Thursday, December 30, 2010

Wishes for 2011

We are now a few hours away from the New Year - 2011.  Each year some hearty souls attempt to make New Year's resolutions many of which are long forgotten by the time the year is half over.  Knowing that when we make plans God laughs, it is not my intention to make any resolutions but rather share what I would call my wishes for the New Year.  What wishes do you have?  These are mine:

1) Peace - I know this probably sounds very naive as we look at a world where there is no peace especially in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and the Koreas.  Yet should we not keep praying for the peace that Jesus came to bring and hope that somewhere, somehow the message would get through to those who lead the warring factions that further violence only brings more of the same.  At the same time we pray for peace, however, let us not forget the men and women of our armed forces who are in harm's way as they fight to protect our liberties.  We owe a great deal of gratitude to them and pray that they will be kept safe and be able to return safely to their homes and families.

2) Political Cooperation -  We experienced a great deal of polarization in our country during the last election campaign.  There was anger and name-calling and promises to upset whatever the opposition proposed.  I don't believe the American people want more of this polarization.  During some of the exit polls taken after the last election, one of the wishes of those interviewed was that of unity - people want to see cooperation among our political leaders.  That doesn't mean that one has to abandon one's principles but it does mean that those elected must remember who they are called to serve, viz. not their own personal political interests but the public they represent.  Some of the seeds for this cooperation have been planted; let's hope they continue to grow.

3) Respect for Human Dignity -  There are billions of people in the world and every one of them is a child of God deserving of human respect from the unborn to aged and terminally ill.  My wish is that their human dignity will be respected by all those who in any way have contact with them from political leaders to those in the medical profession, family members who may have the care of those sick and disabled, etc.  Each of us has been made in the image of God and therefore deserves respect.

4) Economic Recovery - Each of us, I believe, has in some way been affected by the serious economic condition in our country: to the loss of a job to a lessening of buying power, to the inability to continue to pay our mortgage and therefore facing foreclosure.  On and on the problems go.  My wish is that we will see an economic recovery in 2011 and that those most impacted by this recession will enjoy relief - particularly the poor among us.  (And it would also help everyone if the gasoline prices could come down.)

These are some of my wishes for 2011.  Many might say they are unreachable but I continue to pray that there will be some movement toward realizing them in another year given to us.  May you and yours enjoy peace, happiness and prosperity in this coming year.  If I do a blog like this in late December of 2011, I hope that at least some of these wishes are realized.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Bells

Bells are a traditional element in our Christmas celebrations.  Church bells ring to announce the birth of the child Jesus; we have familiar carols like Carol of the Bells and Silver Bells.  Watching the annual Christmas musical presentation of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir last evening brought to mind another carol concerning bells that was highlighted during their performance.

In the midst of the Civil War, the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned a poem about Christmas bells.  He had suffered a number of losses during those early years of the war including the tragic death of his beloved wife, Fannie, who died in a house fire, and then the wounding of his son who had gone off from home to join the federal troops.  Longfellow was suffering a great deal of despair and hopelessness as he witnessed a nation being torn apart along with his own personal griefs.

Two of the stanzas of his poem that was later set to music read like this:
       And thought how, as the day had come, the belfries of all Christendom
       had rolled along the unbroken song of peace on earth, good will to men!

      And in despair I bowed my head:  "There is no peace on earth,"  I said;
     "For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men!"

Does that not resonate with us today?  We look around our world and find war and violence, hatred of one group for another because of religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or whatever.  Do we bow our heads in despair and feel that the song of peace on earth has been mocked?  At times I think we all do.

Yet today we commemorate the birth of the Prince of Peace; a child - divine and human - who came among us to show us the kind of love the Father has for us and told us to emulate that love toward others.  Yet even the most religious and holy among us know that emulating that love is not always easy.

What are we to do?  Are we to continue to bow our heads in despair or do we make the effort - however small it may be - to bring peace to our world in our own - even limited - sphere of influence?  That is the challenge of Christmas; to have the Prince of Peace come alive again in our hearts and to bring his love to all those we know and meet.  If we make the effort we can then sing the final stanza of Longfellow's poem:

     Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:  "God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
     The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men."

May the peace and good will that Jesus brought to us all be with you and your families this Christmas and throughout the coming New Year.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Have We Lost Christmas?

While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son.  She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.  Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.  The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.  The angel said to them, "Do not be afraid, for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger."  And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavently host with the angel, praising God and saying:  "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests."              (Luke 2: 6-14)

No matter how many times I hear this Gospel reading I am always moved by it and by what it has meant to the world.  A child was born and the world changed.  He came, born in Bethlehem (the city of bread) and is found in a manger - not to show us how poor he was but because the manger was a feeding trough and he came to be our nourishment throughout our faith journeys.  And he was not born in "the inn" because the inn (Holiday or otherwise) is a place for transients and he came to stay with us.

I found an interesting article recently from the Huffington Post written by Father James Martin, S.J., the culture editor for America magazine.  He was lamenting the ever encroaching hold on the holiday by commerical interests who are interested in their bottom line but, in his words: You've seen the endless TV commercials and web ads that wink at Christmas (red and green sweaters, evergreen trees, red and green ornaments, wreaths) without daring to mention "He Who Must Not Be Named."  Christ may be the new Voldemort.

I found an number of things with which I agreed in Father Jim's article but could not enthusiastically support his final suggestions.  He says the war on Christmas is lost.  He believes the commerical enterprises in our society have succeeded in basically burying Christmas and ignoring its religious significance.  He finds that many religious people have difficulty in resisting the commercialism and keeping the day holy.  He is right to a certain extent.

His final suggestions are that we should surrender and realize that we have lost the fight about Christmas, and to go underground in engaging in passive resistance by reading Scripture, not buying as many presents, not sending as many Christmas cards, etc.  These are the suggestions with which I find difficulty.

I do not believe that we have lost Christmas.  I have heard in the past few weeks a number of examples of how ordinary people rise to the occasion and truly live out the spirit of Christmas.  A local school district near where I live recently had a number of its students visiting and bringing presents to a center that treats the most severely disabled children some of whom could not even react to the generosity being afforded them.  There were "letters to Santa" written by adults who are facing very difficult times this Christmas season because of unemployment.  Reported on ABC news, this brought out an outpouring of gift giving from around the country.  Another story told of a young football player (at college level, I believe) who passed on the final game of his season to give his adult stem cells in an effort to save someone's life.  My own daughter had an experience where she had left items in a grocery cart that were meant to become gifts for her co-workers.  She figured that someone finding them might just take them as a "find" but when contacting the store found out that they were turned it.  Something small, you might say, but another example, I believe, of how people do keep the spirit of Christmas through giving just as God gave us his greatest gift on the first Christmas - his only Son.

Christmas must be in our hearts and if it is, it is not lost.  Regardless of the commercialism and the seeming secularization of the holiday, we can all make Christmas come alive.  I still plan to give gifts to my loved ones and I have sent out my Christmas cards because I want to stay connected to the people who have meant something in my life.

May the true spirit of Christmas first set forth in those beautiful words in Luke be with all of you and your loved ones and may that spirit carry forth into another new year.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

We All Need Laughter

We are closing in on the season of Christmas - a time when we gather with family and friends, exchange gifts and wish each other well for the coming year.  It is a time of joy as we Christians remember that we are celebrating the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  For some who have not had many good things going for them it may become a painful season as they see others enjoying themselves while they are suffering from either physical or mental anguish of some kind.  It is good for us to remember those for whom Christmas is not a joyful time and keep them in prayer that somehow they will come to know that they are loved by the God who gave them life and is with us in all of our moments - good and bad.

As we look around our world, however, we are also struck by the fact that there is much going on in the world that would not make us joyful.  As we read our daily newspapers or watch the televsion newscasts we are reminded that there is violence, war, corruption, abuse of all kinds and numerous other things which make us wonder how anyone could be joyful.  Yet we are called upon to be joyful - not just in this season but at all times.

Are we finding it hard to laugh?  Do we find that there are fewer and fewer things about which we can rejoice and be thankful?  But as the heading of this blog says: we all need laughter.  I think the words of Psalm 126 say it for us:  Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The Lord has done great things for them."  The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

I want here to give credit to some great folks whose thoughts have inspired me to present this blog.  For his wonderful stories, I thank Father Bill Bausch; for his insights into the importance of humor in our lives, I thank Father Edward Hays; and for her commitment to spreading the good news of laughter in our lives, I thank my friend Sister Anne Bryan Smollin.

We rejoice because Christ came for us and we need to keep rejoicing and laughing.  As my friend, Sr. Anne Bryan Smollin reminds us: laughter can do much for us; it makes life more enjoyable and helps us to live longer and healthier lives.  It enhances respiration and increases the amount of oxygen in our blood.  Muscles relax throughout our bodies when we laugh.

We can make the choice in life to grasp the beauty of the moment (or the season) and find joy.  It is never too late to be happy and more fully alive.  As Mark Twain once said:  Let us endeavor to live, so that when we die, even the undertaker will be sorry.

Does our prayer have to be somber?  Can we not rejoice in that act of speaking in love with the Lord?  Have you ever noticed that some people in prayerful meditation often seem to look so serious?  If you didn't know they were praying you might think they were attending a funeral.

We all have difficulties in our lives, troubled times, pain and even sometimes rejection, but as I noted before our God is always with us even in these difficult times.  And it is often in the little things in life where God comes to us and is revealed to us.

The man whispered, "God, speak to me."  And the meadowlark sang.  But the man did not hear.  So the man yelled, "God, speak to me!"  And thunder and lightning rolled across the sky.  But the man did not listen.  The man looked around and said, "God, let me see you."  And a star shone brightly.  But the man did not see.  And the man shouted, "God, show me a miracle!"  And a life was born.  But the man did not notice.  So the man cried out in despair, "Touch me, God, and let me know you are here."  Whereupon God reached down and touched the man.  But the man brushed the butterfly away and walked on.

There is a story about a troubled old man.  Life seemed to hand him one jolt after another, but he faced each obstacle with a smile and cheery disposition.  An acquaintance of the man finally asked him how he managed to stay so happy despite his hardships.  The old man quickly answered,  "Well, the Bible often says, 'And it came to pass,' but never once does it say, 'It came to stay.'"

We need to live life more fully by finding those joys for which we can give thanks and not dwelling on the negative.  As the Chinese proverb states:  You cannot prevent birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.

I am continually amazed by the spirit and joyfulness shown by my younger daughter.  She has had to cope with serious physical difficulties since her early teens (see my earlier post:  What is CMT?).  Yet, in spite of these difficulties she has continued to be cheerful and possesses a unique and wonderful sense of humor.  To better appreciate how that humor has sustained her I would recommend her blog to you.  Entitled Grace Lines, it can be accessed by going to  Presently she and I are engaged in a "blog war" wherein we try to outdo each other (all in good fun) by citing how many "hits" our blogs receive and where in the world our blogs are being read.  I don't mind if you give her some "hits" because I think you will be inspired and also have a good laugh.

We also need to have the ability to laugh at ourselves.  Being able to do this is a sign of mature spirituality.  Instead of fearing what others think, we can learn to think outside the box and learn new things about ourselves.  There is something very sad about one who can laugh at others but cannot have others laugh at him/her.  So let's not take ourselves too seriously.  Mark Twain reminded us that humans were made at the end of the week's work when God was tired.  As the Book of Sirach tells us:  Do not give yourselves over to sorrow, and do not distress yourself deliberately.  A joyful heart is life itself, and rejoicing lengthens one's life span.  Indulge yourself and take comfort, and remove sorrow from you.  For sorrow has destroyed many, and no advantage ever comes from it.

The writers of the Gospels might have overlooked the facet of Jesus' humor but I am sure there were many occasions when he had to laugh (particularly at the foibles of his disciples).  Maybe the Gospel writers felt that God should be taken so seriously that humor could not play a part.  But as the author Father Edward Hays states:  We humans are made in the image of God, so humor - so much a part of our humanity - must also be a godly trait.

We are always asked to step out in faith and with total trust in our God - the God who smiles upon us and is happy with his creation of us.  A 90 year-old man was being asked a series of questions by a doctor; the doctor finally asked, "Tell me, how was your childhood?"  The man answered, "Well, Doc, so far so good!"

Our trust, our willingness to be able to laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves too seriously, and to maintain the heart of a child, will guarantee not that we will never have problems but that we will be able to rise above them and be joyful.  As we approach the great feast of Christmas, let us remind ourselves that a healthy spirituality that is laced with joy and humor can lead us to wholeness and holiness.  So live, love, and laugh and have a wonderful Christmas season!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Christmas: Real or Commercial?

The Scripture readings for this second Sunday of Advent present again to us - as they do every year at this time -  the most colorful character in the Advent story - John the Baptist.

Thanks to an idea I received from my good friend, Fr. Ed Deimeke, I chose to use a little imagination in my homily for this weekend.  I asked the congregration to pretend that we had a time machine that could transport someone from the distant past to the present.  Then I said we would transport John the Baptist to today and each one of them would be his guide to answer any questions he might have,

I decided to bring John into the center of Crossgates Mall (one of the largest malls in the Albany NY area) in the early morning of "Black Friday."  (For my readers in other countries, "Black Friday" in the US is the day after Thanksgiving Day and is the busiest shopping day of the year.)  I asked the congregation to picture John in the center of the mall as the doors swung open and shoppers began pouring (and running) into the mall to find their bargains.  I expect that there would be a bit of culture shock for both the shoppers and John.  They would see this scraggly looking individual shouting "Repent!  Prepare the way of the Lord!"  Would they flock to him (as the people did in the Gospel reading)?  I think rather they would create a wide berth around him.

And John would have questions.  He would ask what all the frenzy was with people rushing in and out of stores sometimes pushing other people aside.  He would ask what all the decorations were - trees lighted and covered with decorations.  His guide would tell him that we were preparing for Christmas.

"What's Christmas?" he would ask.  We would tell him that we celebrate the day when Jesus - our Lord and Savior - was born and that it is our custom to give gifts to each other on this day as a reminder of the great gift God has given to us in the birth of his only Son.  We also decorate our houses with lights and special trees because of the joy we feel at the coming of Christ.

Now these are good answers.  I'm not sure whether John could appreciate our response as he watched shoppers running and jostling through the mall.  There is, of course, nothing wrong with shopping at Christmas or decorating our homes.  We just need to remind ourselves of the real reason for which we do these things - in other words, to make sure that we celebrate a "real" and not "commercial" Christmas.

Why do we celebrate this feast each year?  Yes, it is because Jesus came to live and die for us and bring us salvation but he also came to do something - he came to build a kingdom of justice, love and peace.  This kingdom is reflected in this Sunday's first reading from Isaiah who presents a picture of a "peaceable kingdom" where the "wolf is the guest of the lamb,...the calf and the young lion browse together,...and the cow and the bear are friends."

We know, however, that we are a long way from realizing that peaceable kingdom.  We still have war and insurrection, violence and abuse, and the various "isms" that affect society - secularism, consumerism, racism, sexism, and homophobism.  All these things are present in our world but John the Baptist would tell us that it is our responsibility to build up that peaceable kingdom.  We might ask ourselves - how can I do this; I'm only one person?  We can begin by building up peace within our own homes and families - particularly when we reconcile with someone in our family from whom we have become estranged.  We can help build the kingdom by working toward the good of our church and community.  We can prepare for the celebration of Christ's coming by taking time during Advent for prayer and reflection on the Scriptures.  We can avail ourselves of the Sacrament of Reconciliation for those times when we have failed to build up the kingdom.

My hope and prayer for those who read this blog is that you would go out and help to build the kingdom, have a prayerful Advent and a "real" Christmas.