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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All the ways it can go wrong

You’ve finally got it all figured out.

You know what you’re going to do. For something that really matters to you. Whether it’s school, work, vocation, marriage, moving, or something else, it’s going to be the next big thing in your life. 

So you start to tell people about your plans. To get support and (hopefully) some perspective and practical wisdom. From people who have been there.

Then it happens. 

Someone who knows all the ways it can all go horribly wrong. Who has zero interest in actually helping you deal with any of them. And who is just a little too eager share their “wisdom” with you.

Who knew Murphy’s Law had a prophet?

That’s not how God does things. 

The readings for Sunday show us how God does things.

The first reading shows us a serious problem. But it also shows us God’s plan to deal with it.

And the Gospel?

More on this tomorrow.

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Something to show for it

There are things that you and I have down. Stone cold.

Not just stuff related to our trades and professions. But things from our hobbies, and life skills we’ve picked up along the way.

All of the things that you and I have mastered. And have something to show for it.

Whether it’s a job using those skills, a bike with a frame that we welded from stock tubing, or a prize-winning pie.

Nothing grinds our gears more than someone who’s never done that stuff telling us how we’re doing it wrong.

It comes across like a 3rd grader correcting a doctor. Because we don’t need their help.

It’s not that we’re perfect. Or have no room to improve.

It’s just that we’ve invested a lot of ourselves into building those skills. And we’d like a little respect (maybe even a lot) for that investment, for what we’re able to do.

Which begs a question. If that bothers us so much when we’re on the receiving end, then why is it so easy for us to turn around and do that very same thing to God?

But we do. All the time. Whenever we substitute our own wisdom for the wisdom of God.

And when we’re doing it to God, it’s not even up to the level of a 3rd grader correcting a doctor.

Truth is, God is completely capable of being God.

Even without our help.

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So you can hear God

If you're a priest or a deacon (or preparing to become one), the first reading for Sunday should intimidate you. 

Because it calls out shepherds for scattering the flock and driving them away. God will hold us accountable. 

Even before I was ordained, this is one of my fears. That something I say would drive someone away. 

I don't mean struggling with the difficult parts of the faith. I mean some offhand remark by me. 

Something I didn't really even think about. Much less mean. But for that person, it that rings in their ears like a bell. And that throwaway comment becomes the thing that closes their heart to God. 

Which is why (if at all possible), I try to pray before I speak. To get me out of the way. So that you can hear God. 

I don't want to be that kind of shepherd. 

More on this tomorrow.

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Shameless love

Earlier this year, I went to a parish in St. Louis that specializes in the Extraordinary Form. To see how they did a High Mass in Latin. It was the full deal. Gregorian chant. Smells and bells. And a platoon of altar boys. 

When I told a friend about it, I got a 5-minute rant about how they were stuck in 1583. That they needed to get with the times. To him, the fact that they weren't excommunicated was one of the biggest mistakes of Benedict XVI's papacy.

I was stunned by the reaction.

It came from a deeply spiritual man. A guy known for living the faith. A regular communicant. At a parish proudly stuck in 1983.

But if I'd asked the people at Latin Mass about his parish, I probably would have heard their version of his rant. 

Which got me thinking about what they had in common.

The One who shamelessly died for all of our sins.

He is so shameless in His love for us that if it takes 1583 (or 1983) to reach us, He'll go there.

He loves us that much.

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Just in case God can’t handle things

A Moment before the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

I like to be prepared. I want to know how it’s going end up before I even start. I want to have a backup plan.

I want to be ready for what’s supposed to happen. And what’s not supposed to happen, but still could.

In high school, I was voted “Most Likely To Have Jumper Cables.”

Even before I had a car.

It’s just how I am. Which is why I really struggle with Sunday’s Gospel.

Jesus sends the Apostles out. And Jesus specifically tells them not to bring anything. Not food. Not money. Not even a backpack or a coat.

Jesus is telling them to forget about all the stuff that even a complete beginner would take. Much less a seasoned planner.

Because Jesus is trying to make a point.

With God, we don’t need a backup plan. We don’t need to be prepared. Just in case God can’t handle things.

God’s got this.

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Yard sales

My great aunt loved yard sales.

Whenever we came to visit, she would proudly show off her latest find. Some old piece of furniture that she had bought for next to nothing. Because it was in terrible shape.

When I was older, she showed me what she did with her finds. She had her own concoction that she used to strip the old paint and varnish off the wood. And even the glue from half-baked repair jobs.

Once it was stripped clean and taken apart, she would refinish the wood. Then steel wool everything. Until it was a smooth as velvet.

When it was done and put back together, you would never know that it came from a yard sale. And she had a house full of beautiful old furniture to show for it.

At first glance, the Church can seem to be all about rules and rituals. A bunch of “do-this-not-that.” Paired with a lot of odd ceremonies. But the seemingly weird mix of things that the Church does are not an end to themselves.

With my great aunt’s concoction, she didn’t keep it around just for the sake of having some. She mixed it up in small batches, for a specific purpose.

And so it is with the stuff that the Church does. It’s all there for a specific purpose.

It’s there to help us get rid of all of the old paint and varnish in our lives. To undo the damage that’s been done to us. And even our own half-baked repair work.

To prepare us to be put back together by the One who made us. To become the people we were always meant to be.

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Too much?

Before I go anywhere for a week or a weekend, I always make a list of what to bring. 

I think about what I’m going to do, what I might need. To make sure that I’m prepared for whatever happens. Maybe a little too prepared. 

Which is the opposite of Sunday’s Gospel. Jesus sends the Apostles out. But before they go, He gives them a very detailed list. 

Of what not to bring.

Jesus lists the basics. All the things you’d want to take on a walking trip. Which makes no sense.

If the Apostles are supposed to do it all on their own.

But they aren’t.

And that’s the point.

More on this tomorrow.

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Plant something different

Growing up, one of the sure signs that spring was coming was the appearance of seed catalogs in the mail. When the seed catalogs showed up, my grandmother would plan the truck patch-size vegetable garden she and my grandfather kept.

She would ask me what I wanted. I would tell her. And she would include it in her order.

When the seeds showed up, I would be responsible for planting what I asked for.

She would tell me, “If you want it, you plant it.”

And she was right. Because there’s no other way get something, but plant the seed.

It may be past time to put your garden in. But it’s a good time to check your crop.

Take a look at what you’ve been getting.

From everyone around you. From your loved ones. From yourself.

Is it really God’s best for your life? Does it bring you peace? Does it draw you closer to God? If it is, then you’ve been planting for God’s best.

But if you’re like me, there’s a lot of it that doesn’t bring you peace. That doesn’t draw you closer to God. And it’s because we’re not planting for God’s best. 

If we want God’s best, then you and I need to be planting for God’s best. We need to be the ones planting God’s justice, God’s mercy, God’s love.

In every moment, in every interaction, every day.

It’s time for us to plant something different.

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Doing it wrong

All that prophets in the Bible do is tell people what’s going to happen. If they don’t change. How it’s all going to work out. If they just keep doing what they’re doing.

If that’s all that prophets do, then why do people get so upset about it?

Because most of us like what we’re doing. Even if we really haven’t thought through the consequences. And the last thing we want is someone telling us that we’re doing it wrong.

Even if we are doing it wrong.

We don’t want to admit that we’re doing it wrong. Because if we admit we’re doing it wrong, then we have no excuse not to change. And we really don’t want to change.

Even if not changing is hurting us.

We would rather get rid of the prophet, the one reminding us of how far we’ve strayed from God’s best. And how badly we need to change.

If we can get rid of the messenger, then we don’t have to worry about the message.

It’s a great way of dealing with future problems. Until it isn’t.

More on this tomorrow.

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Not that kind of prophet

The readings for this Sunday and last Sunday are full of stuff about prophets and prophecies. 

Which sounds like predicting the future. Like some sort of second-rate carnival act. Right next to the guy who guesses your age and weight.

The prophets in the Bible? They're not that kind of prophet. 

So what do they do? They call people back, back into the loving relationship they were always meant to have with God.

The prophets in the Bible do foretell the future.

But when they do, it's like when my doctor does it. When she tells me that if I don't lose some weight, I'll be at a high risk for diabetes when I'm older. 

The future that prophets in the Bible tell people about? It’s the future waiting for them. If they keep doing what they’re doing. 

It’s really a warning about what’s going to happen. If nothing changes. 

If that’s all it is, why do people get so upset about it?

More on this tomorrow. 

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A Moment before the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

If we know anything about God, we know that God gets described with a bunch of “all stuff.” All-powerful. All-knowing. All-present. All-you-name-it. The list goes on and on.

But then there’s Sunday’s Gospel. Which ends like this, “so He was not able to perform any mighty deed there,…” That makes no sense.

Thinking about that endless list of “all stuff” we use to describe God. How can someone who truly is all-you-name-it be stopped from doing, well, anything? Especially by people just like you and me.

It comes down to two things. Both of them are given to us by God. And they have to be the most dangerous gifts that have ever been given.

The first one is free will.

You get to decide what you will do. And I get to decide what I will do. You and I are equally free to do the very best thing. Or the very worst thing. Or any of a thousand shades of gray in between.

The second dangerous gift? God’s respect for our decisions.

God doesn’t override our free will.

And that means what? It means that God doesn’t prevent us from making bad decisions. It wouldn’t be free will if He did.

It also means that God doesn’t protect us from the consequences of our decisions. Both good and bad consequences. It wouldn’t be free will if He did.

It means that we can say no to God. And it will mean something.

Whether we do it with a dramatic outburst. Or with the pettiness we see in Sunday’s Gospel. Or in a thousand subtle moments of turning away.

We can say no to God. And the eternal consequences of that choice will be ours.

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The worst

Think of the worst thing you’ve ever done.

Not worst on a scale from zero to mass murder. But worst in terms of how it weighs on your heart. The most shameful thing you’ve ever done. Your greatest regret.

The thing that comes back to you. Time and again. If you could turn back time, and change only one thing, that would be it.

That worst thing.

God knows everything about us. Everything.

Even the things we don’t tell ourselves. The things we don’t want to know. The things we’d like to forget.

Even that worst thing.

In the face of that, knowing each of us better than we know ourselves. With intimate and complete knowledge of everything about us. At our very worst. Look at God’s response.

With open arms, God calls each of us.

God calls you. By name.

In case you ever wondered how much God loves you.

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Even if it's not perfect

Sunday’s first reading reveals the people you would think would be closest to God - as rejecting God. It seems contradictory. But it’s true.

And way too familiar. If we’re honest about our own relationship with God.

Why would do that? Why would we reject the One who loves us, the One who wants only the best for us?

Because we’ve fallen for one of the great lies of our age – “either-or” thinking.

The way we do it, we’re kind of “all-or-nothing” about it. We assume that if you love something, then you hate whatever is supposed to be its opposite.

It’s an approach that makes no sense. Because contradicts our lived experience. And our own personalities.

I ride my bicycle to work in good weather. Because of that, some people assume I hate cars. Truth is, I’m also restoring a 50-year old car (as I can afford the parts).

All of us struggle to live and love God’s way.

That struggle makes it easy to get frustrated. Especially when we get it wrong. Or when we think about what God is calling us to, and how far we really are from God’s best.

And that’s where “either-or” thinking really hurts us.

We can’t get it right, so we reject the whole thing. With our actions loudly proclaiming that since we can’t do it perfectly, we won’t even try.

Which would be laughable, if it wasn’t so tragic. Truth is, we were never meant to do it perfectly. Because we can’t. Not on our own.

The way we were meant to do it? With God. And as best we can.

Even if it’s not perfect.

More on this tomorrow.

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We are them

It’s hard to say “yes” to God. To get over ourselves enough to pray like Jesus did in the Garden. To say to God “…yet, not as I will, but as you will.”

To even try to live and love God’s way.

If we do? Sunday’s first reading tells us what we’re going to get. Push back. Hard.

It lets us know that our attempts to live and love God’s way (whether they succeed or fail) won’t be well received.

Because we’re trying to live and love God’s way among people that are desperately trying to avoid God. And the last thing they want to see is someone actually living and loving God’s way.

Why?

Because that lived example of a life drawing close to God in love shows them everything that God wants for them. The life that should be theirs.

It shows clearly that desperately trying to avoid God has left them with poor substitutes for the love of God.

Or worse.

It also shows each of us that saying “…yet, not as I will, but as you will” to God is our only hope.

Because we are them.

More on this tomorrow.

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You are now entering the mission field

Growing up, I had very romantic ideas about missionary work.

It was all safari shirts and pith helmets. Hacking through the underbrush. Going to remote villages in faraway places. Being the first outsider to learn their language. All to bring them the Gospel.

Even when actual missionaries came to talk about what they did (and reality started to creep in), missionary work was still something that was done “over there.” 

We sent missionaries to them. Because they needed help. We were good. We had the whole Jesus thing down. 

Back then, a church in the poorer part of town had a welcome sign by their parking lot. They still do.

The memorable part? The back of their sign. It says “you are now entering the mission field.”

It’s the last thing people see when they leave that church. 

Back in the day, I was pretty dismissive of what I thought was their misguided focus.

Turns out they were right all along. 

More on this tomorrow.

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A Moment before the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Even when we’re not directly involved, when bad things happen, they strike a nerve. On some gut level we know that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

Sunday’s first reading tells us we’re right. This isn’t what God wanted for us. God didn’t make things this way. 

When we hear that, most of us are a little too comfortable moving from “not-the-way-it’s-supposed-to-be” into sorting out exactly who is responsible for it. Or who we want to be responsible.

So we can do some blaming. So we can let whoever it is know that they got exactly what they deserved.

But that’s not how God works. 

We see it in Sunday’s Gospel. Jesus wastes no time on who did what. Instead, Jesus rushes to help. 

Not just to help with the bad things that happened. But also to help the people they happened to. 

Make no mistake, this is not some bland tolerance that’s generically nice. 

This is the love of God. A passionate love. A love driven to seek and to save. 

That’s how God works.

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How God works

When bad things happen, it's tempting to ignore them. But sometimes they hit so close to home that we just can't. 

Then we try to figure things out. To explain things. To make ourselves feel better. By blaming something or someone. 

We'll blame circumstances, blame society, blame the victim, blame God. Sometimes we'll even blame ourselves. 

Because life’s tragedies just feel wrong to us.

And God lets us know that our feelings are right. That this isn't the way it was meant to be. Which sounds like the wind-up to some first-class finger-pointing from the Almighty.

But that's not how God works. 

In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus doesn't bother to sort out who did what. Or to assign blame.

He goes right to heart of the tragedy. And helps.

That's how God works.

More on this tomorrow.

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False prophets

“Why do you want to be a deacon?”

It wasn’t a friendly question. The old priest who was asking had piercing eyes. Like he was looking for something. Something he didn’t like.

Before I could answer, he went off. It started something like this:

“The last thing the Church needs is another…”

And he went on, for what seemed like forever. Describing every way that a deacon, a priest, or a bishop can go wrong. Big and little. From the scandals that rock the Church, to the little things that make someone quietly turn away.

All of the ways to be exactly what Jesus is warning us about when He tells us to “beware of false prophets.”

But it’s not just a warning about clergy who have gone wrong.

It’s also a call. A call to you, to keep your clergy close to your hearts. To protect us from becoming false prophets.

By holding us up in prayer, and by holding us accountable.

Because the last thing the Church needs is another…

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