Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Transformative Power Of Forgiveness

It was a night that would change the lives of Tom Hayes and Ron McClary forever.

On the evening of December 18, 1979, Officer Tom Hayes received a call to check on two teenage boys who were causing a disturbance in front of a convenience store. Upon arriving, he found 16 year old Ron McClary and his friend who had taken LSD and were harassing the store owner and customers. When Officer Hayes attempted to arrest them, the two teenagers resisted and attacked the policeman. In the course of the struggle, Ron McClary pulled out a gun and shot Officer Hayes. The shooting left him paralyzed below the waist.

The next morning, Officer Hayes’s parish priest and close friend, Fr. Kevin Lutz, stopped by the hospital to visit and pray for him. Fr. Lutz asked him if he had forgiven the young man for shooting him. Talking about the incident years later, Officer Hayes recalled, “I thought I was dying, and I didn’t want to go before Almighty God with hatred in my heart. I prayed I would go to heaven and that he would too.”

The young shooter, Ron McClary, was tried as an adult charged with felonious assault and served 24 years in prison.

As a result of the shooting, Officer Hayes endured many complications. He never was able to regain feeling below his waist and, eventually, one of his legs would be amputated. Through it all he prayed for Ron McClary that he would come to faith in Jesus and become Catholic. However, he never saw the young shooter again and did not know what had become of him.

When Officer Hayes passed away on January 20, 2011 at the age of 61, his friend Fr Kevin Lutz celebrated his funeral Mass. Afterwards, he decided he would find out what had happened to Ron McClary and pay him a visit. Eventually, he was able to track him down to an apartment in Columbus, Ohio. Fr Lutz discovered that Ron had developed multiple sclerosis and was living in utter poverty.

During his visit, he let Ron know that Officer Hayes had forgiven him and had been praying for him. Fr Lutz continued to visit, giving him spiritual counseling and comforting him. Eventually, Ron asked to be baptized and they made arrangements to have an ambulance bring him to church so that he could receive his first Holy Communion.

Throughout this process, Fr Lutz had also been in contact with Officer Hayes’s widow, Mary Hayes. He let her know that he had been visiting him and that Tom’s prayers that Ron would convert to Catholicism had been answered. Fr. Lutz asked Mary if she would attend Ron’s first Holy Communion.

She was not quite sure she was ready to see her husband’s shooter, much less forgive him. As she put it, “[When Fr. Lutz called me]...I asked him if this was my test as a Christian, because I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.”

However, she did agree to go to church for Ron’s first Holy Communion. Seeing him in the aisle, she walked up to him, placed her hand on his arm and whispered, “I forgive you.”

During the homily for that Mass, Fr. Lutz said, “In heaven, we will all be perfect friends, and on Earth, Jesus asks us to get ready for that now. That’s why Jesus tells us things like forgive, love your enemies, bless them and all kinds of things. Jesus asks us to carry our cross. He asks us to forgive, and we also have to be sorry for our own sins.”

The story of Officer Hayes gives us an inspiring example of the healing power of love and forgiveness. After suffering so much because of a random act of violence, Tom Hayes could have decided to hate Ron McClary. He could have chosen to spend the rest of his life resenting him for taking away his ability to walk. But he chose another way. He chose the way that Jesus points out to us in the gospel. Rather than hatred and bitterness, he chose to love his enemy and pray for him. He decided not to spend his life stewing in resentment but to let go of his anger and live in peace and serenity through forgiving the one who had harmed him.

Forgiveness is not easy. We do not reach the point of being able to love our enemies, forgive those who hurt us and pray for our persecutors without much soul searching and prayer. Depending on how deeply we have been injured, it may take years of consciously deciding every day to choose love over hate and peace over resentment. And it is quite impossible without prayer. Only the love of God can empower us to love our enemy.

It also requires humility. None of us is perfect. In fact, it is likely that all of us have hurt someone at some point in our lives and have needed to ask for forgiveness. It is even more likely that we have harmed people and do not even know it. When we realize just how in need of forgiveness we are ourselves, it becomes easier for us to extend forgiveness to others. When we understand just how much God has forgiven us, then we find the strength to love our enemies and pray that our persecutors themselves will know the merciful love of our Heavenly Father.

When we die, none of us can stand before Almighty God with hatred in our hearts and expect to be saved. No matter how we may have been hurt - no matter how deep and painful the wounds we carry are - we need to find a way to forgive, if only for the sake of our peace of mind. In God, we can find the strength to do so by deciding every minute of every day to forgo revenge and to refuse to cherish grudges. When we do so, the love and peace of God’s Holy Spirit will flood our hearts. Then we will truly be daughters and sons of our Heavenly Father who “makes the sun rise on the bad and the good and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.” 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Left To Witness To God's Mercy

Today’s gospel confronts us with the most difficult and challenging words in all of Scripture: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn and offer the other....Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Jesus’ words are so pointed and direct that we often think he must be exaggerating to make his point. He cannot possibly expect us to love those who hate us. He cannot mean that we are to allow others to mistreat us without seeking vengeance.

We might be able to accept that we should forgive the small indignities we suffer in day-to-day life such as the co-worker who takes credit for work we have done or the driver who cuts us off during rush hour. But what about the schoolyard bully who tortured us throughout childhood? What about the Wall Street “fat cats” who swindled away the life-savings of the elderly? What about the drug-dealers and gang members who make us fear for the safety of our children? Does God really mean that we should love them? How can that be possible?

It is clear from Jesus’ teaching and from the example of his life that he meant exactly what he said. Just as we accept forgiveness for our own sins, we are to forgive those who sin against us, no matter what they may do. Not only must we forgive them, we must love and pray for them. It is a lot to expect from frail human beings as we are. But it is not impossible. If God expects it of us - and he does - he will give us the power to accomplish it.

Many people have heard these challenging words of the gospel and, rather than writing them off as an exaggeration, have taken them to heart and tried to live by them. One such person was Immaculee Ilibagiza.

Immaculee was a young college student living in the East African nation of Rwanda with her parents and three brothers. Like all young college women, she had many hopes and dreams for her future.

All that changed in 1994 when civil war broke out in her country. The president of Rwanda, a member of the Hutu tribe, was assassinated. Hutu tribesmen wanted revenge against the other major tribe in Rwanda, the Tutsis. Hutu militias handed out machetes, machine guns and grenades to the people urging them to kill every Tutsi they encountered. Over the course of 100 days an estimated 850,000 people were killed.

When the killing began, Immaculee’s father sent her to the home of a friend of his, a Hutu pastor, to see if he would hide her until the frenzy ended. The pastor agreed to hide her and five other women in a small bathroom off his bedroom.

For nearly three months, the women huddled in that bathroom. Gripped with fear and not knowing what had become of the rest of her family, all Immaculee could do was pray the rosary. Outside the window, she could hear people screaming and begging for their lives as they were mercilessly butchered. Bands of killers would search the pastor’s home but, miraculously, they never found the bathroom in which she was hiding. Prayer became the only way she could keep her sanity with so much inhumanity around her.

Eventually she learned that her family had been killed. The only one spared was a brother who had been studying in Senegal when the war broke out. Her father had been killed when he ventured out to get food for people who had taken refuge in a nearby stadium. The killers took his body and used it for a road block. Her mother was captured and killed when she ran out of her house to protect a neighbor who had been confronted by the killers. Finally, her two brothers were killed when their hiding place had been discovered.

As we can only imagine, she was filled with grief and rage. She wished all the Hutus would suffer cruel and humiliating deaths as her family did. At the same time, she understood Jesus’ words calling her to love and forgiveness. During her months of hiding, the rosary had given her tremendous comfort and strength. How could she keep praying the rosary, especially the words of the Our Father: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” if she continued to harbor hatred in her heart?

This is what she writes in her memoir of her experience, Left to Tell:

In God’s eyes, the killers were part of his family, deserving
of love and forgiveness. I knew that I couldn't ask God to
love me if I were unwilling to love his children. At that moment,
I prayed for the killers for their sins to be forgiven. I prayed that
God would lead them to recognize the horrible error of their
ways before their life on earth ended - before they were called
to account for their mortal sins.

Immaculee’s story is powerful and moving. But she is not alone. Many others have discovered the peace that comes from forgiveness even after suffering the most unspeakable traumas.

Chances are, whatever wrongs others have committed against us were not as heinous as having our family killed in a genocide. If this courageous woman could find it in her heart to forgive those who cruelly tortured and killed her family, we can find it within our hearts to do the same. It is not easy. It requires much prayer. It is not only possible, it is necessary if we are to one day end the cycle of the violence and war which has plagued so much of human history.

Let there be peace on earth; and let it begin with me.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Other Cheek

Blessed Mother Teresa walked into a bakery one hot afternoon in Calcutta. At her side was a young girl who had not eaten for days. Anxious to get something into her stomach, Mother Teresa asked the baker if he had some left over bread for the girl to eat. With a look of disgust, the baker leaned back and with all the force he could muster, spit in Mother Teresa’s face. Wiping her face, she looked at the baker and said, “Thank you for the gift for me. Now, is there something that you could give this child?” Amazed by her reaction, he reached behind the counter and gave the girl a loaf of bread.

Let us consider all the ways Blessed Mother Teresa could have acted when the baker spit in her face. She could have scolded him for his cruelty and lectured him on how to treat others, especially elderly women and young children. No one would have criticized her for doing so. Considering  her popularity among the people of Calcutta, she could have organized a protest and boycott of the bakery which would have put it out of business. Again, she would have been totally within her rights to do so.

However, she had a greater purpose in mind. Not only was she anxious to find food for the girl, she was concerned for the soul of this baker. Even though he expressed hatred and contempt toward her, she still loved him. She desired not only to feed the young girl but to heal the baker. She wanted him to experience, as she had, the joy of giving to the poor. Rather than seek revenge for the humiliation she suffered, she returned kindness and it made all the difference.

As she did throughout her whole life, Blessed Mother Teresa was seeking to follow the example of Jesus who teaches us: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.”

We do not know what became of the baker. I would like to think that Blessed Mother Teresa’s example of love helped to soften his heart and make him more generous to the needy.

Violence plagues our society. It takes place on a large scale through wars and organized crime. Sadly, it also plays itself out on schoolyards, office buildings and parking lots all throughout our country. At times we can feel utterly helpless, unable to do anything about it. We feel compassion for the victims and sometimes even fear that we could be targeted. However, we are not sure if we can do anything to make a difference.

If history teaches us anything it is that violence only leads to more violence. When we react to the injustice of the powerful with force of arms, it only leads to more injustice. When we seek revenge, it only leads to more bloodshed. Unfortunately, it is the poorest among us and often the most innocent who bear the brunt of the brutality.

Thanks be to God, there is a better way. It is the way that Jesus showed us, the way of love.

Jesus lived in a time when the Roman Empire was occupying the Holy Land. It was not uncommon to be slapped by a soldier, to be made to carry heavy loads for them or to have soldiers break into their homes and take their goods. Often these soldiers wanted Jews to react violently so that they would have a pretext to beat them, imprison them or even kill them. What Jesus asked his followers to do was not to retaliate. Not only would this keep the soldiers from having a pretext to inflict further harm on them, it would also surprise them, make them wonder how someone could forgo vengeance and, hopefully, make them reconsider the way they treated others.

The same is true for us today. Thankfully, we do not suffer the indignities that the people of Jesus’ day did. However, we are often insulted, offended or even cheated by others. Can we take a step back, forget our pride for a minute, and consider what made them act as they did? It could be that they are suffering in ways we cannot see or understand. It could be that they are just plain ignorant. Whatever the case may be, could we find a way of addressing them not to hurt them but to help them see why what they said or did was hurtful and to invite them to change?
At the very least, could we find it within ourselves to pray for them? As Blessed Mother Teresa sought to do, we should be concerned not only with righting wrongs but with righting hearts.

The way of love works if only we have the humility and courage to try it. Every human person has a heart that was made for love and not for hatred. When we see love in action we are instinctively drawn to it. If a person’s heart is calloused from many acts of violence and abuse, it may take that much more love to begin to chip away at it. But love never fails. Eventually it heals, corrects and soothes any human heart that experiences it.

In a world as jaded as the one we live in, these words of Jesus could sound unrealistic and impossible. In fact, without God’s grace it is impossible to love our enemies and show compassion to those who persecute us. But in a world in which violence and vengeance are wreaking havoc, it is the only way forward. It is the only way that we can put an end to the brutality all around us. It is up to us, as followers of Jesus, to make it happen.

The Dalai Lama who himself has witnessed injustices against his native land of Tibet wrote: “The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kind.” The vengeance, the retaliation, the hatred has to stop. However, it can only stop if we decide it will and if we choose a better way. Jesus offers that better way to us and gives us the power to live it. We need only turn our cheek to Him and ask him to lead us.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Our Father Will Provide

A missionary priest working in the West African country of Liberia tells the story of a visit he made one evening to a local family. They gathered in a circle on the dirt floor of the modest hut and shared their faith. To wrap up their time together, the priest asked if they had any intentions they would like him to pray for. The father spoke up telling the priest that it had been months since they were able to eat meat. If there were anything he could ask God for it would be that he could provide his family with fresh meat for the dinner table. When the priest heard the request, he felt a tinge of anxiety. He wondered what would happen to their faith if he prayed with them for meat, but they never got any. Nonetheless, he decided to trust God and offered up a prayer that somehow this poor family would have meat for their dinner table.

After their meeting, the father drove the priest back to the village. As they bounced along the bumpy jungle road, an animal jumped out in front of them. The man got excited and yelled out, “Look, Father!” Then, gunning the engine, he ran over the stunned animal with his jeep, killing it instantly. The man jumped out of the vehicle, held the animal up by the tail and said to the priest, “See, Father. We asked for meat, and God provided it for us!”

The priest thought to himself that he had no idea what kind of animal it was that they had just killed, and it was certainly nothing he would be interested in eating. But he learned that we can certainly trust God to answer our prayers. We just have to keep our eyes open to the surprising ways he will provide for us.

Today’s readings speak to us about the abiding love that our Heavenly Father has for each of us. The Almighty Creator of the universe cares for us. The One who set the stars in their place and filled the oceans with water sees our needs and richly provides for them. The prophet Isaiah assures us that God loves us as tenderly as a mother loves her infant. Just as any mother would never fail to feed, clothe and shelter her children, God will never fail to nurture and protect us. In the gospel, Jesus points out to us how the birds of the air and the lilies of the field are taken care of by God. If our Heavenly Father will provide for the animals and plants of the world, so much more will he provide for us. However, as the missionary priest learned, we often have to open our eyes to discover the creative and surprising ways in which God answers our prayers.

Living in a prosperous society as we do, it is easy to forget that all that we have is given to us by God. Food is more than plentiful. In fact, most of us are more worried about eating too much than about having enough. We are often more concerned about what to do with clothing that no longer fits us or is no longer fashionable than we are with how we will stay warm. Our super-abundance of goods has tricked us into thinking that all we have is a result of our hard work and ingenuity. But did we have anything to do with being born in a prosperous country? Did we have any say in what talents and abilities we would be born with? Was it by our own hard work that we happen to be healthy and intelligent enough to work. Isn’t it true that the fact that we were born at all can only be attributed to God and his love for us? No matter how hard we have worked to provide a home, money and food for ourselves and our families, we can never forget that it all comes from God.

If we were to lose it all, the first person we would blame would be God. Therefore, if we enjoy it, the first person we should thank should be our Heavenly Father.

Even in a prosperous society as our own, many who are sitting next to us today find themselves in dire need. In a fragile economy, many are unemployed, facing foreclosure on their homes or falling behind on their bills. Many of us have lost everything we have worked so hard to achieve. The feeling of frustration and failure can be overwhelming. In such times, we can wonder whether God has forgotten or abandoned us.

It is precisely in such times that we must turn to God. Whatever our needs may be, we can put them into his hands and trust that he will provide for us. Whether it be a job, money for bills or food for our table, God will supply our need. However, most likely it will not come in the way we expect nor according to our schedule. It will come in the way God sees fit and according to his timetable. But we can be assured that it will be just we need and that it will come at just the right time.

And so, Jesus’ words to us are, “Do not worry.” When we find ourselves troubled about our present circumstances or anxious about our future prospects, it is time to drop everything, focus our mind on God and say, “Lord, I trust in you.” Then we must remind ourselves that we have enough to get through today, and that is sufficient. Tomorrow will take care of itself. The more we react to stress in this way, the more of a habit it will become. Our thoughts will then be centered not on our weakness and inabilities but on God’s power and love. With that will come a peace that no amount of hardships or difficulties will ever be able to steal from us.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Laying Down The Law Out Of Love

All responsible parents have rules in their households. They decide how late their children can stay out and what time they should go to bed. They monitor how much time they spend on electronic devices and what they eat. Other rules that parents impose are “don’t run into the road”, “don’t play with matches” and “don’t touch the stove.”

Children often resent the rules their parents impose on them. From their perspective, such rules take away their freedom and limit their choices. They cannot understand why they can’t just go to bed when they want or go wherever they please. Sometimes, they can even think their parents are bullying them or trying to keep them from being happy.

Of course, the rules that parents impose on their children are for their own good. They keep them from getting into dangerous situations, from being hurt or from hurting others. Rules such as not eating before supper ensure that children get adequate nutrition. And deciding what time they go to bed ensures that children get adequate rest. Parents do not make up rules to show them who’s boss or to abuse their authority over them. Rather it is out of loving concern for their children that mothers and fathers set limits on their behavior.

The same is true for God. Like a responsible, loving parent, He has put in place laws that we must follow. These commandments -  “Honor your father and mother”, “Do not kill”, “Do not steal” and all the others - are not God’s way of showing us that He is in control. It is not His way of bullying us or limiting our freedom. Rather, they are expressions of His loving concern for us. Like a caring parent, He reveals His law to us so that we will avoid hurting ourselves and learn how to have full and meaningful lives on this planet He has given us.

In today’s first reading, Sirach tells us that God gives us a choice. We can choose between good and evil. We are all free to make our own decisions. Our Heavenly Father will not force us to keep His commandments. However, we must be aware that there are consequences to our choices. If I choose to keep God’s commandments, then I can expect good things to follow. If I choose to ignore His word and follow my own way, I can expect bad things to follow. Sirach compares the choice to obey or disobey God’s commandments as a choice between water and fire. If I choose to follow His word, then it is like choosing water. I can expect it to refresh and nourish me. However, if I choose fire by disobeying God’s commandments, then I can expect to get burned.

As a society, we often talk about morality as if it it were a matter of opinion or preference. For instance, we might talk about one person being for abortion and another being against it the way we talk about someone preferring chicken to beef. This way of thinking is deeply ingrained in our modern culture and is called “moral relativism.” This is the belief that what is true for you might not be true for me and what is wrong for you might not be wrong for me. For instance, you might judge that it is wrong to cheat on your taxes but I think it is right for me to cheat on my taxes. Obviously, such a position is absurd. A statement cannot be both true and false at the same time. Nonetheless, as a society we have decided to think and behave this way.

However, deciding what is good and bad is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of fact. It is written into our very nature as rational human beings and baked into the nature of things. In many ways, the moral laws are like the laws of nature and the universe. For instance, in the natural world, there is a law of gravity. “What goes up, must come down.” Now, I can decide that this law is unfair and that it limits my freedom. However, if I try to break it by jumping off a skyscraper, I will learn very quickly that there are severe consequences to disobeying that law. Because I hate the law of gravity so much, I might circulate a petition that Parliament repeal it. I might even bring my petition to the Supreme Court. However, no one can change the law of gravity, no matter how inconvenient it is, because it is not a matter of opinion but a matter of fact.

In the same way, the basic principle that I should do good and avoid evil is a matter of fact. No matter how hard we try, saying that what is good is evil and what is evil is good will not make it so. Many people might believe that it is good to steal or good to kill. Again, that does not make it so. Even if governments make evil acts legal, that still does not make them moral. No amount of legislation can ever make slavery or genocide just causes. In the same way, no amount of legal precedents can make the killing of the innocent a good thing. What is right is right and what is wrong is wrong. There is nothing we can do or say to change that fact.

Just as scientists come to an understanding of the laws of nature through science, so we can come to an understanding of the moral law by the use of our reason and the exercise of our conscience. The pressing moral questions of our day are not matters of faith as much as they are matters of clear reason. Just as people of different faith traditions and even atheists can agree with the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” so people of different faith traditions and even atheists should be able to agree through the use of reason that abortion, physician assisted suicide and the death penalty are wrong.

Therefore, in debating these issues, we are not trying to impose our faith on others. Rather, as people of faith, we are trying to convince our fellow citizens that the way to a prosperous, just society is by respecting the right to life of all human beings. Though this principle is strengthened by our Judeo-Christian belief that all persons are made in the image and likeness of God, it is a conviction that all people of sound reason and good will can embrace.

Jesus tells us in today’s gospel: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill them.” Jesus reveals the law of God to us not to deny us our freedom but so that we can use that freedom well. He promises us a full and abundant life if we follow His word. It is out of love for us that He teaches us the way we should live. As God’s children, let us embrace the commandments He has revealed to us and ask for the strength to carry them out. Furthermore, let us take those commandments into our world which has lost its way so that our society can finally know true justice and peace which can only come from obeying our Heavenly Father. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Seeking Peace And Reconciliation

Jared Diamond is a professor of geography based out of the University of California in Los Angeles. He has dedicated a good part of his life to studying indigenous people, particularly how their traditional cultures have been able to survive through modernity and what they have to teach us in civilizations which are at least more technologically advanced.

In a recent radio interview, he told the story of an incident which he witnessed in Papua New Guinea. A young man from a tribe had been killed in an accident caused by another young man. Predictably, the family of the man who had been killed were overwhelmed with grief at their son’s untimely death. However, instead of seeking revenge on the young man who killed him, they invited him to a banquet.

In the course of the meal, the family members each took a turn expressing through their tears how much they missed their loved one. They told stories of the mischief he would get into as a little boy, what he had been able to accomplish as he entered manhood and all the hopes for his future which were now shattered by his death.  

After they had finished, they allowed the young man who had killed him to speak. Sobbing and beating his breast, he told the family how sorry he was about the accident. He also had known the young man who was killed and grieved at his loss. Admitting that it could not replace the life he had taken, he offered them the gift of a pig which traditionally is offered in compensation for a wrong committed. In conclusion, he let them know in no uncertain terms that he wished he had died in his place.

After everyone had finished speaking, they all sat in silence for a time. Then the family stood up and each embraced the young man who had killed their loved one. They assured him that he had been forgiven and that they would not seek revenge. Everyone left the meal with some measure of consolation and peace in their hearts.

Professor Diamond contrasted this with how we in the developed world would handle the same situation. Most likely, the police would get involved, investigating the accident to determine how it happened and what degree of guilt there was on the part of the person who had committed it. There would follow a long court process to either punish the young man or award compensation to the family. A great deal of time and money would be spent. However, all the while the family would be left with their heart wrenching grief and the young man would spend a lifetime burdened with guilt. Money might be exchanged or punishment might be doled out, however no real reconciliation or healing would ever take place.

In today’s gospel, Jesus has some pointed words to say to us who have gathered to make our offering at this altar: “...if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Can any of us here today honestly say that we can think of no one who has anything against us? Is there anyone here today who can say that he has never wronged anyone or that she has no one to say “I’m sorry” too? If we were to take Jesus’ words literally, I imagine that this church would empty out very quickly.

We have a lot to learn from the people of Papua New Guinea. They live the spirit of today’s gospel in a vibrant way. Their primary concern was not with fairness, with finding fault or with settling a score. Rather, they sought healing, reconciliation and peace.

All families experience feuds which can last over decades. They can simmer under the surface over time or explode into all out shouting matches. How can we be instruments of Jesus’ peace to our families? Are there family members we can contact to offer forgiveness to even if we think they are the ones in the wrong? Are there members of our family that we could work at bringing together to settle their differences? What is keeping us from taking the initiative to bring reconciliation to our families? Is it pride or fear? Then, let us pray to our Heavenly Father to give us the humility and courage to say, “I’m sorry”, and to offer forgiveness to anyone who has wronged us.

No parish is immune to divisions and cliques. Even as we preach love and forgiveness, we bicker behind one another’s backs and spread gossip. Such behaviour tarnishes the image of Christ in a community and renders it inhospitable and unwelcoming. Beginning with me, each of us must make an effort to avoid gossiping at all costs. We must find a way to put aside our desire to control and our need to make ourselves the center of attention. Whatever it may cost us, we must ask each other for forgiveness and be willing to extend pardon even to those who are unaware that they have hurt us. If we cannot do this, then our worship will be in vain. It will produce no fruits in us. Our righteous will not surpass that of the scribes or Pharisees who did all the right things but with a cold, hard heart.

As we approach the altar today, we each have much soul searching to do. Jesus waits for us with open arms. He comes to bring us the healing, peace and reconciliation He won for us on the cross. He wants to set our hearts on fire with love. However, if we are harboring bitterness and scorn in them, that fire will go out. As we receive His Body and Blood let us earnestly ask Him to reveal to us at least one person we can be reconciled with. Let us ask Him for both the opportunity and the courage to carry it through. Then the peace of God will be a reality in our lives and our offering will be acceptable to our Heavenly Father.

Friday, February 10, 2017

One Foot In Front Of The Other

We have all had the experience of telling what we thought was a harmless white lie. We may have done it to spare another person’s feelings. Later on, it turned out that we had to tell other lies to cover our tracks or the person discovered the truth on his own. As a result, feelings were hurt or a friendship was damaged. What we thought was a harmless lie ended up causing us much needless anguish.

On the other hand, we have also had the experience of doing a good deed. We may have given someone a hand with a project or listened to a friend’s problems. At the time, it seemed like a small gesture. Then, months and sometimes years later, that person reminds us of our good deed and tells us how much it meant. What we thought was a trivial act of kindness turned out to touch someone deeply.

Cardinal Thuan, a former bishop of Vietnam, wrote in his memoirs: “A straight line consists of millions of little points. Likewise, a lifetime consists of millions of seconds and minutes joined together. If every single point along the line is rightly set, the line will be straight. If every minute of a life is good, that life will be holy.”

Every day of our lives - indeed, every minute of every day - we have choices to make. Those choices, no matter how insignificant they may seem, shape our character either for better or for worse. And the consequences of those actions also add up to our benefit or our detriment. As we hear in the first reading from the book of Sirach: “Before man are life and death, good and evil. Whichever he chooses will be given to him.” Every decision we make is important. Every course of action we take determines in what direction our life will be headed.

Jesus speaks to this in today’s gospel passage. Sinfulness consists not just in breaking the commandments. Rather it is rooted in the decisions we make and in our thoughts and desires which, though hidden to others, are made plain to the eyes of God.

Most of us will make it through life without breaking the fifth commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” But, as Jesus says, how many of us at times have wished harm on others because they have hurt us or because we are jealous of them? How many of us carry grudges and resentments over the years because we are unwilling to forgive? We may not have done any real harm to these people. But the malice that we bear in our hearts is the same sinful root - anger - from which so many despicable and reprehensible acts stem. We have made seemingly small decisions to not forgive, to bear a grudge or to envy someone, and it has made our hearts hard with anger.

We only have to look at some of the tragic events of the past year to see how true Jesus’ words are. When a shooting or a bombing takes place, we often learn about the history and character of the perpetrator. They did not just decide one day for no reason that they would kill their fellow human beings. Rather, resentment and hate had been building up within them over years. Finally, it gets to a point at which they explode, lashing out at others for all the misfortunes and injustices they believe they have suffered. And it all began with daily decisions not to forgive, not to sympathize with others and not to find positive ways to deal with their anger and hurt.

Jesus teaches us that not just the actions we take but the thoughts we think are the result of decisions we make. It is true that sometimes ideas pop into our heads without our knowing where they came from. However, we can choose which thoughts we will welcome and which we will dismiss. We can decide which thoughts we will entertain and which we will recognize to be foolish or harmful. We can decide which thoughts we will follow through with and which we will abandon. It requires much discipline for us to be aware of what we are thinking and to change the direction of those thoughts before they take us down the wrong road. But such discipline is vital if we are to keep God’s word and learn to love our neighbor from our heart.

The good news is that we do not need to do this alone. While no one can read our thoughts or see into our hearts, God can. His Holy Spirit scrutinizes all things as Saint Paul tells us in the second reading. He can make us aware of thoughts and feelings which are causing bitterness and anger to well up within us. And he can guide our minds to thoughts of joy, peace and love. We need only commit ourselves to spending some quiet time in prayer daily asking the Spirit to guard and guide our thoughts and feelings. Then we will experience an inner transformation and inner peace because the burden of grudges and long guarded jealousies will be lifted from us and our hearts will be free to love.

The American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote” "Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Character is everything."  

Each of us has choices to make. How we choose will determine what kind of person we become and how our lives will turn out. If we are not happy with the direction our lives have taken to this point, there is always time for us to change course. The decision to come to Mass today is a good start. The next step is to put our lives in God’s hands and give him control over the decisions we make. If we ask him to, he will transform us beginning with the small choices we make. Then our crooked ways will be made straight and our bumpy paths made smooth.