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Fr. Bauer's Blog
Several years ago a friend of mine went through an unplanned job and resultant life transition. We kept in communication during his transition period via phone calls and emails. In one of our conversations he said: “John, I’ve been praying and trying to discern God’s plan for my life, but I’m not getting any clarity.” In response I told him that I wasn’t convinced that God had a specific plan for each of our lives, as that would negate our free will. And our free will is one of God’s great gifts to us—and more than occasionally—something that gets us (or at least me) into trouble.
If God had a specific plan for each of our lives, if we didn’t have our free will, we would be nothing more than automatons. Now in saying this, there is a need for great clarity, while I don’t believe God has a specific plan for each of us, I do believe that God has a “general” plan for all of us. The old Baltimore Catechism stated this well when it indicated that: “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” Our free will allows us to make the choice for God in our each of our lives. Unfortunately, our free will also allows us to choose things other than God. Without free will, we would have no choice, but to love God in all God’s magnificence and glory. Free will is a great gift, but it also comes with great responsibility. Because of it even small decisions can have significant consequences.
Now the above having been said, I also believe that there are times when God does call us to a specific service. Cardinal John Henry Newman stated this well back in 1848: “God knows me and calls me by my name….God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.” These words of Cardinal Newman remind us that we are not created without a purpose.
I do believe we are called to some specific service—even though we may never know what that purpose or service is. Perhaps the service God is calling someone to be good husband/wife, father/mother, son/daughter, friend, neighbor, or co-worker. Perhaps it is simply to invite others to come to know Jesus by the witness of our lives. This service can be accomplished in a variety of ways. And at different times, this service may take a variety of forms. Being called to a specific service or purpose by God, though, is not the same as God having a specific plan for our lives. A specific service is not the same as a specific plan.
Like Cardinal Newman, we may never know the service God has committed to us in our individual lives. But with prayer and our free will—and even though we might not know it—we will accomplish that service.
In the days and weeks after Christmas there always seems to be a lot of sales, as companies try to unload some of their excess inventory. Often the ads for these sales are accompanied by the phrases, “limited number in stock” or “this won’t last long.” As I listened to one of these ads a few days ago, I couldn’t help but wonder if many people are feeling that “hope” is one of those things that is in limited supply these days. I say this, because as I write this, our U.S. Capital has just been attacked and ransacked by an angry mob. And while vaccinations have begun, we are still in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, there are still no signs that we will be returning to normal—whatever that normal might be—any time soon.
In regard to “hope” I think it is I important to distinguish hope from optimism. Optimism is often based on feelings or possibilities—what one can see or intuit. Unlike optimism, however, hope is not based on our view of or interpretation of current events. Rather, hope is a theological virtue in which we trust in the promises of God, as we make our way through the world, and seek to be open to God’s grace. Where optimism is based on human events and/or our interpretation of those events, hope is based on God’s love for us—revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of God’s son, Jesus Christ.
In his letter to the Romans St. Paul wrote: “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees. But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.” (Rom. 8:24-25) I think these words speak very specifically to our current situation. They remind us that we dare to hope because of God’s love for us. Because of this love, we are not to give ourselves over to worry or anxiety. Rather in whatever situation we might find ourselves, we have reason to hope because of God’s abiding love for us revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
It should not be surprising that in our Christian tradition, the anchor is a symbol for hope and steadfastness. The source for this symbol is found in Hebrews 6:18b-19 "We who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to hold fast to the hope that lies before us. This we have as an anchor of the soul, sure, and firm.” Our experience of God’s love, and our hope in God’s promise are the anchors that hold us firm amidst the changing tides and circumstances of our lives.
Many years ago in grade school we had to memorize the Acts of Faith, Hope, and Love. I confess I had to look up the Act of Hope, but as soon as I read it the words came rushing back to me. “O my God, relying on your infinite goodness and promises, I hope to obtain pardon of my sins, the help of your grace, and life everlasting, through the merits of Jesus Christ, my Lord and Redeemer.” Given all that is going on in our world today, I think it would be good for all of us to remember and cling fast to our hope in God. And it wouldn’t hurt to pray the Act of Hope on a regular basis.
As I write this column, we are coming to the end of 2020. I suspect all of us are exhausted, but at the same time excited that this year has come to an end. We have had to deal with many changes and in some cases accept unanticipated losses. There also have been a seemingly never ending number of adaptations and adjustments we have had to make, often with little or no notice. Tempers are on a short fuse, and the ability to deal with differences and disagreements is almost non-existent. And yet, every now and again, a cause for hope emerges.
Most recently for me a cause for hope occurred in the form of a note from a friend in her Christmas card. After acknowledging that the year had not gone as planned, my friend said: “And yet, there have been several blessings.” My friend went on to say that she had learned to slow down and enjoy some of the small pleasures that came her way. She had learned to listen better, to enjoy quiet, and to communicate in new/different ways. Additionally she had learned to enjoy and appreciate times with family and friends virtually, or when wearing a facemask. She also mentioned that her prayer life had improved. She found that she wasn’t squeezing prayer in amongst other activities, but rather giving prayer its own time and place in her day.
I have to admit that my friend’s note was exactly what I needed. Prior to receiving her Christmas card, I had been lamenting everything that had gone wrong the past year. Her note, though, caused me to realize that in the midst of all the difficult and bad things that had happened, there was cause for hope. God is still with us, and is always and everywhere offering us God’s good grace. To be honest, though, recognizing and being open to God’s grace is not always easy.
Often without choosing or intending it, I can get caught feeling sorry for myself. I take on a “woe is me” attitude and in its worst expression throw myself a little “pity party.” (The upside is that I serve my favorite foods at my pity parties.) When I recognize these times in my life, I have learned that I need to take things to prayer. Prayer doesn’t change the situation, but it does change me and my attitude. And even in difficult situations, I am reminded that there is cause for hope.
Our God is a God of second chances and new beginnings. Our God is constantly inviting us to new life in those situations where we feel helpless and where things seem hopeless. The thing is, though, that God never forces God’s way into these situations. Rather God waits patiently for us to invite God in and to open ourselves to God’s grace. As we begin this New Year, let us pray that we might to open to the grace that God is offering us that even in the midst of this pandemic that we might see and choose anew, a future full of hope.
Being the second oldest of seven children, when I was growing up I spent a lot of time chauffeuring my younger brothers and sisters to various places for various activities. Since one of my grandmothers also did not drive, I often would have to drive her to various events and activities as well. Now I wish I could tell you my motives for being the family chauffeur were completely altruistic. The reality was, though, that it was simply the price I had to pay if I wanted to use the family car on weekends.
Now to be quite honest, chauffeuring my brothers and sisters around was no picnic. They were almost never ready to leave when they were supposed to be. There were often unplanned stops and/or detours on the way to our destination, and they were seldom ready and waiting when I arrived to pick them up. Worse, though, was that their gratitude was almost non-existent. Occasionally, I’d get a quick thank you, but those times were rare.
My grandmother, on the other hand, was different. She never failed to be ready when I stopped to pick her up and, in fact, was almost always waiting for me. This same thing was true when I returned to take her home from wherever she had been. Even in cold weather she would be standing either outside or close by the door waiting and watching for me so that I wouldn’t be kept waiting. And she never failed to express her gratitude to me.
My grandmother was truly an Advent kind of person. She knew how to be prepared and how to wait expectantly. Even when her timetable had to be adjusted, she never complained. I think she realized, perhaps better than most, that time spent waiting does not have to be wasted time. It can be used for quiet reflection or interior preparation. Waiting can be a time when anticipation grows and expectations develop. Or, as in my grandmother’s case, it could also be used for a decade or two of the rosary for some of her errant grandchildren.
Now I mention this today because in these waning days of the season of Advent, while the world around us seems to speed up and become busier than ever, this season calls us to slow down and wait—to wait in joyful hope and faith filled expectation. And even though we know what it is we are waiting and preparing for, there is (or should be) a sense of newness and excitement about it. For the great miracle of the Incarnation did not happen once long ago only to exist now as a pleasant memory. Rather, it is an ongoing event. God continues to touch the world with God’s grace and God’s love. At times, though, we can become so busy that this most basic fact of our existence can recede into the background, or worse, be forgotten altogether.
As modern day believers, we need to be reminded on a regular basis that the Incarnation—the Word becoming flesh—is a wondrous and ongoing miracle. My prayer during these last days of Advent is that we might use these days as a time of remembering, a time of quiet preparation, a time of waiting in joyful expectation, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior, that we might welcome him with love and be open to his grace.
A few weeks ago someone contacted me to arrange a time to meet with them. I suggested that we meet via Zoom. They thought this would be great and we agreed on a time and a date. They said they would send a link to the Zoom meeting. Now, since the pandemic began, I have somewhat reluctantly become very familiar with Zoom, so I automatically set up a Zoom meeting on my own. When the time for our meeting came, I dutifully started the Zoom meeting I had set up. After about 10 minutes, I received an email from the person informing me that they were at the meeting waiting for me. I immediately remembered they had said they would set up the meeting, and so I joined them at the Zoom meeting they had set up. I apologized for my tardiness and explained that I had mistakenly set up my own Zoom meeting and had been waiting for them. Fortunately they were able to see the humor in my gaffe and we had a good laugh over it.
As I reflected on this experience, it occurred to me it was a good analogy for what sometimes happens in my prayer life. More times than I care to admit when I go to prayer, I am in one place waiting for God, and God is in another place waiting for me. Most often we eventually sync up, but other times we are like ships passing in the night.
Of course, while I’d like God to shoulder some of the responsibility for the above, the reality is that it is entirely my fault. God does not operate on my schedule and God definitely isn’t at my beck and call. Having acknowledged this, however, it is also very important to note that God is always present and available to us, but it is on God’s terms, not ours.
Given the above, the obvious question is: how do we become aware of God’s presence and availability to us? I believe the answer is found in two words: Openness and Attentiveness. God is always and everywhere present. We need to be open to that presence, whenever and however it occurs in our lives. One of the ways we can do this is by putting aside our expectations of how and where God should be present, and simply be open to the many and surprising ways God comes into our lives. Attentiveness helps us do that. Attentiveness is nothing more, but also nothing less, than simply putting aside our agenda, our preconceived ideas, and our sense of how things should be, and just resting and trusting in God’s presence, and opening ourselves to God’s grace.
Being open to God’s presence and availability is not easy. It requires patience and practice. And sometimes we end up in one place waiting for God and God is somewhere else waiting for us. When we get it right, though, we will find peace and hope in the tender embrace of our God’s love.
Many years ago I used to give a talk to seminarians about taking responsibility for their spiritual growth after their ordination. One of the recommendations I offered them was that when they prepared their homilies each week they spend some time reflecting on the scriptures for the coming Sunday with some of their parishioners.
My reasoning was that the scriptures—as the inspired word of God—speak to each person differently. I reminded them that as celibate males it can be helpful to hear how the scriptures speak to women, to those who are married, and those of different ages. I also told them that over the years, I have been continually and pleasantly surprised—and often humbled—by the insights and wisdom of parishioners as they shared how a particular scriptural passage spoke to them. I always closed by telling them that it was the height of foolishness and hubris for a priest, deacon, or bishop to think that in preparing a homily they can’t benefit from the insights of others.
Now, I know most people reading this column aren’t preparing to become preachers. But you do participate in the homily each week, by listening to it and reflecting on how it affects or reflects your life. Given this, your insights are important and can provide a grounding in reality for the homilist.
I would hope parishioners would feel confident and comfortable enough to let a preacher know when he has missed the mark and failed to tie the homily to your lived experience. A good preacher can learn from feedback from his parishioners. That doesn’t mean just telling a priest his homily was “good” or “bad.” Instead it may involve telling the priest about a specific point that resonated with you or raising a question about something you didn’t understand.
Preaching is an art not a science. Preparing a homily takes time and effort, and an openness to God’s grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In my experience, however, priests often face three major pitfalls in regard to preaching. 1. Superficiality; 2. Splitting; and 3. Spilling. Let me say a word about each of these.
Superficiality occurs when the preacher spouts glib bromides and tired maxims instead of taking the time to do background reading and research, prayerful reflection on the scriptures, and welcoming and listening to the insights of others. It may be easy to be sweet and sugary in preaching, but the people in the pews deserve better.
Splitting occurs when the preacher tells people how they should live and act, but isn’t living and acting that way himself. In its worst form, this has occurred with abusive priests, but it also occurs when a preacher is telling people to be good, kind, forgiving, generous and loving, and isn’t doing this in his own life. People pick up on this almost immediately. It takes a certain amount of humility to be able to say: We need to do these things and I struggle with them in my own life. This is a vital aspect of preaching.
Spilling in preaching is perhaps the worst offense for preachers. Spilling occurs when a preacher decides to talk about their personal issues, or uses the pulpit to express his own opinion on a political issue. For example, when I was growing up I remember hearing a homily on the evils of chlorinated water. I also have heard priests preach about how poorly they have been treated by people in their parish.
To this day, I have no idea where these priests found these themes in the scriptures, but nonetheless they preached on them. These are good examples of spilling. At base, spilling is an abuse of the power of the pulpit. The person who is spilling may use the scriptures as a springboard, but in reality all they are doing is using the pulpit to promote their own ideas and agenda. It is always and everywhere, wrong.
The power of preaching is not to deliver holy truth from on high, but to connect people’s everyday experience with the extraordinary experience and presence of God. Preparing and giving a homily should be an opportunity and an occasion for spiritual growth. Most priests I know take preaching very seriously and work hard at it. I suspect, though, that there have been times when we have all been guilty of superficiality, splitting, or spilling. And unfortunately, some do this on a regular basis. One of the best ways to prevent this is to take the time and make the effort to listen to what the scriptures are saying to others, to consider the lives of the people in the pews, and to connect God to their everyday live. That can help us hear more clearly and keenly what God has to say to us in the scriptures.
“It shouldn't be that easy.” Those are the very words an individual spoke several years just after I prayed the words of absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. “It shouldn't be that easy.”
On the one hand this person was right, of course. From our human perspective, the forgiveness of our sins shouldn't be that easy. We are used to working hard, paying our way, earning our keep. Given this, it only makes sense that we should “do” something to merit the forgiveness of our sins. As humans, we take it for granted that you don't get something for nothing. And isn’t this as it should be? After all, wasn't it St. Paul who said that “those who don't work shouldn't eat?” (2 Thessalonians chapter 3:10) Shouldn't we have to do something in order for God to forgive our sins?
The answer, of course, is yes. But in order to understand what we have to do, we need to look at things from God's perspective, not from our human perspective. From God's perspective, the forgiveness of our sins is dependent on nothing more—but also nothing less—than our sorrow for our sins. If we are truly sorry for our sins, if it is our will and desire that we try to sin no more, then that is all God asks of us. In return, God offers us forgiveness and the grace we need to rise from our sins to try again to live as God's sons and daughters.
Does this mean that once our sins have been forgiven God expects us never to sin again. Of course it doesn’t. God made us and God knows us—personally and intimately. As a result, God also knows that despite our best efforts we will continue to sin and fail. But—and this is the important part—there is no sin too great as to be beyond the power of God's grace. In fact the only barrier to the forgiveness of our sins is the hardness of our hearts, and/or our inability to accept the forgiveness that is offered to us.
When we come to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and openly, honestly, and trustingly confess our sins, our sins are really and truly forgiven. It shouldn't be that easy—but because of Jesus Christ, it is.
Pastoring during a pandemic is a unique, one of kind, never to be forgotten experience. I’m sure that all of us could substitute our own word for “pastoring” and this statement would ring true for all of us. We are in uncharted waters and trying to find our way through them without GPS or even a compass to guide us. Certainly there was nothing in my seminary experience or in my years of ministry that I can look to or lean on for guidance. And yet, somehow we are finding our way through it—often in fits and starts—occasionally stumbling—but, at least in my case, always with a clear sense that I am not alone. I feel the support of family, friends, colleagues, and parishioners. Also, and as importantly, I also have a clear sense that God is with me—that God is with all of us—during this time.
Now, I would like to tell you that the sense that God is with us during this time is always evident and enduring. Truth be told, however, there are times when I struggle to find and/or recognize God’s presence. Usually these times don’t last long, but they are real. Perhaps it is just me, but it is hard to look at the face of pain and suffering and death, and not wonder if and where God is in the midst of it. When I take these times with me to prayer, though, most often I find and feel God’s peaceful presence. And I realize anew that God is with us and for us, and has not and will not leave us alone.
Certainly there are people who would argue that the current pandemic is proof positive that God either can’t or won’t do something to “fix” it and make it better. I suspect there is little that I can say to these people that would change their mind. For myself, though, there are many things that are signs of God’s presence and grace, and I can’t ignore them. An ongoing challenge, though, is that I need to look through the “eyes of faith” in order to recognize these signs.
Now there is a need for clarity here. Seeing things through the eyes of faith does not mean wearing rose colored glasses and approaching things with a certain naiveté. Rather faith is the lens that helps all of us to see God’s hand at work in our lives and in our world, perhaps especially when that presence is not immediately obvious. As we read in Hebrews 11:1 “Faith is confident assurance of what we hope for; conviction about things we do not see.” Seeing with the eyes of faith, then, is nothing more, but certainly nothing less than believing that the God who loved us and our world into existence, will always hold us in love, and ultimately will bring us home to live with God forever.
Faith isn’t always an easy proposition, but I have never found anything to take its place. From my perspective it’s the thing that helps me to make sense of this life and to believe that there is something more and better that awaits us.