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.

The Ultramarathon of Life

Feast of the Holy Family (December 29, 2013)

Sir 3:2-6, 12-14

Psalm 128

Col 3:12-21

Mathew 2:13-15, 19-23

I recently read a book by Sherry Weddell titled, “Forming Intentional Disciples.” At the very end, she describes an ultramarathon called the Leadville Trail 100 held in Colorado every year. It is nicknamed, “The Race Across the Sky” because the runners have to compete in elevations ranging between 9,200 – 12,620 feet up in the mountains. Leadville-Trail-100-Trail-LogoIt’s a grueling 50-mile out and 50-mile back struggle that begins on a Saturday at 4am. In order to successfully complete the race, the runners need to cross the finish line before the gun goes off at 10am the next day. If you expect to beat the gun, you really don’t have much time for sleep or resting. You have to stay in constant motion all day and night going up and down icy trails.  Roughly 500 people sign up every year to temp their fate and push their bodies to the limit.

I read about this just shaking my head wondering what sane person would want to do this! I get winded after 5 minutes of playing soccer with my kids for crying out loud. I could never do this race. Then I read more about the race and found the secret to reaching the finish line. No one runs alone. pacerEvery runner has a minimum of two volunteers. There are checkpoints throughout the course where volunteers hand out water, hot soup and other snacks. Aid stations are also available for runners to warm up, get weighed, change clothes and get checked out to make sure it’s safe for them to continue. Many of the runners have friends, called pacers, who take turns running beside them for miles at a time to help them keep the pace. Throughout the night, these running companions encourage, challenge and make sure their friends competing are hydrated and don’t get lost.

Sherry Weddell got to experience the beauty of the finish line a few years ago and also described it in her book. She was standing at the finish line one hour before the final gun was scheduled to go off and noticed a large support team of people wearing matching scarlet T-shirts. The front of the shirts read, “In loving memory of Greg.” Twenty-five year old Greg had drowned in a river the year before and his wife Beth was running the Leadville 100 in his memory. The mass of scarlet T-shirts were buzzing with excitement as word spread that Beth was only two miles away from the finish line with one hour left in the race. Immediately her army of supporters ran off to meet her. Sherry remained at the finish line watching grown men break down in tears as they crossed the line while moms were being cheered on to victory by their husbands and children. Then she saw it, up on the horizon…a sea of scarlet T-shirts in the distance surrounding a young woman, cheering her on as she limped towards the finish line. Beth’s pacer was by her side encouraging her, as all her friends and family carried her gear and ran beside her that last never-ending mile. In Sherry’s own words, “Beth was limping, but her face was radiant as she crossed the (finish) line eighteen minutes before the final gun went off.”

finish line 2

What an incredible accomplishment…to finish a one hundred mile ultramarathon, surrounded by your family and friends. If you think that’s neat, I have another ultramarathon to tell you about. It involves an older man and his very young wife. They took a 300-mile cross-country trek in a hot desert climate with their newborn son. However, this ultramarathon didn’t have people at checkpoints handing out food and water or offering them a change of clothes along the way. Nobody was there to help keep them hydrated or make sure they didn’t get lost. Plus they weren’t doing it for fun; they were doing it to save their son’s life because someone wanted him dead. They completed the ultramarathon and two years later, this family of three decided to do it all over again. This time they did it so that their son could fulfill his destiny and save all of us.

We can learn a lot from both of these marathons about what it means to be family. The first one teaches us that we need to surround ourselves with encouraging people and help each other out, especially when we are going through the up and down struggles of life. If you see someone you care about struggling, don’t just stand there and clap from a distance, go out and run beside them and help them to the finish line. So many people in today’s world are struggling with addictions, money problems, unemployment, marriage trouble, have challenges with raising children, have unfulfilling jobs or struggle to grow spiritually. We all could use a little encouraging.

The second marathon shows us that it doesn’t matter how large or small your family is, what matters is following God’s plan for your life. If you were paying attention to today’s Gospel, you should have caught on that the family who did this second marathon was Jesus, Mary and Joseph. We refer to them as the Holy Family for obvious reasons. Mary and Joseph were obedient to God. God’s angel asked Mary to be the Mother of God…she said YES. God’s angel asked Joseph to protect Jesus with his life…he said YES. They were parents of action. God spoke, they acted. I’d say that makes this a family we should take note of and try to imitate in our own families.

holy_family

I know some out there are thinking that it’s impossible to live up to those standards. I think all too often we look at Mary and Joseph and immediately give up because we view their holiness as unattainable. We view them as perfect and perfection is too hard to achieve. But listen closely to what I’m about to say…God doesn’t call perfect people; rather he calls sinners to change their hearts. That’s good news for us because we aren’t perfect. We’re sinners. He’s calling us. He wants us to change our hearts. So rather than throwing in the towel, do me a favor…stop trying to be perfect and work instead on being holy. The best place to start is with your own family. Ask God to give you the grace every day to be a role model for them. Pray for and with them. Show them it’s OK to forgive those who have wronged you. Be an encourager as your family goes through the ups and downs in the marathon of life and strives to cross that finish line. Surround yourselves with people of integrity. Try to live each day a little better than yesterday. Do these little things each day to become more holy and you too can one day experience the beauty of the finish line in heaven.

10_finish-line-heaven