Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Is Your Family Perfect?

At the family Christmas dinner, I shared the Polish custom of breaking bread with everyone at the table. The Oplatki looks like Holy Communion, but its rectangle in shape and it has a Christmas image like a picture of the holy family. The husband begins and offers his a piece of the bread and wishes her good health and happiness in the New Year and adds to forgive him for any hurts he caused in the past year. Immediately, my sister-in-law pipes up, don’t forget to ask for forgiveness for any failures in the New Year. The guests at the table go around and break a little piece of the wafer from one another and wish each other good health and happiness in the New Year. Again, my sister-in-law says to her husband “Well, aren’t you going to say anything to me?” Sometimes families can be a tad quirky.

I don’t know what a perfect first-century family looked like, but I’m certain that Joseph and Mary didn’t fit the ideal. Joseph had no money. He had no safe place for his wife to give birth and no plausible explanation for her pregnancy. How scared they must have been. Their family was turned upside down before it even began.

In our country, “unusual” families are everywhere. In increasing numbers, Afri­can Americans marry whites, atheists marry Christians, and men marry men. Demo­crats marry Republicans and single friends live together. We have blended families, same-sex families, adoptive families, and single parent families.

Whenever we insist that we are strong, nearly perfect, and able to make our own way, we hold God off at a distance. We don’t need him. He’s just a notion floating in the ether or a comfort arrested in the past. He isn’t someone we desperately need to lean on or collapse into. If we blindly believe that we are making it on our own, we will never become the person we were born to be. Our illusion of perfection, whether real or as fake all the Christmas advertising happiness, won’t allow God to come into our life.

It’s no coincidence that Christ was born into a shaky, uncertain family. God goes where he’s needed. Joseph and Mary find themselves trembling on December 24. Joseph and Mary are confused, baffled, and needy—and then they find God right in their laps. Right in the middle of their imperfection, as if their imperfection called out to him, “Come, we need you, come be born among us.”

Is your family imperfect? Take heart. So was Christ’s. In his humble family Christ learned to become humble. In his imperfect family Christ learned to be­come merciful. That’s what we do in our families. We hurt each other and then we forgive one another.

Lord, I pray for all my Sonshine Friends in 2015 that are broken families. It may be the lucky family whose “imperfections” won’t let them deny that fact. that we need to lean on You more often. That’s quite OK!  It certainly the wise families who em­brace this desire, and call Your name: “O come, O come, Emmanuel, into all our holy families.”

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christ as Mentor


Christmas decorations were done. I had redesigned the baskets and substituted the brown poinsettia for sparkling red. The tree has to be real in our home and instead of the usual Douglas or Concolor Fir, Doug, the Christmas tree specialist recommended a Korean Fir. If it was good enough to stand in Doug’s house, then it’s good enough for Fr. Matt’s home. One change for the tree, no glass ornaments this year because the kitties might get a little naughty so to prevent any problems we put up Christmas ornaments of birdies, horses, pigs and cows on the tree with little blue lights. I hung up the outdoors lights before the first big storm, so I guess I was ready for the season. We are hosting the family Christmas dinner today in our home. We planned the menu, the smoked ham had arrived FedEx, yesterday we made the butternut squash and mashed potatoes ahead of time, I finished making CD copies of our children giving presents to St. Nicholas for their parents to keep as memories of that beautiful day.

Then I remembered, do I have to write Christmas cards again this year? Many folks stopped this tradition years ago and the new generation sends emails in seconds with holiday greetings. I got out last year’s Christmas list and reviewed the names. On this list were some special people, an 88 year-old professor who is my spiritual mentor, a 76 year old aunt who prays for me daily, a former housekeeper at the Mercy Motherhouse who took care of me for ten years while I served as chaplain at Strong hospital, a farmer who taught me how to care for the land, a fire chief who keeps our tractor tuned and repaired, a retired priest in New Jersey who has become a champion senior archer, a geriatric doctor and his spouse who love music and chasing for moose in New Hampshire, an in-law in North Java who raised horses and Susan’s sisters who invited me to ride with them this summer on the trails in Varysburg with Mary our guitarist leading the way in her beautiful forest.

I have a patient who was searching for a “temp sponsor” as he said to help keep him sober. He admitted that he had been drinking a long time, like over 40 years. He admitted that he had no control over his drinking but when he wanted to stop in the past, he was not serious. I like to think that coming to church tonight, you might be searching for a “temp sponsor” to be your guide as you travel on this earth. My patient admitted that he was never sober for more than 41 days and on Thanksgiving this year, he had reached a new milestone. Monday was his 65th day of sobriety.

My friend shared that the reason he attends his AA meetings is because people do not judge. At first, he felt a little ashamed but that feeling has gone away because he believes that every meeting he attends that he is with family, a group of people like himself who accept him for who he is and trying to lead a healthy, sober life. Coming to the meetings is a reminder is that he needs this fellowship to keep him on track or he knows that he would go back to his destructive behavior. Even his wife is amazed at his transformation, she is still a little suspicion on how long he will keep his promise not to drink, but he likes the feeling that his spouse and children support him. Since he stopped drinking, he pays attention more to the people around him. His family has always loved him but he didn’t notice because he had spent most of the time away from them drinking. It’s a good feeling he has now about himself, actually it’s the feeling of peace. 

For many of us, we promise to do better in life but easily get distracted and off the track. Coming to church tonight, I like to think that you are searching for a mentor who can make a difference in your life. My friend goes to his AA meetings at least 5 days a week. I told him to keep it simple. He goes not to hear the stories about how other people got themselves into their messes, but he believes that something important happens at every meeting, he realizes that he is not alone struggling with his disease. Other people in the group understand where he was coming from, they were no better nor worse then him, just looking for support. No shame, no guilt, just a family of humble people who need someone in their life to lead them to a better life.

Coming to church, we get a chance tonight not simply to kneel before the Christmas manger, but allow God to touch our hearts because Jesus wants to be your mentor for life. He wants us to learn that the true meaning of happiness in life is compassion. The people of this faith community at Holy Family are very compassionate. Over the summer, they fed their neighbors while people where shopping at the Annual Java Garage Sale, later in the summer at the Wyoming County Fair they set up a booth to invite families to come and join us at our Sunday celebrations, but at that same fair the parish bid on a pig that weighed over 240 pounds and gave the money to a poor family in Wyoming County. Only two weeks ago, they were asked to help 40 families in the County and they returned in one week with over $4,000 worth of gifts and goods to help desperate families. You might ask yourself, why are these families so generous and forgiving?

The birth of Jesus means that God sent a mentor into the world to teach us the values that can make a difference on our lives. While we live everyday struggling with our jobs, paying our bills, searching for happiness, Jesus grew up and teaught about the true meaning of joy and comfort: “Blessed are you when you visit the sick, feed the prisoners, help the poor, work for justice for the meek shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.”

The families in this faith community are living the Christmas spirit that Jesus came to bring into our world. On this holy night, we learn that we are special people in the eyes of God; that all of us have meaning and a purpose. We have a choice to squander our gifts on what the world markets will makes us happy: more electronics, bigger trucks, time for selfies on Facebook and Twitter that lead to jealousy, greed and selfishness, or we can choose to come to a meeting every week where we learn how we can be the best person God created us to be: compassionate, generous, kind, thankful, and forgiving.

My sober friend shared that he attends the meetings and plans to do this for the rest of his life not to feel shame or failure for his life, but a reminder that he needs many mentors to keep him on track, sober and responsible and caring to his spouse, children, family and friends. It’s not all about him he realized in reading the Big Book and getting himself a “temp sponsor.” He needs the right tools to live the kind of life that will bring him comfort and joy and coming AA is part of his recovery and healing.

Coming to this refreshed church every week means that you will meet many families who really care about you and promise to help you find meaning in your life. The people of Holy Family are prayerful, compassionate, generous, kind and forgiving. I might add very friendly and fun. Did they not greet you at the door with a smile tonight? In the past year, I have heard people admit that they are so happy to be there, and it had seems so simple and easy. Why didn’t every church work this way?’

My vision for Holy Family is that all people who worship and serve are “sponsors” and you who have come to this church tonight to celebrate with your family as our honored Guests. You are part of our family and they need your presence. Despite the fact that maybe this year you did not get all your decorating done, or you use an artificial tree, or you did not mail out Christmas cards this year, but made time in your busy schedules to come tonight looking for a community that treats you with respect and dignity for no one will judge you here, that is left up to God. Ask any person who attends Holy Family and you will learn that what makes them so happy is that they have found a purpose in their life. I believe that as our Guests you will feel refreshed and renewed when you leave this beautiful church tonight. Our doors are always open and our hearts want you to know that you are invited back next Sunday which is the Feast of Holy Family. We need more sponsors to let the world know that God is alive and well not only in North Java but in all our towns from where we come from tonight.

Let me share with you that in the past year, the “sponsors” in this church have reopened their old school and call it their “parish hall” and invite you to bring your families, your groups, your organizations and ideas.  They restored the abandoned rectory and sponsor a family of nine who live in the rectory while the children attend the local schools and make it a true home. Only three days ago, we brought up a birthday cake for Jesus into this sanctuary and the children sang “Happy Birthday Jesus.” But the best part was when their teacher asked the kids what gifts would they give to the baby Jesus and this is what some of them wrote: pajamas, lots of underware, trains and that baby Jesus would help people and police get along better together.

My fellow Sponsors and Guests, I am glad that you came tonight, despite our imperfections; we believe that Our Savior has come to be present not only on Christmas, but everyday so that we can experience God’s kindness, warmth, acceptance and love from one another.

Busy as we have been these past weeks, decorating, buying, making cookies, wrapping, visiting, and writing those Christmas cards, the presence of Christ is always with us. The Holy Spirit is eager to guide us in all the circumstances we encounter. Life’s decisions are often difficult, and indeed painful, if we are not able to lean on the Lord. He is our ready support and “sponsor” who is with us everyday in the year. May his coming this Christmas fill your hearts with joy, so that those we meet will truly experience the Christ in us. 
One of the Christmas cards I received had this message inside that read:“The magic of the season never ends and its greatest of gifts are family and friends.” Let me paraphrase this message as a Christmas Blessing:“May the love of God bring your soul a quiet peace and may you find a blessing in your family and friends.”

One final word to our Guests tonight, please come back often for a cup of coffee and pastries at our Sunday socials and experience the peace of Christ not just for one night but everyday. Welcome back to your old Saint Nicholas and may the refreshed Holy Family become an important meeting place that you plan to attend with your family throughout the New Year.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

How Will I Get Through This?


I wonder what Christmas gifts Joseph might have bought for Mary? If he’d paid attention to his girl, he might have shopped for the special bathrobe she pointed out to him. So he searched at Macy’s, Penny’s and Sear’s and bite the bullet and went to Eastview Mall and found s plush bathroom at Mon Amor. The sales girl told him that they would even alter the robe if it were too long and that they offered free gift-wrap. One item done. Mary was not much for jewelry since she could make her own. But for her birthday, Joseph bought her some poinsettia earrings and it would be nice if he could find a matching necklace, after searching many stores he got lucky and find her a string of green and purple stones on a silver necklace. Boy, will she be surprised!

Meanwhile back home, Mary was indeed surprised or more shocked when she got a home visit from the Archangel Gabriel. Initially you might think that receiving such a visit would be like winning the lottery: what a great thing to have happen to you! Except that throughout Scripture the people whom God takes the time personally to visit generally get set up for a pretty difficult life. Mary is no exception. Gabriel's greeting was like "Rejoice! You have found favor in God's sight!" That is good news, but Mary will discover soon enough that being the mother of God's Messiah will not be easy. She'll spend many years worrying herself sick about the odd things that her son ends up doing and saying. Ultimately, of course, she'll watch him die horribly in a public spectacle just outside Jerusalem.

How do we respond to the Gabriel’s in our own lives? How do we react when God suddenly knocks on our door to announce a change in plans?
When the doctor calls…
When the sun never seems to shine anymore…
When our jobs grow boring and exhausting…
When the customers won’t stop begging us for discounts…
When a child becomes ill…or a parent is bedridden…or the pregnancy results aren’t what you thought they’d be…or wanted them to be.
We may find ourselves brought up short by life.  We may feel disappointment, confusion, maybe even anger.  And we may ask those words that Mary asked so long ago, “How can this be?” How will I get through it?  How will I manage? The answer is the same today as it was 2,000 years ago. And that is what we cling to. It is possible. Because nothing is impossible with God.

Lord, I pray for all my Sonshine Friends who are facing impossible situations the lack of sunshine, the lack of a friend, a more challenging job, a physical pain that won’t go away, people who are never satisfied, a change in our life plans. Let an angel come to their aid at this moment and breathe these words into their spirit: “Do not be afraid-because nothing is impossible with God.”

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Holy Darkness

Two monks agreed to climb all the way up the side of one of Maui’s volcanic mountains—with a guide and with friends, and then climb down into the crater itself. No one had mentioned the great dark cave at the other end of the crater floor. It was a “lava tube,” formed when a huge molten stream began to cool and harden on the outside while the inside continued to flow out, which left a tube.

The monks were ushered into this tube/cave, following trustingly. After a few curves and reverses, there was no morsel of natural light left in the cave, only one electric bulb, their salvation. They settled down on various rocks by its light. Then the guide clicked off the bulb. Yes. He warned the visitors ahead of time, very kindly and all, but the words “put out the light” did not sound comforting to their ears.

Deep, unrelieved darkness settled around them and around everything else. Eyes open, eyes closed, it was all the same. No light, no shadow, no least glow. Obviously they felt trapped and afraid, lost in a strange place, their eyes put out. But the result was just the opposite. Against all reason, they felt great: great rest, great peace. “I’ll turn the light back on now,” the guide whispered after several minutes, but everyone halted him. “No, no, leave it off. Give us more time.” The visitors sat, unseeing, united, consoled by the warmth and depth of absolute night. When the tiny little bulb did finally return, their eyesight surprised them. Seeing was like a memory that had slipped away. The dark had formed a resting place, it seems, in which their souls re-charged, their eyes recovered their innocence.

In this coming Sunday’s Gospel, the people hunger for light like this. “Are you the light?” they shout to John the Baptist. Will you “bring glad tidings to the poor, healing to the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives and release the prisoners” I am only pointing you toward the light, the Baptist said. He will be here soon. Hold on to my arm. Have you found an arm to hold onto?

Lord, I pray for all my Sonshine Friends who are afraid of the darkness of their lives. When you have been deprived for a long, long time, even one speck of light will change everything. A tiny child might provide it on Chrsitmas Eve! Have you found an arm to hold onto?

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Teaching Spirituality to Kids

A hot-button issue for many parents is how to teach their kids about spirituality.  For a significant number of Americans, "spirituality" and "religion" are synonymous; if you believe in one, you're automatically committed to the other and define yourself as a Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Protestant or member of another denomination. But the fact is, almost one in six Americans today is unaffiliated with any particular religion. Indeed, young adults under age 30—today's and tomorrow's parents, essentially—are the most likely to be living religion-free lives.

When it comes to spirituality, we parents are just our kids' ambassadors. We can show them around, but we don't need to know everything. And that exploration is well worth the effort. Research indicates that personal spirituality results in much more than just a nice warm, fuzzy feeling. Kids who develop a sense of a loving higher power or a guiding force—whether they call it God, creator, Allah or simply "loving universe"—are 80 percent less likely to suffer major depression and 50 percent less likely to suffer from substance abuse as teens. Similarly, a study from the University of British Columbia, in Canada, found that children who are spiritual (and researchers clearly separated "spirituality" from "attending church services" or "belonging to a church") tend to be significantly happier individuals overall. Having an understanding of something greater than themselves seems to enhance children's sense of personal meaning and purpose, and to reinforce their connections to their community and to other people. The big question, then, is how to do it? What are some ways to give your children the gifts of faith and hope?

Many spiritual traditions provide an excellent framework of values or principles to follow. Even kids as young as three or four understand something like “Our family believes in kindness, helping other people, caring for pets and reaching out to people who are alone.”

Kids benefit greatly from hearing out loud from their parents how we handle life's ups and downs, It could be as simple as saying to your child, 'I'm really worried about Grandpa today and my stomach hurts. I'm going to take a moment and pray that Grandpa feels better.” Research indicates that kids who have at least one parent who is openly spiritually incline tend to continue exploring spiritual issues on their own in adolescence and adulthood.


This weekend the parishioners at Holy Family Catholic Church in North Java are bringing clothes and toys requested by Angel Ministry to help children who are less fortunate. Teaching by example is the focus of inviting children this weekend to brings toys to Saint Nicholas so that he can give them to other children who would not receive any gifts this Christmas.

When a grandparent or a pet dies, when a natural disaster hits, when your child encounters something unfair—all of these are opportunities for your child to turn to God for comfort. In some families, they talk about angels when they are upset. Some parents teach their kids to ask their angels about problems they have and to trust their own 'inner ears' when the angels talk to them."

Many parents are struggling with how to approach their kids' spiritual education. The parents talk with their children about issues of faith when they come up in stories and movies; they broached the topics of heaven and an afterlife when the kids' grandparents died; and they attend Christmas Eve church services every year as a family holiday tradition. Some parents visit several different churches and taken the kids along. But as for actually joining a church—that's way too hard for them. Many parents still sort of fumbling around in the dark. And as with all aspects of parenting, fumbling is perfectly okay and expected,. Teaching kids about spirituality isn't about doing it perfectly or finding the "right" church. It's more about asking deeper questions with your children and letting them see people living out their lives with meaning, All parents can do that.

Molly Haungs, Holy Family’s childrens’ religious education teacher, has brought a wonderful sensitivity and creativity to help parents who are fumbling around to teach their children that there is a God who cares about them and loves them very much.

If you are a parent “on the fence” and struggling to help your children learn about the meaning of prayer, gratitude and kindness, let this be an invitation to bring your children this Sunday to North Java at the 10am Mass and join our “Kids’ Church” to meet Saint Nicholas and help other children this Christmas. On Sunday, December 21st, the children are bringing a “birthday cake” and singing “Happy Birthday Jesus” and on Christmas Eve, December 24th at 4:30 pm there will be a special Nativity Childrens’ Mass that will feature a childrens’ choir singing familiar Christmas chorals. Holy Family Catholic Church is located at 4316 Route 98 in North Java. The faith community’s mission statement reads: “Whether you area lifetime Catholic, a member of a different faith, a parent “on the fence” or new to exploring your spirituality, you will find a home at Holy Family.”