Thursday, December 26, 2013

Evil People

By the might of Thy arm, may these blasphemers who come against Thy holy people be struck down.
 -- 2Macc 15:24
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Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.
- - Luke 23:34
And he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
- - Acts 7:60
Today marks the feast day of St. Stephen, the first martyr, on the Catholic calendar of saints.  The last quote above is from him.  The good priest this morning noted in his short sermon one of the many significant things about this day.  This feast day he said, placed right after the birthday of Jesus, reminds us what a break Jesus and the New Testament were from the Old.  In many places of the Old Testament people prayed to God to strike down their enemies --- He was seen as a God of power, a warrior.  But in the New Testament Jesus, and then His followers, said: “Forgive them,” even to the point of forgiving those who are about to kill them.
The Catholic Church practices this message: to love your enemies, to forgive them, to pray for them.  You heard it this week when Pope Francis called for us to pray for atheists, and you saw it when he went down among the poor.  He is the leader of a great church; he has people at his beck and call; he doesn’t have to do things like that.  But he does, even if it is hard.
More locally, we see this message played out each day in our own churches, when the so-called Prayers of the Faithful are prayed during mass.  Then we are asked to pray for our Church and church leaders, and we do.  We are asked to pray for people in need, and we do. And we are asked to pray for our president and government leaders, and we do.  Even if those same government leaders might be condemning us for our beliefs, even if they are encouraging us to sin, even if they mock us or even have us fired from our jobs.  And still we pray for them.
Christmas Day for some families was a great trial, as THAT family member or THAT neighbor came to the house or even the dinner table, and acted THAT way.  We try not to, be we would like to broadcast to the world: “They are evil people!”  But we don’t (usually).  We bear up with them; we keep the family peace, especially on Christmas Day, but our heart roils.  But that too we must stifle, must change, and not just on Christmas Day.  Even if these people are by all reasonable definitions, evil people, still we must forgive them, even as Jesus and St. Stephen gave witness by their actions.  And we must pray for them.  It is what we are called to do, no matter how hard, if we are to call ourselves followers of Christ.
I know this is no easy thing.  Do you REALLY think it was easy for Jesus or Stephen to say that prayer for people about to kill them?  None of the people YOU would call evil are going to kill you (or at least it’s not likely), but what they will try to do --- very deliberately in some cases --- is to kill your spirit.  They will, by their actions, encourage you to give up:  “The situation is hopeless.”  But it is not.
Go back and read the words of Jesus again --- all of them.  “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.  That is the key to helping you to gain the strength to really follow Jesus in this difficult task.  They know not what they do.  You may think, indeed you may KNOW, that they are evil people, but the truth of the matter is that they don’t.  They don’t think they are evil.  It is an extremely rare person who would ever say that “I am an evil person.”  No one believes that of themselves; everyone believes that they are good, or at least that they try to do good.  They sincerely believe this, and if you challenge them they will defend their actions as good or reasonable.  Your telling them that they are evil, or acting toward them as if they were, will, in their minds make YOU seem as evil.  Just as you see them doing what is contrary to what is right and so you think them evil, they will think with the same logic of you.  Hating, acting out, telling someone that they are evil will not change them, nor will doing so to satisfy our anger really satisfy our anger.  Hating evil and letting evil roil our insides hurts only us, changes only us. 
You look to understand the Scriptures and understand Jesus.  Can’t you see this most basic thing, love one another, that He proclaims in His words and actions?  And the first step towards loving another is to forgive your grievances against them.  Go read the words in Matthew.  There it says that before you go into the church, to go and forgive your brother if he has something against you, AND THEN it says in another place to go to him and be reconciled if YOU have something against him.  It doesn’t matter who is at fault, YOU are called to seek reconciliation, to seek and/or give forgiveness.  And if the reconciliation is not accepted, despite the offered forgiveness, then Matthew explains that you are justified in staying away from them, justified in avoiding evil. 
There are some churches in the world now which preach that when you see evil you must go out and kill it.  That is a major difference with the Catholic Church.  Jesus said He came to heal sinners, which started with forgiveness.  The people of His day couldn’t understand how He could do this: “Why do you eat with sinners?”  But He explains: “This is why I came.”   The Roman historians looked at the Catholic community and were confused: “See how they love one another.”  This was as big change in the ways of the world.
Each day at mass we pray these words before communion: “Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof.  But only say the words, and my soul shall be healed.”   We are asking for forgiveness, before we seek unity with Him.  As I walked back to the pew after receiving Holy Communion this morning, that prayer echoed again in my head, and I heard a response there: “I’ll come anyway.” 
I may not be worthy, but He will come anyway.
That terrible relative, that troublesome neighbor, that stupid boss, that child who acts like he is deaf, that slow car in front of you, that guy who stole your parking space, that person who grabbed the last item on sale this morning.  Forgive them anyway.
There will always be evil in the world, and evil people.  You don’t need to announce it; you don’t need to be mad over it.  No matter how much those people bother you, you can put up with them --- even, if necessary up to death.
We were shown how.  Now we just need to willpower to act on what we were shown, and what we know and believe.  There is no: “But I can’t do that.”  Others that are far more important you have done it, even to death.  Are you more important than they?  Or can’t you accept, in faith, that they wouldn’t have shown you how to forgive, if they didn’t think you could.
I say again, in reminder: do not be anxious.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Pearl of Great Price

Father Ed is not a priest who stops to tell jokes from the altar, nor does he jest about the UM or MSU football scores.  When acting as a priest, he acts with the seriousness a priest should.  So it was a bit of surprise when he stepped to the front of the altar after mass, and spoke to us.  After wishing us all Merry Christmas, he said he had to tell us what happened at a recent religious ed class in our parish.
He said the topic of the class was the parable in Matthew about the pearl of great price, and the class teacher asked the kids: “What is the pearl of great price?”  There was a pause, and the teacher waited for someone to answer that it was the kingdom of heaven, which is worth giving up everything we have to attain.  Finally a hand went up, and when the teacher called upon him the young boy answered: “The pearl of great price is us.  Jesus left God the Father and heaven to come to earth; He gave up all that for us.”
Fr. Ed paused to let us think about that answer for a moment, and then he said: “We have a theologian blossoming in our midst.”  After another short pause he added: “He’ll probably be after my job pretty soon.”  Then he turned around to go back up the altar, but he paused again and said: “Then again, by the time he gets old enough to take my job, I’ll probably want to give it to him.”
Jesus came for us, all you “pearls of great price.”   Think about it.  Even a little kid figured it out.
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I had my great Christmas dinner tonight; the young bartender I had invited never showed.  It was just as well, because the day had other plans for me.  I had said that it was many years since I had made a grand Christmas dinner, like the ones I had when I was a kid, with a great big turkey and all the fixings.  I looked forward to that this year, even if eating alone.  I had thought I would put dinner on, and while it was cooking I would look at some old pictures this afternoon, read some old blog posts, and perhaps even run some old films.  It would be a relaxing day of memories, and if the invitee showed up, well maybe he would find it interesting too. 
Yep, thems wuz my plans. 
Did I mention that I hadn’t made a full dinner like that in many a year?  Well, it seems I remembered how good such a dinner was --- and it really was delicious, but I kind of forgot how it got that way.  It got that way with a lot of work.
From the time I arrived home at around noon, until dinner was ready at 5, I never sat down.  Slicing and dicing and browning and mixing --- it wasn’t just “shove it in the oven and forget it” like I remembered.  Oh, I’m not complaining, it was an enjoyable afternoon, as I went about cooking while listening to Christmas carols ---- I think I played all the Christmas CDs I had.  And, --- and this is really amazing --- it all came together perfectly.  Everything was done at exactly the same time, and I served myself a piping hot Christmas dinner, and I loved it.
I lit a single candle at the center of the dinner table, in memory of mom, on this first Christmas without her.  I remembered her, but I enjoyed the day, other guests or not.  And I ended up with 8 plates of leftovers, which I arranged and put away for other nights of good eating, or so I planned.  But even this plan didn’t quite go as I expected.
I stopped at the 7-11 for an after dinner coffee, to both calm my stomach and to keep me awake, as I headed to the chapel to say my night prayers.  At the store though, the young man behind the counter commented that he was pulling a 12-hour shift.  And so when I asked him if he was having a Christmas midnight dinner, he said: “I think I’ll have to skip the Christmas dinner this year.”
Well, what do you think I did?  So the guy I invited didn’t come to dinner, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t someone else hungry.  So I went home and got him a couple of the leftover plates, some gravy, and a piece of cheesecake that I had bought for dessert.  When I came back to the store and gave it to him you’d have thought he just won the lottery.  His smile was so big and he stuttered so much trying to say thanks that I kind of stepped back a bit.  It seemed like he was getting himself stirred up to give me a big bear hug or something, so I got out of there pretty fast.
And Jesus was waiting for me at the chapel.  And I think He was a little pleased at how my day had gone.  That’s good, because so was I.  In some way, I felt like a pearl of great price.  His plans for my day went just great.
Oh --- that fire I was going to have in the fireplace tonight?  Well, I guess that will have to be tomorrow night, but that’s not a problem.  You do remember that the feast of Christmas is an octive, don’t you, which is celebrated for 8 days?  Tomorrow is only the second day of Christmas; so there’s lots of time to have that Christmas fire.    

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Bartender For Christmas Dinner?

At last the hustle and bustle of preparations is over, and I can relax and reflect these next two days – except when I am preparing (and eating) some great meals, that is.  This year will be a different Christmas for me, with different reflections, yet I am content that it will be a good one.
After my return from Thanksgiving in Arizona, Christmas preparations got in full swing when a good friend volunteered to come over and help me put up Christmas decorations.  She didn’t know what she let herself in for; I dragged out decorations I had not put up in many years.  As I dragged up decoration container after container from the basement she finally yelled: “Stop!!  I said I’d visit to help you with Christmas decorations, not live here putting them up until then.” 
And so we decorated, the tree (almost all the lights worked, upon testing), the towels, the Christmas village with a dozen houses and characters, the Santa Clauses (including the one that no longer walked nor rang his bell --- which I round filed), and the manger scene for the mantle.  It took quite a few hours, but we did finish that day.  And then we found time to sit down and relax, and enjoyed a bottle of wine together.  And we talked.  There would be much of that in my Christmas preparations.
The local Catholic book store was delighted with me again, as this year I ordered approximately 100 books for Christmas gifts.  Although I had placed my orders in mid-November, there was a last minute rush to get the final items in time, but all went well.  And, they assured me, they were not only appreciative of my order, but also of my friends who knew what I wanted for Christmas, and bought me gift certificates there. 
I had a friend once ask me why I give books for Christmas, since “most people don’t read that much.”  I answered, as I always do, that I read way more than most people do and give out “the best of” my reads each year as presents, so that my friends might benefit from what they DO read --- or I hope.  But I guess I never told them the real reason I started giving books for Christmas gifts, and ended my buying of useless gifts that no one needed --- or appreciated, my buying of gifts to appease my conscience that “I should do something for them” at Christmas.  And the “somethings” which I bought them usually ended up on a shelf, in a corner, or in the trash.  But the truth is that I started buying books for Christmas gifts because of one man, and his appreciation of a book I had given him.
It was at a small men’s prayer breakfast at my parish, which I once helped to coordinate, when the man came up to me, and pulled me to the side.  “I want to thank you,” he said quietly, “for that book you gave me.”  Now I must have had a dumb look on my face at his words, because I did not know what the heck he was talking about.  Although a friend at the parish, I didn’t consider him a close friend, nor did I ever recall giving him a book.  I’m guessing he saw the word “DUMB” on my forehead, because he quickly explained: “You gave me the book about 6 months ago.  I said ‘thank you’ then but the book didn’t seem very interesting, so I took it home and put it on the bookshelf.  But last night was a difficult night for me, and so I sat down late at night in the living room and didn’t know what I was going to do.  And then I saw this book on the bookshelf --- the book you gave me --- and took it down and started to read.  And I needed, right then, to read the words printed there.  They were a great blessing to me, and I can’t thank you enough.”
A book I didn’t remember giving him six months before, had a great impact on his life.  And then his words had a great impact on mine.  It got me thinking again about all those times when God had blessed me, by letting me know that something I had done had made a difference in this world.  We so rarely hear that, and that’s why we sometimes find it so hard to continue to do good works --- we think they don’t matter.  My friend’s words to me that morning told me loud and clear: IT DOES MATTER.  And so that year, at Christmas, I stopped buying the sweaters and the candy and figurines and the toys that no one would play with, and began a tradition of giving books to my friends, chosen each year from the best books I had read in the prior 12 months.  And I pray, as I give them out, that those receiving might see something of the beauty or wisdom I saw in those books, and that these gifts might in some way make their lives better.  I suspect the man who told me the impact that my book gift had on him has long forgotten that incident; it has been many years.  Now he is living with his family in England, and each year I send him a Christmas card, and he dutifully returns one to me.  I suspect he, like many on my Christmas card list, don’t know why I continue to send out cards, when so many others have stopped.  I tried to tell them why in my Christmas note this year.  They are important, to me.
My books this year went out to priests and nuns and nieces and Godchildren and friends, special friends, who I am so blessed to have in my life.  The UPS office loved me as I shipped books around the country (but the ones going overseas I order direct from Amazon, because they get UPS rates that are about 20% of the rates I get in the UPS store).  Fr. John opened his early --- tsk, tsk, tsk --- and I already received his thank you note, and a promise of much-needed prayers.  That’s probably the best Christmas gift I could receive.  This past week I dropped off the books/presents to local friends, and it was a great joy.  Many of them were at home as I stopped by, and they stopped what they were doing and invited me in.  I hadn’t sat down with some of them for five or six years, and we had some long conversations, catching up on so many things, and promising to get together more often now that I have the free time.  It was a joyful day for me; that day too was a wonderful Christmas present, one I had missed.
My Christmas letter was drafted a couple of weeks ago, but I only got the last of the cards addressed last week, and then the post office got its present of my buying lots of stamps (although its “Christmas stamp” didn’t appear very “Christmas-y” to me).  The overseas stamps were only $1.10 each, but that probably means they’ll turn out to be New Year’s Day cards for those friends.  Oh well, it’s the thought that counts, or so they say. 
And while I was giving out gifts of books, I received some gifts from friends and neighbors (who undoubtedly remembered my great chili), and various charities and my financial advisor.  I gave away many of the ones I received to others who I thought would use or appreciate them more.  I trust my friends will understand.   My niece sent me a useful Christmas present through the mail, and I immediately attached it to my car (see the picture).
And I got many invites to Christmas and Christmas Eve dinners, from friends and neighbors.  And even there, there was much welcome and pledges to get together more, for dinners or just evenings together in the future.  And so we shall.  But I decided I’d spend this first Christmas alone, preparing meals that I fondly recall from years gone by --- and making lots of leftovers for myself. 
Or at least maybe I will be alone.
Yesterday I decided to wander through the small stores of local Plymouth Michigan.  It was a most pleasant time, even if it was bitterly cold outside.  Many of the stores had Christmas music inside, and all of the clerks (or owners) were most pleasant.  I spent hours glancing at items I had never seen before, and in a few stores I had never been in before.  And of course, I found something here and there I judged worth buying.  After a couple of hours of this I felt quite chilled, and so I stopped at the local bar in town, and ordered something “to take the chill off.”  And as I sat there I chatted with some visitors to the town; it turned out he too was a Ford retiree.  Then they left, and the young bartender came over to chat.  I’d spoken with him a few times over the years, when I occasionally stopped in late at night after mom had gone to bed.  I knew he was a “once Catholic” and we often chatted about matters of faith.  And this day was no different.  I ran out to my car and brought in a book for him as a Christmas present, and he picked up my tab.  And then he casually mentioned that he was taking his father to the airport that night, and so I also casually responded: “So, what are you doing for Christmas Day?”  “I dunno,” was his reply.  And so I invited the bartender to my house for Christmas Dinner with me.  He took my address and phone number, but I don’t have great expectations of him showing up.  Especially after I opined: “Well, you know I don’t usually just give away dinner invites to my house … “  And then he seeing my smile asked: “Okay, what’s the catch?”  And I responded: “Well, you know there IS a midnight mass on Christmas Eve …”   And he smiled.
I don’t know if I’ll have a guest for Christmas dinner.  In Jesus’ parable he told of the king who sent out his servants to invite anyone to dinner.  I invited the bartender.  Go figure.  You evangelize wherever the opportunity arises, and then let go and let God, or so they say.  Me, I just do.  But regardless, I shall have a wonderful dinner and a blessed day. 
And I expect that I will be hitting the button on a Christmas ornament I received from a friend, and perhaps more than once.  And then the hippo figurine will sing: “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas …” I love that song, and the thought of a hippo under the Christmas tree.  It reminds me of my thoughts and wishes at Christmas, sometimes so big and perhaps so unreasonable.  Like peace on earth and good will to men, or a bartender coming to dinner.
But despite the big Christmas wishes, I have faith that I shall receive just what I need.  I have faith.
I pray you also will receive just what you need.    

Monday, December 23, 2013

Advent Meditations Sometimes Forgotten

Each Advent I read the daily meditations from Fr. Benedict Groeschel’s book: Behold, He Comes.  He presents many great meditations; they make me think.  I’ve given away (or put in adoration chapels) hundreds of copies of this book over the years.
While having daily meditations for each week of Advent, the book recognizes special meditations for the days December 17 – 24, the final 8 days before Christmas.  As a result, when December 17 comes early in the week as it does this year (on a Tuesday), the reader is directed to skip over most of the Advent Week 3 daily meditations in the book.
But this year I didn’t.  And in taking the time to read them also, I was reminded of some truths I needed to remember, particularly this year --- as you do also.   And so I’ll print here the highlights from those days:

Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another? (Luke 7:19)
John the Baptist sent two of his disciples to pose this question to his kinsman, Jesus of Nazareth.  He found himself in the dungeon of a ridiculous but dangerous political buffoon.  Could something so banal and so unjust happen to the one sent to prepare the way of the Messiah?  The incredible answer is yes.  And worse was yet in store.  The response of Jesus to John’s honest questions should be one of our Advent meditations:  Blessed is he who finds no stumbling block in Me, who is not scandalized by My apparent inability to help. Jesus lets John know what we all need to know --- that God’s providence does not conduct the world like a puppet show.  … Blessed is he who does not stumble at the apparent weakness of God, because as Christ tells us through Saint Paul: My power is made perfect in weakness (2Cor 12:9).
I have often, Lord, felt like John.  I wondered where You were or if You cared to help me.  It probably will happen again.  Give me Your Holy Spirit that I may remain faithful like John.  You have called him a blessing and shining light.  Help me, that my faith may give some little light to those around me.  Amen.

I will praise you, O Lord, for you have rescued me.  (Psalm 30:1)
It is not unusual to experience a feeling of being abandoned by God when things go wrong.  Advent, with its memories of past Christmases, is a good time to look back.  But as we look back, we can often see the hand of God guiding things and turning hurtful events into blessings. 
Lord and Good Shepherd of my soul, how often have You rescued me and I have not even known it.  Or if I have been aware of it, I have not realized the greatness of Your love and concern.  Your hand was there in the darkness and danger.  Continue, gentle Savior, to rescue me, and those dear to me, and the whole world because You have come to save us all.  Amen.

The Lord is coming … to bring peace and eternal life. (Entrance antiphon for Mass)
“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34).  Yet He is proclaimed to be the Prince of Peace.  His is the peace that comes to those who open themselves every day more and more to His will.  “My peace I give to you; not as the world does do I give to you” (Jn 14:27).  These things --- a decent home, a pleasant neighborhood, tranquil family relationships --- are all good.  They remain blessings as long as they do not become our final goal, our ultimate happiness.  Then they would become lies because they cannot last.  They will all come to an end.  If we let him, the Prince of Peace will teach us to seek in His will the peace that the world can neither give nor take away.
Lord, give me your peace.  Give me the grace to place in Your hands all the good things I have in life, even my loved ones.  They are, after all, Your gifts.  And prepare me for that one great gift which cannot be taken away --- Your peace.  May all whom I love and care about come to Your peace.  May we love one another in Your peace, never to be separated again, because your peace is our everlasting life.  Amen.

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And I pray you find, in these final days of Advent, much peace in your life.