King David and the first parish festival

After much study and research, I have discovered the historic roots of the first parish festival. It was King David’s idea!

This morning’s first reading is from Chapter 6 of the Second Book of Samuel. King David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant into the city, and that was a cause for a huge party. First, David was so overcome with joy that he “danced with abandon.” There was lots of music and noise, which I am sure seems very familiar to the people who live near our church. Sorry, but apparently we children of God have a long history of partying. We’ll try to keep the noise respectable.

After the Ark had been put in its new home, David, wearing an apron, served up roast meat, a loaf of bread and a raisin cake (sounds like a scone…mmmmm) to “the entire multitude of Israel.” No word about the parish raffle or the dunk tank. I’m sure the scripture writers just forgot those parts of the story, or maybe they only had one sheet of parchment left.

All in all, it was a party for the history books. And the reason for it? Oh, yes, they were celebrating the presence of God in their community.

Amen, people of Israel.

Happy Thanksgiving. Good grief.

I feel a bit like Charlie Brown this morning, and not in a good way. I decided to research the origin of my favorite holiday. I’ve always felt very moved by Thanksgiving: a holiday that calls on us to give thanks to God for our blessings. Thanksgiving to me has managed to maintain that purpose over the years, at least that’s how I looked at it.

But then I started to learn some of the politics of it (or at least the political spin that has been attached to it). Some historians say the European tradition of giving thanks and feasting after the harvest was started in a post-Reformation world by Protestants who wanted an alternative to all the Catholic holidays, holy days and feast days. And a blogger on the Huffington Post web site cited an historian who argued the Pilgrims weren’t celebrating a bountiful harvest nearly as much as the destruction of the native tribes, who they viewed with contempt and fear. George Washington declared the first official day of thanksgiving in a political move to encourage the idea of a single nation and Lincoln did the same thing in 1863. Franklin Roosevelt set the modern date of Thanksgiving in an effort to boost the economy (FDR invented Black Friday? Who knew?!). I feel like Charlie Brown in the TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Charlie was in search of the meaning of Christmas, but the only answers he found were crass, selfish commercialism. Rats.

Thank goodness for Linus. Brainy, nerdy, kind Linus who used the story of the Nativity to explain that, beneath the commercialism lay a simple truth: Christmas is the birth of Christ the Lord. I need a Linus to remind me that Thanksgiving is still here too. And that somewhere beyond the political spin moves, historical harrumphing and inter-Christian rivalries, the simple truth still lives. God is here, He has been very good to me, and I am grateful for the gifts that He showers me with every day.

And I am especially grateful for you. It has been only recently that I have learned that the hand of God is the hand of my family, my friends, and everyone else around me. The body of Christ is you, me, and everyone else. When I have needed His grace the most, it has appeared in your hands, your eyes, and your words.

Thank you. And Happy Thanksgiving.

Simple: pass it on

I was not a very well-behaved parent in church. When our five children were young enough that we all lived together and went to mass together, I used to amuse them (and myself) by poking the child next to me and whispering,”Pass it on.” It always worked; I could tell by the glare I got from my wife at the other end of the line. The message got through.

Today’s Scripture readings are like that childish game. God gives us a loving poke in the side, reminding us that our sins were forgiven by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. His expectation is that we will give ourselves in love to the person next to us, who is expected to love the next neighbor in line, and so on around the world. In the Gospel, Jesus suggests to his dinner host that next time, rather than inviting friends and family, he should invite poor people who have no way of repaying him. No way, that is, except to offer themselves in love to the next person they see. It’s the perfect form of evangelization, and it can transform the whole world. Pass it on.

Nothing but a prayer

It’s Monday again. The weekend is over, the Packer’s lost to the 49’ers, the Badgers crushed Tennessee Tech, the lawn got mowed, the flowers weeded and we went to mass yesterday morning. A typical weekend, or as The Monkees might have said back in the 1970’s, “Another Pleasant Valley Sunday.” Except that millions of Christians, Muslims and Jews came together around the world to pray for peace.

Did Saturday’s day of prayer for peace in Syria make a difference? All prayers make a difference. No, the guns weren’t magically silenced, but seeds have been planted. Now we need to water them. Keep praying, Christian Revolutionaries. God is listening and the world is changing, whether you can see it or not.

C.S. Lewis said that prayer doesn’t change God, it changes me. Prayer moves us closer to the center of creation, which is Jesus. Regardless of when God chooses to guide Syria back to sanity, the most important seed of all is this one: On Saturday, we joined hands with our brothers and sisters all around the world, and the world took one giant step closer to that center. That was the first miracle; I can’t wait to see the next ones.

God is a foodie

Today’s readings were guaranteed to get my attention: they talk about food. God tells Moses in the old testament and the Christian disciples in the new testament that providing for everyone may be a challenge for us, but it’s a snap for God. He also tells us that His menu is unlimited.

In chapter eleven of the Book of Numbers Moses is despairing (again) about the Israelites who were complaining (again) about food. By now they’d been wandering around in the desert for several years, and the miracle of the manna that fell from heaven every night had grown old. We’re tired of bread, bread, bread, was the refrain. “Would that we had meat for food!” So Moses throws up his hands (again). “I cannot carry all this people by myself, for they are too heavy for me,” he said to God.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples to feed the crowd of over 5,000. But, like Moses, the disciples replied that this was one short order they could not cook on their own. “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here,” they told him, probably looking pretty overwhelmed. Without missing a beat, Jesus blessed the loaves and the fish and fed the whole group, leaving a dozen baskets full of leftovers.

Like most Bible stories, there are several themes we can take away from these two. On the one hand, God proves that what is difficult for you and I is easy for Him. He uses a universal human need (to eat!) to show his omnipotence. But he also shows his compassion; providing for our wants (meat, too, please) as well as our needs. He also demonstrates the power of prayer; in both the old and the new testament versions of this food-for-the-hungry story God waits for the people to come to him before providing what he knew they would need.

I’m sure Bible scholars would tell us there are even more meanings in those stories. Is it a coincidence, for example, that there were 12 baskets left over (12 Tribes of Israel), or that Jesus “said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples,”? (Sounds like the Last Supper and the Eucharist to me.) There’s no single “point” to the story, but there are an almost unlimited number of messages to help “feed” our souls today.

I wonder whether perhaps the next time I’m bored listening to the same old Bible readings, I should start listening a little harder. Are they ever truly, “the same”?

My phone understands me better than I do

As part of my current self-help regimen, I take a lot of notes. I write down ideas and concepts that seem to apply to me, or at least they apply to where I am this week. Usually these inspirations occur when I don’t have a pen or a piece of paper. No problem. This is 2013; I can enter the idea as a memo in my “smart” phone. If the ideas are stupid, bloop, deleted. If they are useful, bleep, I email them to my tablet and with a few magical finger taps (most of which are “backspace, backspace, backspace”) they become part of my journal or a blog post.

A few days ago, someone pointed out that the root of many of our problems is ego. Not just, “Wow, I am amazing” type ego. We can get just as messed up with the negative internal vibes as with the positive ones, but it’s all ego. Whether we are high on ourselves or low on ourselves, at its root the problem is that “we” are spending too much time being “me.” We need to follow the advice of John Paul II and make a gift of ourselves to others.

How much of us should we give? To take the old metaphor, “you have two ears and one mouth, listen twice as much as you talk,” just a little further, try focusing on your family and friends in proportion to the number of them versus the number of you. In other words, if you have ten friends and family members, you should spend ten times as much of your energy focused on them as you spend on yourself.

Getting back to taking notes. I thought this was a good concept to meditate over, so I made a point of writing “self-centeredness” in my phone, so that I could refer to it later. My phone, having either the common sense of the Lord or the sarcastic wit of my wife, decided to auto-correct my notes, turning the word “self-centeredness” into “self-centered mess.”

I didn’t bother changing it.

“A man has no greater love than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jn 15:13

Love your enemy, it’s a blast!

Jesus’ command that we love our enemy is another one of God’s rules that I usually put in the same category as green beans and dental work; I’ll do it because it’s good for me, but don’t ask me to like it. What a huge mistake. Loving your enemy is not just green vegetables for your soul. Done right, it is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have.

I recently had a major run-in with someone. Things were said that could be stewed over for a lifetime. I purchased the doll, the pins, and I was ready to go to the library for the book on voodoo. This was a resentment that I could relish. I spent hours telling Mr. Blankety-Blank,So-and-So off in my mind, and rehearsing the many subtle ways I would snub him at cocktail parties in the future. Ooh, the bile soup I had prepared was delicious.

Then I realized that it really was bile soup. Sour, nasty stuff that made me sick. While I was making my plans for vengeance, I was mean and sulky, and that feeling got transmitted to my wife, to my other working relationships, even to the dog (and we don’t HAVE a dog!). I wanted to make my enemy suffer. I accomplished making myself miserable.

A friend suggested a new approach. Whenever blankety-blank so-and-so appeared in my mind, he suggested that I ask God to bless him. No, you can’t pray that this person’s car runs into a manure wagon; it has to be a real prayer. Ask God to give them a good day. And then move on. I gave it a try and quickly found that it was the most effective little prayer I’ve ever prayed. I have no idea whether blankety-blank so-and-so had a good day or not, but I know that I did.

I kept that up for a few days, and then something else unexpected happened. Blankety-blank so-and-so asked if he could buy me breakfast. No, he didn’t give me the huge ego boost of telling me he was wrong, I was right and could he please build a statue in my honor. He just wanted to talk. It wasn’t even about the grievous injury my ego had sustained. We talked. And I enjoyed the conversation. I enjoyed his company. A man who was the newest entry on my list of resentments is now on my list of friends.

It’s a really simple prayer. And it feels really good. Maybe green vegetables are kinda tasty after all. Give it a try.

There’s no “I” in The Lord’s Prayer

Boy, am I dense sometimes. Here I am, a decades-long Catholic. I go to church every Sunday, I pray the rosary sometimes, I attend a men’s bible study. I’ve even been a lector and RCIA sponsor. I have been to confession often enough that I can still remember all the words to the Act of Contrition. I’ve got my Cath creds.

But I never noticed that the Lord’s Prayer never refers to me. Not once in the most important talk between you and God does your name come up. Not even when we are asking to be forgiven for our trespasses, or forgiving those who trespass against us. Did Jesus slip up? Did St. Matthew make a typo there in Chapter Six?

After all, there are plenty of places the Word speaks to us one-on-one. “Thou shalt not kill,” is a pretty clear example of HIM talking directly to me. When Jesus gives us what he calls “the greatest commandment” he uses first-person language: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In fact, the Gospels are full of Jesus speaking directly to you; he is a very direct sort of guy.

It’s not that Jesus was telling us that all our prayer time should be group time. In fact, the opposite is true. Going back to Matthew 6, verse 6, just before Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he cautioned them not to make a public scene of their prayers, praying for show, rather than for communication with God. “But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

So, why the emphasis on “we,” rather than “me.” Or to put it in King James-ish: Why thou and not thine? There are no typos in the Bible, and Jesus means what he says. What does he mean here?

Let’s think about that one for a while.