Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Ready to fast

In many places around the world the tradition of Carnival (Latin for putting aside meat) or Mardi Gras (French for Tuesday of Fat/Grease) have become incredibly popular but disconnected from their roots. As Christians, we need to stay connected. Whether you choose the name carnival which underscores the older tradition still practiced by many Christians of not eating any meat through all of Lent, or the name Mardi Gras which underscored even the giving up of lard and other meat products; each of these names draws to the importance of tomorrow's fast. Eat it today because tomorrow you go hungry.

On Ash Wednesday we not only abstain from meat, but are also supposed to actually fast. The minimalist will always ask how much they can eat and still call it fasting. The idea is very simple you should end up going to bed hungry.

It is easy for us Americans to forget how many people in our own country go to bed hungry every night. They have no choice. On Ash Wednesday we go hungry by choice, as penance, a demonstration of our contrition and our hunger for God, our hunger for God's mercy.

Today many of us will eat in excess. It should remind us of all of the excesses in our lives. Today we look at how we have lived the last year, in particular the sin. We gather it all, and tomorrow we hand it all over to God. And we allow our bodies to feel hunger, that we might hunger more deeply for God.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Two days and counting

Today's fist reading from the Book of Sirach is the perfect prelude to Lent.

To the penitent God provides a way back, he encourages those who are losing hope and has chosen for them the lot of truth. Return to him and give up sin, pray to the LORD and make your offenses few.

In these last two days it is time for us to do a serious examination of conscience. We must look deep and acknowledge, not just the superficial sins, but the deeper more pervasive sins in our lives: prejudice, envy, an unwillingness to truly forgive, our judging of others. Often there are sins that are so deeply ingrained in us that we deny their existence or tell ourselves that these feelings are not sinful.

Sirach is realistic and knows that in this life none of us are going to live sin free, but we can all strive to "make [our] offenses few." Step one, however, is a willingness to call sin, sin. We must turn the light of truth on our own actions and our minds and most importantly our hearts.

With God there is always a way back, but in order to find our way back we must know where we are. We must acknowledge how far we have strayed. When we arrive in Church on Ash Wednesday, we should arrive with a true spirit of contrition. We should enter Lent with a concrete sense of our sins. Perhaps the four categories in the confiteor are helpful: thoughts, words, what I have done, what I have failed to do. God already knows our sins, but do we?

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Three days until Lent

With only three days until the beginning of Lent, today's gospel already invites us to shift our focus.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear.

This is not a call for us ignore our earthy life or body, but a reminder that they cannot be ends unto themselves. The end, the goal should always the heavenly. What we do with our earthly life our earthly body will determine in large degree our eternal life, in heaven or hell.

So it makes sense that we begin Lent on Ash Wednesday with a day of fasting (required for those age 18-59) and abstaining from meat required for all over 14 years old. Recommended for others.

But before we get to Wednesday now is the time for us to decide how will be live the three penitential practices of Lent: giving alms, prayer, and fasting. What can we do throughout Lent as an acknowledgment of our sin and desire for true conversion of life.

Programs like Operation Rice Bowl are fine but there should also be a very personal component. Where do I waste money? Stop the behavior, save that money, and give it to the poor. A suggestion.

For prayer, perhaps for the days of Lent I will not pray for myself. All of my prayer will be for others, and not just my friends and family. A suggestion.

And as for fasting or giving up something. What can you not imagine doing without? That might be the perfect place to start.

Lent is about being uncomfortable, it is about moving beyond talk and doing penance. Don't choose something impossible but choose prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that will challenge you.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Forever Young

Every day we see commercials for thousands of products that promise to keep us looking young and supplements that will keep our brains young. But what about our minds and hearts.

In today's gospel we read:

whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.

Notice that it doesn't say "like an adolescent." The gospel is referring to a young child. And the wonderful thing about young children is that they are incessantly inquisitive but also open to learning. They are living sponges. They may drive you crazy with questions but it is merely an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

Somewhere around adolescence we change. The ego takes over and we decide that we know better. We question but it is no longer in order to learn but in order to assert control. It become about power. And I'm sure developmental psychology would tells us why this is a good thing — unless we get stuck here.

The thing I am loving about being in my 50's is realizing that the older I get the dumber I am. In my 20's and 30's I was smart. I knew everything. There was nothing I couldn't figure out and usually on my own. And I was more that willing to show you how much I knew.

In my 50's I realize how complicated the world is and how incredibly small my knowledge is. There are no simple answers. If there were, philosophy and theology would cease to exist.

As Christians, we must never forget that the word disciple means student. God created us to be perpetual students: forever seeking knowledge, forever seeking truth. To be disciples means that we must rid ourselves of any adolescent hubris that remains, and live always as inquisitive open hearted little children. Then we will enter the kingdom of God.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Our greatest challenge

Both today's first reading and the gospel focus on relationship. In the first reading from Sirach we hear about what makes a true and faithful friend, in the gospel we hear about the permanence of marriage. But if we are not careful we can overlook what may be for most of us the greatest challenge, when we hear in Sirach

A kind mouth multiplies friends and appeases enemies,and gracious lips prompt friendly greetings.

When we think of sin, all to often, we focus on the sensual one like lust or gluttony. In the process we can overlook what can be our greatest source of sin, our mouths. There is good reason when we pray the confiteor (I confess....) we as for forgive four categories of sin:

thoughts, words, what we have done, and what we have failed to do.

Sirach today presents it from the positive angle: a kind mouth and gracious lips. The scriptures remind us of what we are called to be, what we can be.

We may all have uncharitable thoughts, but we can choose not to give voice to them. Speaking your mind is no virtue if the mind is not one with the mind of Christ, if the mind is filled with uncharitable thoughts. And while legally speaking the truth may be a defense against slander, it is not a defense before God. If the truth you speak is gossip. If the truth you speak is intended to tear another person down. Speaking the truth can still be a sin.

Language is one of the greatest gifts God as given to humanity. Today's first reading reminds us to us it wisely. As we prepare to enter the season of Lent on Wednesday, perhaps it is time to ask the questions: do I have a kind mouth; do I have gracious lips? Those phrases only sound awkward because the ideas are so far removed from our culture.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Receiving one child

In St. Mark today we hear the famous words of Jesus,

Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me.

These words have always held a very special meaning for me. Many of you know that I am adopted. What many do not know it that I was 4 years and three months old before I was adopted. When I was adopted on November 3 1964 (my gotcha date), no one really understood the significance of having spent my first four years as a foster child.  It was not until my adoptive parents died 10 months part in 1998 and 1999, and I was thrown into the most painful experience of my life, that I came to understand the long term negative effects of being a foster child. I had read about the dark night of the soul, but as the 21st century began I was living it. And it would take several years, a good spiritual director and a good psychologist for me to truly understand and find that peace of God which is beyond all understanding.

Now I can wake up ever day of my life  with a smile because I know in the deepest recesses of my heart that I am never without family, I am never alone.  I can now see that, while I may never know who my biological mother and father are, God has blessed me with other mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters,to paraphrase the scriptures, and my adorable baby sister. But I am one of the lucky few.

At any given moment there are over 400.000 children in the US in foster care, children who feel adrift in the world, without secure attachments, anchors. And for the children who simply "age out" of the system the statistics are horrendous. Many end up in on the street, in jail, or worse. In 2015 20,000 children simply aged out of the system.

In summer of 2013 I was asked to be a part of the statewide leadership team for Virginia Adopts. Our goal was to move 1000 children from foster families to forever families.  It was during these events that I realized that we former foster kids, whether we were adopted at 4 or 14, share a commonalities that it is difficult to express to others, and we who found our forever families must speak out for those who have not.

Virginia Adopts was an incredible success. Now Janet and Ryan Kelly with others have taken this mission to a whole new level with America's Kids Belong. And they will be the first to tell you that adopting a child who is not an infant is not easy. Yes, we come with baggage.  But nothing that cannot be healed with love and the grace of God, and the support services now available. Go to their website and check out what there are doing. Get involved on a local level.

Jesus tells us that whoever a receives a child such as this, receives him. My parents not only adopted me and two other children but served as foster parents for dozens of others. They were good foster parents. But there is something about the bond of adoption that changes a child's life forever. I know the security that came when I went from Wayne Patterson (the name given me by the Department of Social Services) to Wayne Lee Ball the son of John and Marcia Ball.  Today I pray for every one of my more that 400,000 brothers and sisters in foster care. And I pray for those who are contemplating adoption and those who should be contemplating adoption. These children are waiting. They are waiting to be received by you or someone you know.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Finding Healing

Divine Providence: When I was a seminarian, I did several talks around the country about Ministry with People with Disabilities. An all too generous person who heard me speak at one of these conferences paid for me to go on pilgrimage to the Shrine in France. What neither of us could know was that my first pariah assignment would also be to Our Lady of Lourdes in Richmond Virginia. Since then, this memorial has continued to hold a very special place in my life.

In the intervening 28 years I have learned an important lesson, something that I did not know when I travelled there. Perhaps the healing you need is not the one you think. We tend to focus on the physical, the visible. Often the deepest wounds are the invisible ones, the ones only God can see, the ones that we struggles to hide from others and even hide from ourselves.

There is probably no greater stigma in our society that the one associated with mental illness. It seems to be the only thing we won't talk about in public. And every day in this country that stigma has tragic consequences. Lives are cut short, and parents suffer their worst nightmare. Thankfully there are some organizations like The Cameron Gallagher K. Foundation, but not nearly enough and mental health services remain woefully inadequate.

Today let us turn to Our Lady and pray from healing: not just the healing of bodies, minds, and souls, but also a healing of society, of attitudes. Let us pray for every individual and every family suffering in silence. May the silence and the suffering be healed.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Redemptive Pain

It has been almost a year since the constant hip then lower back pain began. At first I thought it was simply the usual random issues that those of us with Cerebral Palsy deal with.  For months I did the usual things but none of them helped. I finally went to the doctor and in short it has turned out to be arthritis in my lower spine. Not much you can do about that.

Over the course of these months I have also been doing a bit of wrestling with God:the common, all to human: "Why me?" "Haven't I had enough to deal with in my life?"

I share this because what has come to me in prayer is a very simple truth:

Chronic pain forces us out of ourselves.  

If we direct our focus inward, the way much Pop spirituality would have us do, then all the  brain is going to find is the pain. And if we do that for very long we can get lost in the suffering and emptiness.   But if we turn our focus outward, away from ourselves then we simply cannot think about the pain.  The human mind cannot focus on two things simultaneously. We can switch our focus back and forth between objects but we cannot focus on two things at once.

Jesus taught us by word and example to always be focused on others.  Even at the moment of his crucifixion, he was focused on the thieves crucified with him, he was focused on his mother and the beloved disciple.

We live in a culture that sets the "self" as the highest good. But if we are Christians we are always looking outward and upward. We kneel in our Catholic Church's and we look to the tabernacle and Christ present in the Eucharist. We kneel at the foot of the cross. We know "it is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, aways and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord"

I have always loved Philippians 4:11 "For I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance." But God continues to show me new levels to what this simple phrase means.

All of us have selfishness and all us of experience pain in life. If we allow it, the latter can become the cure for the former, when touched by God's grace.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Faith, Patience, and Re-creation

Beginning today and running through next week, the first reading takes us back to the opening chapters of Genesis, to the creation of the known universe. As we read the first creation story today, we keep in mind that the Bible is not intended to be a physics, chemistry, or biology textbook. It is the ultimate Book of theology and anthropology. It tells us who God is, who we are, and what our relationships to one another and to God should be.

It begins with the most fundamental truth. The universe was created. It was not coincidence or accident, but intentionally brought into existence by a preexisting God.

The world Genesis tells us started out as "a formless wasteland"as our current translation has it. But the Hebrew is much more poetic in its description. The earth is "tohu-vbohu."

The first chapter of Genesis then uses "days" as a way of telling us that the earth was not an instantaneous creation, but one that took place in an orderly fashion, over time.

On the one hand, it is comforting to think that there is order to the universe and that God is guiding the process. On the other hand, it is precisely the creation over time that we don't much care for. If God had wanted to he could have brought the entire universe and everything on earth into being in an instant, but He didn't. He chose to do it step by step, is a painstaking careful and orderly process. And we know how long each "day" actually took.

If this is how it all began, why then do we expect that when chaos overtakes our personal lives, God will step in and fix it in an instant? The introductory verses of Genesis remind us that faith must go hand in hand with patience. When we turn to God in prayer we need to be patient and understanding that it is only "day" one.