Saturday, August 9, 2014

Taming the Whirlwind

19th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Cycle A

It’s all around us. It comes at us from all sides and permeates all areas of our lives. It shakes us and buffets us and causes us great anxiety. It’s the thing we worry about the most and the thing that keeps us up at night. It affects all our relationships both positively and negatively. And it’s the thing that can keep us away from God, if we let it. It’s the whirlwind.

The whirlwind is our daily lives. It’s the stuff of our existence these days. It’s the meetings and reports, the emails and texts and phone calls and tweets and Facebook. It’s the kid’s homework and dry cleaning and figuring out what’s for dinner. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just is. We live within it and it lives within us. We need to live within it because that’s how our lives get done. But it is the immediate, the now. Oftentimes is what we reflexively do without much thought. But it’s not big-picture stuff. It’s not reflective or deep. For that we have to step out of the whirlwind for a time.

The whirlwind prepares us to meet God. It makes us ready to let go completely and reach out to God to save us. Elijah went and stood at the mouth of the cave. Peter stepped out of the boat.

Elijah is worried today. He has just run away to Mt. Horeb, escaping from the king who he thinks is trying to kill him. You see, Elijah has been saying some very politically incorrect things about the king lately, and the king has a way of killing off prophets who don’t please him. In fact, he has threatened to do just that to Elijah, so he has run off into the desert to hide. But he has forgotten to bring any food with him, so he lays down in the desert under a broom tree and asks God to let him die. Instead, God sends an angel to him with food and water. After eating and drinking, Elijah then has enough strength to travel forty days and forty nights to Mt. Horeb. Once there, he hides in a cave. And worries.

He worries that the people won’t listen to him. He worries that he will be killed if he is found. He worries about having enough to eat and drink. He worries about what might be living in the back of the cave. But most of all, he worries about what God might ask him to do. As he cowers there, the word of God comes to him and tells him, “What are you doing here? Go outside and wait for me.”

Elijah goes out and waits, worrying about what God will send his way. Will it be an earthquake, shaking him from his safe perch and forcing him to go and shake up the kingdom some more? Will it be fire, a burning deep within him that cannot be contained, that consumes him and compels him to speak the word of God? Will it be a driving wind, blowing him around helplessly before it, forcing him to give up control of his life to the Lord? Elijah looks for the Lord in the whirlwind, but he’s not there.

Then a tiny whispering sound is heard. It says, “Come Outside”.

Peter is worried today. For a while now he has been wondering just who this person Jesus is. He sees the miracles, hears the teachings, yet he just isn’t sure. Peter is worried about a lot of things. He has left behind his family and his business. How will they survive without him? People in Capernaum are laughing at him, running off after some teacher like a fool. Doesn’t he know he isn’t a child anymore? He has responsibilities. And Peter is unsure of himself. He always seems to be running off at the mouth, saying the wrong thing. Just the other day Jesus called him Satan, when all he was trying to do was show his concern for Jesus. He was so ashamed that he hung back in the crowd, embarrassed to even look Jesus in the eye.

It’s almost like this storm on the lake. Peter feels out of control. He feels buffeted by the winds and the waves of daily life that seem to be against him. But then the Word of God comes to him also, just like Elijah, and says to him, “Come”. Not what he wants to hear. Peter wants to cower in the safety of the boat, not venture out upon the very waters that threaten him. He worries that they will engulf him, and you know what, they do. He starts to sink. I guess that 1 percent caught up with him.

Then a tiny whispering sound is heard. “Don’t Worry.” And he is saved.

What do you do when you are worried? How do you handle the anxieties and uncertainties of the whirlwind? Do you run away and hide in your cave? Do you cower in your boat? Is everything blown out of proportion? Is everything an earthquake, or fire, or a driving wind to you? Where do you find peace?

We need to step out of the whirlwind in order to re-root ourselves in what is truly important. We need a firm foundation in the Lord in order to handle the whirlwind. And to do so we must find silence. Elijah found the Lord in the quiet. Jesus went off into the desert in solitude to pray. The apostles recognized Jesus as truly the Son of God only after he had quieted the storm.

Jesus can quiet the whirlwind.

But it’s we who have to get out of the boat. Jesus says “Come” and we have to step out in faith. The most effective way to quiet the whirlwind is through prayer. Many of us exercise regularly, or try to. We know that in order to be effective, we must exercise on a defined schedule at a specific time and place. And it requires self -discipline. It’s the same with prayer.

I think we tend to think of prayer as something we do, not something we experience. We talk too much when we pray, probably because we may be uncomfortable with it. Prayer is more a state of being than an action. And it requires silence.

How many of you have a place in your home where you pray? Maybe it’s in your bedroom or den, in your favorite chair. My prayer room is my den, with my comfy recliner, surrounded by pictures of my family and closest friends. I have a relic of St. Padre Pio that my father gave me. A bird feeder is right outside the window. I have found that the quietest time in our house is early in the morning, before the busyness of the day begins. And so years ago I started getting up about a half hour before anyone else, pour myself a cup of coffee, and retreat into my prayer den for a few minutes of quiet.

Sometimes I pray the liturgy of the hours, sometimes I say a rosary, and sometimes I just sit there and say “Good morning, Lord.” And then I just look at Him and He looks at me. For me, that’s enough of a daily grounding before I hit the whirlwind. Or it hits me.

The best part of regular prayer is you can’t do it wrong. You will look in many places for God. You will try to find him in the whirlwind. But the best place to find him is here, in your heart. If you start looking for Him within, soon you will recognize him more in your relationships, in your work, in your everyday life.

And that’s how you tame the whirlwind.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Point of View

Feast of the Transfiguration


It really depends upon your point of view, doesn’t it?

Have you ever had your life changed because you suddenly saw things a bit differently? Many times we get caught up in the ordinary of our everyday lives and miss the truth of what’s going on around us.

Steven Covey of Franklin Covey fame and author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People tells of an experience he had on a New York subway one Sunday morning. He says that people were sitting quietly. Some were reading newspapers, some were dozing, others were simply contemplating with their eyes closed. It was a rather peaceful, calm scene. At one stop a man and his children entered the car. The children were soon yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s newspapers. It was all very disturbing and yet the father just sat there next to him and did nothing. It was not difficult to feel irritated. Steve could not believe the man could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild and do nothing about it. It was easy to see that everyone else in the car was annoyed as well. So finally, with what he thought was admirable restraint and patience, Steve said to the man, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little bit more?” The man lifted his gaze as if coming out of a dream and said, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”

Steven says, “Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? Suddenly I saw things differently. Because I saw differently, I felt differently. I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior. My heart was filled with this man’s pain. Feelings of compassion and sympathy flowed freely. ‘Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?’”

That was Steven Covey’s moment of transfiguration, a moment of revelation that sustained him in a difficult situation. Peter, James and John had the vision of Jesus’ transfiguration to sustain them during the difficult times to come. The next time Jesus took the three of them off with him by themselves was in the Garden of Gethsemanie. But what about us? After all, we could put up with an awful lot if we had a remembered moment of glory to sustain us, a clear indication of who Jesus really is, some sign that when it was all over, everything would be all right. What’s our transfiguration moment?

To be transformed is to be changed. To be transfigured is to see things differently, as they really are. Peter couldn’t see clearly up there on the mountain. But over time, with a lot of prayer, pondering, suffering and preaching the good news, he came to see Jesus for who he really is. Jesus didn’t change. Peter’s understanding did. Because he saw differently, he felt differently, and because he felt differently, he behaved differently.

And how Peter had changed from the time of this gospel account until he wrote his letters decades later! In the gospel, he’s really scared. He falls down to the ground in fear, and says some pretty silly things. He didn’t really know what to say, he didn’t understand what was happening before him.

The Peter we hear in his second letter is very different. Gone is the simple fisherman from Capernaum. Gone is the rough man unsure of himself. He is calm, confident, and collected. He is no longer the frightened disciple, he has become the leader. He has been bringing others to knowledge of Jesus, and he is reassuring them that his message is true. Something happened to him, and James and John as well, after they saw Jesus differently, after they saw him for who he truly is, that changed the very direction of their lives.

And if you thought it scared Peter to see Jesus as he really was, how do you think it made him feel as he himself was transfigured? It can be frightening to learn who you really are, who you are called to be for the world. Peter had come to know what it means to be truly human. To be truly human is to be like God. And Peter saw what that God was doing. He was teaching, preaching, working tirelessly to bring the gospel to the people. Desperate to have his children truly know him for who he was. He was putting his life on the line daily, and he finally lost that life in a horrible way.

Is that what was in store for Peter if he lived out his true humanity? Is that what’s in store for all of us? Peter didn’t know. But he, James and John had a decision to make. They could take their newfound knowledge of Jesus and continue to follow him, or they could go away, back to their livelihoods. Or worse yet, they could drift off to the fringes of his followers, simply tagging along without taking on any of the responsibilities of discipleship.

On a more ordinary note, Steven Covey also had a choice to make that Sunday morning. He could have hid in his embarrassment and just sat there and said nothing, done nothing. He could have gone on with his life without reaching out to a family in pain, but he chose to try to comfort them instead. We don’t know how the story ends, what happened to that man and his children, whether they were able to cope with their loss. But we do know that that incident changed Steve Covey so much so that he remembers it and recounts it over and over again. It transfigured him.

We all have the same decision to make. Sooner or later we’ll be hit with the realization of who Jesus really is in our lives, and we’ll have to decide what to do next. That realization might be found in a passage of scripture, it may be found here at Mass, or during a serious illness or family crisis. It may be a simple acceptance that grows out of many years of quietly walking with the Lord. But our lives will transfigured. And we can either continue in our old ways of living, we can drift off to the fringes of the community without taking on the added responsibilities that discipleship brings, or we can embrace those responsibilities and reach out to others as the Master did.




Sunday, July 20, 2014

Seeds of Justice

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cycle A

Why do you come here and not to some other church? Why St. Mary’s and not St. Ann’s or St. Ambrose, or Shepherd of the Mountains or St. Luke’s? Most likely it is because you like the people. And most likely you like the people because someone has been kind to you here. Kindnesses are the little things we do for people just because we like them or respect them or care about them.

And we also perform little kindnesses to people we don’t even know all the time, don’t we? We hold the door open for them, we smile at them in the checkout line, we make a comment about how beautiful their baby is. We don’t do these little things because we want something in return. We do them just because that’s how we treat other human beings, just because they are human beings. We don’t even think about it, we just do it.

We hear in the book of wisdom today that justice is played out as kindness. We hear a lot about social justice these days, and not just in the religious sense. The big budget battles going on in Washington lately are couched in the language of social justice. What is fair. But justice is not fairness. It’s not about leveling the playing field or taking from the rich to give to the poor. True justice means giving all people what they are entitled to, just because they are human beings with inherent dignity. We tend to think of justice in terms of crime and punishment, but to God, justice is simply treating you as his child, just because you are his child. And because you are his child you enjoy certain rights and are bound by certain responsibilities.

And just because you think you have a right to do something does not make it just. Justice is allowing you to live the way you were intended to live. Just because you want to live a certain way doesn’t mean you were meant to live that way. Just because you want to do it does not make it right. And so sometimes justice seems unfair, because we don’t always want to live as we were meant to. Sometimes justice means we have to say no. Sometimes justice means someone needs to tell us no.

What makes a person kind? I think the thing people desire most is to feel that they are special and appreciated. We are kind when or actions make people feel that way. Most of us don’t go around working for the great causes of justice, but the mustard seeds of justice are the little kindnesses we do for other people. We can protest on the steps of the capitol, or pray in front of the abortion clinic, but it is kindness that changes people hearts. We change the world when we change the individual human heart. And we do that through kindness.

Have you ever had someone’s kindness to you affect your entire day? Has someone ever said or done something to you that just made you feel good about yourself, and changed your outlook on the day? Have you seen the commercials that show people in a city going about their day and one person does something to help a stranger, like pick up a dropped package or something, and then that person helps another person, and that one helps someone else, until finally it comes back around so that someone is nice to the first person who started it all? Paying it forward? That’s how grace works. That’s how our faith is lived out each day. Yes, we are called to stand up against the great evils of the day, but we act most like God when we do simple kindnesses for people.

These little kindnesses are the mustard seeds of justice. If we see the person in the checkout line as someone worthy of respect just because they are them, it makes it easier to make those bigger, tougher decisions later on, even reaching up to Capitol Hill. Social justice literally begins at home. And if kindness is the way we bring forth justice then we must begin by being kind to those closest to us. There are two types of kindness, active and passive. The greatest active kindness we do is to pray for the needs of others. Then there are the little kindnesses we do for those we love. We bring our spouse a cup of coffee in the morning; we pick up after our kids without complaining; we hold the door for someone at the office. But kindness can also be what we don’t do. We don’t blow up when our teenager comes home after curfew. We patiently wait for our wives to put on their makeup. We have compassion and understanding for the friend who is having a hard day.

It may be the small gestures that help us build our faith, too. We all have faith that began small. Grace is like that. The grace we are given never really goes away. It stays in us, and, like yeast, can cause the entirety of our faith to grow. We have no way of knowing if something that was given to us very early on is what we need today in order to make correct decisions.

That’s one reason we baptize infants. Something profound happens to our souls when we are baptized, and God’s grace enters into our lives in a very special way. A baby is incapable of sinning, however, by wiping away original sin God allows his grace to affect us, so that as we grow we will be more able to make correct decisions. The seeds planted in us as children affect the decisions we make as teenagers and adults.

A life of virtue is made up of thousands of small virtuous decisions, just as a life of evil is made up of thousands of incorrect decisions.  Just as faith starts out as a very small seed, an idea planted in our hearts which can then affect our entire lives and the lives of the entire human race, so too evil. People are not born evil, we are all born good, and rarely do people make the decision to act evilly all at once in a big way. You don’t just wake up one day and decide to kill someone. Instead, we make decision upon decision upon decision throughout our lives, often beginning as children, that bring us to an evil, or good end.

Faith starts with a very small idea, and then affects all our other ideas as well. Someone once said that there is nothing more powerful in the world than an idea whose time has come. I’d say that there is nothing more powerful than a single person’s faith. The faith of one person affects their entire family, their workplace, their neighborhood, town, and nation. And I think that is the message of hope we hold for the world. Because while that yeast is only a fraction of the ingredients used in the bread, it causes the entire loaf of dough to rise. The world seems to be growing more and more indifferent to God every day. The rest of the dough isn’t very good, but all it takes is us, that small measure of yeast, to help it all to rise. Do you know that there is a bakery in San Francisco that has been making sourdough bread with the same hunk of mother yeast for the past 100 years! The yeast even gives rise to itself, and they keep it in a special refrigerator under lock and key, because without that special yeast the bread would not have its particular taste and texture.

The Church is like that. Though the dough of the world has been mostly poor throughout history, the yeast of the Church has helped it to rise. We must guard it and cherish it and protect it so that it can continue to give mankind its special taste and texture. Our yeast is what God uses to bring justice to the world.

Christians are like mustard seeds. We can and are the yeast for the entire world. The world is a big place, but our faith can raise up the entire world, even if there are only a few of us left. Remember, Jesus started with twelve.

Jesus was kind. If you think back about all he did in his life what he really was was a kind man. He did things, great and small, for other people just because they deserved it simply because they were his children. Pope Paul VI said if you want peace work for justice. I will add, and do it by being kind to one another.

Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that small groups of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has." We can change the world, one heart at a time. And the first heart that must change is my own.