Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Sweet Smell of Sheep

If you think sheep are cute, white, fluffy, cuddly, Little Bo Peep type creatures, you’ve missed the meaning of Pope Francis’ admonition to clergy to “know the smell” of their sheep.  In short, sheep stink!  Cows, pigs, and chickens are downright “aromatic" compared to the smell of sheep.  And for a shepherd, the smell of the sheep becomes a part of him.
And this is just the point of the Holy Father’s comment.  In essence, he is calling his brother priests to live close to the lives of those they serve.  He is calling his priests to live in an intimacy with their people, to know them, their hurt, their pain, their brokenness.
The New Testament tells us, definitively, that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and that we are His sheep.  And, this is true so far beyond the caricatured imagery we often see in church.  Jesus did more than live among His sheep, He experienced His sheep.  He lived in intimacy with “the smell” of our sin, brokenness and woundedness.  More than that, He took the smell of sin onto Himself.  His humanity suffered the full weight of our broken world: doubt, pain, hunger, fatigue, despair.  He even bore our sin, the full weight of our “smell”.  Jesus lived in the smell of His sheep, never turning up His nose or running from the ugliness.  Instead, He pressed in, drew closer, loved more deeply.
As men, we are called to be Jesus: to our wives, to our children, to our friends, to those we serve in ministry.  That means, knowing the smell of our sheep.   The truth is, most of us don’t particularly care for the smell of our own sheep.  We’d rather keep our distance from the messiness of others’ lives, and we’d rather keep others out of the messiness of our own lives. 
Smelling our sheep means stepping outside ourselves.  It requires getting close the brokenness in others, and a willingness  to let others to “smell” you.  I’ve seen men in accountability groups who don’t smell each other.  Sure, they “check in” and hold each other accountable, but they don’t truly live in the messiness of their brothers lives.  I know men who don’t know the smell of their wife, fearful of deep intimacy, afraid they won’t understand her heart and know how to love her.  I routinely see men who don’t know the smell of their children, held back by their own inadequacy as men.  
To smell your sheep takes courage.  It takes strength.  You have to be willing go out and kill the lion, as David did.  You have to be willing to fight off bandits.   If you want to know the smell of your sheep, you'll experience pain, despair, fatigue and doubt.  But, it will never be empty.    When you smell your sheep, Jesus happens!  Healing happens!  Encouragement happens!  Freedom happens!  Love happens.  It’s the only life that is truly worth living. It is, indeed, a sweet, sweet smell.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Bullets, Bombs and Babies

Adam Lanza, the Tsarnaev brothers, and Kermit Gosnell all hold something in common.  Much has been made of Adam Lanza’s shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary and the Tsarnaev brothers bombing at the Boston Marathon.  Kermit Gosnell, of equally gruesome repute, if not notoriety, is an abortionist on trial for conducting horrific abortions, and killing at least one woman.
These four men, contemporaries of each other in history, hold a single proposition in common.  All of them rejected the notion of the sanctity of human life.  Lanza believed that the lives of elementary school children were not valuable, not sacred.  The Tsarnaevs believed that the lives of whomever happened into the blast zone of their bombs were not valuable, not sacred.  Kermit Gosnell used scissors to snip the spinal cords of aborted infants who were born alive.  He’s even accused of leaving an infant to struggle for its life, and eventually drown, in a toilet: not valuable, not sacred.
As a culture, we have allowed and embraced a commoditization of human life.  For well over a generation, we have measured human life against the value of other things: money, convenience, comfort, ideology.  While the deeper roots of this commoditization preceed Roe v. Wade, that decision, and our willingness to embrace of killing unborn infants, is a clear point of demarcation that anyone can see.  The message is unmistakable, regardless of how you try to argue, nuance or position the argument.  Not all human life is sacred.
The value of human life is no longer assumed.  Instead, some person, whether court, or politician, or whomever, is now the arbiter of what human life is valued, and what is not.  Those without value may be disposed of for good reason, or for whim, it matters not a bit.  In a culture where “man” obviously set the criterion by which human life is valued, Adam Lanza simply, and if I might be so bold, logically applied a different criterion.  The Tsarnaev’s decided to apply a different measure of value to human life than the courts, or the prevailing law.  Kermit Gosnell decided that unborn infants, even when born alive and viable, were not entitled to life.
We have made a commodity of the human person, and human life.   We should not be surprised then, that some among us choose to measure the value of life against their own criterion.  In the heart of God, for whom all human life is equally sacred, these events are all equally horrific, equally evil.   When our utilitarian and capricious valuing of human life is replaced by an awe and holy respect for every person, we can begin to rest easier and feel safer. Until then, we should expect more of the same, and sadly, worse.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Tossing Rocks from the River- Living into Healing

When Jesus heals, we must engage it and appropriate it. I learned this valuable lesson while riding down the interstate on a rainy Monday evening, while returning from a retreat.

As I talked and prayed with my travel-mates, Jesus brought healing to a deep hurt in my life.  That hurt, and the lies I believed as a result of it, had been a source of pain and a hobbling fear throughout my life.  As Jesus spoke His truth to me, I knew immediately that He had done a deep work in my heart.  I could feel the ‘river of living water’ running through this part of my life where there had been a dam, blocking God’s grace.  The stagnant, stenchy wastewater of bondage was was blown open and FREE!

I rested in that healing for a couple weeks, feeling the grace and freedom.  But then, I heard Jesus say to me, “There are still rocks in the river.”  I knew EXACTLY what he meant.  No hiding behind a feigned “What Lord? I don’t understand.”    That hurt, now healed, had accomplices that wanted to steal Jesus’ gift: broken behaviors, broken emotions, broken thoughts and broken beliefs- all of them, rocks in the river.

Jesus had blown open the dam, but there were still rocks in the river- the remnants of a previous life, previous beliefs, previous expectations, previous lies, previous vows.  All of them, creating eddies, whirlpools and diversions to the River of Life.  

So, I’m tossing rocks from the river.  Tossing out the behaviors (and lack of them) that used to keep me frozen…silencing the voices of condemnation…living more boldly...relying more deeply on Jesus.  Day by day, I’m applying my healing.  I’m gaining confidence, faith actually.  I woke up this morning, looking for the next rock to toss from the river.  And everyday, the current of God’s healing grace runs a little stronger, a little truer, and a little sweeter.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Danger of the Damascus Road

Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.
Fr. Pedro Arrupe

This quote summarizes St. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus: a brief encounter with the risen person of Jesus Christ.  He experienced Jesus, personally and intimately.  In that moment, Jesus revealed the fullness of the scriptures to Paul, a good and studied Pharisee.  Paul saw how Jesus was the Word, and the Word was Jesus.  It was not an educational moment, it was not even an enlightening moment.  It was a moment of transformation.  He fell in love with Jesus.  Jesus seized his imagination.  And it affected everything.

I grew up with, and spent a good part of my adult life in a Christian experience that did not look like this.  Great parents, Catholic grade school, high school seminary, Jesuit university, fairly well formed.  Yet, in the deepest levels of my being, in my heart of hearts, the passion and love for Jesus described by Fr. Arrupe, and experienced by Paul, were not my mine.  They were my yearning, but not my experience.

Over the last few years, I’ve had my own Damascus Road experience.  I’ve encountered Jesus, His mercy, His love, His compassion, His strength, His power, His counsel.  Those encounters with Jesus, where I open myself to Him and receive His grace, are places of healing.  The Sacraments and the life of the Church have become a place of encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, where He meets me in all the messiness that is my life, where He heals, where He transforms.

I’ve been witness to many others who have had a Damascus Road experience as well.  A woman I know recently said to me, “The lie that I’ve been believing is that I’m invisible to God.  Now, I know…that He sees me…”  That is a Damascus Road experience.  Transformation.  Jesus spoke a simple truth to a deep-seated lie, and everything changed.  Where her heart had been broken, there was now joy and gratitude.

Transformation is not for the faint of heart.  It is not for those seeking the safety and comfort of complacency and worldliness, because Jesus has more for us than that.  Jesus offers Life, Freedom, and Love.  It is, for me, an essential dimension of  the “New Evangelization”.   Personal encounter with Jesus- true, honest, deep encounter is the very heart of the Church.  Simply because:
 it will seize your imagination, 
it will get you out of bed in the morning,
 it will decide what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends, 
what you read, whom you know, 
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. 
Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything!

Welcome to the Damascus Road

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Of Catfish, Eagles and Crows

For we know we know that every creature growneth and travaileth in pain, even till now.  Romans 8:19

Yesterday, a 10” long channel catfish fell from the heavens with a heavy thud as it landed on my neighbors’ driveway, wiggling, wet, and very much alive.  Had I not seen it myself, I’d think this fish tale was just a bit too fishy!  Yet, there it was.  Sometimes, the oddest things happen, rare even, almost unbelievable.  And, when this odd circumstance occurred, it seemed to reflect a state in my life.

As it turns out, the oddity of the circumstance was easily understood- if you had the benefit of the events that immediately preceeded it.  There was a great deal of squawking and cawing overhead.  A magnificent bald eagle, catfish in tow (or talon I suppose) was flying overhead, relentlessly pursued by two crows.  The crows were diving, attacking and harassing the eagle, presumably because they wanted to steal the eagles meal.  The eagle, distracted by his current circumstance, loosened his grip on the slippery, wiggling soon-to-be meal, relinquishing the fruit of the thing for which he was designed(he’s a bird of prey, after all).  In a sense, he let go of his destiny, no doubt groaning and travailing in the pain of what would become an empty stomach.

At times in my life, I wonder, “How did I get here?” or maybe more accurately, “How did I get in this mess?”.  I’ll pray, “Father, where did I miss You?”.  As I pondered this in the light of a catfish in the driveway, I found a connection.    The imagery is perfect.  Crows have long been associated with evil and darkness.  And, of course, who among us doesn’t want to “soar like an eagle”. How many times have I let go of God’s destiny for my life because I was distracted by crows?  More than I can count, and more than I know.

Those crows had no intention of a full on frontal assault of the eagle.  They were perfectly aware of the power, strength and weaponry of the eagle.  Their plan was to distract, confuse and harass the eagle.  They made noise.  They feinted attack, constantly approaching from the eagles blind spot.  Eventually, distracted, and perhaps tired, the eagle let go of the prize.  In the end, the eagle ended up with nothing but an empty belly for all his effort, for seemingly accomplishing the thing for which he was designed.  Did the crows really want the catfish?  No, they continued to harass that eagle, leaving the fruit of the birds destiny to wriggle and die in the driveway, coming to waste and nothingness.

So, where are the crows in your life?  What are the crows in your life?  Around what circumstances to do you become confused?  When do you feel harassed?  What are the voices that speak failure, despair and condemnation in the lonely and disconnected moments of your life?

Every person who pursues God encounters ‘crows’.  The enemy is driven to cut us off from our destiny, from our purpose, from Jesus.  All of creation groans in the pain of separation from the heart of God.  If we have the eyes to see, we can understand the battle, understand the adversary, and see the path to victory.