Jesus and the Pope Go on a Walk...

Jesus and the Pope went on a walk through the park.

‘Good teacher,’ said the Pope, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’

Jesus said, ‘Don’t kill anybody, don’t cheat on your loved ones, don’t steal or lie, and honor your parents.’

The Pope said, ‘But I’ve done that since I was a kid.’

‘Ok,’ said Jesus, ‘You lack one thing. Sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, then come follow me.’

The Pope couldn’t help but think about the Vatican jewels, the da Vinci paintings, the endless and priceless properties, not to mention the Prada shoes. So when he heard this he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

The point of this story isn’t to take a cheap shot at an ascetic whose holiness few will ever rival, rather it’s to point out that even the Pope has to deal with the prickly pear of wealth.

The Third World lives in hunger, poverty, and disease. You and I live where we spend more money on advertising than public education and find ourselves devoting 1 hour to spiritual practice for every 5 hours we spend shopping.

The deal isn’t ‘poverty=good’ and ‘possessions=bad’ – wouldn’t that make things easy? The deal is that because of our inherent propensity to trust in things seen versus things unseen, we’re constantly over-buying in a fruitful effort to quench our thirst for meaning and fulfillment.

It’s never about what we possess, it’s about what possesses us.

Whose Plans?

Celebrity divorce attorney Marvin Mitchelson and Jesus were having coffee.

‘So what’s God say about divorce,’ said Mitchelson, “is it legal?’

Jesus said, ‘Duh. You’ve been making a fortune helping people get divorced – if anyone knows it’s legal it’s you.’

‘Ok,’ said Mitchelson, ‘Let me clarify, I’m wondering more about the morality of it.’

Jesus decided against telling a lawyer joke and instead said: ‘Actually divorce is just one of the things God hates. Poverty, injustice hatred, stealing, lying, and a host of others are not part of God’s plan.’

‘Then why do they happen?’ asked Mitchelson

Jesus pointed to a mirror on the wall and said, ‘Marvin, look in that mirror. You know how broken we humans are. We’re constantly making selfish choices. And they have huge consequences. When we make choices based on selfishness, fear, and insecurity they not only affect us, but everyone, the guilty and the innocent, form small towns to empires, for generations and generations.’

Mitchelson groaned.

‘Oh, don’t worry,’ said Jesus. ‘See that newborn in his mother’s arms over there? He’s filled with curiosity, wonder, and utter dependence upon his mother. He’s vulnerable, open, and honest about what he can do and what he can’t. The answer is right there.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Mitchelson.

‘It’s quite simple. Power isn’t in strength but in vulnerability. Happiness isn’t in acquiring, but in giving. And true life is not in protecting ourselves, but in opening ourselves up. It’s all about having faith that something much bigger than you is at work, has a plan in place, and is working overtime to make sure everything works out for you.’

‘Well,’ said Mitchelson, ‘What if I don’t like that plan?’

‘That,’ said Jesus, ‘Is the whole problem.’

Salted with Fire

My friend called in the middle of the night to say the pain had returned.

The heartbreak that was supposed to be over had reared its head. And the dark, stubborn bearer of doubt and fear dropped his backpack on the couch, put the kettle on, and began stretching the minutes into hours. He unpacked his shovel to dig up all that had passed. Then got out the handcuffs and the Kleenex. It would be a long night.

What do we make of these times? How do we process the recurring sadness? The melancholia bred from the stress of unknowing? How do we cope with the paralyzing and the haunting - those darts and dragnets of uncertainty with which we are forced to cohabit?

“Everyone will be salted with fire,” promises Jesus in Sunday’s gospel. And as tempted as we are to avoid, medicate, sleep through, and sidestep all that is stinging, nagging, torturing, and debilitating, please, don’t.

If for only one reason, the darkness comes to do a bittersweet work in us. Like the pushups that bust our biceps but bring second looks at the beach. The fire salts us because there’s work to be done than cannot be done any other way. Easy Street is closed. Detour ahead. Remember the celestial value of what’s being bred in you, as the poet said; our faults are the most interesting parts of us.

Also remember that you are never alone. The Divine Presence is as invisible as it is utterly unable to leave. Yes, we’ve all been there. Some are there right now. So always keep in mind that the wrestling match you are having with your demons is not as confidential as you suspect. Others see. And we relate. Yep, we’re cheering for you. So draw on the energy above and beyond. And go ahead, inspire us.

Share It

“Now that you’ve written your first book, how are you going to market it?” asked the publisher, as we discussed quantities and prices of my brand new book.

I told her that I was going to record 15, 3-minute YouTube videos (one for each chapter of the book), and put them up on a website and offer them as free downloads. I also told her I’d like my share of the proceeds to go to charity.

The silence was deafening.

As our conversation continued I had to admit to her that this was not a thought-through marketing strategy, and that protecting the copyright and maximizing sales and profits was not at the forefront of my mind.

What I really wanted was for people to read the book and be transformed.

As it turned out, this was actually a rather savvy marketing strategy, as the book has gone on to sell tens of thousands of copies and be among one of the top sellers in its niche.

It has also made me very happy and fulfilled as an author who wrote a book to help others.

That book project taught me a lesson that the self-promotion, circle-the-wagons protectionism approach to life is surpassed by one of generosity, humility, and concern for others.

Give it away. Make someone else’s day.

Don’t worry about yourself, worry about the work.

Paying Attention to Divine Things

I got another call for money this week.

Actually several. As you might suspect, the most frequent calls I get at the office are from those seeking financial assistance. Electricity bills, car payments, evictions, you name it I’ve heard it. Churches are prime targets for those who need a quick buck. And discerning between the scammers and those in genuine need is a skill they didn’t teach me in seminary.

After more than a dozen years of doing this I’ve developed thick skin. I try to get off the phone as quickly as possible. I hand messages off to others to vet for me. I have become callous and thick skinned. Until this week.

God has been dealing with me.

While meditating on this Sunday’s gospel I have been forced to ask: what are the most divine things in our lives? If we answered relationships we get a gold star. Relationships not just with those we know, we love, and we care about, but with strangers, clerks, even beggars.

Every relationship is a divine encounter because every relationship offers the opportunity to love God – for, as we know, in loving others, we love God.

How do we not just tolerate, but treasure that relationship with the operator at the cable TV company, that overworked receptionist at the clinic, and that disorganized person asking for money?

The hard work of carrying the cross has little to do with hauling lumber, and a whole lot to do with how we forgive, reconcile, seek understanding, and offer respect in our everyday relationships.

Do You Dream Too Big?

Do you dream too big?

Probably not. Actually, even we hopeful, achievement-oriented Americans routinely overestimate the capabilities, competence, and expertise of others and consistently underestimate our own.

For a variety of reasons we set goals and dream dreams that are too conservative, almost always to avoid the let downs and put downs that result from failing.

But we are created and called to dream big. We are set apart and sent out to do really important things. And God desperately wants us to realize that we have the potential to make big dreams come true.

In Sunday’s gospel, Jesus surprises those around him by healing two people who are not Jewish. ‘Wait a minute,’ we can hear the crowd say, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be the Jewish Messiah? Why pay so much attention to those outside the tribe?’ Jesus is trying to enlarge the expectations and vision of those around him – to see that God is up to something much, much bigger than they could imagine.

And that’s true for you and me. God wants us to dream bigger. God is only limited by our ability to dream and imagine.

In what ways do we dream too small? What big lies do we tell ourselves about not being good enough, smart enough, or good looking enough?  Who are we trying to please and why? Whose permission are we awaiting?

Naming these is the first step in overcoming our fear of failure and embracing more fully what we are called and created to do: dream big.

The Pharisees and The Donald

One of the reasons Donald Trump is leading the race for the Republican presidential nomination is because of, as one observer put it, ‘his defiance of the prevailing culture of political correctness among the media and academia.’

In other words, Donald Trump may be bombastic, decadent, rude, and pompous, but, as another supporter put it, ‘he tells it like it is.’ Trump does not mince words, he’s not shaped by opinion polls or focus groups; what you see is what you get.

Love him or hate him (for there is little middle ground with Donald Trump) his popularity points a finger at something really important: Authenticity. Trump is perceived as authentic. And people today crave authenticity.

This Sunday’s gospel takes us to a fierce confrontation between Jesus and some religious authorities that finds its roots in authenticity. Clothed in their clerical robes and obsessed with their rituals, Jesus cuts through the hypocrisy to teach his disciples, and you and me, about how truly important it is to be who we are.

Why so many authorities, religious and otherwise, find comfort in suspicion, defense, and distrust (versus openness humility, and curiosity), makes us wonder if they are truly fearful of being found out – as if to reveal their real selves, motivations, foibles, and fears – would ruin them?

And this is the challenge for us all today: to be brave enough to be who we are.

When we choose not to be ourselves, the best we can be is a poor imitation of someone else, and the worst we can be is rule-obsessed judges who need to put others down so we can feel better about who we aren’t.

How do we hide? And why? Who are we beneath the public personas we painstakingly sculpt? How might God be calling us to shed the ill-fitting clothes of another and to become truly ourselves?


I spilled the puzzle pieces onto the table and asked my daughter to start putting them together.

“I can’t,” she said, “You’ve got to show me the picture on the puzzle box. I need to know what it’s supposed to look like.”

Tell me about it. As you and I look at the jumbled up puzzle pieces of our lives, we too scream out for an image of what it’s supposed to look like - the picture, the pattern, the map, the model, of how we’re supposed to make sense of it all.

And there’s no shortage of those. Family, friends, neighbors, celebrities, and athletes all vie for our attention and scream at us to use them as our model. Many of us grew up in homes that didn’t provide us with suitable models – or at least perfect ones  - and look where we are. That’s why so much of life is spent looking for them.

That’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus is the pattern. He tells us that the life worth living is the one that looks like his.

We do this by reading, studying, meditating, and, outlandishly, by consuming him. This is the mystery of the Eucharist. When we eat something we absorb its nutrients and turn it into the energy we need to live. Jesus asks us to eat him – to literally and metaphorically take him into ourselves not only for the energy it provides, but for the kind of person into which it makes us.

Consume Jesus. Be consumed by Jesus. This is how the puzzle pieces are meant to come together.

So What Is Eternal Life?

Southerners call it the ‘sweet by and by.’
Atheists call it a mythical delusion for the simple-minded.
Yet Jesus described eternal life much differently – as something far more expansive, engaging, even irresistible.

Perhaps most striking for Christians, is the idea that Jesus doesn’t talk about eternal life as something you’re going to get nearly as much as something you already have: ‘Whoever believes has eternal life’ (John 6).

But isn’t eternal life this joyful state of never-ending bliss? Yes and no. Eternal life is joy. It is our best, greatest, and highest experience of happiness. But this kind of joy doesn’t come from the cessation of pain, when we are in a state of total relaxation, or when we are passive. Psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi says it’s just the opposite: our, “best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

The joy, then, that is eternal life is a byproduct of our activity, not the aim. A focus on happiness will never lead to happiness – a focus on deeply meaningful, important, challenging, and engaging work, does.

My most meaningful work stems from those things that fulfill the purpose for which I’ve been given life. When I do the creative, sacrificial, and hard work of a good father, priest, and neighbor I experience my deepest and most fulfilling joys.

As tempting as it is to believe that we’ve reached nirvana when we are lounging on a cloud surrounded by margaritas, cigars, the Chippendales, or 70 virgins, these moments do not provide our deepest fulfillment. It’s doing the hard work, pushing ourselves, stretching and straining our minds, bodies, and spirits in pursuit of the work God has called us to do, that offer the greatest personal satisfaction.

Sacrifice and Gratefulness

I ran a 5k last Saturday.

I can still feel it.

Mainly because, having not run at all for nearly 4 months I had no business putting my 53 year old body through it.

But I did it because racing, for me, is an icon. It is representative of something much bigger. Just like the icon on your computer represents Word or Chrome, for me running is about working my way through the pain and hurts of life as an integral part of getting to the finish line.

Most of us try to speed through hardship as quickly as possible. We loathe it. We curse it. I do all I can to banish it.

But I have found that obsessing over cessation is not the best way to handle pain. I do better to calm down, acknowledge its part in the race, then pull up a chair, sit at its feet, and say ‘Teach me.’

One of the grand lessons I learn and re-learn is that pain has never killed me - I can endure - and if that, then what else? I have found and that my continued perseverance through the pain has actually rewarded me. Like my 3rd place medal?

So I ask in what ways am I a student of hardship? What are our trials teaching us? The Book of James tells us to ‘rejoice’ and be grateful in our difficulties for just this reason: hardship is a classroom outside of which many important lessons go unlearned.