this tiny baby who was laid to rest on a bed of straw in some isolated corner of the world only to be executed in the darkest hour of the world.

How about you?  Do you feel called to joy?  Do you feel like rejoicing?  Does your life reflect your Christianity in the joyous way in which you live? Or have the holiday rituals of shopping, cooking, cleaning, and settling family squabbles darkened your joy or eliminated it completely?  

If so, recall the words of the angel on that faraway night when the world heard: "Be not afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all the people;  for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior Who is Christ the Lord."  (Lk 2: 11)

As we move ever closer to this sacred season of Christmas, let us ask ourselves in which way do we not only experience joy in our lives, but in what way do we give of this joy to one another.  Our joy, when rooted in the saving actions of our God, namely, His Incarnation, His Passion, Death and Resurrection, is eternal and cannot be contained any more than the announcement of His birth could be contained two millennia ago.  

So, therefore, believe.  Rid yourselves of the rancor of this world.  Shed the darkness of humanity mired in hopelessness, and put on the light of joy! Rejoice and be glad!  Your God has come!  The Savior of the world, Emmanuel, is now with us.  How can we not be joyous?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Seeing Christ

Time is of the essence!  The annual Christmas shopping crunch is on.  We are now only ten short days away from the big day!  Get that shopping done.  Get those parties attended.  Celebrate the season.

Sound familiar?  Yes, the push is on.  Christmas is nearly here.  Kids and adults alike are both looking forward to Christmas Day.  And somewhere, in some way, the real reason for the season may even be remembered.  Yet, it is useful, I think, to pause at least for a moment to recall the real reason for Christmas.

Even more important is to look for Christ Himself for He most certainly present in our world.  However, He may not always be easy to spot.  He comes in all shapes and sizes.  He comes in all temperaments.  He comes in every personality you can think of.  And He comes in nearly every situation imaginable in every corner of the world.

Below is a poem that was written a few years back reflecting on that very fact.  It is my sincere hope that this Christmas season brings all joy and happiness to each and every one of you.  And I also hope that as you busily rush from one store to another gathering gifts for friends and family alike, that you stop momentarily to look into the eyes of others and realize there, too, is Christ.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



Look into my soul
And see the face of Christ.
Look into my eye
And see things not nice.
Like poverty and hunger
And shame so deep.
Could you not watch with me
Instead of sleep?
The world cries out
For help and need.
“Do it to the least of my brothers”
He once did plead!
I am the Light of the world
My flame flickering so dim.
Whenever you see me
Remember to see him!
He that gave you eternal life
Comes to you through me.
I, too, am the resurrection!
Can you not see?

©Copyright 2009 Michael G King

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Old Man and His Tree--A Christmas Story

At this time of the year it is often fun to remember Christmases past.  As I grow older, I find my memories turn back to my much younger days when the season of Christmas seemed filled with magic and wonder.  There was something about that time between the carving of the turkey on Thanksgiving Day and that special moment on Christmas morning when you awoke to discover what Santa may have deposited under the tree.  

What follows is a story that was repeated every year for the first nine years of my life.  The memories are so vivid that if I but close my eyes I am transported back in time to the late 50's and a tiny living room in a modest house on Summer Street in a Midwestern town known as Pekin.  There was nothing remarkable about the house except that it was the home in which I grew up in.  No one but my family ever lived in that home and it was the center of my world.  

I spent my childhood within these walls along with my mother, grandmother and grandfather.  It was a wonderful childhood and I wanted for nothing.  The times were far simpler than today's world and the pleasures were, likewise, far simpler. And, despite all of our modern conveniences and technology, including the machine on which this piece is being created, there are times when my mind takes me back to those times and I find myself wishing that I could go back and relive those day.  Of course, I know that life wasn't nearly as idyllic as my memory presents it, but those little trips back in time do allow for some respite from today's frenetic pace.  

My grandpa was the world and everything in it as far as I was concerned.  He was a man of deep principles and an amazing discipline.  He was a hard worker who took great pride and even greater pride in his family.

We were a small family living in a home of simple pleasures.  We enjoyed Sunday dinners together each and every week.  During the summer, the happiest part of the day came when my mother arrived home from work.  We ate dinner, waited the appropriate amount of time for the food to settle, and then we were off to the pool for a swim.

But one of the greatest pleasures I had was the annual decorating of the Christmas tree.  My grandpa enjoyed the season but one of the traditions of the season that he didn't look forward to was the purchase of the Christmas Tree.  He put it off for as long as he could and then, finally, at the insistence of my grandma, he headed out on a usually inclement night, to pick the family tree.

What he brought back usually, could barely be called a tree.  Because he waited so long, often the only trees left in the Christmas Tree lot were the "orphans."  These were the trees that had been rejected by everybody else because they just weren't quite good enough.
To say that our tree was usually scrawny would be a supreme understatement. There were holes and gaps where most trees had branches.  Its needles seem to drop off at a mere thought.  And its trunk was usually rather serpentine, making it nearly impossible for grandpa to line it up in the stand properly so that the tree would stand straight as an arrow.

Below, you will find a poem that I wrote many years ago about this annual ritual in my home when I was a child.  In the poem you have my grandpa and grandma, along with me.  While there is no mention of my mother, rest assured, she was right there, helping to decorate this poor creature with the rest of us.

But the main character in the poem is not my grandpa or grandma.  It isn't my mother and it certainly isn't me.  No, the main "character" of the poem is love. That is what my home was filled with and it was no more powerful and evident than at Christmas.  And that is what I hope you get from this little piece.  I was fortunate to have grown up in a home of love and peace, the same kind of love and peace that was bestowed upon the world with the birth of Jesus Christ.

So, now, allow yourself to be taken back many years to that little living room in my home as the four of us, grandma, grandpa, my mother and I gathered 'round "The Old Man and His Tree."



The Old Man

And his tree

He was a proud man
Who year after year
Brought into our home
A sad, misshapen fir.

He was happy to shelter
Those poor misfit trees
Giving them a place of honor
With dignity and ease.

Proudly he set the tree
In its proper place.
Adjusting to the right, then left
Till it filled that corner space.

“gaps and branches Must be covered,”
Said his wife of many years
As about the tree she hovered
Concealing her laughter’s tears.

Dutifully he twisted
The oh so crooked boughs
Until, upon inspection,
It passed my grandma’s browse.

From the basement came boxes
Filled with ornaments and lights.
They were thoroughly examined
With anticipation and delight.

Carols of the season
Warmed the room
As he took his seat
Taking in pine perfume.


Lights were first
Upon the orphaned tree.
And as they were strung
Something began happening magically.

His cigar smoke circled
Above his old bald head
As the tree took shape
The homely, now somehow beautiful instead.

He smiled and hummed
As the ornaments were fixed.
And we were cheerful
To have the right color mix.

Tinsel was then hung
As the lights danced to and fro.
Christmas filled the room
With its special kind of glow.

I climbed the shaky ladder
And reached for the tree top.
I placed a shining star gently
And all came to a stop.

Oh, for those days
When an old man and his tree
Became a powerful symbol
Of his special love for me.

Silent night, holy night.
The gentlest night of the year.
I fondly remember grandpa

With a sentimental tear.

Person of the Year


It was announced this morning that Pope Francis has been named as Time Magazine's "Person of the Year."  The Person of the Year designation means that the person whom the editors of Time selected has had a great impact on the world. That impact can be either negative or positive.  It must be remembered that at one time Adolph Hitler was given this distinction.

Pope Francis is an excellent choice and I say that not because I am Catholic, but because of what he has brought to the world's attention as head of the one billion plus member Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Francis, much as his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi, has begun to focus the Church's attention, and through the Church, the world's, on the marginalized of society.  And the numbers of the marginalized throughout the world are legion in number.

They include the impoverished, the politically exiled, those enslaved by the scourge of alcohol and drug addiction, victims of domestic violence, those who have been persecuted because of their religion, and of course, the unborn who are being slaughtered in huge numbers every year through abortion.  There are countless others who are marginalized and, sadly, too numerous to mention.  

The Pope has called attention to these people not only through his teaching which can be found in his recent Apostolic Exhortation, "The Joy of the Gospel."  More importantly, the world's attention has been drawn to them through the Pope's actions and example.  

Recently, it was announced by the Vatican that Pope Francis often sets out at night from the Vatican dressed as an ordinary priest for the purpose of helping the poor and feeding the hungry.  The only reason the Vatican admitted to this is because many people began to realize just who it was they often spotted on the streets of Rome.  Unlike other public figures, the Pope did not do this for a "photo op!"

In addition to this remarkable gesture, the Pope's frequent homilies and teachings have emphasized the plight of those whom society has deemed unworthy of attention and pushed to the margins as useless pieces of dirt to be ignored and forgotten.  However, the media in so many cases, would have people believe differently.

Both sides of the political spectrum have their viewpoints mostly wrong and always cynical.  

The left would have you believe that the reason that this Pope is so charismatic and so popular is that he is changing Church policy and teaching on such important issues as gay marriage, abortion, and women being ordained into the priesthood. To be blunt, none of these things are true.  The Pope is not changing teaching on any of these subjects.  To the contrary, he continues to strenuously uphold these long-term teachings of the Church.  

On the right, the political pundits and radio talk show hosts would have you believe that someone has gotten the ear of the Pope and have convinced him that capitalism is the evil in the world and that the United States is the chief villain because of its wealth and power. Some have gone so far as to even call him a Marxist.  These allegations are not true either.

In the past, two other pontiffs were named as "Persons of the Year."  Blessed Pope John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II were both were honored with this designation.  Ironically, both pontiffs also had a deep and abiding concern for the marginalized of society.


The truth of the matter is this.  Pope Francis is not a political being nor is he injecting himself into the political world.  It was often noted that Blessed Pope John Paul II would ask visitors to the Vatican what was going on in their world. His interest was not politics.  His interest, by his own admission, was to see what the Holy Spirit was doing in the world at that moment.  The same is true for this pontiff.  The Pope knows that our God is alive and well and acting throughout the world.

The Holy Spirit is certainly working in the world through this Pope.  He has the charisma to capture the attention the world's attention and even though that media is missing his profound points, the Spirit is working in the world with the message he projects, distorted as it may be.

If I judge the Holy Father correctly, I believe he would refer us to someone else to be designated as "Person of the Year."  And that Person is Jesus Christ in whose honor we will all soon gather in celebration of what might be called the "Day of the Year," Christmas Day!



Friday, November 29, 2013

Journeys



Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, most of us point our direction towards Christmas.  In fact, even as I write this, there are millions making the journey to the local shopping malls, box stores, and electronic establishments to key in on the best bargains and save money while filling shopping carts with the latest gizmos that are sure to make us more prosperous and life easier.  But as we start our annual march toward the big day, I would like to turn your attention to another kind of journey and something we can learn from it.

This journey took place some twenty-one centuries ago in a far off corner of the world that barely anyone alive at that time even noticed.  It was an arduous journey for anyone fit to travel, but to someone who was in her ninth month of pregnancy, the thought of such a journey, some ninety miles in length, would seem to have been unthinkable.  And, yet, there was no option.  The trip must be made.  It was the law!

The journey to which I refer is, of course, one of the most famous journeys ever recorded.  The two travelers were two peasants who lived in the northern reaches of ancient Israel.  They came from a small hill town called Nazareth.  The man, a carpenter, was probably in his late twenties.  The woman (if she could be called such) was most likely in her mid-teens.  Their names were Joseph and Mary and the journey they were undertaking would be a journey that quite literally would alter history.

This journey must have been one of the most uncomfortable few days for the young mother-to-be.  Nine months pregnant and atop a donkey is most like not the way a woman would like to spend the last few days before the birth of her child.  Nonetheless, because of the decree from Caesar Augustus, the couple set out from Nazareth.  I believe we tend to take this journey for granted, but I would like to have you stop and think for a moment and imagine the difficulties and even the dangers they faced along the way.

Travel some two thousand years ago was not for the faint of heart.  We must remember that much of the route taken by Mary and Joseph was desert country, arid and forbidding.  There were no Comfort Inns & Suites.  Rest areas did not exist.  And there was no highway patrol to come to your aid should something happen.  You were on your own.  And these are the more tame problems.  Oftentimes, bands of marauding robbers prowled the roadways, sweeping down on innocent, unsuspecting travelers such as Mary and Joseph robbing them and, as often as not, beating them and leaving them for dead.  Jesus Himself included this peril in one of His most famous parables, that of the Good Samaritan.  (cf Lk 10: 25-37)  Yet, this couple pressed onward despite the dangers not just out of respect for Roman law but more from the love each had for God.

While the couple was complying with the law to report to the ancestral home of the husband, both, it can be seen, understood that this was only a smaller part of the plan that God had for them.  Shortly before this dangerous trek, both had visitations from angels sent by God to invite them to participate in His exquisite plan to save humanity.  It had been a tumultuous time, certainly a time of doubt, a time of uncertainty, and a time of emotional ups and downs.

Think of it.  What would you say or believe if someone was to come to you and announce that an Angel of the Lord had appeared to them and announced that they were to bear the Son of God?  If you were the woman's betrothed, what would you think of her story and then, after you had a dream about your own encounter with an Angel, what would you feel?  Chances are, if you are like me, you would be highly skeptical of the whole thing.  Yet, Mary and Joseph's response was to travel all the way to Bethlehem in Judea because, somehow, God must want that.

While we often forget the difficulty of this journey, either because of the end of the story or because we have managed to romanticize it through songs and picturesque Christmas cards, the fact is that this young Jewish peasant couple made the trip and made it because they trusted God completely and placed their safety and fate in His hands.  And their reward for following God's will turns out to be our reward for at the end of the journey, the Son of God entered the world, and a new journey was begun.  A journey made by the Son of the couple to a hill called Calvary and to a tomb where, after a brutal death, he would rise again thus bringing salvation to the world.

In a sense, all of us are on a journey and we have been from the time of our conception to the present.  For many of us, our journeys have been easy and rather relaxed, free from major difficulties and few troubles.  However, for most of us, the journey has not been without troubles.  Our journeys have often encountered times of enormous challenges and many times we have reached the very edge of defeat.  Are we any different from Mary and Joseph?

Like their's, our journeys are often fraught with the unknown danger and uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring.  But so unlike that Jewish couple of centuries ago, we fail to trust completely the will of God in our lives.  We fail to develop a faith that will weather everything if we but surrender fully to our Creator.  Joseph and Mary had no idea where they would stay once they arrived in Bethlehem.  They had no idea when they would return to their hometown.  They even were not certain where their next meal would come from if it came at all.  Yet, they pressed on completely trusting in God to provide for their needs.

The question I have for all of us as we begin our journey towards Christmas and the celebration of the Incarnation, God becoming man, is this.  Are we radical enough in our beliefs so as to turn our fates over to God completely?  Are we willing, like Mary and Joseph, to set out each day, trusting God and following His will completely?  If we were to do this, I am sure that life would become far less complicated for us, allowing us to focus on the reason for our very existence, God, Himself.


Monday, November 11, 2013

The Marginalized


One of the most dramatic and disturbing pictures of the year was recently generated at the Vatican in Rome. Pope Francis, while greeting crowds in St. Peter's Square, reached out to a man who, suffering from a neural disease, was grossly deformed.  His deformity was almost so great that it was hard to look at him.  He nearly appeared inhuman.  In the fashion of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who once hugged a leper as a way of overcoming his fear of the dreaded disease, Pope Francis spent time with the man, embracing him, thus assuring him that he was loved despite his appearance.

Pope Francis' act of love and compassion was remarkable but really shouldn't be for all who call themselves Christian.  As followers of Jesus Christ, we are all called to reach out to the marginalized of society.  We are called to embrace those who have been isolated by society for whatever reason.  But how successful are we?  

Do we really embrace those who have been tossed to the curb with any sense of respect and dignity? Some, depending on their circumstances, may.  But many others never get our time of day, let alone the respect that is due them.  Jesus addressed this many times.

We, who call ourselves Christians, worship the most marginalized human being to ever exist.  He was at one time accepted, lauded, as a king.  Then, just as quickly, once He became controversial, He was pushed to the side.  So much so, that the government arrested Him and had Him crucified, suffering the ignominious death assigned only to the worst of society.  Only the worst kind of man was crucified and Jesus was, in the eyes of His world, the worst kind of man!  

With this in mind, one of the most famous quotes comes to us from Matthew 25: 40.  "Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me."   Christ's meaning is obvious here. Whenever we reach out to another in need, we reach out to Jesus.  But there are more examples of Jesus Himself reaching out to the marginalized.

In Matthew 8: 1-17, we find more instances of Jesus reaching out to those in need, those who are on the fringes of polite society.  In verses 1-4, Jesus encounters a leper who approaches Him, asking Him for a cure.  

"Lord, if you will, you can make me clean." (Mt 8: 2)

Jesus touched him, saying, "I will; be clean."  (Mt 8: 3)  At that moment, the leper was cured.

This was no simple feat.  It must be remembered how vile and repulsive lepers were.  They were to be avoided at all costs and certainly never allowed to come so close so that they might be touched.  Yet, Jesus fearlessly did embrace the man.  The gospel explicitly goes out of the way to state that Jesus "touched" the man.  He did not just speak to him.  With one word, Jesus could have cured the man without touching him at all.  

However, Jesus, as an example to us all, showed us that we need to be fearless in our approach to the outcasts of this world.  We need have no fear of these individuals because in them, we find Christ.  In fact, in one way, we can come to see Jesus as the least of our brothers for He came to be servant to all.  Therefore, whenever we do something for the least of our brothers, we most definitely are reaching out to Christ to soothe His wounds, to ease His pain.  And in that moment, He embraces us with His compassion and mercy, healing and curing our wounds caused by our sinfulness.

So you see, as Christians, the photo and actions of the Pope really shouldn't make headlines because these actions truly need to become the norm rather than the exception.  Each one of us has our own definition as to who is one who is marginalized.  For one it may be someone with Aids.  For another, it may be the young woman who chose to abort her baby.  For another it may be that alcoholic or drug addicted brother or sister.  We must administer Christ's love to the weakest of those who are among us, for in doing so, we encounter the loving Jesus in a very special way.  Make this the norm in your life!  Come, embrace the Lord in the person of those who have been rejected.  Your life will never be the same!  



Sunday, November 3, 2013

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time--Zacchaeus & the Ranch (Lk 19: 1-10)


For those of you who have read this blog, you know that I am affiliated with a remarkable place called Renewal Ranch.  The Ranch is a facility whose purpose is to help men recover from their addictions to alcohol and drugs by teaching them how to realign their lives to Christ.  This Sunday's gospel reminds me of the men of the Ranch.  Let me explain.

The story of Zacchaeus from the Gospel of St. Luke is well known.  (cf Lk 19: 1-10)  Zacchaeus was a resident of Jericho.  Not only was he a resident, he was the chief tax collector of the city.  This made him in the mind of his fellow citizens the chief thief among the band of thieves known as tax collectors.  He was despised because he collaborated with the Romans who employed him in the exploitation of his own people.

As a tax collector, Zacchaeus would have pursued his career with great zest.  A tax collector typically paid Rome a fee for a certain territory.  In return for the payment, Rome guaranteed that this territory would belong exclusively to the collector.  The collector had the option of hiring others and would divide the territory among them.  The collectors could be ruthless.  Typically, tax collectors would not only gather the taxes as set forth by Rome, but assess an amount greater than what was required by Roman law.  Thus, the collector set his own commission and he was always generous with himself.

In plying his trade, Zacchaeus would have had no mercy.  If he went to collect taxes from a widow who would not or could not pay, he would put her out of her house.  If a man could pay the tax as levied by Rome, but not the excess demanded by the tax collector, he would take a mortgage out on the home and evict it's occupants.

However, there was a price to pay if someone decided to collect taxes for Rome.  The collector was forced to give up the practice of his religion.  Since he was viewed as unclean by Jewish standards and law, he was refused access to the temple.  This would have been a sore spot to Zacchaeus because, as we see in the story, he did have a good heart.  It was just buried beneath years of accumulated greed.

But Zacchaeus was not a happy man.  How do we know that?  Zacchaeus had heard much about Jesus. Jericho must have been abuzz about the approach of Jesus to the city.  Jericho was akin to the Las Vegas of today and many people were there vacationing meaning that there were large crowds present.   .Instinctively, Zacchaeus must have known that Jesus brought words filled with messages of hope and peace. Of all things that Zacchaeus possessed, the one thing that was missing was peace.

Now, Zacchaeus was a short man.  When word of Jesus reached Jericho, people began forming on the streets to see him.  Zacchaeus, like so many others of his city, wanted to get a look at this young rabbi of whom much was being said.  When Zacchaeus arrived at the point where Jesus would be passing by, he found that the crowds had already gathered.  Because of his stature, Zacchaeus could not see. Disappointed, he looked around for a better vantage point and spotted a sycamore tree.  Quickly he scaled the tree to gain a good vantage point from which to spot Jesus.

Because the tax chief was so hated and despised by his fellow citizens, they must have looked at him up in that tree and laughed and mocked him, causing some sort of commotion.  As Jesus made His way through the crowds, He certainly saw this raucous and looked up and spotted the little tax collector in the tree.  To Zacchaeus' surprise, Jesus spoke to him.

"Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today."

One can only imagine Zacchaeus' amazement.  The very man for whom he had climbed the tree to see had actually spoken to him.  And not only that, but this Jesus said that He was coming to his house!  This, despite the obvious disdain the crowds were showing him.

Undaunted, Zacchaeus couldn't come down from the tree fast enough.  He greeted Jesus with great joy and escorted the Lord to his house.

However, not all was well.  The people who witnessed this scene all began to talk among themselves.  They were shocked and scandalized; not an unusual thing for Jesus to experience in light of some of His actions. How could Jesus, a renowned rabbi, actually enter under the roof of this notorious sinner?  It is easy to think that many of them stopped following and listening to Him from that day forward.

Meanwhile, Zacchaeus and Jesus went to the tax collector's home. Little is known of the conversation between Zacchaeus and the Lord.  However, what is recorded, says volumes.

Zacchaeus, at some point during His stay, said to Jesus, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any on of anything, I restore it fourfold."  (Lk 19: 8)  This was quite a statement.  Zacchaeus, in the presence of the Lord, stands, apparently without prompting, and declares that he is giving half of his considerable wealth to the poor.  Not only that, but the little man tells Jesus that if there is anyone whom he has defrauded in his life, he will repay fourfold.  Under Jewish law, this was the most stringent standard of restitution.  It was not demanded.  However, Zacchaeus, because of his love of Jesus, declares that he will do far more than the law demands.

Jesus, moved by the sincerity of Zacchaeus, replies, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he is also a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost."  (Lk 19: 9)

Now, those of you who do know about the Ranch may be asking yourself, "What in the world does this story have to do with the men of the Ranch?"

Zacchaeus can be seen as the men of the ranch.  They often have lived lives as men who will get anything they can get in any way they can get it to feed their addictions.  Many have had encounters with the law because they have reverted to stealing and even violence to get what they needed to keep their addiction going.  They walked in darkness, thinking that they were in the light lured there by Satan, the Father of Lies, who told them that it was fine for them to do what they needed to do to satisfy themselves because if they would not take care of themselves, then who would!

Zacchaeus rationalized his mode of existence.  He surely told himself that what he was doing was just fine because through his hard work and cleverness he was taking care of himself.  Besides, he must have told himself, I am acting in a lawful way as prescribed by the Romans.  It is those deadbeats who refuse to pay who are in the wrong.  Rationalization was Satan's weapon with Zacchaeus just as it is with those who become entangled in addictions.

But even in the deepest moments of addiction, the men of the ranch still felt that there was something more to this life.  There was something more than the next drink, the next fix.  Most had no clue whatsoever what that might be, but deep down, they felt a calling, an urging to step toward the light of living in a way that was healthy and stable.

Zacchaeus felt the same way.  Even though he was prosperous, he knew that there was something more to life than making a tidy profit to feed his own desires.  He knew that there was a way of life that promised a sense of peace and gratitude for the things already acquired and a zeal for sharing with others less fortunate what he already had.

The Renewal Ranch is like that tree that Zacchaeus perched himself in to catch a glimpse of Jesus.  It gives men who have been knocked down by life and the choices they have made a vantage point for seeing more clearly what is important.  They yearn for some real substance in their lives, substance that will lead them out of the dark slavery to addiction and the destructive force it becomes not only in their lives but also in the lives of all with whom they live and work.  But what is more important than this is the fact that, just as in the story of Zacchaeus, Jesus comes looking for the men of the Ranch before they go looking for Him.

And that really is the point of the whole story.  Zacchaeus felt the tug of Christ wanting to see him.  Jesus is the one who invited him down from the tree and it is Christ Who invites those men locked in the prison of addiction to the Ranch in order to encounter Him in their darkness.  In the gospel, Jesus comes to Zacchaeus' house at Jesus' invitation!  The same can be said for the Ranch.  The men may seek out the Ranch, however, long before they began their search, the invitation from Christ to come the Ranch has been extended.  The love of God always precedes our every action.  We do not first approach Him.  He approaches us and always in love.

Thus, the men of the Ranch come before Christ, seeking to surrender their every possession, to gain an eternal life, that unlike their possessions, will not diminish.  Just as Zacchaeus surrendered to the mercy and love of Jesus, the men of the Ranch surrender their addictions and addictive behavior to the Savior and, in the process, they, to can hear the words of Christ, "Today, salvation has come to this house...For the Son of man came to seek and save the lost."






Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Splendor of Autumn


Outside my window a miracle of this world unfolds with barely a nod or notice from most as they go about their busy lives.  It is called the change of seasons.

Oh, we can describe how this happens scientifically, but the essence of these changes, the beauty, the meaning, and the simple glory they represent cannot be stated in scientific terms.

We live in a world of change.  Some of it is painfully slow like the drifting of the continental plates.  Some moves a little swifter such as the progress of the glaciers down the mountains.  And some change, like the ageing process of man, is swift, indeed, in comparison to these.

However, there is something different about the change of the seasons, something unique that can make even the most hardened observer sit up and take notice.  We human beings crave consistency.  When our lives are ordered we tend to be more settled and content.  And I believe that is one of the purposes of the changing seasons.

Of all the seasons, the most glorious, in my opinion, is Autumn.  As the days grow shorter the winds begin to subtly change direction.  Instead of the choking heat and humidity we associate with summer, drier, cooler breezes bring welcome relief.  Rains appear more frequently and the dry land that summer brought now converts into a soft layer of earth now quietly waiting for the next growing season.


The real stars of this season are the multi-colored trees that tower above us.  All throughout the summer, they have spread their canopies of deep green shielding us from the brutality of the summer sun.  Now, in Fall, as the growing season slows and nears it's end, these natural umbrellas delight us with their final days and weeks by displaying God's colorful world spectacularly.

Brilliant reds, bright golds, vivid oranges, and even deep russets dot the landscape.  They delight the eye, reminding us that the world is much more than a resource to be mined and profited from.  When is the last time you took a walk just to take a walk?  Do you remember what it is to be among nature as she bids us farewell for a few months, serenading us as it were, with colors that even the most talented of artists cannot duplicate?

If it has been a long time since you have hiked through the glory of Autumn, perhaps it is time to do so.  And when you do, remember that what you are seeing is not the natural, scientifically explainable conversion of the earth from one season to another.  No, what you are seeing, what you are witnessing, what you are a part of is the reflection of the magnificent glory of God, the Creator, reminding us that all of His creation is beautiful.  And because all of us are His creation, we can certainly conclude that we are, in God's eyes, the most beautiful thing of His creation.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

29th Sunday In Ordinary Time--God, An Unjust Judge? (Lk. 18:1-8)



This parable presents an interesting problem.  It is the story of an unjust judge, a man who is politically corrupt, a man who is out only for himself with little or no consideration for others except for what they might be able to do for him.  He is a man with considerable power and wields it unmercifully.

A poor widow, left alone in society to fend for herself, had some legal problem with an unnamed person.  She petitions the judge to give her relief but the judge, because this woman means nothing to her and has no possibility whatsoever of bringing anything of value to him, ignores her in hopes that she would soon disappear.  He was wrong!

Time and again, the widow appears before the judge, pleading her case with the same passion and enthusiasm as ever.  Time and again, the judge rejects her pleas for help.  But the woman does not give up.  Her persistence is beyond anything the judge has ever encountered.  Finally, after an extended period of time, the judge begins to weary of her constant petitions.  He begins to fear for his personal safety. 

The judge, in a moment of complete honesty and self-revelation, declares, “While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.”  (Lk. 18:4-5)

I believe that this parable is easily misunderstood.  On the surface, Jesus seems to be saying that if we but persist in our prayer, God will finally relent and grant our wish.  But this cannot be true since it is impossible for man to negotiate anything with God.  We cannot persuade God to do anything. 

Prayer must never be seen as something like requesting time off from our jobs for a vacation.  On our jobs we decide when we would like to take time off, place the request before our boss, and wait to see if the time off will be approved.  While this may be a fine process for the workplace, it does not work that way with God. 

However, our Lord’s parable is less about prayer than it is about the nature of God.  Who among us would consider that God is an unjust God?  Would any of us ever even utter such a thing even if we did feel this way?  Probably not because in man’s heart of hearts, resides the knowledge that God is the ultimate just judge.  He is justice in and of itself. 

If God is the ultimate just judge, then why do we approach Him in prayer as though we believe Him to be unjust?  What do I mean by this?  Well, stop and think about it for the moment.  Often, when we go to God in prayer, isn't it true that we try to figure out how to best approach Him?  Don’t we try to determine how to sound the best for a favorable answer?  And isn’t it also true that we do this when we think that the judge can somehow be persuaded by our approach.  In other words, when we think the judge is unjust, we try to fashion our petition in such a way to gain a favor from the magistrate. 

Because God is the just judge that He is, can we not approach Him with boldness without reservation?  Why must we search for just the right words when He already knows what we are coming to Him for?  Why should we, His ultimate creation, bother with formalities?  He knows us more intimately than we even know ourselves.  Why not be bold in our prayer?  Why not go to Him with the expectation that our prayer will be answered for all prayers are answered.  They may not be answered in the way that we want or envision, but they are answered.

Pope Francis recently spoke about this boldness in prayer.  He said, “Prayer that is not courageous is not a real prayer.  For the Lord says: ‘Everyone who asks, receives: and the one who seeks, finds: and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”  (cf Lk. 11:5-13)

How bold are we, really, in our prayer?  How do we approach the Just Judge?  How often do we just think of praying instead of actually praying?  And when we do pray, do we really approach God with a bold humility?

Sometimes, this may be due to a lack of knowing just how to pray.  Again, the Pope is helpful in this.  “Do we get ourselves involved in prayer?  Do we know how to knock at the heart of God?” 

Knocking at the heart of God is a bold act, indeed.  Yet, God Himself, yearns for this kind of communication!  We never approach God in prayer without God first approaching us. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts this beautifully.  “The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there Christ comes to meet every human being.  It is he who first seeks us and asks us for a drink.  Jesus thirsts.”  Yes, Jesus thirsts for communication with us, yet, because He loves us, He will never force us into anything including those things which are best for us. 

The Catechism continues.  “His asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us.  Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours.  God thirsts that we may thirst for Him.”  (CCC 2561)

If we keep in mind that God is the ultimate Just Judge, we can approach Him with the boldness suggested by Pope Francis.  It is a boldness founded in the Creator’s desire for deep, intimate communication with us.  We thirst for Him and He thirsts for us even more than we could ever yearn for Him.


So, no, God is not an unjust God!  We simply need to truly understand that He thirsts for us and beckons us into intimate communication with Him.  Be bold, be forward, be certain that the Just Judge will welcome us with open arms and we will find the ultimate joy in that moment.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Faith...Not Certainty



All of us believe, I think, that we know what faith is. Many of us will recite the definition of faith from the Letter of St. Paul to the Hebrews. "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Heb 11: 1) By its very nature, faith is a mysterious, mystical element of our lives that we all depend upon whether or not we acknowledge its presence.


However, faith is not certainty. We can be certain of very few things in life and faith does not bequeath certainty in any way shape or form. Faith, rather, is the foundation of the spiritual life. It gives us both hope and direction. But it is not certainty. Faith does not fail as long as we hold onto it and trust in its ability to transform and reform us.


When life becomes confusing and chaotic, certainty often fails. When our beliefs or philosophies are shaken to the core, we usually lose all certainty. We feel lost and alone and find it difficult to return to the path we were on when life's little surprises knocked us off course, a path lined with certainty about our life. Only faith gives us reason to go on. If we have faith, true faith based upon a mature understanding of Who God is and His role in our lives, then it gives us reason to go on. It is through faith that we are given to understand that despite the darkness we may find ourselves in at the present, there is hope.


Faith cannot always be defined. It defies definition any way. And, yet, it guides us through our days. Even though we may be going through a period of uncertainty brought on by one of many life crises we may encounter, faith will see us through it all with hope. And this hope is not the hope of someone wanting to hit the lottery. It is grounded in reality. Hope, as defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is "the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit." (CCC, Article 7, Section II, The Theological Virtues)


Hope, therefore, is not of our will but that borne of our faith in God. It is not some pie in the sky wish we have for our mortal existence, but based in the reality of God in our lives. We are incapable of having faith without the guidance of the Holy Spirit and His prompting toward hope. We choose to respond or ignore this prompting, but we do not originate the communication. In essence, we respond to God on a very intimate level.


So, while there is very little certainty in this life, there is still one definite certainty. And that certainty is the love of God for each and every one of us as we make our way through the maze of life. We can be certain that if we but have faith in God, hope will be His gift to us!

Gossip: Cowardice Is Criminal


As a society we seem to be awash with everyone privy to everyone else's business.  And most of what passes for truth is out and out fiction.  All of us have been victimized by this behavior at one time or another in our lives.  Most of the time the gossip is private but now, in this age of information, much of it becomes public.  And while sometimes what we learn about the other person actually has some foundation in the truth, most of those stories are complete lies.  Our attitude about this behavior seems to be sheer indifference.  We ask ourselves what possible difference could a little harmless gossip make and, besides, it is so much fun. Yet, this so called fun is capable of producing great harm and pain to those who are it's target.

In his early morning homily at Mass on September 13, Pope Francis addressed this topic.  The Pontiff in his normal straightforward manner, condemned this activity.  He said that those who engage in gossip, judging and criticizing others, "are hypocrites because they don't have the strength , the courage to look at their own defects."  He used strong language in regards to those who would seek to smear another through gossip and innuendo by calling them criminal.  Putting it in further perspective the Pontiff also noted that such behavior destroyed rather than exalted the image of God present in others.  

In addition, the Pope used even stronger language indicating the kind of people these truly are.  Every time we "judge our brothers and sisters in our heart, and worse, when we talk about it with others, we are killer Christians," imitating Cain who committed "the first homicide in history."

The Pope also pointed out that there is no such thing as innocent gossip.  He even equated the telling of false stories to violence.  "If one of us gossips, certainly he is a persecutor, someone violent."  

Gossip is an assassination of the soul.  It robs he victim of dignity and integrity.  It strips them of their pride and reputation.  In some extreme cases, it even drives some to suicide.  We have all heard of the stories of those individuals who had gossip spread about them through such social media as FaceBook who, as a result of the malicious rumors and talk, took their own lives.  Granted, that these are extreme cases, but in a very real sense, every victim of gossip has their very souls attacked.

Gossip has been a bane of the human existence for as long as humanity has been around.  We are social beings by nature and, as such, are prone to engage in social communication.  When friends get together, for instance, one of the first things brought up in conversation may likely be "have you heard what so and so did?"  Often, after that, the feeding frenzy is on.  The stories take a life of their own on with little tidbits being added here and there by each teller of the tale.

The Apostle St. James warned about the power of the tongue and pointed out that "the tongue is a little member (of the body) and boasts of great things.  How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!"  (James 3: 5)    He saw the tongue as a remarkable instrument, one filled with constructive potential and destructive capabilities.  "With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing."  (James 3: 9-10)

One of the most ironic things in the world of Christianity is how Christians can sit week after week in their services, praising God and proclaiming themselves to be followers of Christ inspired by he Holy Spirit, and not ten minutes after church meet someone in the parking lot and immediately begin gossiping about the priest or pastor.  Where have they been for the last hour or so?  Where is their Christianity?  Did they leave it in the pews?  Or is that Christianity just another trivial part of their week, something which they can scratch off of their to-do lists and move on to more important things.

The Pope did not end his discussion here.  He went on to offer solutions to the insidiousness of gossip.  Instead of gossiping about others, Pope Francis suggested that we pray for others who may be gossiping about us.  He even suggested that "if it's necessary, speak to the person who can solve the problem.  Don't tell everybody else about it."  To some, this notion is a foreign concept.  Many would either like to keep silent and allow the story to continue to roll merrily along or refuse to talk to the other out of either false sense of superiority or fear for being confronted with the truth.

In addition, in a recent article published in Jesuit magazines throughout the world, the Pope offered this thought.

"I have a dogmatic certainty.  God is in every person's life.  God is in everyone's life. . .Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it has been destroyed by vices, drugs, or anything else, God is in this person's life.  You can, you must try to seek God in every human life."

Maybe, just maybe, rather than resorting to gossip, those who feel compelled to spread false, malicious rumors about others should take the Holy Father's advice and look for God in every life.  He is there and they just might be surprised to find that God is, indeed, in everyone's life.