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golferFor those who do not golf, there is a fine line in one of the basic mechanics of the golf swing (and probably the baseball swing as well, but I don’t play baseball) that will effect everything. It has to do with how tightly or loosely you grip the club. Too loose, and the club flies out of your hand. Too tight, and you lose both distance and accuracy as the plane of the swing is now controlled by the small muscles in your hands and not the big muscles of your hips and legs and back. Somewhere in between too tight and too loose is the ‘just right’ zone where you maximize club head speed and ball striking accuracy.

I suspect each parent with now grown children recognizes that same fine line they tried to walk in the rearing of their children. Hold on to them too loosely and they spin out of control – without boundaries or guidelines to tether them to both responsibility and possibility. Hold them too tightly, and they never learn the freedom to make mistakes and fail and fall and be hurt, and yet know it is within their power to pick themselves up and start anew.

The little we know of Jesus’ childhood come to us from Luke’s gospel – and even then, we only see two snapshots – today’s gospel and the gospel of the presentation in the temple when he was 12. What do they teach us about how the Holy Family navigated those waters?

From the first of these two stories we learn that the Holy Family did not hold Jesus too loosely. Thoughtful parents also tend to the spiritual and emotional needs of their children, with equal discipline and commitment as they care for the physical needs. We see Mary and Joseph named Jesus in accordance to the message of the angel. Before he could talk or walk, they brought him to the Temple. They brought him there because they knew to thank God for him, and to ask God for help raising him to adulthood. They knew one of their responsibilities and great joys was to raise children in the faith.

I had a conversation at a wedding reception last night with a couple who are realizing that it is time for them to come to a decision about church attendance, precisely because of their children. Unlike some parents who leave that decision to their kids, under the guise of ‘allowing them to make up their own mind”, they recognize it is part of the ‘not too loose’ grasp they need to have for their children. Just as they don’t leave choices on nutrition and bed times and playing in the middle of the street to the kids, they know that a solid witness in their own lives to matters of faith is crucial.

templeFrom the story of Jesus being left behind at the Temple at age 12, we learn that the Holy Family also did not hold him too tightly. We know the story. In their customary yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, (again, witness to not holding too loosely) Jesus is inadvertently left behind, because they trust him to be among the relatives and friends who were with them on the journey. Frantic hours are spent trying to find him. And, suddenly, like the mother of Kevin McCallister in the second Home Alone movie, they realize exactly where to look for him – in the temple. There they found him, confounding the religious teachers with his uncanny grasp of mature and complex religious matters. What a testament he was to the spiritual foundation that Mary and Joseph laid for him, but also what a testament to the unique relationship he had with his Heavenly Father.

Mary and Joseph did not hover over his every moment. They did not keep Jesus tied to their hip, always in their sight. They gradually gave him space to grow up, to mature, to ask questions, to spread his wings. This is not an easy gift for parents to give their children. We are frightened by the violence and suffering in the world, from which we rightly want to protect our children. But we harm them also when we try to bulldoze down every challenge in their path, and hover over them so closely that they fail to learn to stand and fall and get back up again.

I realize that many here are past the ‘active child rearing years’, at least as parents, and perhaps even as grandparents. Yet these two rules – not too tightly – not too loosely – also apply to all the relationships of we are a part. Do I give my spouse, my friend, my fiancé, my grown son, my aging parent that same set of both roots and wings critical to their growth even now? Take a lesson from the Holy Family these days or from the golf course. Either way, the message is the same – not too loose, not too tight… (take an imaginary golf swing…)

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On Day 23 of Fr. Robert Barron’s Advent reflections, he offers a wonderful insight into the “Holy Family” of Jesus. I share it with you today.

The opening lines of Matthew’s Gospel-and hence the first words that one reads in the New Testament-are a listing of the genealogy of Jesus, the 42 generations that stretch from Abraham to Christ. If the Word truly became flesh, then God had not only a mother, but also a grandmother, cousins, great-aunts, and weird uncles. If the Word truly dwelt among us, then He was part of a family that, like most, was fairly dysfunctional, a mix of the good and bad, the saintly and the sinful, the glorious and the not so glorious. And this is such good news for us.

Let me highlight just a few figures from Jesus’ family tree. Matthew tells us that the Messiah was descended from Jacob, a great patriarch and hero of Israel, and also a man who wrestled with God. In a lyrical passage from the 32nd chapter of the book of Genesis, we hear that Jacob struggled all night with the Lord and was wounded permanently in the process. I imagine that there are some reading these words who have wrestled all their lives with God, questioning, doubting, wondering, struggling mightily with the Lord, perhaps even bearing spiritual wounds as a consequence. Well, the Messiah came forth from Jacob and was pleased to be a relative of this fighter.

Matthew’s genealogy informs us that Ruth was an ancestor of the Lord. Ruth was not an Israelite, but rather a Moabite, a foreigner. I would be willing to bet that there are some reading this who have felt all their lives like outsiders, not part of the “in” crowd, perhaps looked at askance by others. Well, the Messiah came forth from Ruth the foreigner and was pleased to be her relative.

And then there is Rahab. As you recall from the book of Joshua, Rahab was a prostitute living and working in Jericho at the time of the Israelite conquest of the promised land. Are there people reading these words who feel like Rahab? Who think that their whole lives have been sunk in sin, who have become unrecognizable to themselves? Well, the Messiah came forth from Rahab the prostitute, and he was pleased to be her relative.

The good news of Christmas is that God himself pushed into the dysfunctional and ambiguous family of man. And He continues to join us, even though we, like so many of His Israelite ancestors, are unworthy of Him. Like them, we are flawed, compromised, half-finished. But He becomes our brother anyway. That’s the amazing grace of the Incarnation.

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December 28, 2014

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emmanuelSome of us, as children, were told that the way a new baby comes into the world is that it is delivered by a stork. Perhaps you have seen the illustrations of a stork with a cleanly wrapped bundle to be delivered to your doorstep or through your chimney. One minute, there is no baby. The next minute, there is your baby, all clean, powder fresh and perfect. If I were going to have a baby [– and I am not] – that is how I would like the process to go. Nice, neat, clean, no discomfort, no effort, no pain. That would be such a nice deal, I suspect for many.

When it comes to God and us, I suspect most of us secretly wish for the stork approach to God – quick, painless, no work on our part. Today’s Gospel makes it abundantly clear that in spite of what most of our Christmas cards look like, God did not just deliver some little neatly wrapped bundle of joy. No, the whole process was messy, involved, and hard. To complicate the already difficult act of childbirth, Mary’s ‘normal’ pregnancy/delivery, was co-opted in the swirl of world events with the great Roman Census. On the road, strange city, no family midwife or doctor, Mary, saddle sore from the ride, finds herself giving birth in a stable. Joseph had to have been frantic, searching for any kind of room, until at last he was at least able to beg those humble lodgings from an overtaxed innkeeper. It was into that concrete messiness that God CHOSE to be birthed.

From the very beginning, God was trying to teach us that God is not SEPARATE from us, like a stork delivering some little completed package for us. No, God came into the messiness of it all, bearing new life, not from outside the process, but right in the middle of it all. And Jesus’ birth is a divine pledge, isn’t it – of God’s choice to be EMMANUEL – God with us, supporting, encouraging, helping in the painful process that births new life. That is how God ALWAYS loves us. God is not aloof … but is always in the mess with us.

I was reminded of that yesterday, when I went to take my mom to the doctor. Mom is 17 days shy of 90, and her short term memory is mostly gone. Which is painful for us, her children to see, but I suspect, even more painful for her. I promised I would call her in the morning but the phone line was constantly busy. I did catch her right as I left and told I’d be there in a half hour – get ready. I get to her apartment at Our Lady of Life, she opens the door, and there she is, stocking feed, hair disheveled and going in a hundred different directions. And then she has to brush her teeth, and as she turns, I see blood in her hair from where she had fallen, and some blood in the carpet. And so I am trying to make sure she is okay, and get her into shape, and get some stain remover from the carpet and make sure she’s not bleeding, and she’s trying to run a comb through her hair, and the clock is ticking for the appointment. Then she keeps looking for something she doesn’t quite remember what it is. I ‘find’ her lost glasses, in her purse, inside the glass case where she put them, and we head out. I am not sure what I was expecting, during the trip to the doctor, but that was not it. And yet…
… on the way home, as she forgot for the 10th time what she was talking about mid sentence, she paused and said: “Thanks for being so good to me, Billy. Thanks God for all my kids for being so good to me.” Wow, I thought – “Here’s 90 old mom, hair still matted with some of the blood from her fall; who was startled when I reminded her that Christmas was two days away – and on some level “Knows” that everything is falling apart – and yet can still voice her thanks to the God whom is the center of everything. Talk about finding God in the mess.

That is the pledge of Christmas. That in EVERY circumstance of life, God is EMMANUEL – God with us.

So maybe your life is like my day with mom yesterday. Or maybe it is the sadness of missing parent who just passed away. Maybe, like one of my students, you are praying that the family Christmas gathering does not turn into a shouting match again. Maybe like the people in Ferguson, you are trying to figure out how Christ, the Prince of Peace might help us find a way forward to a just and non-violent society where every life matters. Here God’s pledge to you this day: – I am with you in all these moments…
So too, in the blessing of family being together from out of town; – in the goodness of the welcome and greetings we receive from strangers, – in the charity of folks who give so generously this time of year; in a thousand ways, may we know, both in the good times and the bad, that God is with us

Do you pray to God as if God were the stork? As if everything would ‘miraculously be dropped into our laps just by our wishing it? Christmas reminds us that God is bigger than that, and has a better plan than that. Instead of dropping new life upon us from the outside, God chooses to redeem us from within. So in the mess and muck, the joy and laughter, the struggle and yearning of these days, let the Christ be born in you…
Merry Christmas!

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marqueeIt is an interesting week to be in the film making business. For the first time that I am aware of, a major film company, Sony, cancelled a debut of a new movie because of cyber attacks, hacking of company data and email threats of terror attacks on theaters carrying “The Interview” on Christmas Day. The show was supposed to be a comedy about a plot to assassinate the North Korean leader. Though it is too early to tell, I suspect this will have a ripple effect, making it more difficult for filmmakers to come up with funding and investors for movies that need to be told, but take up controversial or religiously charged topics

Interestingly enough, this 4th week of Advent, the church asks us to consider just that: would we be willing to invest in not just a movie, but in Christmas? Now, most of us are not media moguls, with the deep pockets needed to fund a movie. So imagine, if you will, the work it would take to fund a movie about Christmas to someone who knew nothing about the Christmas story and the events of the world’s salvation. Even before the cyber attacks – I think they would have a hard time rousing support for that project. They’d ask for a synopsis. You’d show them today’s gospel. They’d read it. “This is about the salvation of the world – hmm. They are doing it all wrong.” (The internet judgment for this story has a simpler way to say that: “FAIL”.) Can you imagine the questions they’d be asking about the project?

You are going to set this story of salvation WHERE? If you were planning the event that will bring salvation to everyone, you’d put it on the grandest stage, where it could get the most exposure. God begins this story of Jesus in a small country barely noticeable on the world stage, and in a tiny village in that country barely noticeable on the Israeli stage. Nazareth was not Jerusalem, much less Athens or Rome.

Wait – how old is the main character and who is she? What an unlikely character was Mary to play such a starring role in God’s great mysterious plan of salvation! Mary would likely have been around 13 or 14 years old when the angel appeared to her. So a Middle School or Junior High girl from a nobody family with no acting training is going to play the ‘Best Supporting Actress role?” And you think that is going to work?

Where are the special effects? Explosions? The light sabers? Instead of splitting open the heavens with the arrival of a conquering Messiah accompanied by a legion of angels, amazing pyrotechnics and explosions to alert everyone of the impending good news, you’re going to do what? You are going to send this savior into our history, just as every other human has come into the world since the birth of Adam and Eve’s children – as a small baby? That’s your premise – that’s your ‘go to’ story about salvation?

And let me get this straight: It all hinges on ONE word, and you are shooting this scene LIVE, NO SCRIPT? What will you do if she says no? Mary is presented with a daunting calling by the angel. Her world will be turned upside down, in order for our world to be turned right side up. After the angel’s announcement; after the prophecy and assurances that God would bless this child; after the reassuring sign of the pregnancy of her kinswoman, Elizabeth;—after all of this, the angel fell silent, and all heaven with him, waiting for the answer of a young teenage girl. What would she say? What if she says, “no”? It was a huge risk for Mary and an even larger investment for her. All she was and hoped for and planned in the movie of her life, would go out the proverbial window with that simple yes. So the angel waited… And God waited… And the world waited…

But here is the hard truth of the fourth Sunday of Advent. God, the casting director, is still waiting for us to invest in this movie. God still waits for us to make the commitment to that drama of salvation, not as it was played out 2000 years ago in that nowhere town by a unknown teen, through a one word answer, – but as it is played out in the community of Ferguson, the classrooms of our failing Normandy Schools, and the violence of the drug and gang torn streets of St. Louis. God still waits on us, as he waited on Mary’s yes.

Will YOU invest in the story of Christmas this year?
Or, maybe the better question, because you are already here – HOW will you invest in the story of Christmas this year?

original beginning-

I have received (already) about 10 email promotions about the movie series A.D. – to be aired beginning this Easter. The movie will cover the first ten chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. Got me to thinking about what goes into a good movie. You need plot – a story that must be told. Interesting characters to bring to life. Good actors to play the roles. A setting. A good visual location. A good beginning and a good ending. Lots of behind the scenes people to do sound and light and effects and the like. But most important, it needs to be bigger than life. Big enough to carry the story, the human drama, the mystery.

This 4th week of Advent, we are introduced to movie making process of the history of our salvation. The funny thing is this. If I was approached by the director to help finance their concept for this ‘movie’ – I think I would have a hard time plunking down any kind of cash to support the endeavor. It would be hard for me to invest in this movie/story. They are doing it all wrong. (the internet judgment for this story would be one word: “FAIL”.) I would have questions:

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* Click image below to view bulletin (pdf)

December 21, 2014

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Visions of more than sugarplums…

“There is a divine dream which the prophets and rabbis have cherished and which fills our prayers, and permeates the acts of true piety. It is the dream of a world, rid of evil, by the grace of God as well as by our efforts…to the task of establishing the kingship of God in the world. God is waiting for us to redeem the world. We should not spend our life hunting for trivial satisfactions while God is waiting constantly and keenly for our effort and devotion.

 

The Almighty has not created the universe that we may have opportunities to satisfy our greed, envy and ambitions. We have not survived that we may waste our years in vulgar vanities. The martyrdom of millions demands that we consecrate ourselves to the fulfillment of God’s dream of salvation…”

 

– Abraham Heschel

As we celebrate this Fourth week of Advent, we are invited to step inside the divine dream of God for our world. I suspect most of us do a better job of saying what the dream is not. Abraham Heschel does a wonderful job of speaking to what that dream is not –trivial satisfactions; greed, envy, ambitions and vulgar vanities. Even a world ‘rid of evil’ is still a description of what the dream is not.

Perhaps it is the nature of fallen man, that we know what something is not before we know what it is. Perhaps that is why the work in the aftermath of Ferguson is so difficult. We know what is NOT present, what is unjust, what is not happening long before we can see what might and could be there. In addition, there are a thousand different ‘takes’ on what is not there. But to name what needs to be there, and what that looks like, that takes a lot longer.

Perhaps that is why Jesus needed ‘to come down among us’ – because he knew we would have to see what the kingdom IS before we would ever understand it. We would have to see what love does before we would ever trust it. We would have to see how another lived the dream before we could ever learn how to live it our-selves.

Jesus was not born among us to satisfy that which is small within us. Rather, He was born among us to enkindle in us that divine dream of love. He came down, as the old song says: “that we might have life… have love… have joy… have peace.” And He came down to teach us not to stop in our efforts until every person on this planet knows the same truth.

Instead of letting sugarplums dance in our head this Christmas, what if we dared to let the dream of God dance there instead….

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* Click image below to view bulletin (pdf)

December 14, 2014

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clockWhat does this sound do to you? <<Ticking clock sound >>
• For some, that is the sound of emptiness, boredom. It brings to mind that feeling of the class or meeting that will never end. After sitting through as much as we think we could stand, we check and – only three minutes have passed! For some younger ones, it is the painful realization that Christmas is still ELEVEN MORE SLEEPS away. Time moves so-o-o slowly.
<<Ticking>> For others, this sound produces the opposite reaction: “Oh no – there’s not enough time. It’s all going too fast! Like a time-bomb ticking down, we feel, “Time’s a-wasting. So much to do … so little time”
<<Ticking>> For some, time moves much too slowly; for others much too quickly. But for fully-awake Christians in Advent, this is the sound of hope.
<<Ticking>> My brothers and sisters, that is an important Advent sound. For Advent is all about time. And Advent teaches us “Time is pregnant.” Time is pregnant. Time is pregnant with God.

We light our third Advent candle this weekend, and those candles are more than “counting down to Christmas”. They are a reminder that God has entered into time and transformed it. God is there to be birthed into EVERY MOMENT, for those who are awake. Each moment, whatever the circumstances, whatever we are doing, God is there to be birthed for those who are awake.

There are those who have discovered this, those who have learned to find the presence of God in time. Today’s scriptures give us three: Isaiah; Paul; John the Baptist. None of them had easy lives. As a matter of fact, they each knew great hardship and rejection. Yet, here we have: Isaiah saying: “God is the joy of my soul.” St. Paul telling us: “Rejoice always. In ALL CIRCUMSTANCES give thanks…” And John the Baptist trying to wake us up to the presence of Christ in time! “There IS one in your midst…” even now. Be aware of him.
In spite of the challenges – even heartaches – of their lives, these three are known for their hope; their joy; their urgency; their vitality: They came to see GOD IN TIME…
How do WE do that? I suspect for most of us, we spend a great deal of our time living in the past or the future. Wouldn’t it be great if there was an app on our phones that would beep if it found us living in either of those times? — that would remind us to wake up to the NOW.
So how do we do that? How do we move from time as obstacle, or even as enemy, to time as pregnant with God?

The key discipline is mindfulness … awareness … learning to be awake to NOW. It is something we only get better at through practice. For me, a quick closing of my eyes, a deep breath, a pausing at the top of that breath, with a whispered prayer: Now, Lord, let me be aware of NOW. Let me become aware of what this moment holds.”

Each year, Advent comes with its invitation to be awake. Some here are living their 14th, 64th or 104th Advent. However many Advents any of us have had, it is time to wake up to THIS one… So what if – these next two weeks – every time we looked at a clock, or heard one tick, we tried to become aware of NOW?
• Brushing your teeth; paying a bill; waiting at a stoplight? Stop the mind for just a second and become aware of NOW.
• Writing thank you notes after a funeral; putting a textbook into a backpack; bundling the kids into the car? That moment is pregnant with God.
• Vacuuming the hallway; sending a text; putting on our socks: become mindful of that moment
Whatever we’ve got to do … as well as whatever we choose to do… Advent invites us to be awake as we do so.

<< Ticking Clock Sound through rest of homily>>
 Perhaps you can’t wait for something to be over, or to get here, and it seems that time will never end
 Perhaps, it all seems to be going by much too quickly.

But when we are awake Christians, this is the best sound in the world. For one of the gifts Advent teaches us: time is pregnant. THIS MOMENT HOLDS GOD…
<< Clock louder for ten seconds, then slowly fades away >>

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It’s beginning to look at lot like…

Next Sunday, Dec. 21, we need help in transforming our always beautiful St. Ann church into our stunningly beautiful “St. Ann at Christmas” church. Trees need to be wrestled into place, light strands need to be untangled and strung, crèche figurines and stands need to be unpacked and placed, and most things need to be put into place on that Sunday afternoon. We will begin after the 11:00 a.m. mass – so if you are coming from another mass that weekend, already dressed in sap-resistant clothes, then 12:15 should be a perfect time to be put to work to help us put up MOST of the decorations.

That being said, the Poinsettias will not be arriving until SOMETIME on Tuesday, Dec. 23rd. We are hopeful they will arrive in the morning. All 85 of them will be arriving then. So if you could be on a ‘short list’ of hale and hearty Indians, (not chiefs) willing to move them where commanded, we would love to hear from you. Let Pat Marstall know a phone number where you can be reached on short notice that Tuesday morning.

I do want to take this opportunity to thank Kate Garrett for overseeing our Art and Environment for all things liturgical these past few years. She, assisted by Velja and Bob Lacey have been a huge blessing for our worship space. And a belated thanks goes to Eileen Nebel for creating some new coverings for the side credence tables in the sanctuary (where the chalices and ciborium from mass are placed after communion). The former ones had endured too many stains to be cleaned, and needed to be gently ‘retired’. Thanks, Eileen, for that gift to our worship.

The schedule for Christmas and New Years is as follows:
Christmas eve – masses at 5p.m. and MIDNIGHT and on Christmas morning at 10:00 a.m. Masses for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God will be at 5p.m. on New Year ’s Eve and at 10:00 a.m. New Year’s Day.
… … … … …
Finally, in a separate note, let me say a word of thanks to Gary Uthoff’s law partner, Dave Adam, for donating a snow blower to the parish for use in cleaning the side-walks. The good news about this donation is that it practically guarantees a warm winter, just like carrying an umbrella on a golf course guarantees a dry round. If you have it, you don’t usually need it. But if you need it, you usually don’t have it. Now that we have it… 😉

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