Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Desert — Homily from Last Sunday, February 22

desert

On the first Sunday of Lent, we are reminded of an extremely important period at the beginning of Our Lord’s ministry when he spent 40 days and 40 nights in the desert fasting and praying. This should sound familiar to us. Fasting and praying are, of course, what we are doing right now. Or else they should be what we are doing right now.

But why? Really? Let’s get serious. Why bother?

There are a few key reasons. We are not just trying to suffer for the sake of suffering, and the desert has some lessons to teach us. The gospels say that the spirit drove Jesus into the desert – the eremos, in Greek. It can mean a wild place, an unknown place, or a remote place. The wildnerness (or desert) is a dangerous place, but it is also a place for opportunity.

We see a phenomenon in the Chinese language that expresses this reality. Did you know that the same character in Chinese that is used for the word “crisis” is also used for the word “opportunity”?

Sure, the wildnerness can be full of wild beasts. Sure, Satan can tempt you there. But you can also see in the wilderness what matters most. Think about what happened after Hurricane Katrina (or many disasters for that matter). It was no doubt a horrible disaster. It turned New Orleans in an EREMOS – a wild desert of water and waste. But for many people, they were able to start over. For many people, they had the experience that they learned in this desert what truly mattered most to them – and for most people, what matters most is God, family and friends.

This might not be a comfortable insight to realize, but it IS an insight that can save your soul.

So why do we fast during Lent? Well, when we decrease the number of distractions around us, don’t we increase the room in our hearts fit to realize what is truly important? Many people are in the habit of going on retreat every year or two. It is a very good habit to get into. Jesus went on retreats, so I’d say if the Son of God needed one than I probably do as well. A retreat is a kind of desert wilderness for the soul. There’s not much there to do but to pray and wrestle with who I really am, and who God is. We go there so that we can decrease the volume of the world’s noise around us and increase the volume of God’s voice within us. We don’t just have to fast on coffee or chocolate. We could fast on idle conversations, newspapers, cell phones, and other unneeded distractions.

What is perhaps more important than these, though related to them, is the fact that it is often in the desert that we truly discover who we are. Have you ever entered a period in your life where you seem to be wrestling with temptations, wondering what life means and who you are, and surrounded by pitfalls? Everything seems confusing and you seem to be in kind of an “inbetween” period in your life. This is often what spiritual writers refer to as a “desert” or “wildnerness” time in one’s life. Sometimes God brings us to a place where our spirit feels dry, lonely and bored so that he can speak to us again. How do I know that? Well, many spiritual writers have said it, but it also comes straight out of scripture. The prophet Hosea tells us:

Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.

And there I will give her her vineyards,
and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth,
as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt
.

God speaks about the time when the Israelites are in Egypt as almost a kind of honeymoon time when God was actually very close to his people because his people depended upon him so much. That journey should have taken them about 10 days, but they wandered in circles for 40 years because they were so stubborn and wouldn’t listen to him. I wonder if there is a parable in there for us?

God actually says in the prophet Hosea that he is going to draw us into the desert. Why? So that he can speak tenderly to us. Doesn’t the gospel today read, “And Jesus was driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit”?

Hopefully we understand a little better why we hear also in the gospel, “Jesus was in the wildnerness forty days and was tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts.” But have we forgotten the last line of that gospel? The last line reads, “And the angels ministered to him.”

The desert might be where the demons are and where there is a lot of inner conflict going on, but it’s also where the angels are. In other words, God will be there to comfort you. Those in-between periods of indecision and conflict will not always last – but guess what? They WILL last if we refuse to go into the desert to listen to God and fight with our personal demons. It is in the desert where we learn who we truly are.

When Jesus came back from those forty days, on the gospels says that he returned in the power of the Holy Spirit and he immediately began to preach about the kingdom of heaven. He knew what he was about. He was full of divine strength and ready to go all the way to Jerusalem to be crucified for us. He loved us to the end. But the place where he grew in strength to do that was the desert – that place of fasting and prayer, that sometimes-lonely place where we seek no one but God. Let us pray for the grace to follow the Lord into the desert this Lent as well, so that we might emerge as well in the power of the Holy Spirit to free God’s people from the chains that bind them.

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LECTURE TONIGHT!

BouveretLastSupper

Lecture this evening (Wednesday) after mass IN CHURCH beginning about 7:15. Readings are Week 2: Matt 26:21-29; Mark 14:18-25; Luke 22:14-30; 1 Cor 11:23-29 (you’ll see why when you read it!) and John 13:21-35. Jesus institutes Eucharist, the commandment of love, and the dispute of the disciples over who is the greatest are on the agenda!

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Lecture this evening on the Beginning the Passion!

If the format did not turn out right, the lecture this evening is on Matthew 26:1-20; Mark 14:1-17; Luke 21:37-22:14; John 12:20-13:20. It’s quite a lot to begin with, but I’ll do my best to outline the highlights. The lecture should begin right after mass at around 7:30 in the CHURCH!

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WHY WON’T GOD HEAL ME?

HEARTHEAL

         Why won’t God heal me?

This is a question that I think many of us have wrestled with over the course of our lives. We have a certain affliction, a sickness, a grudge, some terrible memory or loss that will not stop beating us down, or perhaps some spiritual or physical plague that a loved one is suffering simply confuses us – why won’t God heal me? Why won’t God take away this burden? I try to pray. I try to be faithful. Why Lord? What gives? How do people of faith answer this question?

The leper in the gospel had complete faith. He tells Jesus, “Lord, if you wish it, I can be made clean.” We know Jesus has the POWER to heal us. But do we have the FAITH to wait through negative circumstances until that happens? Have we truly surrendered our lives to him, and given him permission to heal us? Because if he heals us, guess what that means? What that means is that we have to truly respond with gratitude and surrender, and maybe there is a part of us that isn’t quite ready to go there yet.

I remember going through a bout of depression years ago – it had lasted for years, and I was about ready to collapse under the weight of it. I was driven finally to the point of either despair or surrender. I gave everything to God. I told him I would do anything to have it taken away. I would go anywhere he wanted me to go.

And I was healed instantly after suffering for years. And then God told me to leave the monastery. So I did. Surrender is a hard lesson to learn. But there are some of us who won’t do it unless we are near the breaking point. Let me quote two Old Testament theologians on this point.

A.W. Tozer once said, “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.” Even more dramatically, Alan Redpath adds, “When God wants to do an impossible task, he takes an impossible individual – and crushes him.”[1]

This is a hard word. But it’s one that I think needs to be brought up, especially on the edge of Lent. Indeed, do we have the faith to turn to Jesus and say, “If you want to, you can make me clean.” And then after he actually heals us, we can then turn to him and say, “Now I will follow you wherever you go.” Are we ready for that?

Secondly, the wound that we have – whether it is in our body, heart or mind – might actually be there for a reason. It is true that God never causes evil to crush us or harm us. But what he DOES do is take the evil that befalls us and turn it into goodness. Think about what happens with alcoholics, for example. They have caused a great deal of damage to themselves and to others. But what do they do when they get well? They make a life out of going into the pits of addiction and dragging out those souls that are still imprisoned by it. In other words, maybe the wound you have is part of your destiny. Maybe you are supposed to turn that wound into the power to heal. Who better to help others with depression than someone who has suffered depression? Who better to encourage someone who has lost a job than someone who has lost a job but still made it ok? Who better to comfort someone who has lost a loved one than another who has suffered this awful wound? God may not have struck the blow, but God will be right behind us if we use our wound as medicine for someone else to be healed. Isn’t that what he did for us?

Let me read to you one of the major prophecies in Isaiah (Of Jesus) that refer to what I am talking about:

He was despised and rejected by men;

a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
[4] Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
[5] But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.

The prophecy talks about someone bearing another’s wound so that that person may be healed. Why won’t God heal me? Maybe he is asking you to bear that wound for the sake of someone else. I am not saying this is the answer. But it certainly might be.

Why won’t God heal me? Perhaps he is waiting for me to simply let something go, or enter into a new kind of agreement with him. I have said this many times before. Sometimes a wound in our lives is a kind of stop sign from the Lord. He is asking you to stop and take stock of where you are, and forcing you to notice that in this journey that you are taking, you have wandered a bit too far away from Him.

How much have you really learned from your successes? We are supposed to turn our wounds into wisdom. They are better teachers.

Sometimes we miss the pure gold in scripture because we do not hear it or read it well. It goes by quickly like a butterfly on the wing and we fail to really see how beautiful it is. In our gospel today, after the leper approaches Jesus and begs him to heal him, scripture says, “Jesus was moved with pity for him.” The Greek word used for “pity” is very strong – it means moved to the bottom of your guts, actually. It is used 12 times in the New Testament, and all of them describe how Jesus feels for people who are hurting. It really bothers him. He doesn’t like it at all. But perhaps pain is sometimes what it takes for us to take sin seriously. We are not supposed to be living in this fallen world, but bad choices have made it this way. God doesn’t want it to be like this, but neither has he willed to wave a magic wand and make it go away in an instant. Instead he himself came and suffered. Instead he wants us to learn the way of love, which sometimes requires pain and sacrifice. I can sometimes be a selfish person. How do I know that my heart is in the right place? I know it if I give up some of my will and suffer a wound for the sake of my brothers and sisters and for my God. In love’s service, only wounded soldiers can serve.

Why wont’ God heal me? It just might not yet be time. Be patient. Scripture tells us time and time again to wait on the Lord, to have faith, and not to be afraid. I am often comforted by the words of the Lord to Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” And again, from the Book of Revelation:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, 4and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” 5And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

Won’t heaven be much more grand if we are talking about war stories and comparing our scars? What is heaven without the pain? You will have to forgive me if just for a moment I stop quoting scripture and turn to another great man – Vince Lombardi, one of the greatest NFL football coaches of all time:

I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.

I don’t think that Jesus thinks much differently than Mr. Lombardi on this point.

This Lent let us try to enter into a time when we draw close to the Lord despite our tears and wounds, and comfort ourselves with the hope that he has pity on us as well, and only desires to make all things new again for us as well.

 Rev. Dr. Basil Burns

[1] By John Parsons, http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Meditations/Brokenhearted/brokenhearted.html.

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Go to Hell, Anxiety….

In the reading today, St. Paul starts with this sentence: “Brothers and sisters, I would like for you to be free of anxieties.” Amen to that, right? Not only is St. Paul concerned with us being free of anxieties, he goes on to mention that word in different ways seven more times in just a few sentences. It must be very important to him. The literal Greek “anxiety” is from the Greek verb, merimnao, which literally means “to be divided.

We have to remember that in most ancient cultures – certainly ancient Israel –having a plot of land was very, very important to a family. That is why a father would never divide his land, but he would buy it and hand it on usually to the oldest son, and the other sons would either work on the land or go somewhere else to seek their fortune. A bigger farm meant more workers – more workers meant that when mauraders and criminals came, you had more fighters to defend your land. If a couple kept dividing their land in such a harsh culture, it usually meant death or famine for them. This is part of the background that we should keep in mind when we hear that Saint Paul does not want us to be ANXIOUS – he does not want us dividing our resources.

Did not Jesus himself say, “A house divided against itself cannot stand?”

And “A man cannot serve both God and Mammon – he will hate the one and love the other.”

This is exactly the attitude that St. Paul is referring to. He is not making it up. He is referring directly to the teaching of Jesus Christ.

What does that mean? That means that he does not want part of our hearts searching after the Lord, and then part of our hearts searching after the pleasures and fame of the world. My grandparents used to use expressions like, “Stop sitting on the fence, boy!” and “Try not to be of two minds about things all the time.” I’m sure you’ve heard these expressions before. That is what St. Paul is telling us this morning as well, except he wants us to make up our minds about Jesus Christ.

According to one pyschologist’s study, the following are the things that make us most anxious:

40% — things that will never happen
30% — things about the past that can’t be changed
12% — things about criticism by others, mostly untrue
10% — about health, which gets worse with stress
8% — about real problems that will be faced

There are usually three kinds of people:

  • those that live in the past
  • those that worry about the future
  • those that worry about what other people think.

You know, I often think that anxiety should be classified as stealing, because it sure steals our joy. It makes us live everywhere but right here and right now, which is all we really have to work with.

And do you know what Jesus has to say about that? Cut it out. He actually says this: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow and what to eat and what to wear – tomorrow has evils of its own. Sufficient for the day is its own problems.”

Let me make a distinction here. There is a difference between stress, anxiety, and suffering. STRESS is the condition that results from having too many expectations placed upon you by another or by yourself, and we feel that stress in our bodies. SUFFERING is that pain that we go through because we are surrounded by a fallen world and sin has broken man’s heart and placed us at war with ourselves and each other. ANXIETY is that state that results from having a divided heart or mind about something important. It is more complicated than that, but there is only so much I can do in a homily. With those definitions, let me make this statement: it is possible that you can live in this world without anxiety, but we cannot escape suffering. And we probably can’t escape a little bit of stress either, especially in a world that no longer even stops to keep the Sabbath holy.

Let me give you an example. My novice master, Fr. Ambrose – God rest his soul – once told me something like this: “Basil, I’ve seen hundreds of men come and go in this monastery. I’ve gotten so sick that I’ve almost died more than once, most of my friends have died or left. I have seen the monastery reduce in numbers by 75%, and had my heart broken countless times by the decisions of my superiors and by brothers with whom I could not cooperate. I left home as a young man from the North and came here and have often felt all alone for countless days and nights. But every morning I have woken up for prayer, and NEVER ONCE HAVE I DOUBTED MY DECISION TO BE A MONK AT THIS MONASTERY.”

Fr. Ambrose went through a great amount of suffering. But anxiety he did NOT have. His heart was pure – it was not divided. He spent his life waiting on the Lord, and I’m sure that at his death Fr. Ambrose found the Lord waiting for him.

In other words, even Jesus tells us to live day by day. Even Jesus tells us not to be anxious. At the last supper, do you know what he says before he is about to be killed and his disciples scattered: “Take heart and fear not. In the world you will have suffering. But I have overcome the world.” Jesus tells us very clearly that there will be suffering in this world. But he also tells us NOT to be anxious. At every mass, you hear his words: “I give you peace. But not as the world gives peace do I give you peace.” Do you know what he’s talking about there? He’s talking about the peace that understands who you are and what you are about. He’s talking about the peace that comes from being a beloved son or daughter of God. He’s talking about the peace that promises eternal life. He’s talking about the peace that Fr. Ambrose had.

Do you know that far more than almost any other topic, we hear Jesus tell people to either have faith or to NOT be afraid. They are opposites of one another. The opposite of faith is not unbelief. The opposite of faith is FEAR and ANXIETY. This is something that I wrestle with myself. If I have truly given something in my life over to God and given him permission to take control, then why should I be afraid of anything? The answer is that I really haven’t given that thing over to him yet.

Everyone in this church, unless you have been given a special grace, probably has something that they are holding onto too tightly or some nagging inspiration to do something that you are refusing to do. You are riding the fence about SOMETHING. Most of us usually are. For those of you who are pure in heart, you are lucky and I ask you to pray for the rest of us. So my question is simple. What is that thing? What are you riding the fence on? What divides your mind and heart and keeps you awake at night? We should turn those things over to God. After all, we know at least that HE is going to be up all night. Why should I join have to join him?

This might sound a bit intense, but I will say it all the same because it was in our gospel: when Jesus was confronted with the demon in the gospel, by a word of command he simply said, “Quiet. Come out of him.” Maybe in the name of Jesus we need to say THAT to that anxious and restless spirit deep within us – that spirit that is keeping us from being of one heart and mind in the Lord.

In this world we will have some suffering. But it is good news that we might have God’s peace, and that our anxiety may be conquered. St. Paul wrote, “Brothers and sisters, I would like for you to be free of anxieties.” But first we need to get off the fence and come down on one side. Let’s hope that side is the pierced side of Jesus Christ.

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Announcement

Our new priest, fr. Stephen Dardis WILL be saying a mass tomorrow for the Presentation in the chapel. Welcome Father! He’s awesome!

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