Getting Out Of My Spiritual Funk

Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 18, 2016)

Isaiah 7:10-14

Psalm 24:1-6

Romans 1:1-7

Matthew 1:18-24

Time seems to be flying by like a speeding train and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. What do I mean? Just like that… the 4th candle is lit on the Advent wreath representing the last week of Advent and Christmas in only one week away.

I have a confession though. Can you keep a secret? I’m not feeling it this year. I just can’t seem to get in the “holiday spirit” for the life of me. It’s been an exceptionally trying year and I’m just worn down a bit. Plus I think the commercial side of Christmas, for me, it also getting a bit old. I mean… it’s the same thing every year. We celebrate Halloween and then all of a sudden, when we should be getting ready for Thanksgiving, that man in a red suit with his reindeer shows up! As we sit down to over indulge in a Thanksgiving feast with family, we turn on the radio for some pleasant background music, and lo and behold “Jingle Bells” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is playing on just about every bloody station! Then it’s a 30 day mad dash starting with Black Friday shopping, putting up the Christmas decorations, making sure everyone on our list has a present, planning meals and family gatherings, finding time to wrap the presents and still have enough money left over to pay our monthly bills. It can be stressful and exhausting.

I’ve been actively trying to get out of my funk but nothing has helped until I read Matthew’s Gospel passage for this weekend. It brought to mind a conversation I had with a Baptist friend of mine a few years ago. We were talking about who knows what when, out of the blue, he looked at me and said, “You Catholics really like Mary don’t you?” A little shocked, I merely replied, “Yup, we think she’s pretty cool.” He then said, “Well I’m Baptist, so the only time we ever talk about her is at Christmas because she gave birth to Jesus. So what’s the deal with Mary and Catholics?” Trying to keep this as simple as possible and without wanting to get into a heated debate, I said something like, “Mary was the first person to say yes to Christ. God told her she was to conceive His Son who would save us. She didn’t fully understand this, but she trusted God and said yes. So I guess you could say that Mary was the first Christian. We honor her yes and try to follow her example by saying yes to God.” Silence filled the room. After a few moments he started nodding his head in agreement and said, “You know…. you’re right. I’ve never thought of Mary in that way.”

With that conversation in mind, let’s look at today’s Gospel from Matthew. Today we hear the annunciation story from the perspective of Joseph instead of Mary. Fun fact…. did you know that Joseph doesn’t speak a single word in the New Testament? He does, however, fall asleep twice. Both times, an angel appeared to him in a dream to give him an urgent message from God.

Today’s Gospel recounts the first of these two dreams. Joseph just found out that his bride-to-be was pregnant… with someone else’s baby. I would imagine this would be problematic to most men in his situation. Yes? It pretty much means that your future bride is already unfaithful and untrustworthy before you have even exchanged the marriage vows. But rather then dragging Mary’s name through the mud, he decided to break off the engagement quietly. And remember, in those days women caught in adultery were stoned. So Joseph, being an upstanding guy, actually saved Mary’s life by keeping everything quiet. He didn’t want revenge or to get back at Mary, he just wanted to let her live her life in peace without him.

Thinking that was the end of the story, Joseph went to bed… probably trying to forget the horrible, stressful day that he just had. It was then that an angel of God appeared and told him, “Joseph, you’re going to have to trust God on this one. Your human brain can’t fully understand it, but Mary didn’t cheat on you. She’s actually more faithful then you can possibly imagine. Mary is pregnant through the Holy Spirit and the child she is carrying is going to save people from their sins. This is God’s plan, not yours. But God still needs you to take care of Mary and His son. Trust Him and do not be afraid.”

Now I’ve had some pretty vivid dreams in my day. I’ve even had dreams that seemed so real, that when I woke up, I had to lie there for a while trying to figure out what was real and what wasn’t. But what does Joseph do when he awoke? He doesn’t hesitate at all. According to Matthew, “He did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him.” Bottom line is that God asked Joseph to come out of his comfort zone and trust Him… and Joseph did just that.

So what am I now doing to get into the “Christmas spirit?” Instead of focusing on the worldly, modern view of Christmas, I’ve been focusing on trusting in God through the examples of Mary and Joseph. Neither of them understood fully what in the world God was doing with the birth of Jesus. All they understood was that God’s Son was coming to earth to save us from our sins. They were faithful enough to trust in God and allow Him to use their lives in that plan.

You and I are also part of God’s plan. I highly doubt though, that any of us can fully say with confidence that we know exactly what God has in store for us. That’s where faith comes in. No matter how messy your life may seem, no matter how much you don’t understand what is going on or why, no matter how much you may seem to be in spiritual “funk,” you still have to trust that God’s plan for you is better then anything you can do on your own.

That is what I challenge you to focus on this last week of advent as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Focus on saying, “yes” to God’s plan for your life.

Focus on trusting Him more and you less.

Look to Joseph and Mary as examples of what trusting in God is all about.

If you can do that, then you’ll realize that the best Christmas present is not bought in a store, but rather is found in a manger.

Restoring Joy to a Joyless World

3rd Sunday of Advent (December 13, 2015)

Zephaniah 3:14-18a

Isaiah 12:2-6

Philippians 4:47

Luke 3:10-18

Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to help out with the “Perryville Church Christmas Pilgrimage.” This is where we read the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke, one section at a time at different churches in Perryville. We started at the Church of God and heard about the Annunciation. Then we went to the First Baptist church and heard of the Visitation. The next stop was our very own St. Mary’s where we heard the beautiful Scripture passage known as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56). This is the famous passage where Mary shouts out, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” There were a total of 7 churches that participated in the pilgrimage. I was asked to give a brief reflection at St. Mary’s on the Magnificant and I wanted to share parts of it with you today… which granted, was a little intimidating to give a reflection on Mary to a room full of protestants in light of all the misconceptions that exist on our Catholic beliefs regarding Mary. So I took a deep breath and went for it…

I LOVE this time of year. When I was a child, I loved Christmas because it meant the arrival of Santa and presents. As I’ve matured in my years, and in my faith, I love Christmas because of the arrival of a baby…. the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. There are even times now when I get so caught up in the moment… the Christmas lights, singing carols, seeing my family all together watching a Christmas movie while eating popcorn… in these moments, I can feel the love of God so intensely that I just want to shout out with joy. This is very similar to what Mary is experiencing in her famous Magnificat from Luke’s Gospel.

Remember, Mary just had the angel Gabriel tell her, a young, unmarried virgin, that she was going to conceive God’s Son in her womb. Mary had her doubts and even questioned how this could happen…but she trusted.

Then she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth who also had experienced a miraculous conception. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were advanced in age and thought to have been barren. But God allowed Elizabeth to become pregnant with none other than John the Baptist; the famous New Testament prophet sent to proclaim that, “One mightier than I is coming.” Even as a fetus, John the Baptist could sense that Jesus was nearby in Mary’s womb. He got so excited that he, according to Scripture, leaped in his mother’s womb… he literally jabbed his elbow into his mother’s uterus when Mary came to visit Elizabeth.

This small “leap of faith” further confirmed in Mary’s mind that God’s plan was happening. The baby that she was carrying in her womb was about to change the world. And all of that joy, all of that love that she felt is why Mary cried out, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

Now, we as Christians know that our words and actions should be “different” from the rest of the world. We are called to reflect Jesus Christ in our kind words and loving actions to everyone we encounter and repent when we mess up. But can you imagine having so much of God’s love in your heart that your very SOUL “oozed” the love of God. My SOUL proclaims the greatness of the Lord.

You see, all of the love from the Father, all of the love from the Holy Spirit and all of the love from the baby in her womb caused Mary to explode with joy at the anticipation of Christmas…the anticipation of the birth of Jesus Christ our Savior. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

Why then, do I bring up the Magnificant when it’s not even in today’s Scripture readings? If you watch the news or are on social media, even for just a minute or two, you’ll see that the world is losing all joy. People are depressed, angry, scared and losing hope. We as Christians, especially during this Advent season, need to restore the joy in our world. Why? Because the birth of Jesus Christ is the ultimate love story that has the ability to restore joy and life to our world.

Here’s what I mean… Just look at some of the beautiful language that is used in today’s Scripture passages: “Shout for joy, O daughter of Zion! Be glad and exult with all your heart!” “Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged.” “Cry out with joy and gladness.” “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!”

God broke into the world in the most miraculous way imaginable. God became man, through the womb of a virgin to restore hope and joy to our broken world. How appropriate because one can’t help but look at a newborn child and smile with joy.

So if you, like the crowds in today’s Gospel, are now asking, “What should we do?” I suggest that we use Mary and John the Baptist as our models and proclaim the good news with the joy that this world so desperately needs.

Allow your soul to proclaim the greatness of the Lord to all those you encounter. Allow your joy-filled spirit to rejoice in the good news of the coming of our Mighty Savior, Jesus Christ!

God’s Barn

1st Sunday of Advent (November 30, 2014)

Is 63:16B-17, 19B; 2-7

Ps 80:2-3, 15-16, 158-19

1 Cor 1:3-9

Mark 13:33-37

Today we celebrate the First Sunday of Advent.  It is a season of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. The word Advent is derived from the Latin word for “coming.” Specifically we are preparing for the coming of the Incarnation, God becoming flesh, on Christmas Day, as a baby. Now if you’ve been paying attention to the stores around here, you would have thought that Advent, or Christmas for that matter, started the day after Halloween. We as a society have gone crazy when it comes to getting ready for Christmas. That type of “preparation” is NOT what I’m referring to when I mention Advent. Don’t get me wrong, I love decorating our Christmas tree, putting lights on the house, singing Christmas carols and wrapping presents. But I wander if our society is doing all of this because they are more excited to celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ or the coming of Santa Claus??

1st sunday advent

I want to read you a story that will hopefully get you thinking about what we really should be preparing for during Advent and why. It was originally told by radio personality Paul Harvey:

Now the man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a scrooge, he was a kind, decent, mostly good man. Generous to his family, upright in his dealings with other men, but he just didn’t believe all that incarnation stuff which the churches proclaim at Christmas time. It just didn’t make sense, and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. He just couldn’t swallow the Jesus story about God coming to earth as a man.

“I’m truly sorry to distress you”, he told his wife, “but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas eve”, he said he’d feel like a hypocrite, that he’d much rather just stay at home, but that he would wait up for them. So he stayed and they went to the midnight service.

Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier and then went back to his fireside chair and began to read his newspaper. Minutes later, he was startled by a thudding sound. Then another. And then another; sort of a thump or a thud. At first, he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window. But when he went to the front door to investigate, he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They had been caught in the storm and in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window.

Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter if he could direct the birds to it. Quickly, he put on a coat and goulashes and tramped through the deepening snow to the barn.

He opened the doors wide and turned on a light. But the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them in. So he hurried back to the house, fetched bread crumbs, sprinkled them on the snow making a trail to the yellow lighted, wide open door to the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the bread crumbs and continued to flop around helplessly in the snow. He tried catching them. He tried “shooing” them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms. Instead, they scattered in every direction except into the warm lighted barn.

Then he realized that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could let them know that they can trust me. That I’m not trying to hurt them, but to help them. But how? Because any move he made tended to frighten them, confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led, or “shooed” because they feared him.

“If only I could be a bird”, he thought to himself “and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to the safe warm barn, but I would have to be one of them so they could see and hear, and understand.”

At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. He stood there listening to the bells, Adeste Fidelis, announcing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow and wept (after realizing these simple birds helped him finally understand why God came to us in human flesh).

Christmas, in its true meaning, is extremely powerful and full of tremendous hope for Christians. Year after year, sign after sign, covenant after covenant, God has been trying to usher us back into His barn. But we just couldn’t quite get there. So God became man… so that we could get back to God. I’ve heard people around Christmas time say that baby Jesus was born to die. Although this is a true statement, I believe there is so much more to the story. Jesus was born to show us how to love authentically and how to be holy. He showed us how to live and ultimately how to die to ourselves and to the sins that enslave us. And through His death, we now have a chance at eternal life. But without Him coming to us, as one of us, we would not have followed Him. We would have had no hope for salvation.

You see, I’ve studied the mortality rate of humans and you know what…we humans have a 100% mortality rate. Yup, not a single one of us will escape death. But, we also have a 100% immortality rate after death. You are either going to spend your next life eternally in hell or, by the grace of God, eternally in heaven with your Creator. So why then do we spend more time preparing for this life, which could be over in an instant and at any given second, when we really should be putting more effort into preparing for our eternal life after death?

This is what the Gospel parable is alluding to that we heard today. “Jesus said to His disciples, “Be watchful! Be alert!” Why? Jesus tells us, “The Lord of the house is coming. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all, ‘Watch!’” This watchfulness is referring to us meeting Christ face to face. Whether it be at our death or at His second coming. Both of them will come whether we are ready or not. Whether we are fully awake or have been caught sleeping and unprepared.

This is what we should be preparing for during Advent. This kind of preparation is much tougher than hanging lights on our houses or putting up a beautiful Christmas tree. It’s tougher because it will cause us to change our behaviors, our attitudes and the way we treat others. Although it may be tough, I promise you, it will be worth it in the end if it means an eternal life with God in heaven.

Allow this Advent season to be one of prayerful reflection and preparation. Be awake to God calling you to be closer to Him. Don’t be left out in the cold when it comes to where you will spend your eternal life. Allow God’s love to usher you back into His barn.

barn

Touchdown!!!

4th Sunday of Advent (December 23, 2012)

Mi 5:1-4a

Ps 80

Heb 10:5-10

Lk 1:39-45

Madonna_and_Child

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

When I say “Hail Mary,” one of two images should come to your mind. If said in a sports bar during the big game, one may picture a last minute desperation throw of the football into the end zone for a game-winning touchdown. A good Catholic hopefully will think of the prayer that I posted above. Both of them however, are very much related.

For those of us that are “football-illiterate,” a Hail Mary play refers to a very long forward pass thrown in hopes to score a last minute touchdown. The chances of catching the pass are very slim because many players from each team usually bunch up in the end zone and all go for the ball at the same time.

hail-mary-passes

It’s a desperation play when there are no other options left, a last-ditch effort. The Hail Mary and football relationship can be traced back to the Notre Dame football teams of the 1930’s when they would pray it in a huddle on the field. However, the Hail Mary play as we know it today became famous because of a game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings during the 1975 NFL playoffs. The Cowboys quarterback, Roger Staubach, had his team on the 50-yard line with 24 seconds left in the game. They were down by 4 points so a field goal was not an option, they needed to score a touchdown quickly or their season was over. Staubach took the snap, pump-faked left, then turned to his right and hurled the ball some 50 yards down field…

staubach

…to wide receiver Drew Pearson who somehow managed to catch the ball for the game winning touchdown.

HailMaryCatch

Staubach didn’t see if Pearson caught the football because he was tackled immediately after he threw it. Apparently it’s hard to see the end of a play if you’re laying flat on your back at mid-field! Staubach, a Catholic, told reporters in a post-game interview that after he threw that desperation forward pass he closed his eyes and prayed a Hail Mary. The name stuck!

hail-mary-thumbjpg

The Scriptural roots for part of the Hail Mary prayer come from today’s Gospel reading. Mary, pregnant with the Christ-child, traveled to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was pregnant with John the Baptist.

Upon seeing Mary, Elizabeth cried out, “blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” This is why we as Catholics honor Mary. We don’t worship her as a god; we honor her as a blessed woman whose very womb was carrying the perfect blessed fruit…a fruit that would feed our very souls and give us strength to live our lives.

elizabeth-greeting-mary

Elizabeth continues, “and how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Mary was pregnant with our Lord and Saviour. This is why Catholics can refer to Mary as the “Mother of God” and be scripturally accurate. God could have chosen anyone for this task, but he asked a humble young lady to become the mother of His only Son.

Next Elizabeth says, “For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears the infant in my womb leaped for joy.” It’s interesting to note that John the Baptist, still in his mother’s womb, leaped for joy when the original Hail Mary prayer was said in the presence of his Lord who was also still in His mother’s womb. So anyone who leaps off the couch during a Hail Mary in football is really just mimicking John the Baptist! Both versions of the Hail Mary, the play and the prayer, have the potential to bring great joy to our lives if we’re cheering for the right team!

Elizabeth finishes by proclaiming, “blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Here Elizabeth acknowledges that Mary’s pregnancy was part of God’s divine plan of salvation. Mary may not have fully understood it, but still she trusted and said yes to His proposal when she could have easily said no. This is because God never forces Himself on anyone. He is a gentleman and knows that real love has to be freely given and freely received. Mary freely loved God and therefore submitted to His will instead of her own.

Annunciation

Christmas is only a few days away. It’s a day when we gather as a Church and celebrate the birth of our Saviour. Sure there’s a lot of excitement this time of year. Talks of Santa, reindeer, presents, stockings, feasts with family. It’s easy to see and feel the magic that Christmas has on so many of us.

santa_sleigh

But it is all for nothing if we forget the true gift of Christmas… that our Father in heaven gave us His only Son through the “yes” of a willing disciple, Mary. Mary’s example of total devotion to God and her willingness to set aside her wants and desires in order to better serve Him is the message we need to be spreading this time of year. What can we do to be more open to His plan? How can we better follow Him? When God becomes first in our lives, all the other things that tend to clutter up the real meaning of Christmas suddenly become less important.

Before Christmas ever existed, there was a lot of chaos in the world. People were waiting for God to send them a savior and many were growing impatient. Because of this, some of them strayed from the right path. Some even started to deny God’s existence or put their faith in some other so-called “god.” Our Heavenly Father saw His children on earth living in a way that made His heart ache. Not because He was mad, but because He loves us so much and truly wants the best for us. God saw that His children were in a losing game and the clock was ticking away. So while the other team just pointed and laughed, God huddled up his angels and called out the next play.

angels

It was time for a last minute desperation play, a last-ditch effort, but something tells me God had a good feeling it might just work. So He took the snap, pump-faked left, turned to His right hand and then hurled His Son down to earth with a mighty heave.

birth-baby-jesus-325

Luckily, His best wide receiver…I mean disciple…Mary, was there with her arms wide open, ready and willing to catch Him. She was so focused on God that there was no way she was going to fumble this one! Mary then carried her divine Son into the end zone…I mean manger…and in the presence of her husband, sheppards and the magi, did the best victory dance in the history of the world on that first ever Christmas day.

manger

There is still a lot of chaos in the world, just turn on the news! But now we have a choice. We can follow Mary’s example and focus all of our efforts on Jesus…or we can continue to clutter up our lives with stuff that doesn’t matter. When our minds and hearts are totally focused on Jesus Christ, we can catch any pass God, or this crazy world, throws our way!