Thursday, March 10, 2022


Many people think that Lent is primarily a time to "give up stuff!" I suppose God does care about us giving up our bad habits, but I find it hard to believe that God cares about our self-punishing practices of giving up candy, coffee, beer and such, unless the money saved is given to help the poor!

Let's think of Lent, not as a time for engaging in negative practices, but as a time for engaging in positive practices. I can think of nothing better to do during Lent than to look for goodness to affirm. I think we would feel the effects of Lent much more if we intensified our efforts to look for opportunities to praise, encourage and affirm those around us - family, friends and strangers alike! If we did just that for forty days, I think Lent would be much more spiritually effective, for both the giver and the receiver, than giving up a truck load of chocolate! 



Tuesday, March 8, 2022


I do a lot of reading. The other day, I came across a question that I think deserves quite of bit of reflection time. "If God didn't exist, wouldn't your life as a priest have been a waste?" It is certainly a valid question and I am certainly not afraid to think about such questions! No, I am not trying to present myself as a "great thinker," by any stretch of the imagination, but here is my humble attempt at a response after some thought. 

Strangely enough, I had to confront this question when I was in the seminary, graduating from college level training and seeking entrance into theology level training. We were required to pass an oral examination about what we had learned in college. We had to pass an oral exam in front of three professors before we could be admitted. Since we  were all basically required to secure a "major" in philosophy, the random question would most probably be asked from that field. 

My question was about St. Thomas Aquinas's "five proofs for the existence of God:" Motion, Efficient Cause, Necessary Being, Gradation and Design. I guess they expected me to tell them which one of his "proofs" was most convincing to me personally, be able to talk about it and then compare that one to the other four. Instead, I decided to tell them what I really thought, not what I should have been thinking. I told them, that if I did not already believe in the existence of God, his "proofs" alone would not convince me, but since I already believed, they all made some sense!" To this day, I still don't know if I passed because of my basic knowledge of the subject or because of my brash honesty! Remember, it was in the 1960s! Back then, if you were not that "bright" you could sometimes get away with being "slick." Well, it obviously worked for me that day! 

In thinking about the question of God's existence, I am forced to confront the scary possibility that fourteen years of childhood religious formation, twelve years of seminary training and fifty-two years of ministry were all one big waste of time.  

I know a few atheists and agnostics, so another way to ask the question might be this. "Would I trade my life with any of them?" It doesn't take me long to answer that question. My unequivocal answer is "Certainly not!"  That last question is much easier to answer than the first - "Does God exist?"

I think a better place to start with them might be, "What kind of God are you talking about?" If the question were framed differently, I could probably agree with an atheist. "Does the God that some people believe in exist?" My answer would have to be, "No, I don't believe their God exists!" There are people who believe in a punishing, mean, vengeful and get-even God who is always looking for human activities to condemn. I don't believe that kind of God exists. 

The God I believe in is kind, merciful and full of compassion. The God I believe in loves all of us unconditionally. The God I believe in has bent over backwards to prove it. I believe in this God, but my faith in the institutional Church has sometimes been ripped to shreds, very often by  "believers" themselves, and on some days it has been on life-support trying to hang on! My faith in a loving God stands strong in spite of the fact that the "earthenware jar that holds this treasure" and "passes it on from generation to generation" is weak and fragile.   

From my platform as a priest, I have been able to give people comfort in their suffering, as well as love, support, encouragement and acceptance when they needed it by "being there" during the great moments of their lives: births, graduations, marriages, health crisis and deaths. From my platform as a priest I have been able to be a builder of community through fifty-two years of preaching the Good News, fifteen years of An Encouraging Word columns, seven years of An Encouraging Word blogposts, six Blue Christmas Masses for the Grieving, thirty-seven books, seventy-five parish missions and over one-hundred and fifty Intentional Presbyterate unity building workshops. With all that, the question remains: "If God did not exist, would all of those things have been a waste of time?" 

My answer is a resounding "no, it most certainly would not have been a waste." In actuality, it has brought me great joy and deep personal satisfaction to have had such a marvelous platform to bring some joy and satisfaction to so many people. I am still a believer, but even if God did not exist, I would certainly not trade my life, and what I have been privileged to be a part of, with any atheist. It has certainly been worth it! As the Curate Thomas Wingfield put it in George McDonald's nineteenth century novel called Thomas Wingfield, as he reflected on his years as a minister, "Whatever energies I may or may not have, I know one thing for certain, that I could not devote them to anything else I should think entirely worth doing. Even if there be no hereafter, I would live my time believing in a grand thing that ought to be true if it is not. I would rather die forevermore believing as Jesus believed, than live forevermore believing as those who deny him." 

Finally, I am reminded of how the great French philosopher Voltaire (famous for his wit, his criticism of Christianity and especially the Roman Catholic Church) put it, "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him." This statement was made as part of his larger argument that the existence of God and/or belief in God are beneficial and necessary for civilized society to function. The larger context of the debate in which he was engaged at the time indicates that he did not intend this statement to be an ironic quip essentially claiming that God is fictional, as it is commonly understood today. In fact, the statement was made as part of a piece that he wrote condemning and refuting an atheistic essay called "The Three Imposters."

So the bottom line is this! I do believe in a loving God, but even if that God did not exist, I certainly do not believe my life as a priest has been a waste!

Sunday, March 6, 2022


St. Leonard - St. Frances of Rome

I will be alternating between St. Leonard and St. Frances of Rome. I will be at St. Leonard today and next Sunday followed by St. Frances of Rome. My schedule between these two churches is listed on the right hand side on this blog. 

March 6, 2022

Jesus returned from the Jordan
and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days,
to be tempted by the devil.
Luke 4

There are at least two great “temptation” stories in the Bible – the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden and the temptation of Jesus in the desert. In the first temptation story, Adam and Eve fall and Satan wins. In the second temptation, Jesus wins and Satan falls. All other temptations stories seem to parallel these two temptation stories.

What exactly is a “temptation?” A temptation is a personal inner struggle involving a choice - a choice that has at its base a desire to do something, especially something wrong or unwise. As the old-time American Evangelist, Billy Sunday, once said, "Temptation is the devil looking through the keyhole. Yielding is opening the door and inviting him in." Temptations are such a part of our everyday living that every time we say the Our Father, we pray that we will not be led into temptation.

I am reminded of something from the Book of Sirach in the Old Testament. “Before you are life and death, good and evil, whichever you choose shall be given you. No one does he command to act unjustly, to none does he give license to sin.” (Sirach 15:15-20) That is worth repeating! "Before us is life and death, good and evil, whichever we choose will be given to us!"

A lot is made these days of our "right to choose," but little is said about our responsibility to choose wisely, not to mention our responsibility to accept the consequences of our poor choices. Some people are like kids who go through life eating the filling out of the Oreos and then throwing the rest of the cookies away. They want freedom without the responsibility that goes with it! They want the right to choose, but they are not necessarily willing to accept the results of their poor choices.

We may have the right to eat French Fries and Chicken Nuggets three times a day, but we also have the responsibility to eat healthily. If we only exercise our right to eat whatever we want when we want, without accepting our responsibility to eat well, we will sooner or later be forced to accept the consequences of our bad choices. As students, we may have a right to skip class, but we also have a responsibility to go to class. If we only exercise our right to skip classes, we should be ready to accept the consequences --- including flunking out of school. If we only exercise our right to accept a credit card, without accepting our responsibility for paying for what we charged, we will sooner or later have to accept the painful consequences of our choices - a ruined credit rating for years to come! Our culture is filling up with cases of people who keep trying to beat this basic truth!

One of the benefits of being a young adult is finally being able to enjoy the freedom to make your own choices. One of the upsides of that freedom to choose is the ability to build your own life the way you want it through a series of sound personal choices. One of the downsides of that freedom to choose is the freedom to ruin your own life through a series of poorly-thought-out choices. The freedom to choose, combined with the ability to choose wisely, is the ideal for building a truly happy life. The freedom to choose in the hands of a dimwit is a recipe for a disaster of a life. Yes, there are many who cannot handle their freedom well and end up losing it in the end. Choosing merely what feels good at the moment, without the personal discipline to choose what would actually be good over the long haul, is the path to having to live with serious regret.

Hearing about people ruining their lives has actually become a favorite form of American entertainment. Many people actually find it funny to watch stupid people on trash TV tell the world how they have ruined their lives and the lives of those who have been associated with them. Every day people like Jerry Springer, Steve Wilkos and Maury Povich make big bucks featuring people who have ruined their lives and the lives of those around them because of their many lazy choices. They had the "freedom to choose" but they chose poorly. They had the "freedom to choose" but they didn't have the ability to discern what was of value. Illegitimate and unwanted children, ruined marriages, sexually transmitted diseases, financial ruin, family disintegration, squandered opportunities for a good education and loss of reputation are only a few of the consequences of making choices without the ability to choose wisely.

To be able to "discern what is of value," we must develop some level of self-mastery. By self-mastery, I mean we have to be able to name our addictions, our cowardice and our laziness and then "stand up" to them in order to create the life we want to have! We must be able to "handle" ourselves and "resist" our destructive cravings - for a higher purpose and for our long-term good. We must be able to continually clarify what we really want out of life, constantly focus our energies so as to reach for what we want and consistently deal in truth rather than self-deception.

People with self-mastery approach their lives like an artist approaching the task of producing a work of art. People with self-mastery know how to discern what is of value and use what they have discerned to live on purpose and with a purpose! The spiritual disciplines of both East and West speak often of the practice self-mastery. I published a little book three years ago on this very subject . It is my autobiography. In it, I map the choices I have made since age six and how those choices have brought me to where I am today – for good or for bad! My autobiography is called BETWEEN COURAGE AND COWARDICE: Choosing to Do Hard Things for Your Own Good. Reviewing my history of choices was very, very self-revealing!

One of the sad things about our culture, in which freedom of choice is so highly honored, is the growing tendency to deflect responsibility for our choices after we make them. If our culture is to survive, the freedom to choose must be combined with personal responsibility. To demand the freedom to make our own choices and then throw the blame on others when those choices backfire is the height of cowardice and irresponsibility - and yet it is becoming so popular in our culture. Freedom without responsibility is wreaking havoc all around us. If we do not accept the responsibility that goes with our freedom, surely we will end up becoming victims of our own freedom.

When enough of us have the ability to discern what is of value and when enough of us have the self-mastery to choose that value once it is discerned, marriages will improve, families will improve, neighborhood will improve, the economy will improve, churches will improve, nations will improve and the world will improve. No government program can fix this! These problems can only be fixed one person at a time. In reality, no one can save us from us, but us!

Discipline is about choosing “delayed gratification.” Discipline is about earning “the good things that come to those who wait.” Discipline is about “the ability to resist the temptation of a small temporary reward in favor of a larger prize in the future.” Numerous studies have shown that the ability to delay gratification is one of the biggest indicators of a successful life – be it your ability to manage your resources, choose the right spouse, maintain your weight, becoming skilled at a sport or launching a career. Those who can resist temptation in pursuit of long-term goals are blessed with an enormous advantage over the rest of the herd. Yes, the lack of self-mastery has a direct impact on the quality of multiple areas of a person's life. Those who cannot establish mastery over their appetites and impulses will no doubt see many aspects of their lives quickly unravel. The ability to subordinate a lower impulse to a higher value is the essence of a satisfying life. Leonardo da Vinci was right when he said, “One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.”

The ability to discern what is of value and self-mastery in the face of severe temptation is at the heart of Jesus’ desert experience. To do his Father’s will, not his own, Jesus had to be able to see the difference between what “looked good” and what was “actually good.” Once he was able to discern what the will of his Father was, he had to have the self-mastery to follow it, no matter how tempted he was to do otherwise!