Saturday, March 25, 2017

Christ is the light

4th Sunday of Lent Year A 2017:
            Today is the 4th Sunday of Lent and we are celebrating the Second Scrutiny for the elect of our parish who are preparing for the sacraments at Easter.  The gospel we just heard focuses on light and blindness.  Christ is the Light.  He takes away the physical blindness of the man who was born blind, but even more, he gives the Light of Faith to that man as well, while the Pharisees stay in their blindness.  This reading helps us all to see.  This reading helps us all to recognize Christ as the light of the world.  No matter how much darkness we might face in life, and sometimes it’s a lot, Christ is the light.  The darkness will not win.  So, keep praying for these two elect of our parish.  We pray that Christ will take away their spiritual blindness and give them the light of faith.
            But, today for the homily, I wanted to focus on the passage at the beginning of the gospel.  It really struck me as being important.  The disciples find this poor blind man and they ask Jesus a seemingly innocuous question: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”  Jesus responds: neither one.  I think this question needs some more analysis.  And, at the root of this question is a spiritual issue that I see quite often when talking with people.
            At the root of this question, the disciples are really asking Jesus: “why do bad things happen?”  Don’t we all have this question?  We want to blame problems on something or someone.  There has to be someone who is at fault right?  Sometimes it is easy to pinpoint evil on the concrete actions and decisions of human beings: the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened because of the wicked decisions of the murderous terrorists.  We know exactly who to blame.  But, what do we do with things like hurricanes, tornadoes, cancer, or blindness in the gospel reading?  We have the same desire to figure out who to blame.  So the disciples say: somebody must have sinned.  Therefore, God is simply punishing this person for his sin or his parent’s sin.  In some ways, this theory would be satisfying right?  We could simply say: God just punishes us for our sins.
            But, Jesus’ answer is mind-blowing: this man is not blind because of sin.  This man is not blind because God is punishing him.  In fact, this is not how God works at all.  I can’t tell you how many people have told me: God must be punishing me.  But, God doesn’t do that.  God never does anything evil.  It’s impossible for him to do something that is evil.  Rather, all the evil we have ever experienced in our lives comes from two sources: #1, bad choices by ourselves and others; #2, we live in a broken world because of Original Sin.  That’s it.  All the evil we have ever experienced either comes from bad choices or the fact that we live in a broken world. 
            I really don’t like those two reasons.  I want something more.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  It must be someone’s fault.  We have to blame it on someone.  Maybe we want to blame it on God: “God has a plan” we might say.  But, God never does evil things just so something good would happen.  No, the evil in our lives either comes from bad decisions or the brokenness of the world.
            So, does this mean that everything is hopeless?  Of course not.  Why do bad things happen?  Christ answers the apostles and us with these words: “it is so that the works of God might be made visible.”  In other words, God sent Jesus precisely to overcome the evil we experience in this world.  No matter where the evil comes from, Jesus is the light that can overcome the darkness.  Whether that is the darkness of our bad choices, or the darkness of our broken world, the death and resurrection of Jesus has the power to sweep away all the darkness of the entire universe and replace it with his wondrous light.

            In the face of sickness, sadness, or the loss of a loved one, people will often ask me: why did this happen?  Why did God do this?  I always try to answer the same way.  God doesn’t cause evil.  It’s true that he does allow evil, he could stop it, but he doesn’t.  But, God doesn’t cause evil.  So the answer to the question why is often just the fact that we live in a broken world.  So it’s not a great answer to a tough question.  But, I suggest a different question.  Rather than asking why God allowed evil, ask “what did God do in response to this evil, this darkness?”  The answer to that question is much more inspiring: in the face of the darkness and evil experienced by his people, God the Father sent his Son Jesus Christ to be the light of the world.  And, Jesus Christ laid down his life out of love for us.  In moments of darkness, despair, suffering, let the light of Christ shine in our lives.  Faith doesn’t take away our pain and sadness, but it gives us hope, it gives us light, even in darkness. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Let's go up the mountain

2nd Sunday of Lent Year A 2017:
Today we hear the story of the Transfiguration.  My favorite part about this story is that it takes place on the mountain.  My Grandma and Grandpa live in Rapid City South Dakota, in the Black Hills.  I try to get out to visit them once a year.  And, even though it’s a long drive, I like to drive.  I think it gives me a couple days to unwind and relax.  But, without question, my favorite part of the drive is when I get close to Rapid city and start to get into the mountains.  I don’t know what it is about mountains, but I just love them.  I think part of the reason is because the land around here is so flat.  I mean, the Adam’s Center Landfill has to be the highest peak in the county.  I’ve lived here my whole life.  So, I’m used to flat.  Then when I see hills like those, I’m mesmerized.  I just feel like mountains are magical.
So, I love hearing about the mountains in the Bible.  The mountains are images for a place where human beings can encounter God.  Think about Moses and the Law, he goes up the mountain to meet the Lord.  These disciples meet Jesus in his glory on the mountain, along with Moses and Elijah.  Certainly this seems like an image for heaven.  Isn’t that interesting: Jesus took these disciples up the mountain, and image for heaven, and image for the place where we meet God.
The same will be true for us.  Jesus wants to help us climb the mountain as well.  Jesus is the one who grabs these disciples and leads them up the hill.  Tuesday at the Lenten series I said: “and what a wild ride Jesus took them on.”  Not only was the story of the transfiguration a wild ride.  But, think about the rest of their lives.  They became these great saints who gave everything for Jesus.  Ultimately, they climbed the mountain all the way to heaven.  But, it started with this moment on the mountain.  They see a glimpse of Jesus in his glory.  Just a glimpse.  And then Jesus says: do not be afraid.
I really like to think about this passage as referring to our life of faith as well.  Our lives as disciples begin with Jesus’ invitation.  Even if you were baptized as a baby, I’m hoping, praying, that you have had the moment in your life where you had a personal experience with Christ.  I’m hoping you have felt him grasp your hand to lead you on this adventure.
I can remember when it happened for me. I was an RCIA sponsor in 2001.  I started loving my faith more and more, I heard Jesus say: follow me.  But, I was scared.  There was a lot about my life I wasn’t ready to give up.  It was scary, but it was an amazing experience.  At the time, I had no idea just what kind of wild ride Jesus had in store for me.  I still don’t know.  But, he took me by the hand.  He led me to seminary, to priesthood, to St. Jude.  Who knows what he has in mind for the rest of my life?  It’s been great so far, and I’m going to keep letting him take me on this wild ride up the mountain.
Are you ready for that wild ride with Jesus?  It won’t be anything like you expect, but it will be amazing.  Ultimately, he wants to take you up the mountain, to be with him and his Father, and all the angels and saints for all eternity.  But, you have to let Jesus guide you on the way.

Lent is a journey towards Easter.  It’s not an easy season.  It means self-denial, prayer, fasting.  It might seem a little scary.  But, by entering into this season of grace you can catch a glimpse of Jesus, just like the apostles.  You can hear Jesus say to you: do not be afraid.  Let Jesus grab you by the hand and lead you up that high mountain.  Let him take you on a wild ride.  Don’t be afraid to climb the mountain.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Overcome temptations with Jesus

1st Sunday of Lent year A 2017:
I hope your Lent is off to a great start.  This is a wonderful and powerful season of Grace.  If you open your hearts to Jesus, he can work miracles in your life.  Don’t be afraid.  I think so many times we are hesitant to embrace change because we are simply afraid of where Jesus might take us.  So, if you have other resolutions for Lent, make “being open to Jesus” one of your fundamental resolutions.
Today we mark the first Sunday of Lent.  We hear in our readings the story of the fall of Adam and Eve.  This is probably the worst event in human history.  Adam and Eve face temptation, and they fail.  Then, in the gospel, Jesus faces temptation and he succeeds.  Jesus overcomes the all the brokenness of our world.  This includes temptation.
Because of Adam and Eve, and the brokenness we have all inherited, we are all prone to temptation.  Stop and think about this for a second, even Jesus faces temptation.  So, if Jesus is going to face temptation, so will we.  In fact, we will probably never have a day, or even an hour without some kind of temptation.  Some of us battle even more difficult temptations that we might even call addictions.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading up about addictions recently.  In my pastoral work, I’ve encountered many people who are struggling with a behavior they cannot control.  Maybe it’s an addiction to alcohol, drugs, promiscuity, the internet, which is a big one these days.  One of the major problems with addiction, is that it loves to live in the darkness.  People struggling with these issues often feel alone, abandoned, and isolated.  The bad thing is that these feelings actually make people more susceptible to addiction.
So, today I wanted to talk a little bit about addiction.  If you are facing an issue like this in your life, hopefully these suggestions might give you some hope.  If you are not facing addiction, maybe you know someone who could use these tips.  If not, these tips are also helpful for all the other temptations we face in life.  And, I think you will see, that they are built right upon the gospel story we just heard.
One of the ideas that I think is helpful is to recognize what is called the addiction cycle.  Different books have more or less number of stages in this cycle.  But, to keep it simple let’s talk about three major stages: trigger, thought, action.  It seems to me that these three things usually happen in the process of a fall or a sin.  Now, just to make everyone more comfortable, I will just talk about me.  But you can put in your own experiences.  Not that long ago I felt I had an addiction to cigars.  I thought they were getting out of control.  So, I decided that for my 38th birthday I was going to give myself the gift of clean health and I was going to give up the cigars.
So, knowing this addiction cycle was extremely powerful for me in my efforts to stop smoking.  First, triggers.  The important thing to know about triggers is that they are completely out of your control.  They come from the outside.  I noticed that I was triggered to smoke a cigar by many things: stress, anxiety, certain foods, a warm evening.  Now, I haven’t had a cigar in over 6 months.  But, I was triggered just the other day.  Remember it was 70 degrees?  It was such a warm and pleasant evening, that I instantly thought: a cigar would be great.  So, one of the important things about overcoming an addiction, or any sin for that matter, is to realize that we will be triggered no matter what.  Triggers and temptations are never going away.  We cannot control them for the most part.  But, we have to become aware when we are being tempted, triggered.  So that is the first step, being triggered.  This is what happens to Jesus too.  The devil is triggering him because he is presenting these temptations to him.  They are outside of Jesus, acting upon him.
The next step is thought.  Once we encounter a trigger, the next step is that our mind starts to move us toward the offensive behavior.  I got triggered by the thought of a cigar, so my mind literally started thinking about how I was going to get a cigar.  I thought in my mind: “well if I got in the car now I could get to the store in about 15 minutes.”  I mean, my mind is amazing when it comes to problem solving.  But, since I was aware of the trigger, I also became aware of the thoughts I have.  I noticed instantly that I was having thoughts about trying to get ahold of a cigar.  So, I needed to replace these troubling thoughts with more positive ones: no, I’m not a smoker, I love the freedom of not being tied to that addiction.  I will enjoy this pleasant evening without that negative behavior.  It’s vital to replace the negative thoughts with positive ones.  This is what Jesus does in the gospel.  For each temptation the devil throws at him, he has a positive thought from the scriptures that counteracts the temptation: man does not live on bread alone, you shall worship God alone.  So, we need to practice having positive and powerful thoughts to replace temptations.
Third stage of the addiction cycle is action.  And anyone struggling with temptations and addictions can tell you, that if you begin on this stage, it’s very hard to turn back.  Once we are triggered, if we don’t win the battle in the mind, the behavior will almost always win out.  But, it’s important to realize that if we are winning the battle of the mind, we are still longing for action.  But, we need these actions to be positive.  If we are tempted to sin, the best thing we can do is to do something good instead.  Go for a walk, read a book, call a friend.  We need good actions, good habits to replace bad ones.
So that’s the addiction cycle, it was helpful to me with the smoking thing, and it has been helpful to many people with whom I’ve shared it.  I hope it would be helpful to you as well.  2 last points before I go.  Number 1, temptation doesn’t last forever.  Look at Jesus, once he wins the temptations, the angels show up to minister to him.  The same is true for us, when we overcome temptations, we get stronger each time.  Number 2, it’s next to impossible to overcome addictions and temptations alone.  So, if you are struggling with something, let right now be the time you get some help.  Don’t let this thing weigh you down anymore.  When I quit smoking I had a bunch of friends who were helping and supporting me.  I couldn’t have done it without them.

Lent is a powerful time.  So no matter what temptations you might be facing, follow the example of Christ, ask for his grace, and let this powerful season of grace be a moment of healing and freedom for you.