Sunday’s second reading is more of what we’ve come to expect from St. Paul. A bunch of “thou shalt nots.” Why is St. Paul so fond of telling people “no” and “don’t?” 

Because St. Paul knows something about us. Something you and I don’t like to admit.

It sounds super angsty to say it. But it’s still true. 

We’re empty inside.

St. Paul knows something else about us. That we will try to fill that emptiness. With just about anything. 

And St. Paul doesn’t want us to get hurt trying to stuff it full of things that were never meant to be there. That’s the “why” behind all of St. Paul’s “no’s” and “don’ts.” 

St. Paul’s got one more the thing to share about us. The thing that will fill that emptiness? It’s not something. 

It’s someone. 

More on this tomorrow.

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The Assumption

Today’s Gospel is the Visitation. When Mary went to see Elizabeth.

So what does that have to do with the Assumption, with the end of Mary’s life?

Everything, as it turns out. It’s the backstory. And it starts right after the Annunciation. When Mary said yes.

At the Annunciation, just before the angel leaves, the angel tells Mary about Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy. As if to assure Mary that all this stuff about being the mother of the Savior really is happening. That it really is from God.

Today’s Gospel opens with Mary, in her own low-key way, calling the angel out. By going to see Elizabeth. To see if her cousin really is pregnant.

And Elizabeth is pregnant. Just as the angel said.

But before Mary can tell Elizabeth everything that’s happened, she finds that she doesn’t need to. Because Elizabeth already knows. Elizabeth is so in tune with God that she can spot a saint a mile away.

That recognition, by someone that holy, pushes Mary over the edge. With joy. In an explosion of praise that we call the Magnificat.

The next time you hear or read the Magnificat, don’t miss the most important part of Mary’s outburst. The unbridled joy of an untamed faith. Flowing like a river through every word, syllable, letter, and character of Mary’s song.

The spirit of the Magnificat is at the heart of our Faith.

That infectious joy is the birthright of every Christian.

Make it yours.

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Seeing it for the first time

For whatever reason, I almost never use the front door.

The other day, I used the front door to bring something bulky inside. I happened to look up as I was coming in. And it was like seeing everything for the first time.

It was all of the same stuff. Nothing had changed. But from that unfamiliar perspective, I saw things I hadn’t really noticed before.

Sunday’s first reading feels kind of familiar. Even if we’ve never heard it before. Because it calls to mind so many things in the Gospels.

All the parables about feasts. The finest food for the poorest people. Servants seeking guests to come and eat.

Sunday’s first reading shows us all of that. Stuff we’ve seen so many times that we don’t really notice a lot of the details.

But this time, it’s from a different perspective. God’s.

Suddenly, everything comes into focus. And we see things we hadn’t really noticed before.

Especially with Sunday’s Gospel. 

More on this Thursday.

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The urge to reply

One of the constants in social media is terrible things.

Not lame humor, odd fan fiction, cat videos on 10-hour endless loops. But intentionally hurtful things. Astoundingly vicious things. Things no one would ever say in person.

But you already know that.

Maybe you’re like me and you have to fight (not always successfully, I’m ashamed to say) the urge to reply in kind. With something cutting or sarcastic that hits right where it hurts the most. Because sometimes it’s

Just. So. Bad. 

I bring this up because the other day Pope Francis dropped a little Christianity 101 on his Twitter @Pontifex – “Jesus reveals the love-filled face of God.”

So far so good. Then I made the mistake of reading some of the comments. 

They were horrible.

Just like they are for every one of his Tweets. But he keeps coming back.

Always with the same love. Always with the same focus on God. 

How very Christ-like. 

The perfect model for me. When I get the urge to reply.

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The heart of God

A Moment before the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In Sunday’s first reading, God miraculously provides Elijah with food in the desert. It’s basically a small-scale version of last Sunday’s first reading, with God feeding His people during the Exodus.

But it’s not just the feedings that these readings have in common. Before God acts, Elijah is a complaint factory. God’s people in Exodus are no better.

What stands out about both readings?

That God acts not when people are at their most worthy or most loveable. But when they are at their least loveable. And most needy.

Which tells us a lot about the heart of God. 

And it’s the “why” behind Sunday’s Gospel. 

This Sunday's Gospel picks up from last Sunday. It's the next part of the bread of life discourse.  Jesus makes the connection to Exodus, where God's people are fed with bread from heaven.

 But Jesus doesn’t connect His own miracles of feeding to God's miracles of feeding in the Old Testament. 

Jesus makes the connection. To Himself.

He calls Himself the bread of life. When people get confused, Jesus drops the parables and gets literal.

Jesus lets them know what the “why” behind Sunday’s Gospel looks like in practice.

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The most Catholic thing ever

This Sunday's Gospel picks up from last Sunday's Gospel. It's the next part of the bread of life discourse. Where Jesus calls Himself the bread of life.

Jesus talks about that part of Exodus (last Sunday’s first reading), where God's people are fed with bread from heaven. So the obvious thing, what we would expect, would be for Jesus to connect His own miracles of feeding to God's miracles of feeding in the Old Testament. 

But that’s not what Jesus does. Instead, Jesus makes the connection. To Himself. 

By calling Himself the bread of life.

When people get confused and upset by this, Jesus tells them exactly what He means. 

No parables. No comparisons. No “what I really meant to say was…”

Jesus gets literal. And drops the most Catholic thing ever. 

Even more Catholic than this guy. 

More on this tomorrow.

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The angel of obvious

Right before Sunday’s first reading, Elijah saw God in action. Twice. And now, just a day after seeing those powerful miracles, Elijah is ready to give up.

Wait. What?

Elijah is so us. After seeing God act in a miraculous way, without even trying we can fall into "miracle mode." Where everything God does has to be a big, showy miracle.

Or it doesn't count. 

Which is why God sends the angel of obvious to tell Elijah, "You should eat." 

But Elijah is in miracle mode. He’s waiting for the clouds to part and a food truck to descend. Complete with heavenly chorus. So the angel has to point out the food. Right next to Elijah.

And the point of all of this?

That God isn’t limited by our expectations. God uses the big and the showy. And the everyday and the obvious.

With God, even if it’s not what we expect, it’s always exactly what we need.

More on this tomorrow.

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Just maybe

After I decided to join the Catholic Church, I remember the first time I went to a parish to sit in at Mass.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t been to Mass before.

I had this idea that I needed to move things from my head to my heart.

To see what that decision felt like in practice. Rubbing elbows with actual, everyday Catholics. To see if there really was a place for me.

I remember seeing the folks down front. The boy with cerebral palsy and his family. The old guy who had lost part of a leg to diabetes.

Seeing them made me really look at who I was sitting with.

A family with who knows how many kids. A woman I vaguely knew whose husband died last year. A friend who was trying to keep her job here while taking care of her ailing mother who lived out of state.

The guy who responded after everyone else. And nobody cared. Because that was just Charlie.

A guy out on bond, waiting to be sentenced. The Vietnam vet who gave me the sign of peace with his left hand, because that was what he had.

A homeless women trying to be invisible.

I remember thinking to myself (and I’m choking up as I write this) that if there was a place for them in the Church, that maybe.

Just maybe.

There was a place for me too.

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The “to-don’t” list

The faucet was leaking. Because it needed new washers. It’s a cheap repair (less than a dollar for parts). All it takes is time and tools.

I took the faucet out to my workbench. The bench was (unsurprisingly) covered with stuff from my last repair job. Before I could fix the faucet, I had to clear off a space to work.

In Sunday’s second reading, St. Paul goes negative. Talking about a bunch of stuff we’re not supposed to do. 

Which tracks with a popular view of Christianity. That it’s all a bunch of “thou shalt nots.” That being good is all about not doing. 

It’s a view that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

The “to-don’t” list that St. Paul is talking about is all of the stupid stuff we did before we knew Jesus. The stupid stuff that leads us away from Jesus. St. Paul calls that stuff futile. Because it’s just a waste of time. 

The point of getting rid of all of the stupid stuff?

It’s same the point as cleaning off my workbench. It’s clearing off a space to work. It’s cleaning for a reason. Not so that we can sit around not doing. 

It’s to make room in our lives for all of the good things. And to do them instead. 

Because the last thing good is about is sitting around not doing. 

More on this tomorrow.

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Take it for granted

Growing up, I lived across the street from the only convertible on the block. A 1969 Oldsmobile Cutlass. We would all drool when it rolled by. With the top down and a throaty rumble from the tailpipe.

We all told each other we were going to have a car just like that. Someday.

Except for Rick. To him, the Cutlass was no big deal. It was something he saw every day. For him, it was just his dad’s car.

That can happen with things we see all the time. No matter how amazing they actually are, it’s easy to lose sight of their true value. And take them for granted. When they become part of our every day.

It’s a particular danger with God. That we’ll get so used to God being there, that we take it for granted that he’ll always be that close.

And not notice how much distance we’ve put between ourselves and God.

Which is why it’s so important every so often to just stop. To deliberately take a moment and appreciate exactly who God is. And how much He loves you.

When you do, don’t forget to measure the distance between you and God. In case you need to take a step back. Or two.

He’ll be waiting for you with open arms.

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Something that isn’t God

In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus was feeding the 5,000 with 5 loves and 2 fishes. In some homilies, that miracle spoke to Jesus’ divinity and love. In other homilies, that miracle showed the importance God puts on works of mercy, like feeding the hungry. 

I bring this up, because a friend of mine told me about the homily at her parish. I’ve heard something like it myself. And I understand why she was upset.

In homily she heard, the miracle became a “miracle of sharing.” With Jesus teaching people to share the food that they had been hiding from each other. For 3 days in the desert. 

Forget the lack of any historical or cultural evidence that 1st century Jews were opposed to sharing. Ignore the slander of a people who held hospitality as a sacred obligation. The plain language of the Gospel offers no support for this.

So why would any priest or deacon offer such a mangling of the Gospel? 

Fear. Of God.

God is good beyond all telling. But a God who does stuff like this is a God who will push you beyond your comfort zone. A God who is anything but safe. 

Sometimes priests and deacons (like everyone else) get overwhelmed by a God we can’t control. Who doesn’t fit into neat categories. Who isn’t a house pet. Or a vending machine.

And faith becomes tainted with fear.

One very human reaction to that fear? To try to shrink God down to something we can control. Something safe. 

Something that isn’t God.

Pray for priests, deacons, and for each other, that God will give each of us faith bigger than our fear.

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A Moment before the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Perspective matters.

We’ve all heard that a thousand times. Easily. Usually in the form of some version of the classic glass half empty/glass half full thing.

It’s an illustration that’s over-used. So much so, that it’s more of a source for jokes and memes. Than the basis for any kind of insight or clarity.

Even though that example may be worn out, the truth is still the truth. Perspective matters.

In both the first reading and the Gospel for Sunday, we see a head-on collision. Of perspectives.

We’ve got a very human perspective. Couched in the form of a question. A very sensible question that any of us would ask.

But with who that question is directed at, it’s a question that shows the limits of that perspective.

In both readings, we see that limited perspective crash head-on into a very different perspective. God’s.

The contrast between the two is stark.

And the importance of which perspective we adopt could not matter more.

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It’s good to have a plan.

No matter what you’re doing, the odds of it turning out right are a lot better if you figure out how to do it, before you do it. If you make sure you’ve got everything you need to do it.

But there’s a risk. At least for me. 

I can overthink things, get stuck, and end up not doing anything at all. If I don’t know how it’s all going to work out. Or if I can’t see that I already have everything I need.

Before I know it, I’m not trusting God.

It’s not that I have anything against God. I just know what it takes to get the job done. And without really meaning to, I end up trusting me.

Which usually leads to things going very wrong. Or not happening at all.

It’s amazingly stupid on my part. Since (if I’m honest) I’m very aware of my track record when I trust anybody but God. And it’s a mess.   

Sunday’s Gospel is Jesus’ quiet, powerful response to all of that. Excessive planning. Overthinking. Trusting anybody but God.

Even though no one can see how it could possibly work, Jesus says it will work. 

And it does.

More on this tomorrow.

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Jars of clay

I remember the first time I went into a hospital room, to see someone I didn’t know.

Before I was ordained, the parish I was at had someone who went around and visited people in the hospital. She was going on vacation for a few weeks, and they needed someone to fill in. The perfect thing for a deacon in training to do.

I had been the parish for two weeks. I barely knew anyone. For the people in the hospitals, all I had were room numbers and names.

I had no idea what I was supposed to say or do. Trusting God, I went anyway.

I really don’t know what we talked about. I couldn’t tell you what I said in what (to me) seemed like the world’s lamest, most rambling prayer.

Next Sunday, his wife caught me after Mass. I started to apologize, but she never heard a word. She was too busy telling me how much my visit meant to her husband.

The same visit that seemed so pathetic to me.

Which is the point that St. Paul is making when he says “we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.”

We’re the earthen vessels.

It’s not about us. How wonderful we are. Or aren’t.

Or what we can or can’t do.

It’s about God. And the good that God can do through us.

If we’ll just say yes.

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Knowing our limits, understanding what we can and what we cannot do, is important for our health and wellbeing. It helps us to say yes, when we should. And it keeps us from setting ourselves up to fail.

But only if we’re talking about our real limits.

Too often, our ideas about our own limits are based on something other than facts. Something else (past failures, other people’s expectations, our own fears) has shouted down the truth. And made us back up.

So we draw lines, build fences, and throw up walls for ourselves. Walls that have nothing to do with our actual limits, the full extent of what we are able to do.

Once that happens, it’s easy to start making up limits for everyone else. Even God.

In fact, it’s hard not to.

Which is what we see in both the first reading and the Gospel for Sunday. People who are so far gone in setting limits for themselves – and for God – that they can’t receive the grace that is offered.

Or even know to ask for it.

For most of us, this is territory that is way too familiar.

More on this Thursday.

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Have you ever felt stuck?

Like you were always in someone else’s shadow, with expectations that had been dumped on you? Knowing that you would never hear the end of it, if you didn’t live up to some impossible standard?

It might have been parents or grandparents that set things in motion. Or an overbearing, overly-wonderful sibling. Or maybe it was just the dynamic in your family.

Wherever it comes from, once you’ve been hit with that kind of stuck, it’s like nothing you do will ever be good enough.

Elisha, the prophet in Sunday’s first reading, is stuck.

Elisha was trained by Elijah. And Elijah? Elijah was nothing short of the greatest prophet of his time. And pretty much all time.

Elijah was amazing. So amazing that after naming Elisha as his successor - instead of dying (like the rest of us) - God took Elijah into heaven in a chariot of fire. 

Leaving Elisha behind.

To face everyone’s expectations. To see if Elisha was good enough.

The second-guessing starts almost immediately.

Elisha is stuck.

More on this tomorrow.

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Dealing with the angry God

A Moment before the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

There’s something that all of us struggle with. The picture of God as something distant and terrifying. Seething with anger. Waiting to strike us down. To punish us for something we did.

It’s a picture of God that has taken root in our imaginations.

And it doesn’t matter whether you believe. Or don’t believe. Or don’t know what to believe.

That picture of an angry God has some serious staying power.

It even has fans, people who really like the angry God. It’s usually people who have decided that they know who their all-powerful rabid beast will be mauling.

I’m yet to meet any of the angry God fans who see themselves as one of the targets.

But you don’t have to be a fan of the angry God (or picking out targets for its wrath) for that picture to stick in your mind. It’s a picture that will poison your relationship with God. Or keep you from having any relationship with God at all.

But it’s one that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

You’re probably saying, “But Deacon, I heard this…,” or “Deacon, I read that…”. 

I know. I heard it. Just like you did. I read it. It’s a picture that sticks with me too.

Which is why I can’t get enough of God clearing out all of that garbage.

I need the real picture of God. I need those places in the Gospel, where the crowd follows Jesus.

Whether they follow Jesus for the wrong reasons, or the right reasons, or maybe no reason at all. I need to see how Jesus reacts to them. And it’s the same every time.

Every time Jesus looks out at that crowd, that mess of humanity that looks just like you and me. All of us doing what we do for the wrong reasons, the right reasons, or maybe no reason at all. Jesus reacts the same way every time.

Jesus looks at that mess of humanity, at you and at me.

And it’s love at first sight.

In case you ever want that real picture.

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Clear a space

When you love someone – whether it’s a friend, a family member, a significant other – you see things they don’t. Things that clutter up their life. Or worse.

All the stuff that makes their life harder than it has to be.

It hurts to see them like that. Because you love them, you want to do something. You want to help.

The best way to help? It’s not to put on your superhero cape, swoop in, and solve “their problem.” I’ve learned the hard way, that usually does more harm than good.

The best way to help? Clear a space for them. By something as simple as catching up with them for coffee. Or a phone call, a text, or an email.

Knock a hole in their usual routine. So they can make a break for a moment with all of the things that clutter up their life.

Help them to see the stuff that makes their life harder than it has to be.

And be there to help them deal with it. Even if their way of dealing with it is less than perfect.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Because it’s how God operates.

It’s why the Church does what it does. It’s the point of all the churchy stuff. Whether it’s the Mass, a familiar prayer, or just a quiet moment in an empty pew.

It’s there to clear a space for you and me. To knock a hole in our usual routines. So you and I can make a break for a moment with all of the things that clutter up our lives.

So we can see the stuff that makes our lives harder than it has to be.

But let’s be clear – clearing that space is not about letting us know how bad things are, how big the pile is, how we screwed up. Or how far we feel from God.

It’s about letting us know that we’re not alone.

That if we clear a space, even for just a moment, we’ll find that God is as close as a heartbeat.

That God loves us. And will be with us every step of the way.

Even if our way of dealing with it is less than perfect.

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