Sunday, October 15, 2017

What Do I Need to Bury


Once a woman was jogging down a dirt road that wound through the fields of corn and she stumbled upon an eating disorder clinic that caters to the wealthy. She veered off the trail onto a groomed cider track, which she discovered was a twelve-step trail. Signs with motivational slogans such as “expect a miracle” lined the trail. The trail ended at a cemetery of tiny craved grave markers. She stopped to read each grave.

“Here lies my resentment of people” someone had written on a tombstone. Others buried such things as cigarettes, an obsession with chocolate, diet pills, a lack of self-discipline, the need to control others, a habit of lying, alcohol and marijuana. She thought to herself, what do I need to bury?

If there were one spiritual corpse common to us all, is the attitude that our sins and shortcomings put us beyond the reach and concern of God. This unbiblical attitude is quite common. I contacted a colleague who deals with alcoholics and drug addicts. I asked this question: “Have you found that people who live with failure each day, that backsliding draws them further from God or presses them toward God?”

This retired school counselor who has been attending AA for 35 years said that it pushes people toward God. She shared stories about alcoholics and addicts who have done terrible things to themselves and their families. Yet in those moments of weakness they are the very moments when they are likely to turn to God, to cry out in desperation. They have failed terribly. Now what? Can they get up again and walk again, or do they stay paralyzed? Through the grace of God, some of them do get up. In fact, she decided there is one key in determining whether an individual can reach recovery; if they deeply believe they are a forgivable child of God. Not a failure-free child of God but a forgivable one.

Francis de Sales wrote: “Now the greater our knowledge of our own misery, the more profound will be our confidence in the goodness and mercy of God.”

You see what I’m trying to get across? Our failures, do not separate us from the love of God. Our fondness’ for sin, does not force God to give up on us.

My dear fellow sinners, my dear fellow failures, there is much to be buried in the graveyard of our spiritual disorder clinic. You and I know what moral failures need to be entombed forever. Even though we walk in the dark valley of addiction or violence in our hearts and hands, God is there. With rod and staff, he offers possibilities, hope, and a better future.

Lord, I pray for all my Sonshine Friends, who believe that the Lord is indeed forever at my side, even in my worst moments. He forever sees not what I have done, but what I can do.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Don't Blame God

On Monday night, I’m staring at my emails with a message looking for volunteers to help in Las Vegas and provide crisis counseling. Without hesitation, I would have forwarded an email to say that I was available but it seemed that the responses from local counselors would meet their need for onsite debriefing. Later that evening their staffing needs were met. However, on Wednesday, I get a urgent request to provide crisis counseling for a local double murder where one adult was shot and the other committed suicide.

I don't know about you, but it makes me impatient with God. How can God allow people to run wild in their violence? Why doesn't God do something? For that matter why doesn't God do something about the violence and suffering of the innocent in our day?

What is behind all this violence in our world? I want to suggest that part of it is a shocking lack of empathy for other people, for victims, an inability to feel what those who are hurt or dying are feeling. We lack empathy and we hurt and kill others because we have divided the world into “us” and “them”—a distinction, mind you, that is high on Jesus’ list of what is horribly and terribly evil in the world.

For Jesus, there is no “us” and “them,” no Hispanic and Mexican, no blacks and whites, no gay and straight, no Roman Catholic and Polish Catholic. Jesus taught that our neighbor is everyone—especially everyone who is hurting. We must understand and appreciate his or her pain. In fact, it is not too-far-fetched to say that empathy for victims is Christianity’s cardinal virtue.

God's word to us today is a word of judgment. Just as surely as Jesus was judging the religious leaders of his day with the parable of the landowner and tenants, he is judging us. We are called to share what we have with others, that’s why in our parish we bid on a cow to make food for the poor, why we are donating bricks to maintain the playground, why we voted to build a hospice for the dying, why we are preparing our raffle baskets for the Spaghetti Dinner, why we invite you and your family to come join us on Sunday, October 22nd to eat and bid on over a 150 baskets to support our various ministries, because together are producing fruit for God’s kingdom.

Noe when you hear about pain and suffering, the terror in Las Vegas, devastation caused by the hurricanes, an innocent child killed by their parent, don't blame God. And don't respond in anger at God when you see suffering or ask why God permits this and why God doesn't do something. The truth is that God has done something. God came in Jesus Christ to die for our sins and bring new life. And God is doing something in that God has made you and me. We can and are making a difference with God's help.

Lord, I pray for all my Sonshine Friends who have been victims of violence, through abuse, selfishness and greed. Restore our empathy to reach out to anyone who has felt this pain and suffering and let us be a sign of Your comfort and peace.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Why Did You Do That?

A curious thing happened at the county fair this year. Once again, our parish won the bid on a cow to the delight of a 4H student who had won his division. Now his prize would be used to feed many poor families in the county. A person questioned why would the church pay so much money and then give it away. The answer that he was given was profound.
You see the people of this parish have made a choice that when they come to church it not about the buildings, paying the mortgage, or working on a committee. Rather, it’s our opportunity to be another Christ. She shared that all are welcomed in this faith community to learn about the love of the Lord who rejects no one. But our gospel story took her message up another notch.
Once upon a time, a pastor received a note from a family that had become inactive in the church. After listing a series of familiar reasons for their absence, (summer time at the lake, busy weekends with soccer and basketball and vacation trips at Christmas, etc.,) they closed their letter with these words, “But one of these days, don’t be surprised when you look up and see us out there in the congregation, because we just love you, and we just love our church.” “We just love our church;” we just can’t be bothered with showing up and participating in any noticeable way. That is a pretty clear example of saying yes while living no.
Week after week we gather in church and will pray the Lord’s prayer and say, “Forgive us our sins while we forgive those who sin against us.” And yet we go on for years harboring resentments, nursing grudges, withholding grace and forgiveness and reconciliation from others while accepting it for ourselves from God.  Saying yes while living no.
In the parable, it is the Chief Priests and Elders who are accused by Jesus of saying yes while living no. Jesus tells the parable about the two brothers, each of whom was told to go to the vineyard and work.  One says no, but later changes his mind goes to work.  The other says yes, but never shows up at the vineyard. Then Jesus asked the Chief Priests and Elders: “Which of the two did the will of the father?” They say, “The one who went to the field and worked.”
Now, Jesus drives his point home. The tax collectors and prostitutes may have turned their backs on God at one point in their lives, but because they eventually repent and obey and serve God – they are way ahead of the Chief Priests and Elders, who have spent their lives professing their love for God but who have never done any of the works of love and mercy which God asked them to perform.
So, like that person at the county fair who was shocked by the generosity of the parish, we have our excuses for saying no to God. Times when we have resisted the burden of the cross, when we have made it clear that we prefer to go our own way rather than God’s way.
Perhaps we thought it would be easy, but then found out that walking the way of Christ was harder than we thought.  Or perhaps we really, really meant to, but got distracted and waylaid by the troubles and trials of life.  Either way, we all need help, we all need to find a way to say yes and live yes.
Lord, I pray for all my Sonshine Friends who make time to come to church, pray for their family and friends and give a little extra of themselves when least expected.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Just Have Fun


On a recent pilgrimage to Utah to take photos of national parks, a fellow traveler was sitting next to me during a presentation on travel photography who was feeling a tad overwhelmed. The photo expert was using “photo jargon” that went over his head. This novice really wanted to learn how to take better photos. I don’t why, but I leaned over during the presentation and whispered: “ just have fun.”

Yes, after decades of taking slides, then prints, now pixels I have learned a few tricks of the trade. But I think if you want to develop a passion for any hobby you need to develop a passion for your subject. Landscape photography is my passion.

This fellow traveler surprised me when he invited me to his home in Oakland, California to take a hike into Yosemite National Park. Little did I realize that he has been taking photos for over 50 years and in his retirement after a successful teaching career he wanted to learn how to take better photos.

On a whim, I landed on the west coast and this new friend took me to his favorite “Kodak” moments, my term not his, to share his passion and love for the beauty of God’s creation in national parks.

Note, he’s better than “uber” for his knowledge of the freeways working his way to those scenic vistas was awesome. I’ll never complain about traffic in Rochester or Buffalo again after negotiating 16 lanes of traffic on west coast freeways.

He said “he likes to talk” and his dear spouse agreed. Some of our travels were thirteen hours long and like Garrison Keillor, he shared many fun stories about family, kids, and career as a primary school principal mentoring teachers, students, parents, school boards and all manner of administration.

However, when we got out of the car and reviewed the landscape he got very serious because his goal was to improve his photo skills. My practical advice was: “include some foreground in your images.” It’s nice to take that Golden Gate, or Bridal Falls or El Capitan for the zillionth time, but maybe an interesting foreground that leads your eye would make it a stunning shot.

Jesus was always leading our eyes to a future glory that meant that the journey would fill us with awe and wonder. On the journey of life, he would focus our attention to be the best person we could be. That means we need to include lots more compassion, generosity, forgiveness and kindness in our viewfinder.

My humble thanks to a stranger who has become a treasured friend because he took a chance on inviting this shepherd to his home and take him along to see the wonders of his land. My prayers of gratitude for his time and love for the west coast parklands because he did “wear me out.” Now he’s waiting for me to forward him some of my photos to continue to improve his passion for photography.

Lord, I pray for all my Sonshine Friends blessed with many gifts and passions to make your beauty and wisdom known. May God bless all your passions and know that you are appreciated for all that you share about your love for horses and kitties, photography and wood turning, fishing, and praying. Remember my mantra: "just have fun."

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Tribute to a Wood Craver

Nobody knows why wood carvers are wood cravers. Not even they can tell you why. It’s time somebody try. Carving a wooden bowl going at the rate of 1400 revolutions a per minute is risky and most likely something that Ed looked forward to doing when he came to his workshop.  He was always clever with his hands but in the last decade of his life he became a master in this art. Many of his neighbors came to watch, a few would donate blocks of woods from their farms and woods.  Wood and steel are uncomfortable separately or together. His friends marveled at his passion.
Any day at his workshop, he would start his day by looking over the blocks of spalling maple or cherry, ash or walnut and figure in his head what project he would tackle. Into his work pants, work gloves and protective face guard and out he goes to work. He starts his day, checking out the air-dried wood that had been drying for six months or more, Minutes later he’s fast at work.  As he pondered which block of wood he would craft his next bowl, he reviewed his simple turning tools. Like a surgeon he would sharpen his simple rougher, then his 90-degree detailer, check his simple shear cutting finisher and prepare to put the wood on the chuck.
For some people, this is the scary part as a steel wheel turning at breakneck speed, and you take a gouging tool and start smoothing the outside of the wood into a curved bowl. The woods chips are sailing through the air while you have your air compressor vacuuming up the dust particles from clogging your lungs. Your eyes are straining to see that you are not cutting too much wood and making it too thin and you might lose track of where you are. Is it worth it?
Inside your protective shield, the wood chips are flying everywhere. There’s sawdust down your neck. You got to be careful to place the detailer on the bar so that your fingers don’t get smashed. But you emerge from this holocaust hugging, with your calloused hands, a unique crafted bowl with a burl and detail that reveals the test of time. Wood and steel.
You have worked hours to craft this unique work of art, not concerned about the months you had to wait for the moisture to exit the wood, or the fact that after hours turning a beautiful piece of wood, you discovered a crack that made it impossible to save. You discovered that the learning continues after all those years of making beds and chairs, for this craft requires more skill and understanding. Once you have designed your bowl and unstuffed your nostrils; you can almost breathe again. Next comes the tedious hours of oiling and waxing and sanding your bowl and then re-sharpening your gouges and cleaning your grimy tools. You a one-man cleaning crew at the workshop as the floor needs sweeping and you gather the woodchips usually to put into your veggie garden or given away as compost for some neighbor.
Back at the workshop, you and a neighbor, would sit a spell, tired but stimulated, admiring another piece of your art, or relieved that you had accomplished another repair order, drinking coffee and laughing, and feeling good about one another. Nobody outside your world can ever quite know that feeling of what it means to sit in the quiet of your wood shop. It was like a holy chapel where you met God who had come to bring you peace. There’s no way that you would ever quit this job, and you wonder how did this hobby became your passion. Yet, only God knows why. Perhaps to give you comfort when your beloved spouse died, she was your passion and when she went home to her heavenly reward she gave you this gift to keep your mind and heart occupied.
God took your sorrow and poured it down a drain, that freed you from sadness until you heard a familiar voice of God saying: “For salvaging wood from the fires of a woodstove or people whose wood treasures needed repair, “I have to relied on your hands.”

Monday, August 21, 2017

Forgive Yourself

I have encountered a lot of broken souls in my counseling vocation. Addicts, abusers, runaways, homeless, incarcerated, paroled and more. I’ve spoken with the haunted and angry, as well as the broken and defeated. So many sad and empty eyes that once shined with hope and promise.
If there are any cracks in your protective emotional armor, this mass of tragic humanity can break your heart. So many people carrying huge emotional burdens. They’re seemingly unable to break through their pain and truly live again.
There are no neat and tidy solutions that fit every injured spirit, but there is one thing we all must do if we want a better life. If you can allow yourself to do this, you will free yourself to begin living anew. You will create a path to personal growth, better habits and greater fulfillment. What is this healing thing? Forgive yourself.
A dad just left my office who shared that he used cocaine for eleven years before he stopped using drugs. However, decades later his adult sons continue to blame dad for their problems today. This dad gets lonely without his family and wishes that his sons would visit or call him more often. Regretfully, while he has stopped using, his sons are all using drugs today.
A message about forgiving yourself can be the solution for not walking around in shame. Whether you are a person of faith or not, this message of forgiving yourself is important. 
Perhaps you are an alcoholic or drug user who has hurt many people in your life. Maybe you chose not to have the baby and are conflicted with the decision. Perhaps you weren’t really there for your children. Whatever it is, forgive yourself. You are not perfect, none of us are. The sins of our past don’t define who we choose to be today and who we will be in the future. Acknowledge that you stumbled. You blew it. You hurt people. Scars and bad blood and a lot of carnage may have been left in your wake. You may have to pay some dues, make things as right as you can, apologize to those hurt. Some will never forgive you. But in the end, you have to forgive yourself. You have to unshackle that burden. Allow for the statute of limitations on past transgressions to end. I know, you don’t think you deserve it. You don’t think you can. But you’re wrong. It really is possible to forgive yourself. And then move on. Why? Because a better life requires this.
Lord, I pray for all my Sonshine Friends who are still shackled with guilt about their poor judgment in the past. Our Lord comes to those who have the faith to realize that we are not perfect but can count on God’s mercy. Bring comfort to those hearts that have been hurt by our selfish attitudes and behaviors and give healing to those who have stumbled and can count on your forgiveness. Help us all to receive the grace to forgive ourselves and move on. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Are You Walking on Water or Sinking Like a Stone


Let’s be honest with ourselves when we are talking about our faith. Some days you walk on water and other days you sink like a stone.  Faith invariably gives way to doubt before it again recovers its confidence, then it loses it again.

Remember the story of Peter walking on water. The story goes this way: The disciples had just witnessed a major miracle, Jesus fed more than 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fishes. Having just witnessed a miracle, their faith was strong. Soon afterwards they get into a boat to cross a lake. Jesus is not with them. A few miles out they run into a fierce storm and begin to panic. Jesus comes walking towards them on the water. Initially they’re frightened and take him for a ghost. But he calms their fear by telling them, right from the center of the storm, that he is not just Jesus but that he is God’s very presence.

Peter is immediately buoyed up in his faith and asks Jesus to let him too walk on the water. Jesus invites him to do so and Peter gets out of the boat confidently and begins to walk on the water. But then, realizing what he was doing and the incredulous nature of it, he immediately starts to sink, cries out for help, and Jesus has to reach out and rescue him from drowning.

What we see illustrated here are two things that lie at the heart of our experience of faith, namely, that faith (literally) has its ups and downs and that it works best when we don’t confuse it with our own efforts.

Faith has its ups and downs. Our own faith works exactly like that, at times it lets us walk on water and at other times we sink like a stone. The gospel-image of Peter walking on the sea speaks for itself.

We easily get discouraged because our faith vacillates in this way. My spiritual mentor was being wheeled into surgery and he was worried, but he folded his hands and prayed: “Lord, Your will be done,” and immediately he felt a sense of peace. Faith works like that: We can walk on water only as long as we don’t think that we are doing it with our own strength.

Lord, I pray for all my Sonshine Friends who feel like that they are sinking like a stone. Remind them that the Spirit comes into our life with a deep secret that sometimes we know, and then not, and then we know it again.  Faith works like that, some days we walk on water, other days we sink like a stone, and then later we walk on water.