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Thursday Reflection 5.23.19

May 23, 2019
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.” (Luke 6:32)
There are (more than) a handful of teachings from Jesus that have the same effect as a slap to the face. This verse is one such reminder that living into the Good News is at times so beyond our own power.
Here is a very simple (and simplistic) “for instance.” I know that a very broken little dog adopted us a few years ago. While this Border Collie is smart and agile beyond belief (even though she is now been deemed a “senior” dog!), she races about carrying her own demons. She can be illogical and unpredictable – even with her own rules of engagement.
On Saturday, at the parish fund raiser, my plans had been for Abby to come with me and stroll around, meet y’all in a friendly venue while I keep a watch that she would not partake of any of the food that her internal systems cannot process. But here is why, as the proverb states, we should all have a plan and write it out in pencil.
She hated the experience. She was unruly, aggressive and even barked at some of you whom she knows and (normally) likes. She was overwhelmed with the scent of the food and the sounds of the music and the sight of so many people and other dogs. She was disobedient and disruptive and in the end I had to take her back home because she was having none of this! She kept pulling away (and my shoulder is still sore this morning). And to top it off, after I left her home to return to the event, she cried and whined that I was leaving her behind liked a spoiled two year old not getting her way. As Charlie Brown so often cried: “AUGH!!
Culture defines love in terms of emotion: I love because I feel love for this person, that object or this idea. Every so often we have to take a few moments to reflect on the loveable folk in our lives who at times do very unlovable things. Thus love is more than emotion. Who are the ones who disappoint you? Who is not interested in, may indeed scoff at, your well wishes or other feelings for them? Who are the ones you try to assist but he or she is simply ungrateful and angry all the time.
I asked a parishioner to define “love” last Sunday, and he wisely just smiled and shook his head at me! Loving those who, at times or perhaps even all the time, do not love us, is the hallmark of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Loving our kids when they are always obedient, cheerful or not displaying raging hormones is easy. Loving them all the time – well, it’s a challenge. Loving our friends – easy. Loving our enemies, Jesus teaches, is priceless but without the grace of the Holy Spirit, impossible! It’s even hard to always love a broken little dog who on occasion is utterly unreasonable.  But “if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.” (Luke 6:32)
Fr. Joe

Thursday Reflection 5.9.19

Be Aware of What You Cannot See
It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it is unsettling. Very early in the morning one day last week, I was already showered, dressed, had my zillionth cup of coffee and was just revisiting (for the nth time) the coming Sunday’s sermon. From upstairs and without warning, I began to hear the definite “protective – as in, don’t mess with me” growl that Abby rarely displays. That murmuring grumble exploded into ferocious barks – her “I’m in charge and will protect you” pitch which ended in her racing downstairs and glaring out the windows into the still dark yard.
Now I have no idea what she heard or smelled or thought she perceived. As far as I know, it may have been a neighbor’s cat, or Godzilla on a detour from Tokyo, or even the first wave of the invasion of mutant zombie killer clowns from planet Zeus! Never did find out. But Abby knew it (they) were out there, and she was warning me to be aware of what I could not see.
Of course animals have such refined senses and most race faster, see clearer, perceive a scent better than we. Our experiential horizon is so framed by what I perceive now and at this moment. So I might text and not worry about the road ahead as I can’t see beyond the curve or the jogger who had stopped to tie her shoe, or the SUV doing 65 in the 30 zone that also happens to be on my side of the road. I can’t see what lies ahead.
I have that extra drink before I drive home because I cannot feel how the alcohol is affecting my reaction time and judgment. I never break the adolescent code and speak the complete truth to parents lest I lose face with peers. I don’t understand consequences follow decisions in the real world. After all, I now have an adult body, therefore I am an adult (?)
One of the hardest of life’s lessons to master is knowing that we don’t see into the darkness that lies beyond the present moment. We don’t have the ability to see, hear, or smell the future consequences of poor choices. It is a blessing when we have a companion (be it life’s partner or canine adoptee) who can honestly warn us to beware of going into the darkness unprepared and foolishly.  And if the voice of reason in your life is your co-worker, your daughter, your spouse, your canonical superior, your hated rival or even the “voice” of God whispering in your conscience: it’s best that you listen. Someone may very well be aware of what you cannot see that lies ahead.
Fr. Joe

Thursday Reflection 5.2.19

Would you write down what your experience means?
There is a quirky show on PBS each week entitled 800 Words! On the surface, it has all the makings of  Serio – Sitcom 101: hapless widowed writer dad has moved his 17 year old daughter and 14 year old son from a major Australian city to this tiny New Zealand backwoods Lewisboro-like town (filled with the oddest assortment of characters this side of Mayberry RFD – for those of you old enough to remember Sheriff Andy and Deputy Barney Fife). Each week the protagonist dad deals with situations in which tragedy, hyper sexuality, hubris, adolescent angst, foolish choices or just plain stupid bad luck have immersed him. And while this show will never rival Call the Midwife or even Downton Abby, it does have its moments.
The signature scene at the end of each episode (similar to the family dinners of Blue Bloods) is our “hero” writing his 800 word blog article each week for the newspaper for which he used to work. And it is always 800 words (thus the title). Of course he always succeeds in capturing the point of the episode with this reflection on what he has learned (or should have learned) each week.
So I wonder: In any given week would you be able to reflect upon your experience(s) and capture such meaning(s) for yourself or anyone else in a short space. Would you be honest enough to laugh or cry at “what we have done and what we have failed to do,” and share them for all to observe and critique? Would you be able to take a hard look at not only yourself but also those most dear to you, and try to see everything through the lens of truth rather than the filter of tolerance? Are you willing to learn from what you write, and turn a personal reflection into a launching pad for growth and change that others probably see you need but we never see this in ourselves.
I believe that this process was once called “writing a spiritual journal.”   It may very well be that the somber disciplines of a penitential sense like Lent can give way to something more uplifting and perhaps more challenging. But to capture the meaning of your week: just how many words would it take? And how honest would you be?
Fr. Joe

Thursday Reflection

April 11, 2019
When Events Come Together – Is it chance!
According to cliché masters and Christian bumper stickers, there are no “accidents” or “coincidences.” It is Saturday morning, and I’m sitting at my desk and catching my breath. Among the “close calls” and “dumb luck” of life, I was just driving through the grey and foggy mist on Rt. 123 earlier this morning, when out of the fog came a group of cyclists who seemed determined to clog the entire lane heading in the opposite direction. Then suddenly came a truck going much too fast that swerved into my lane to pass them, honked his horn at them, and I am virtually certain, never noticed that he was speeding right at me until I swerved, missed the ditch to my right and held my breath as he sped by me and missing me by the breath of a shadow of a hair! (There may even be tire tracks in my trunk – I haven’t looked yet).
I’ve had my share close encounters since I moved here to the “country,” where proper lighting and even sidewalks are considered the Devil’s spawn by some. This is but one more. But do I hold that my loving God may have decided to take Saturday morning off (to go fishing?) or was with me! Was it mere chance that put the cyclists, the road raged trucker and your humble servant at that one point in time and space?  Was God against me or with me or neither or both? Was this a manifestation of: divine protection, superior urban even if anciently honed driving skills or sheer dumb luck!
I think God gets way too much blame for bad human choices and not enough credit for guiding us to make the right ones. Is God to blame because the person with decades of poor eating choices dies of a heart attack?  I once wrote that I saw our dog Abby pick out the one parishioner (in a group sitting in the lobby) who was suffering from cancer, and sit by him.  How could she possibly know? (or was she guided?)  I recall many years ago going one evening to visit a parishioner in the hospital, but she was no longer there because, unknown to me, she had been discharged that afternoon. However in that room was now a person who wanted to speak with a priest – and so might one argue that I was “guided” to be where I should have been even if it was not with the person that I thought I was supposed to visit?
In my decades of ordained ministry, I have experienced too many “chance” events that make me question the notion of “chance.”  I have also made more than my share of stupid decisions leading to inappropriate comments and questionably intelligent actions. Was there no proper guidance from above or was I just not listening?
So was I meant to be on the road that road this morning with others who seemed bent upon creating the conditions for an accident? Or should I have left the residence one minute earlier and avoided the entire encounter? Was I guided? Did I make a bad choice? Or a good one? Only God truly knows the answer to these questions, but I do believe I ought to listen more attentively.
Fr. Joe

Thursday Reflection 4.4.19

April 4, 2019

“Being At Peace with Where We Are!”

With the sun and warmth of spring now within smelling distance, I am dealing with a different new experience at this time. As I’ve previously written (and you all know), springtime conveys all the imagery of new life. All is fresh and young and beautiful. From a new baseball season, the rites of passage of high school proms, the ability to walk with Abby with only a light jacket or drive anywhere with the car window open, all about us are signs of nature and life being renewed. In a few weeks, we liturgically enter into a celebration of not only the Lord’s passion and death but more importantly his “being raised from the dead unto the glory of the Father.” Oh to be young again!
But for reasons that I am only gradually coming to comprehend, I am having to acknowledge that, at least physically, I am never going to be young again. Try to RUN with the dog, and my knees and lower back will relentlessly remind me of what I am no longer! Ask the church office staff: rare is the moment when, leaving the office, I remember to take coat, phone and keys without forgetting at least one of the above. But it’s more than no longer being able “to hit that fastball.”

On Holy Tuesday each year, at the “Chrism Mass” at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine where we priests renew our vows, as we gather by year of ordination, I cannot help but notice that each year, my era of clergy grows smaller and smaller – and the reading of the names of those who have passed into life eternal grows longer and longer. It’s one thing to know that you’re going to be the oldest in the room when you are teaching teens in their Confirmation Class or teaching theological students when they study canon law at General Theological Seminary, but it is more humbling to also be the oldest in the room when “older” faculty (even mere adjuncts like myself) come together for a meeting.

My mentors warned me that the day must come when I would be “…in the autumn of my life…” (to quote the great Sinatra). Can I be at peace with this? In response to that question, “What is God calling me to do,” how must I answer this within the limits of body, mind and spirit? Will I be wise enough to acknowledge my limitations and not try to keep with the pace of my 20 year old self? Will I be humble enough to let others show kindness to me? (A young women on the subway a few months ago actually wanted to give up her seat for me! I was horrified! Would that I had been more grateful to allow her to show kindness!)

Learning to share the wisdom gained from experiences (good and bad) but without intruding or sounding “preachy” is a skill that now must be acquired. I believe that this is a call to which I must respond. I wonder what the Lord is asking in whichever chapter of life you are living?

Fr. Joe

Thursday Reflection 3/28/19

March 28,2019

Being Out of Position

Each year during the final weeks when I spend time teaching the parish teens about our Christian Faith (in Confirmation Class), I try to come up with some (any!) innovative ways to explain what living the Gospel is like and what “sin” as rejection of grace means. (I have often secretly wished I could video those encounters so that parish adults could observe and hear for themselves what marks the lives of their adolescent sons and daughters, how they think, feel, and argue about the rightness or wrongness of specific actions, and what their personal level of Christian morality is like).

And this brings me to face the same question: so how does one, as a Christian, describe “sin” – as an act or attitude of failing to live into the love of God and love of neighbor mandated by Jesus? Allow me to use an example from yesteryear. I played baseball in my ill spent youth, and I can assure you that in no way I did give up a promising athletic career for the Lord’s service. I was merely a catcher blessed with extraordinarily mediocre abilities who had fun.

One particular late spring game where a high school actually worse than us was on our schedule, we were experiencing a rare blowout win – some absurdly unbelievable 23 – 2 lead with but one inning to play. Predating today’s “mercy rule” and having to finish this game, Coach decided to play everyone – and many of us got to pick a “different” position from where we normally played. For reasons I will never understand, I ended up playing at third base – never before and never since!). In that awful half inning, I managed to kick, miss, and or throw away just about anything hit at me. I even tripped over the bag and fell splat on my face.NEVER EVER AGAIN !

But here is the point. Do you want a working definition for “sin?” Try this: sin is playing out of the position that Jesus has placed us in!. It’s being where one should not be, and not using the tools/skills that God gives us as we should. It’s not seeing the field (life) from where we should. It is taking on too much, or at other times not doing enough.

God’s grace is open to all, but only we can open our hearts and souls to receive it. Thinking we can “do it all,” or are so important that one is above the need for improvement is another symptom. Holding others to standards that we do not hold ourselves to is still another. Seeking to learn and taking enjoyment in the flaws of the “other” is yet another.

In A League of Their Own, Tom Hanks uttered the unforgettable line: “There’s no crying in baseball.” But baseball does have its uses as a metaphor for life. And if I am honest with myself and with my God, I know that there have been more than enough times in my life that I put myself “out of position.” I’ve failed to live as my Lord and Master has shown me. There is reason for me to cry as I recognize my own flaws. How about you?

Fr. Joe

Thursday Reflection 3.21.19

Thursday Reflection “What is God calling me to do?” March 21, 2019

It’s SPRING! The calendar declares that we survived this winter with its not-so-much-snow but a too generous portion of sleet, freezing rain, and bone piercing damp chill. Even though we now march through the spiritual challenges of a Holy Lent, there is a bit more brightness to the day, more warmth in the sun, and, who knows, maybe we have seen our last winter storm of the season – although we all know that late March can play nasty games with the awful white stuff.
It’s Spring. In decades past, t’was the time to throw a baseball, choose a college, shed long extra clothing, begin the chorus of sneezing to springtime allergies, become obsessed with “March madness,” and at least “to live in hope” for that “summer job” that meant some discretionary income and time away from the parental nest. In seminary, spring was the time when those end of semester papers had better have been in at least research if not writing stage. It’s Spring,and in years of study of post-seminary ecclesiastical law, presentations and papers had better have been already long completed so yearlong comprehensive exams could be prepared for.
A parish’s rhythm is somewhat similar. It’s Spring, and that means Lenten programs are already happening, and the work for Holy Week should be reaching the final prep stages It also means that in many local faith communities, the season of joy filled events – weddings and baptisms and/or confirmations and graduations – is about to take place.
For me, this is a season of awakenings. We hopefully take in the glow of the season’s warmth. We hopefully might have to reflect less on the various tragedies that infect our broken world – although events in New Zealand last week have already proven me wrong. It’s a time to see new life, seek new life, and perhaps appreciate not only what is new, fresh and young but also what is (or those who are) elderly, fragile but young at heart.
For me, as a Christian, the greatest gift of Spring is about to be celebrated: not just new life in all those baby bunnies we’ll see in our yards, but in the greatest gift of life – a share in the risen life of Jesus. The feast of the world’s redemption is about to be remembered! And it makes no difference what stage of life you are in. It is Spring, and the glory of the promise of a resurrected life is about to be shared with us. Again!

Fr. Joe

Thursday Reflection 3.14.19

Thursday Reflections

Thursday, March 14, 2019

“What is God Calling me to do?”

I know I have spoken about this issue on more than one occasion. I may have written about it as well – I honestly cannot remember. But, sisters and brothers, let me make yet another request that we acknowledge the uncertainty of life and in life, and take advantage of the time given to us to do what we were sent here to do and to enjoy the company of those whose paths we cross and who dwell with us.

An avid baseball fan and a passionate N.Y. Mets fan, I was caught up in that “miracle” in the summer and autumn of 1969 – the so called “Miracle Mets” and their utterly improbable run to a championship that year. I was a university sophomore in my late teens working both at a summer camp “for underprivileged urban youth” and on “off days” worked at a local beach club in a snack bar, as a waiter / busboy, and as coach of these “privileged” suburban youth basketball team. (I think I did get 8 hours of sleep – total combined all summer!)

I was caught up with a group of perennial professional losers who, thinking back were only about 5 – 8 years older than me. They were led by a young star pitcher who graduated from Stamford University, and whose status in the baseball draft was somehow screwed up by the powers that be – so his name was re-entered into a special drawing, and the N. Y. Mets drew the name of Tom Seaver out of a hat – literally. He was talented, a star, articulate, fiercely competitive and for that summer was not only the best pitcher in baseball, he may have been the MVP of all baseball (except for the prejudice of certain baseball writers who would never deign to give that honor to any pitcher). He may in fact be the greatest star my poor talent deprived team has ever had.

I bring this up because that man is now 74 years old, and it was recently announced that he has been diagnosed suffering from dementia. He will no longer be seen in public. For those of us who have cared for a parent with this disease, as much as we love that person, we know that the cost in terms of emotional and physical capital is not to be believed. And his family will experience this. There will be a major celebration this summer to mark the 50th anniversary of that amazing championship season, and he will not be there. He may not remember that he was on that team. He may not, at that point, remember who he was or is.

The point I make in all this is to remind you: we know not the paths that we will walk in life. We don’t know if we’ll make memories or if we’ll be allowed to keep them. We don’t know how much time we will be given to enjoy the company of others. We don’t know how much time we will have to give love and experience love in return. I often “shoo” folks out of here after meetings are over not only because I am indeed old, tired and probably cranky, but because I hope there are folks waiting for you back home who love you. And you simply don’t know how much time you will be given to experience that love.

Fr. Joe

Thursday Reflection 3.7.19

Thursday Reflections

Thursday, March 7, 2019

“What is God Calling me to do?”

I am trying to help our border collie become more liturgically literate! As astute as she is, Abby doesn’t quite get “Lent.” Now of course there are those purists who will remind me that “technically” dogs, lacking human reasoning and some even claim lacking a soul – seriously – are not capable of sin, and therefore have no need to understand the notion of “repentance.” To my critics I would respectfully provide anecdotal evidence: this dog may or may not have an intellectual grasp of the concept of “sin,” but she knows how to lie, disobey, steal, be willful , stubborn and insistent on rolling around in any batch of disgustingly smelling biological materials found on the ground! I’ll let our esteemed attorneys of our parish debate this one, but this seems a matter of Res Ipsa loqutur – whose non technical real life definition might read: “if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…” – well you get the point.

So I try to explain to “her majesty” that in the early church, as folks were preparing for the great celebration of Easter – the most significant feast we Christians celebrate – there were three portions of the community that began to prepare themselves in a very special way.

There are the majority of us whose lives are marked by our normal human frailties. There are “the things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone.” All of us need to take stock of our lives from time to time and seek the Lord’s strength and forgiveness.

Secondly there were those who were preparing to be baptized by the Bishop on the Eve of Easter. They had spent years in study and prayer. Now they spent the final forty days in serious preparation, fasting and seeking the prayers of the community that they were, sometimes at the risk of their lives during times of persecution, about to enter.

Finally there were those who because of their notorious and extremely grievous sins (in the early centuries of the church’s history, you find lists of such things like abandoning the Christian faith out of cowardice, murder, adultery, being married more than once, worshiping Caesar among others) had been spending perhaps years doing public penance: living lives of prayer, fasting and giving to charity and seeking the forgiveness of the community and of Jesus. They also were now in the last forty days of their time as “public” penitents before being allowed to rejoin the community.

And thus that final season of the Spirit, “Lent,” was born. It was a time when all three of these groups – and they are us, are they not – came together in prayer and action — So all Christians (and those who wished to be) spent the final weeks together in preparation to become one with the Risen Christ and the community reborn from and nourished in His spirit.

So try explaining all this to Abby. She would rather play – of course. She would rather race in March snowstorms as she shadows (in the hopes of herding) the deer that pass through the yard. Perhaps she instinctively knows that she is not held to the human standard. She is not capable of change and of repentance. But we are. Perhaps she is of the mindset that as long as I “give up” something that I may enjoy but certainly don’t need anyway (alcohol, movies, chocolate, TV or whatever), I’ve done enough. She was not made to deal with the deeper questions: what is there in my life that really, for heaven’s sake, needs to go? Where can I grow and should I grow in my spiritual life? What is God really calling me to do? How can I be more generous? How can I learn more about His word in Holy Scripture?

Abby, imperfect as she is, does live her life giving love and receiving it. And she is where God wants her to be. But what about us? Where are we in terms of the spiritual life? And how may these forty days bring us closer to the one who died and rose for us?

Fr. Joe

Thursday Reflection 2.28.19

Thursday Reflection
Thursday, February 28, 2019
“What is God Calling me to do?”
         Step back in time. It is March, and it is still cold. There is more than a bit of residue of snow in Central Park. Classes ended at 2:55 p.m., and so the 15 year old me has raced down from the 5th floor home room to the locker room in the basement, rushed to change into jeans and sweatshirt, grabbed my glove, catcher’s mask and whatever else Mr. (Coach) Byrnes commands that we lug over to the park, and so about 20 of us go racing across W. 87th street to the park entrance, find a diamond that is relatively useable, and thus begins first Spring baseball practice. The rites of Spring have begun! The “boys of summer” have arrived.
         Of course today the way older me sometimes watches Spring training games on TV. But more often, I just take in the hints that winter’s bitter winds and death like grip is lessoning. Days are getting longer. Even the TV personality shadow-deprived weather “rats” have given us hope for a quicker end to winter’s gloom. Springtime may still be on the horizon, but at least it is there. Spring for me meant discipline, hard work, but eventual fun.
         In the cycle of our liturgically corporate lives, the same message is about to be sent. Next week (finally) Ash Wednesday will arrive and in anticipation of Easter’s Message and Easter’s Joy, we are asked to become a part of the story of a church community that prepares itself with the disciplines of penance. It is the time for “spring training” for the soul, as it were.
         For more than a few centuries, these 40 days of LENT was a highly touted period for self-reflection, admission of our human fallibility and the need for reform and renewal, but also for preparing ourselves for the most significant feast of the Church year: Easter. “Spring Training” is a weak comparison to be sure. It is NOT about what WE DO to get into spiritual shape. It IS a time to participate with others in any spiritual discipline so that we open our hearts more to receive the glorious gift of salvation that HAS BEEN DONE FOR US in Christ.
         I hope you are all looking forward to this season as a preparation for Easter’s joy – “Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again!” And because of what Christ has done for us, the days will become longer, the sun will be warmer, and the athletic “rites of Spring” will merely be a symbolic anticipation of all the wonders that our loving God has prepared for us.
Fr. Joe