Context

As a convert myself, I understand the baggage that we often bring when we come into the Catholic Church. If you grew up in a tradition of reading everything in the Bible literally like I did, knowing when not to do that can be a challenge.

Which is why I love today’s Gospel. It shows the disciples making the same mistake. Thinking Jesus was speaking literally, when He wasn’t. Here’s the key part:

The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat.
Jesus enjoined them, “Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” 
They concluded among themselves that it was because they had no bread.
When he became aware of this, he said to them,
“Why do you conclude that it is because you have no bread? Do you not yet understand or comprehend?”

Leaven is yeast. When you add yeast to flour and water, it spreads through the dough. And completely changes its character.

If Jesus was warning a bunch of bakers about the leaven from the Jerusalem Baking Supply Company, the disciples’ understanding might make sense.

But that isn’t the context.

And that’s why is Jesus annoyed. Because they missed the context. The context that should tell them (and us) that Jesus isn’t speaking literally. Here’s how you can tell:

Who’s giving the advice? A carpenter turned teacher. Not a baker.

Who’s the advice going to? The disciples did a lot of different things. But no bakers.

Who are the Pharisees and Herod? Spiritual and political leaders. Not sellers of baking supplies.

Which tells us that Jesus isn’t talking about actual baking or actual bread.

Jesus is using leaven as a way to describe how something works. The way that the influence of the Pharisees and Herod spreads and changes things.

But the best part of this Gospel? It’s what comes next.

Jesus doesn’t throw them out of the boat. And hold auditions for new disciples.

Jesus doesn’t give up on them. He keeps working on them. And working on them.

Until the ones who couldn’t get it right become the ones who set the world on fire.

It’s everything I love about Jesus.

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Where you live matters

Where do you live?

When we meet someone new, it’s one of the questions that we want answered. It’s a single piece of information. But it’s one that tells us lot about them.

Because where you live matters.

You know it well. Not just from your own experience. But also from your good work with Deacon Mick, helping the homeless. You’ve gotten to see, up close and personal, what not having any place to live can do to someone. Which is why you have been willing to do something about it. God bless you for doing it.

Because where you live matters.

Not just where you rest your head. But, even more importantly, where you rest your heart.

(continued)

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Self-portrait

This Sunday’s Gospel is the Beatitudes.

All the “blessed are you…” sayings of Jesus.

We’ve heard them so many times. With their familiar cadence, we can almost say them from memory. Which makes it all too easy for them to slip past us when we hear them again.

And why it’s vital for us to really hear what Jesus is really saying. To understand what the Beatitudes really are.

The Beatitudes are a mirror. Of sorts.

How we see ourselves in the “blessed are you…” sayings, and the “woe to you…” sayings, is a self-portrait.

How we respond to the Beatitudes shows us who we think we are.

Take a long look at Sunday’s Gospel.

And be honest with yourself about what you see.

More on this tomorrow.

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The choice is yours

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says that what comes out of us is what defiles us. And then gives us a list of big-ticket items that defile us. His point?

None of those things – none of them – are things that happen to us. All of them are things that we do to ourselves.

Because stuff is going to happen to us. Big stuff and small stuff. Stuff we like and stuff we don’t. You and I can’t stop it from happening.

But we can choose how we respond to it. You and I have that power.

When we ignore consequences. When we focus on ourselves. When we go negative. That’s when we fall into the trap that Jesus is warning about. That’s how we defile ourselves.

But the opposite is also true.

The same stuff that happens to us. Big stuff and small stuff. Stuff we like and stuff we don’t.

Those can all be occasions of grace.

Yes, all of it. Even the stuff we hate. Even the stuff that hurts.

If you and I choose for them to be occasions of grace. By looking to God first.

Then, trusting in God, when we are aware of consequences. When we focus on others. When we go positive. That’s when we become instruments of God’s grace.

That is when things will get better.

Not because bad things will magically stop happening. But because with that choice, even the bad things will become occasions of grace.

Anytime can be an occasion of grace. Whether it will be?

The choice is yours.

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The Road Ahead

Some days are harder than others. Some days it’s hard to figure out what to do. Or to know if it even matters.

For days like that, something Thomas Merton wrote in the ‘50’s has been a great comfort. For me and for many.

The Road Ahead

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. 
I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end. 
Nor do I really know myself, 
and the fact that I think that I am following 
your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. 
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. 
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. 
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, 
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. 

Amen.  

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Come as you are

Maybe it was a controlling parent. Who taught you to keep everything to yourself. Because bringing your problems, your worries to them wasn’t worth it. Because their response would make you regret it.

Maybe you had an idiot boss. One who said stuff like, “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” But whose toxic behavior told you they really meant “don’t bring me problems.”

Maybe you had a “friend.” Who shared your problems with the world. Or saved them up to use against you later.

However it happened, most of us learned to keep our problems to ourselves.

Done selectively, it can protect us from people who don’t really want to help.

But it’s too easy to do it universally. To keep our problems away from everyone. Even the people who want to help.

Doing it universally is a recipe for growing our problems. Until they get completely out of hand.

Which is why the picture in today’s Gospel is so important. It shows us people bringing their problems to Jesus. And more people bringing them. And even more.

The only reason people would keep doing that? Because of the way that Jesus responds.

Which is? The opposite of the controlling parent. The opposite of the idiot boss. The opposite of the fake friend.

Nobody regrets doing it. Because this is the place where being less than perfect won’t be used against you.

Don’t keep it to yourself. Don’t wait until you’ve got it all together.

Come as you are.

He’s waiting for you with open arms.

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Expert advice

A Moment before the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Whenever you try to do pretty much anything that is new and different (even if it’s just something that’s new and different for you), you’re going to run into “experts.” People who have never done what you’re trying to do. Yet seem to know everything about it.

Who are more than happy to tell you why it won’t work.

The price of listening to their kind of “expert advice” is high. It can lead you to give up.

Or to hedge your bets so much that you never really try in the first place. Which just proves them right.

Because they really do sound like they know what they’re talking about, it can be hard to ignore the experts. But the one that’s the hardest to ignore?

It’s the “expert” that has access to you 24/7.

That little voice that plays in the back of your mind. That toxic blend of assumptions and fears, salted with just enough actual facts to sound credible. That dreary soundtrack of “can’t” and “won’t” and fail.”

Which is why what Peter does in Sunday’s Gospel is so impressive.

An experienced fisherman, Peter has worked all night. And has nothing to show for it. He knows that anything more is a waste of time. It’s just not going to happen.

At that moment, when quitting makes perfect sense, Peter makes a choice.

Peter stops listening to his own inner expert. Peter stops listening to “can’t” and “won’t” and “fail.”

And starts listening to the voice of God. The voice of “can” and “will” and “succeed.”

Peter doesn’t just listen. Peter tries again.

But this time, Peter does it God’s way. In God’s timing.

With results no “expert” could ever predict.

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Mud puddle

People stay away from God for a lot of reasons.

One of the most common ones? Not wanting to be judged.

If you think that someone is going to condemn you the moment you start interacting with them, I can see why you would avoid them.

It’s not just people outside the Church who think that. There are a lot of Catholics that think that as well. So they avoid Reconciliation. Because who wants to be condemned?

So we stay away. And the distance between us and God just grows.

 

Growing up, my mom made a big deal about picture day, and dressed me in the best I had.

I’ll always remember 2nd grade. It had rained most of the day. Leaving school, I slipped and fell into a mud puddle. In my best clothes.   

The walk home was miserable. I knew my mom would be furious. The more I thought about it, the worse it got.

When I got home and she met me at the door, I was expecting the worst. 

But I didn’t get what I was expecting.

All I got was a smile. And a gentle “let’s get you cleaned up.”

 

A response very much like how God actually responds.

The moment we realize how much distance we’ve put between us and God. And turn to take that first faltering step towards home.

If you’re expecting to be condemned, God will disappoint you.

More on this tomorrow.

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Closed hands

A few years ago, I saw an interview with Cardinal Dolan. One of the things that he told the reporter stuck with me. That he always carries McDonald’s gift cards with him.

When somebody asks him for help, he sends them to Catholic Charities for the big stuff. Finding a place to stay. Finding a job. Things like that.

But he also gets them something to eat right now. With one of those gift cards.

I try to follow his lead.

A homeless guy hit me up the other day. So I ran the Cardinal Dolan playbook.

I noticed his hands as I gave him the McDonald’s gift card. They were open. Ready to receive whatever I gave him.

Too often, when you and I ask God for help, we’re not as wise as the homeless guy.

We’re more like the people in today’s Gospel.

Like them, we’ve got ideas. About what we want. How God should do things. About what we’ll accept.  

We’re asking for help. But we don’t really mean it. Because we’ve got our hands closed.

We’re so stuck on how we think things should be, that we can’t receive anything that isn’t how we’ve decided it should be. Anything that isn’t exactly our way.

So we miss out on God’s best. On grace poured out for us in ways we never imagined.

Because we’re asking with our hands closed.

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Frozen

With the polar vortex, everything in Chicago is frozen. Even the lake.

It really doesn’t look the lake anymore. It’s just this endless plain of ice.

Flat. Empty. Still.

And yet, when I walked along the frozen path on the lake shore, I heard it.

The sound of the lake. Moving under the ice.

The surface was solid. There was nothing to see.

But there was this sound. It wasn’t overpowering. You could barely it hear with the traffic on Lake Shore Drive.

But there it was. Under the ice. The lake was moving.

That’s kind of how this time between Christmas and Lent feels. The time in between feels like there’s nothing. Nothing happening. Nothing to see.

In the time in between, our lives feel a little too well-suited to the weather. Flat. Empty. Still.

But just like the lake, so it is with the time in between.

You and I may not be able to see it. Not right now.

But God is using this season, this time in between, to prepare you. To set you up for what is to come in your life.

Listen closely. It can be hard to hear with all the traffic.

But if you try, you’ll hear it. You’ll hear what God is doing.

Listen. There’s something moving.

 

More on this Thursday.

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Don’t keep it to yourself

Think of the really tough times in your life. The very worst.

Death. Loss. Illness. Betrayal. Failure.

When you went through something horrible. Something that you thought would never end. When you thought things would never get better.

When things finally did get better, whether it was through God changing your circumstances or through God changing your heart, do you remember how it felt?

How grateful you were when you finally knew in your heart that things weren’t going to stay that way forever?

What it felt like to realize that God had been with you through it all?

Even the very worst, when you were so lost in your grief that you couldn’t feel anyone loving you? Not even God?

That moment of relief, that moment of gratitude.

It’s a moment worth recalling. Because that moment is absolutely wonderful.

Just thinking about those moments in my life makes my heart sing. Launches me into a list of people and things that I am thankful for. Starting with God.

It’s something that’s easy to miss into today’s Gospel. About the man possessed by demons. It’s easy to get caught up in the details of the very worst time in that man’s life.

And miss what Jesus is saying.

Jesus isn’t upset that the man is glorying in God’s mercy at work in his life. That he is more than thankful for the gift he has been given. That he wants to live in that moment of wonder and gratitude.

What Jesus is saying to the man is the same thing that Jesus says to each one of us.

You know that great feeling that comes from recognizing God’s mercy at work in your life?

Live in that moment of wonder and gratitude.

But don’t keep it to yourself.

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God disappoints

God put a lot of thought and bother into us. Each one of us. And God has been loving each of us from before we were even conceived. Why?

It’s all for a relationship.

One where God’s going to be there. Every step of the way.

So much so that in the first reading for Sunday, we even get a little divine sass when God lays it out for Jeremiah. Telling him - “as though I would leave you.”

But I don’t want that kind of a relationship with God.  

At least that’s what my actions say.

If I judge the relationship I want to have with God by those moments when I really, earnestly seek God?

Then how I act says what I really want isn’t a relationship. How I act says what I really want is more like a vending machine. Or a genie. 

If I’m that shallow. If that’s all I’m looking for, then God is going to disappoint.

Every time. 

Because that’s not what God’s looking for. God doesn’t want to be a thing. Or an afterthought. Or someone we use.

God wants a real relationship. With each one of us.

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No accident

There’s comfort in believing that things happen for a reason.

That life is more than just random stuff, that there are no coincidences. It makes the chaos seem, well, a little less chaotic. 

But this isn’t one of those “I’m-going-to-believe-that-because-it-makes-me-feel-better” things (like pretending that your cat isn’t secretly plotting to kill you). 

There’s a reason for that sense that things aren’t random. 

In Sunday’s first reading, we see the reason. It’s God’s message for each one of us. And it couldn’t be much clearer.

You are no accident.

You are here because you are wanted. 

By the One who has loved you from (before) the very beginning.

More on this tomorrow.

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It's your superpower

When Jesus unpacks the parable of the sower, He gives us a list of everything that’s waiting to sabotage our faith. All of the things that will pull us away from God. And give us nothing in return. If we let them.

Looking at that list of things waiting to sabotage our faith, the one that always stands out for me is call “the deceitfulness of riches.”

Let’s be clear, there’s nothing wrong with money. It’s just a tool to do a job. By itself, it’s neither bad nor good. And it’s my privilege to know people (some in my own parish) who do a lot of good with their money. But the deceitfulness of riches isn’t just about money. It’s about any form of riches. About any type of abundance.

Whether it’s an abundance of resources. Or good health. Or good looks. Or intelligence. Or opportunity. Or ability. Or friends and family. Or likes and followers on social media.

Or anything we have a lot of.

It’s about any form of abundance that sets itself up to be the center of our lives. Instead of God.

That’s the deceitfulness of riches. That’s the danger of abundance.

It’s the danger that we will become so enamored of our abundance, that it will come between us and God.

That we will lose sight of why we were given that abundance in the first place – to use it to be a blessing to others.

And, instead, let our area of abundance become the center of our lives. So that our abundance becomes our focus. Our self-worth. Our identity.

Guaranteeing a personal crisis, if anything should happen to our abundance. Even if it’s something over which we have no control.

So what do we do?  

Keep your focus, your identity in the only safe place. In the hands of the One who loves you best. With the One who gave you that abundance.

Make no mistake, your abundance is a gift from God. God intentionally gave it to you.

It’s your superpower. Use it for good. As only you can.

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No coincidences

Life can seem pretty random. 

All the big events, plus all the small stuff. Just kind of colliding together.

Depending on what’s going on, it can be overwhelming.

If we ever stop to think about all the chaos for a minute (and who has time for that?), we start asking a bunch of “why” questions. Because if it’s all just busyness… 

Which is why we need to look up from the busyness.  Just a little. 

If we do, we’ll see things that start to look like connections, like patterns.  

Maybe they seem like coincidences.  But some of them are just too plain, too clear to be random. 

They’re signs. 

That there’s more to our lives than just busyness. 

More on this Thursday.  

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No forgiveness

Think about the worst sin imaginable.

Where the end result is maximum harm to others. And maximum harm to the person doing it. Ending in complete and utter separation from God and humanity.

The very worst sin.

We hear in the Gospel about a sin for which there is no forgiveness. What sin is so bad that there can be no forgiveness? What is the very worst sin?

The very worst sin isn’t about how one sin is worse than another.

What makes a sin the very worst sin is the sinner.

Because it’s not the very worst sin. It’s your very worst sin. It’s my very worst sin.

Anything can be our very worst sin. It all depends on what we do after we sin.

When you and I realize that we have sinned, what do we do next?

Starting with myself, am I honest about what I’ve done? Do I admit it? Do I move from honesty with myself to honesty about the harm I’ve done? Do I try to make amends to those I've hurt? Do I seek out the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus? 

Or do I try to rationalize it, to explain it away? Do I ignore the distance that it’s putting between me and other people, between me and God? Do I deny that I have hurt others? Do I justify what I’ve done so I can avoid making amends to those I've hurt? Do I reject the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus?

That's what makes sin unforgivable.

Making the same dreary mistakes over and over. Failing, seeking forgiveness, and trying again. Again and Again. That’s not unforgivable sin. That's our fallen nature, that's our human condition.

What makes sin unforgivable is when we put it first.

Jesus came into the world to save sinners. For those who come to Him, trying however feebly to let go of their sins, no sin is unforgivable.

But for those who ignore the growing distance between themselves and others, between themselves and God, who tell themselves they don’t need forgiveness, who are too proud to ask for forgiveness, no sin can be forgiven.

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How God responds

A Moment before the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

So you’re talking to a friend. About whatever. Nothing serious. 

Then suddenly, they’re pouring their heart out about something that you can tell just hurts. 

It’s all just tumbling out. You’re waiting for them to take a breath. When they’re done, you’re thinking “where did all that come from?”

You didn’t ask for it. But they’re really vulnerable right now. 

And how you respond will make all the difference in the world. 

That’s what we get in Sunday’s first reading. We get to see what happens next. How God responds when we pour our hearts out. 

In case you were wondering how m. 

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And you should feel bad

Everybody has that one friend.

Well, not really a friend. But somebody who’s just a little too happy to share bad news. Especially bad news about you.

The payoff for them? Your reaction. They can’t wait to watch you beat yourself up about it.

It’s way too unhealthy.

And it’s exactly what we don’t see in Sunday’s first reading.  

In Sunday’s first reading, there’s that moment when the light goes on. When the people realize how far they’ve wandered from God. 

They get it. Really get it. And they are devastated by that realization. 

If you’re someone who thinks of God being like “that one friend,” what God does next will be a complete surprise. 

More on this tomorrow.

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Baggage

When God puts something in your heart, whether it’s a desire to do something that seems too big for you or a simple impulse to help someone, the easiest thing to do is…?

Nothing. To do nothing. And let the moment pass.

When we do. When we ignore God, we like to rationalize. To explain it away.

One of the most poisonous ways we do that is by sorting through our baggage. To find something that we’ve done. Or something that our parents did.

And use that to tell ourselves that this is why God didn’t really mean it. Why God won’t really give us everything we need. Why we just can’t.

Today’s readings introduce us to Melchizedek. He’s powerful. He’s holy. Someone so good that even Abraham looks up to him.  

That’s impressive. Where does someone like that come from? God only knows. Literally. Because all we get is that Melchizedek is “without father, mother, or ancestry.”

Does that mean that this guy just magically appeared out of nowhere?

No. There’s an ancient tradition that Melchizedek’s family isn’t named because he came from a cursed bloodline. A family where each generation followed the bad example of the one before.

The sort of family where the cops remember arresting the parents and grandparents of the people in the back of the squad car. People who might as well just change their last name to Defendant.

Why am I bringing this up?

Because your baggage isn’t God’s baggage.

Melchizedek is living proof. And you’re thinking, you don’t know my family. You don’t know how messed up we are. You don’t know me. You don’t know what I’ve done.

With much love, may I say, who cares?

The point of Melchizedek is that God isn’t held back by your family history or mine. There is nothing that you and I have done that can keep God from loving us. You and I are just not that powerful.

Your baggage isn’t God’s baggage.

When it comes to the new life in Christ that God is calling you to, you can be certain that God will pour out for you everything you need. And more.

Receive God’s love. Follow God’s call. Be who you were always meant to be.

Throw out your baggage.

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No fun

Being a Christian can put you on the receiving end of some odd stereotypes. Some of them even contradict each other. Most of them make no sense at all. 

A common one?  That Christians are grim. Dull. With no sense of humor. 

That being a Christian means never having any fun. That having faith means having a horrible, creeping fear that someone, somewhere is enjoying themselves. 

Which is nonsense. 

Like I need to tell you that. You already know that your faith has been and will be the source of some of the most joyful moments in life. 

But there are things we should be sad about, upset about. If we really understand what they mean.

We see a glimpse of that in Sunday's first reading. 

More on this Thursday.  

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