The only road

I remember my first Jeep run at night.

Only the lead Jeep had its headlights on, to light up the trail. The rest of us used just our parking lights.

It kept the lights on the Jeep behind you from blinding you. But it also meant that you could only see two things.

Taillights way up ahead. And the next couple feet of trail in front of you.

The trail we were on was really rough. Part of it ran on the edge of a deep ravine. Even going slow, you couldn’t afford to take your eyes off it. Not for a moment.

One wrong move, and you’d find out what was at the bottom of the ravine. The hard way.

There was no time to worry about what was up ahead.

Much less the cookout we had planned for afterwards.

It’s the same thing we see in today’s Gospel.

James and John, and even their mom, are worried about the payoff at the end. About making sure that it’s everything they hoped it would be.

Jesus doesn’t give them what they’re asking for. To fast forward to the end.

Instead Jesus calls them back. Back to what’s right in front of them.

To the people, the needs, and even the problems. Right in front of them.

The same way that Jesus calls each one of us back.

Back to what’s right in front of us.

Back to the only road that will take us to everything that God has prepared for us.

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Something better

They had plans for a future together.

Which is why Joseph was heartbroken. When he found out that Mary was pregnant. All of his dreams for their future together were shattered.

Joseph could have lashed out. He could have let everyone know what she had done. No one could have blamed him for being angry.

But not Joseph. Even after that, he was unwilling to humiliate Mary.

Joseph’s plan B was kind. He was going to leave quietly. To give up on all of his hopes and dreams.

What makes Joseph different from most of us is that – in the middle of it, when it hurt the most, when it couldn’t get any worse – Joseph was listening to God.

Joseph didn’t ask why me? Joseph didn’t rage about the betrayal. Joseph turned to God.

In the midst of it all, Joseph was listening to God.

Which is why Joseph was able to hear what God was saying.

Listen. It’s the same thing that God is saying to you.

“Let go of your plan.

I have something better.

Just for you.”

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I love to bake.

One of the first things that you learn when you bake? How to measure flour.

Turns out there’s more to measuring flour than just throwing it in a cup.

You’ve got to pack it together. Shake it down. Until it’s overflowing.

If you don’t, there will be voids in the cup of flour.

And what looks like a full cup? Will turn out to be a lot less when you pour it out.

God wants to pour out His mercy on us.

But there’s a catch.

If we expect God to pour out His mercy on us. We have to pour out our mercy on each other. Just as extravagantly as God does.

Which means? No holding back. No voids in our mercy.

Our mercy has to look like God’s.

Good measure. Packed together. Shaken down.

Until it’s overflowing.

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I love to bake.

One of the first things that you learn when you bake? How to measure flour.

Turns out there’s more to measuring flour than just throwing it in a cup.

You’ve got to pack it together. Shake it down. Until it’s overflowing.

If you don’t, there will be voids in the cup of flour.

And what looks like a full cup? Will turn out to be a lot less when you pour it out.

God wants to pour out His mercy on us.

But there’s a catch.

If we expect God to pour out His mercy on us. We have to pour out our mercy on each other. Just as extravagantly as God does.

Which means? No holding back. No voids in our mercy.

Our mercy has to look like God’s.

Good measure. Packed together. Shaken down.

Until it’s overflowing.

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How to do it

A Moment before the 2nd Sunday in Lent

When you're trying to learn something, there's nothing like seeing someone else do it well.

Especially if that someone is willing to take the time with you. To break it down. One step at a time. To show you how to do it.

Whether it was my great uncle who made the best paper airplanes. Or my mom whose cookies were amazing. As a kid, I was blessed with people who took the time. 

People tell me I can do some great things. If that's true, it's because someone took the time. To show me how to do it.

That's what Sunday's second reading is all about. 

Paul is offering his life up as that example to follow.

Which sounds kind of arrogant. Until we actually look at his life.

Paul was an enemy of Christ. Who made a 180 degree turn. 

That got him rejected by his former friends and allies. And by believers. Who knew too much about him to ever trust him. 

In the face of that rejection, he keeps coming back to Christ. No matter what happens. 

Which is exactly how to do it. 

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Fake fortresses

Hoarding. It causes health and safety problems.

But there’s more to it than just all of the stuff. There are the deeper needs and problems. The ones that cause people to hoard. 

For those needs and problems, hoarding can be a way to try to deal with them. By building fake fortresses of stuff. Too bad it doesn’t work. 

The fake fortresses of hoarders are easy to spot. But they’re not the only fake fortresses out there. 

The ones that are harder to spot? The fake fortresses all of us build. Inside ourselves. 

That a big part of the pilgrimage of Lent. It’s a call to come out. To leave our fake fortresses. 

To make our way towards the Real. 

More on this tomorrow.

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Nothing in the way

I talk to a lot of people who feel separated from God. Who feel shut off from God’s love. For any number of reasons.

When I invite them back. Or try to tell them how much God loves them. That’s when I hear a lot of them say something like “You don’t know me.”

Usually, that’s not the end of the conversation. An explanation of what they mean almost always follows.

Whether that explanation is full of spite and anger. Or defeat and resignation. It truly is the saddest thing.

When someone sees themselves as being so far gone that there’s no coming back. No hope.

It’s a tragedy on so many levels. Mostly because it’s a separation that doesn’t have to happen.

As today’s readings make clear, everything to mend that separation has already been done.

There’s nothing that can put you so far away. That God won’t take you back.

There’s nothing that you have to do to be good enough. Before God will love you.

There’s nothing left in the way.

So what are you waiting for?

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Thy and thine

In the middle of a Mass in everyday English, when we get to the Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer, it’s like we’ve suddenly dropped back 500 years.

It’s not just the formal cadences of long ago. It’s the words themselves. Suddenly, “are” becomes “art.” And the pronouns become “thy” and “thine.”  

But it’s no problem. People like it. For a lot of reasons.

It’s not just that its style has the warmth of familiarity.

The words stay with you, held close in a rhythm that borders on poetry.

But there’s more to it than just nostalgia.

When the Our Father was first translated into English, “thy” and “thine” were singular forms of “you” and “yours.” Forms used to show intimacy with the person you were addressing. Like a child would use with a parent, or a parent with a child.

The next time you pray the Our Father, stop yourself.

For just a moment, think about the intimacy that those old-fashioned words point us towards. The closeness and warmth of the best parent-child relationship.

The relationship that God wants to have with you.

I can’t think of a better reason for “thy” and “thine.”

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What you practice shows what’s important to you.

When I was in 5th grade, one of the boys I went through grade school with wanted to be on the basketball team. In 5th grade, that was his goal in life.

In that school, basketball teams even didn’t start until 6th grade. But when we hit 6th grade, he was going to be on the basketball team.

How did I know this? The same reason everybody in 5th grade knew. He wouldn’t shut up about it. Every conversation with him ended up back at basketball.

Talking with him about what he did over Christmas break? Somehow you ended up talking about basketball.

Talking about what we were going to do in Scouts? Somehow it got back to basketball.

Need help with math homework? You guessed it. Basketball.

But even if you never talked with him, you knew he wanted to be on the basketball team. How?

Because he didn’t just talk basketball. He practiced. And practiced.

A couple of days a week, his parents would drop him off early at school. On those mornings, you could find him in the gym shooting free throws before class.

If you went over to his house, unless it was raining, he was out on the driveway. Putting a lot of miles on the hoop over the garage door.

No ever one had to guess about what he wanted to do. It was obvious.

Because what you practice shows what’s important to you.

When we got to 6th grade, and it came time for basketball tryouts, he was ready. Actually, he was somewhere north of ready.

Just looking at him, he wasn’t much to speak of. Even for a 6th grader, he wasn’t very tall. His reach wasn’t that far.

But when the coach let him go first at tryouts, even if you didn’t know what he had been doing last year, it was obvious what he had been doing last year.

Because right then, all that practice. Paid. Off.  


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Not just for Lent

A Moment before the 1st Sunday in Lent

Lent started on Ash Wednesday. And it started big. 

There’s a kind of magic about the start of something, especially something important, that creates interest, that creates energy. 

There’s definitely a kind of magic to Ash Wednesday. 

It’s probably the ashes. Lots of people get ashes. Sometimes it’s surprising to see who has them. 

This Sunday’s Gospel is the temptation of Jesus. It shows us where it all comes from – fasting, 40 days of Lent. It’s a little stark, but so is the first Sunday in Lent. 

In a way, it’s a reality check after the enthusiasm of Ash Wednesday. 

The magic of the start is over. The visible sign of the ashes has gone away.

In their place, we get something better.

Not just for Lent. But for life.

Someone who has been there. Who will be with us every step of the way.

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Family history

A friend of mine is adopted. She’ll be the first to tell you how great her adoptive parents are. But with some of the health issues she’s dealing with, she needs to know more about the medical part of her family history.

She’s trying to find her biological parents. To find out what’s behind it all. To figure out what it means.

I was reminded of her when a Protestant acquaintance saw my ashes yesterday. And decided that she needed to tell me that Ash Wednesday wasn’t Biblical.

Granted, the name “Ash Wednesday” does not appear in the Bible. Neither does the phrase “sola scriptura.”

But the idea that repenting of our sins is best done with fasting and ashes?

It’s a well-known part of our family history as Christians.

Leaving aside Jesus fasting for 40 days. Or Jesus spelling out how to do fasting and ashes right in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday.

Repenting with fasting and ashes turns up repeatedly in the New Testament (Luke 18:1-12, Acts 13:3-4) and in the Old Testament (Exodus 34:28, Psalm 35:13-14, Daniel 9:3-5, Joel 2:12-13). Showing us time and again how they help us to overcome pride. And how they set us on the road home to God.

One of the best ways to understand why we do what we do? And what things really mean?

Learn your family history.

Unlike my friend who is having to do a lot of work to find out hers, as Christians our family history is an open book. Literally.

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The Ash Wednesday question

I got up while it was still dark. Looking at the window, I couldn’t see anything outside. The window itself looked clean and clear.

As the sun came up, I could see things outside. Along with all of the dirt on the window. The window that had seemed clean and clear in the dark really wasn’t.

Half a winter’s worth of dirt was now very visible.

So, what are you giving up for Lent?

It’s the classic Ash Wednesday question. A lot of us have stock responses.

Maybe it’s the same thing we give up every year. Maybe it’s a joke about giving up winter. Maybe it’s a joke that’s not really a joke about giving up Lent.

How about something different this year?

Our lives are a lot like that window. Day to day, everything looks okay. Reasonably clean and clear.

Because we rush past ourselves in the dark. And don’t really take that close a look.

But if we’re honest, we know things really aren’t as clean and clear as we like to think they are. Stuff has come between us and God. We just like to pretend that it hasn’t. Or don’t think about it.

Which is why it’s so important to take an honest look at ourselves. To see ourselves against the light of God’s love.

Then it becomes obvious that the lives that seem clean and clear as we rush past ourselves in the dark really aren’t. All of the things that have gotten between us and God become very visible.

Seen in the light of God’s love, it’s easy to see what we’ve been ignoring.

What’s come between us and God.

What needs to go.

So, what are you giving up for Lent?

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Make it right

In school, I was in marching band. One of the things I struggled with in band was keeping the line straight.

I learned pretty quickly that if I looked and saw that things were out of line, the odds were that I was the one that was out of line.

I also learned that if I wasn’t in line, then I had the power to do something about it.

If I understood when I was wrong, then I could make it right. I could move. Until things were back in line.

When it comes to my relationship with God, the older I get, the more I see the power of understanding when I’m wrong. And the freedom that comes with it.

If I’m wrong, then I’m not a victim. I don’t have to just sit there and put up with it.

I’m not stuck with distance that’s grown between me and God.

I’m not stuck with things that have come between me and God.

If I’m wrong, then I have the power to change.

It’s perfect perspective to have. To make the most out of tomorrow, Ash Wednesday.

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What must I do?

I ran into an article online about the warning lights on a car. It had in-depth explanations about what each of them meant. About halfway through, I figured out that the article was about the warning lights for a particular model of car. Ones that are unique to that car.

I’m sure it’s helpful, if you own that car. But it really doesn’t apply to me.

Today’s Gospel is the story of the rich young ruler. It’s the story of someone who is so close to doing it God’s way that he only needs to do one more thing to get it right.

It’s a very real problem. For a particular person.

But if I’m not a rich young ruler, then it’s easy for the story to feel like that article about warning lights for a particular model of car.

I’m sure it’s helpful, for him. But it really doesn’t apply to me.

Or does it?

Look at what Jesus is really talking about. Jesus is talking to someone who is doing so many things right. But someone who also knows that something is off.

Which is why he asks that painfully honest question, “what must I do?”

With nothing but love for him, Jesus tells him what he needs to do. Jesus tells him to get rid of what has come between him and God.

The rich young ruler is wrestling with a universal problem – things that come between us and God.

For him, it’s money. For you and me, it might be money. Or it might be something else.

This Lent, follow the rich young ruler’s lead. Ask God that painfully honest question, “what must I do?”

Listen with your heart for the answer. Then ask God for the grace to do better than the rich young ruler. For the grace to make your Lent holy.

By getting rid of whatever is coming between you and God.

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The beam

A moment before the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time

No one is upset at a fourth-grader can’t perform open heart surgery. Or do a tax return. Actually, we would be amazed if they could.

We don’t even think about fourth-graders doing things like that. Because we know that they don’t have it in them. How do we know that?

We don’t have to know anything about how good their school is. Or whether they repeated first grade. To know that they don’t have it in them to do things like that.

All we have to do is listen to them for a minute. What they say will tell us what’s going on inside them. Then we’ll know that they’re perfectly normal fourth-graders. And not who we need for surgery or taxes.

Why does listening to them tell us that?

It’s one of those truths about us as human beings. We see it in Sunday’s Gospel. When Jesus says, “from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”

You want to know what’s really going on inside yourself?

Want to know why you keep running into the same problems over and over?

Why your initial reaction isn’t helpful?

Why you keep sabotaging yourself?

Listen to what you say, especially the unfiltered stuff. What you say without thinking.

Listen to what you say. And then look inside yourself. At where that’s coming from.

You’ll find out what your heart is full of. Something that you’re keeping to yourself. That you’re walling-off from God. Part of you that needs help.

Take that insight. And use it the way Jesus tells us to:

“Remove the wooden beam from your eye first;
then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother's eye.”

Don’t ignore that insight. Don’t distract yourself. Or worry about other people who are struggling with the same problem.

Deal with the problem. Your problem.

Get the help you need. And bring it to God.

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I just ran into another “things millennials are killing” article online.

You know the type. Fake breathless urgency. Followed by a list of products that are going the way of the buggy whip.

Notwithstanding the click-bait style, those articles show us something important. That if enough people stop buying “beer type meh,” the makers of forgettable beer will change what they’re making. Or go out of business.

Simply put, they show us that actions have consequences.

Which is what today’s Gospel is all about. What we do – the decisions we make, the actions we take – have consequences.

Some connections between actions and consequences are easier to see than others. Some consequences are immediate. Others take longer to have their impact.

But in the end, everything we do in this life, whether it’s not buying forgettable beer or how we treat others, has consequences.

Why should it be any different with eternity?

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The path

In England, there’s a shortcut between two towns. It takes miles off the trip. But it’s only there at low tide. Across the waterlogged sands of Morecambe Bay.

The sands are dangerous. As the sands move, the safe path shifts. If you don’t know where to walk, you can get stuck. People have died that way when the tide came back in.

Which is why there’s a guide. Someone who goes out at low tide. To mark a safe path across the sands.

By tradition, the path is marked with tree branches. Branches that are swept away with the tide. But there’s no point in doing something more permanent. Since the path with will change with the next tide.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus refuses to rebuke people doing good things in His name. But who aren’t a part of the close circle of the disciples.

As a convert, I can tell you why.

For those of us who have been outside of the Church, good things outside of the Church – good works, holy places, holy people – stand out in the shifting sands of life.

They draw you in.

If you look up from the one that drew you in, you will see another. And another. And another.

Soon a pattern emerges.

The path across the sands. The one that will lead you to Him, to Home.

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People have a lot of different ideas about what success looks like.

For some people, success is the right job or the right business. Or the right car. Or the right house in the right neighborhood. Or the right spouse.  

For a lot of people, it’s all about the money.

Whatever form it takes, for most of us, success is all about me.

God’s take on success is kind of the opposite.

We see it in today’s Gospel. In how Jesus responds to the disciples. Who are arguing about which one of them is the greatest.

Jesus shows us, God’s take on success isn’t about me. It’s about you.

I saw you hungry. Did I feed you?

I heard about a job someone was trying to fill. Did I tell you?

I knew you were hurting. Did I encourage you?

I knew you were lonely. Did I make time for you?

I had a chance to help you today. What did I do with it?

Those are the questions that God asks.

How we answer them - says everything about our success.

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Making up the difference

When my daughter was learning to walk, she would pull herself up on the furniture. Stand there, holding on. Wobbly and unsure.

Looking around for something or someone to grab onto.

She just couldn’t quite do it on her own. She really wanted to. But she needed a little help.

So she would stand there, holding on. Wobbly. Waiting.

The look on her face? The most heartfelt request for help you could imagine.

The best part? Seeing the joy on her face. When I made up the difference, by giving her the extra help she needed. My hand to hold onto, so she could walk.

I don’t know which one of us had the bigger smile.

Today’s Gospel shows us a father desperate to get help for his son. Desperate and honest.

Honest about the limits of his own belief in Jesus’ ability to help his son.

Honest enough to admit it. Honest enough to make the most heartfelt request for help you could imagine. “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!”

The best part? What Jesus does next.

It’s how Jesus always responds. When we’re honest. And ask for help.

Jesus doesn’t give him a lecture about his lack of belief. Or tell him to believe harder.

Jesus sees the belief that he does have. But doesn’t make him wait until it’s good enough.

Jesus meets him where he is. And makes up the difference.

Knowing Jesus, I couldn’t tell you which one of them had the bigger smile.

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Judge ye not

A Moment before the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

One of the most effective ways to misunderstand the Bible?

Take a verse or phrase in isolation. Ignore the verses around it. Don’t ask about the original audience. Then apply that quote to…whatever. Preferably something completely unrelated to its original context.

When I learned how to do it growing up, we called it proof-texting.

What I figured out later is that proof-texting is a way to make the Bible say whatever you want. So you can pretend that your idea is actually God’s.

The verse that this gets done with the most?

“Judge ye not, lest ye be judged.” And it shows up in this Sunday’s Gospel.

People take “judge ye not” out of context.

All. The. Time.

To prove all kinds of points. Usually so they can go after someone else.

Which is the other problem with proof-texting (besides missing what God is really saying). It’s an easy way to abuse the Bible. As a weapon.

So what’s the context for “judge ye not?”

Jesus has just finished the Beatitudes. All the “blessed are the…” statements, and all the “woe unto you…” statements.   

The next thing He says is this Sunday’s Gospel. Where Jesus takes the Beatitudes from proverbs into practice. It’s all about living the Beatitudes.

Understood in its context, the meaning of “judge ye not, lest ye be judged” becomes clear.

It’s a condition of God’s mercy.

Just like the condition of God’s forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer (“…as we forgive those who trespass against us”).

I can’t expect God’s mercy, if I don’t give others my mercy.

Which means?

When I see the guy with the cardboard sign, I should buy him breakfast.

Not ask whether he’s worthy of breakfast.

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