Monday, November 7, 2016

Everything I Have I Was Given

Stewardship is not about money. It's not even about figuring how much of our time and talent we can generously give to church and charities. It's about realizing that everything, even the things we feel are most ours—our minds, our talents, our work ethic—are gifts. There is no "self-made man", no "pulling myself up by my bootstraps". Stewardship starts with realizing we are blessed.



First reading today: famous passage from book of Maccabees: Mother and her seven sons are tortured; opponents are trying to get them so give up their Jewish faith.

The Church has always seen in them precursors to the early Christian martyrs, some two centuries before them.

We read: After him the third [son] suffered their cruel sport. He put out his tongue at once when told to do so, and bravely held out his hands, as he spoke these noble words: “It was from heaven that I received these; for the sake of his laws I disdain them; from him I hope to receive them again.”

“It was from Heaven that I received these; from him I hope to receive them again ”

At other times in the Church Year, we get to hear what the mother of the seven brothers said to them. She exhorted them in their own ancestral Hebrew tongue:

I do not know how you came to be in my womb; it was not I who gave you breath and life, nor was it I who arranged the elements you are made of.


We might be tempted to write that off her remarks as mere ignorance, since she was speaking in 170 B.C.

"I don't know how you came to be in my womb…"

Yes, in terms of general biology and chromosomes and DNA, it is true that we know more about how her sons came to be in her womb.

But even then, there are huge mysteries of reproduction and gestation we still don’t fully understand,

And certainly when it comes to the lines "it was not I who gave you breath and life, nor was it I who arranged the elements you are made of…" we modern people are no further along than her.


We can't explain the very first question of philosophy which the German Heidegger says is "Why is the anything and not just nothing?" let alone can we answerer “Why is the life here and not just minerals and chemicals?”

“Or what is life?” or “Where does life come from?”

We have covered a lot of ground since this poor mother spoke to her son, and yet there is still so much we can't account for, let alone are we able to bring about in any way.

No. We recognize—or we should recognize—like she said next in Maccabees: “since it is the Creator of the universe who shaped the beginning of mankind and brought about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life…”


Why do I bring this up?

What's the point of this all?


It's because this realization—especially when every once in awhile it hits us out of the blue—is a huge step to understanding life and our faith.

We usually think that the Christian Faith is about knowing a bunch of stuff about the Bible and Jesus.

And that’s part of it. But the first thing a Christian needs to know is: "I am not a sufficient explanation for myself.”

I cannot account for my own being.

I am not the source of my faculties, abilities, or talents.

There is no pulling myself up by my own bootstraps.

Even if I trained myself into an Olympic athlete or I built a business from scratch with just my bare hands...

Where did those hands come from?

Where did the sweat and muscles I used?

Where the mind to create and the will to work hard?

Whence came all the natural talent I use?

Not from me.


No, I am a human.

I am radically dependent.

I was made from dust, and I was given the breath of life and a soul.

I was given a mind to understand and a heart to choose.

Once I had those things; yeah, I did a lot.

But all that I started with, all the talents I applied, and all the desire to make something of myself—came from outside.


I am a creature.

I am utterly dependent on a Creator.


We don't like to think of that a lot. We're Americans. We're independent and self-starters.

Until we stop for a moment and see that we're not.

Not at the root, at least.


You’re still wondering, what is this about.

It's because Spider-Man is right: with great power comes great…

And Jesus right before him: to whom much is given much will be...

And we need to be reminded of that—that we have been given much and have great power—so we can have the right kind of grateful heart.

This week you will be receiving your annual stewardship renewal card

Often when we hear "stewardship" and we think first of Sunday monetary contributions.

Well, I don't care about your Sunday contributions.

Ok well, I don't care about your Sunday contributions that much.

What I care about is did you hear and understand the stuff I've been saying the last 5 minutes?

Because if you do, if I do, then the rest takes care of itself.


If I realize that I can't account for my life and breath and days and years and abilities, then it's not that hard to look at our yearly renewal cards and think about how awesome it is to be alive.

To have breath and health, and a mind and skills.

Then looking at this card and thinking about how I can give my talents, that’s not a challenge at all.

Because we realize: those talents aren’t mine—I was given them.

My time is not mine. I don’t know how long I will have, and I don’t even know why I got this much to begin with.

And I start to realize that it’s not crazy to want to give back by maybe… signing up for a retreat, or doing a holy hour.

Not crazy to think: My voice isn’t bad. Maybe I should join a choir.
Look and think: You know, somebody did right by me and was my CCD teacher and taught me the faith. Maybe I can do that for someone else.

Those things become easy when we remind ourselves that I am not my own cause of being.

That everything I am, and everything I possess, and even my personal abilities, really doesn’t come from me. Even with my talents, those didn’t start with me.

When I look at it that way, this becomes an easy thing to fill out.

It actually becomes a bit of a challenge to think: “Huh, what can’t I give? What can’t I return back to God? What can’t I give to my parish?”

Becomes exciting to think how lucky we are and ponder the great things we can do.


So this week when you get this, look at this as a thank you card.

God is giving you the chance to be truly thankful for the awesome opportunities you’ve been given in this life.

That fact that you made it to adulthood—think of how many people don’t do that—that’s an awesome gift.

The fact that you have a mind to understand what I’m saying right now; the fact that you have talents that apply in your daily life; those are huge.

When you think about those, then you say: “I would love to fill out some of these things of time and talent and treasure.”


You will receive you Stewardship card…

Great quote from St. Catherine of Siena!

(Same as past years, except greeters and gift bearers combined.)

Go through it—prayerfully—with your family—looking at to see if there is something new we should do? Something to challenge ourselves with? Make a holy hour once a week?

Tear off your commitments. Stick it with a magnet to your fridge!

Take the rest and bring it next week and put it in the collection basket when we have our Stewardship Renewal Sunday or you can drop it off at the parish office.

And then when we get it, we divide it further. We remove the third panel with the financial stewardship part and keep that confidential.

And then we pass the remainder—the time and talents part—on to the committees that get ahold of people and sign them up for activities.

And those people get excited. They say, “I was always hoping that so-and-so would sign up to be a reader! I wonder what happened?”

You know what probably happened? They were sitting here on November 6, at 7:30 AM, trying to not think of the blow-out we experienced last night, and they realized that the very fact we have Huskers that are good enough to play Division 1 football, the very fact that we have pews to sit in, the very fact we have backsides to sit on, that all of those things are gifts from God—

—and at that moment it struck you at 7:55 that you have awesome gifts, that you’ve been given so much, and you realized “Yeah I want to give back”

I want to give my time and my talent and my treasures back to the Lord.


I’m so thankful for what he has given me, that he has entrusted to me in stewardship, that I just can’t wait to give it back in stewardship to him.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Thérèse and the Reformation

Today on Facebook I wrote: 


"Next October is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I recommend St. Thérèse of Lisieux as the Doctor of the Church most likely to help Catholics and Protestants find common ground in our discussions of trust, mercy, confidence, and divine providence. All who read her will find that Catholics are not about works-righteousness."

And when I say "all will find" I mean all. Catholics themselves fall very easily into the assumption that we are trying to earn Heaven. 


For a follow up on how St. Thérèse (and Margaret Mary and Faustina) are important for bridging the gap between Catholic and Protestant, listen to this homily from Divine Mercy 2016. (Yeah, I lifted a lot of the timeline from Fr. Michael Gaitley's talks on Divine Mercy, but we have all wondered about how Thérèse managed to square the circle of free will and confident surrender.)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Check Your Knowledge of Czech Saints

Czech. Irish. Mexican. Vietnamese. American. We come from somewhere. We speak a language (or several) and we eat certain foods and sing certain songs. We are from families, from nations, from cultures. 

We can love a universal faith and defend the rights of all peoples without sacrificing a love of home and a love of "ours". In fact, if done right, the greater the love and affection I have for what I know, the more I will appreciate what someone else loves from their own background. 

Around here, there are a lot of central European bloodlines. Czechs first, then Germans, and some Poles and Irish sprinkled in. But regardless of what is considered "the old country" we all do better when we have a home we love, teams we root for, and dishes we can count on at grandma's house. Love you history, love your heritage; they will help you love God and neighbor too.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Dollars and Sense

My homily for this past weekend, talking about financial prudence in general and about the financial health of the parish specifically. 

I'm including my notes from the homily for those who aren't in a position to listen to it. (Caveat: these are just the notes I worked from; they are not a perfect transcription of what I said in the recording.)


Two weeks ago I preached to you about Prudence. 

If you missed it you can find it on my blog. 

Prudence is not a bad thing. 

It's the queen of the virtues

I cannot be just or loving or even courageous without prudence

Prudence is the virtue that tells me what to do *in this specific situation* 



Today Jesus talks about it by name:


For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light."



This brings up a hard truth:

That often Christians—probably because we're called to be "in the world but not of the world"—don't really keep our shop in good order. 


People think:

"I'm a good person. I pray. I go to church every Sunday. Well, most Sundays at least. That's what God wants, right?" And not worry about anything else.

Or 

"I don't really need to worry about picking up after myself or taking good care of things because surely there's someone at the parish who does those things."

Or 

"The church has a lot of money. They have to right? Look at all the buildings they have."

Or very commonly

"I'm not really a business type person. I don't really understand parish finances. Those end-of-the-year things are too complex. I'll let the pros care about that stuff."


And so we can't really be surprised when churches are run substantially less well—less prudently—than comparable businesses. 



Now let's admit: Churches and Christian people can bring this on ourselves. 

Sometimes we do imprudent things because as Christians we don't want to blunt and honest and we worry about ever looking like the bad guy. We are great at making bad business decisions because we want to be nice. 

Very real. 

Also, being a Christian institution requires Christian faith and love. So we're never going to be trying to amass a huge nest egg at the cost of helping people now (not faith) nor are we going to be cutthroat in business (not love) 

Finally, we have to admit, and church leaders have to be foremost in this, we are not always good at being transparent with the people in the pews about where we're at, what we're facing down the road, and what we need to do. 


Sometimes that's because financial stuff actually is quite complex. 

Sometimes it's because we're like "Look, I was ordained to preach the gospel. And people come to Mass to hear about Jesus, not money stuff. This isn't my job."

Sometimes it's because priests assume the more you talk about money the more likely you are to turn people off to it—or the Faith in general—because they feel browbeat. 


All of the these are at least partially true. 


But as the Roman playwright said "There is nothing that is human that is alien to me," so too I as a priest must  say "There is nothing that matters to my parish that should be below my priestly dignity to talk about."

Besides, ⅓ of the parables are about money. 

Every seventh verse in Luke deals with material possessions or the lack thereof.  

So the answer—as the children of the world already know—is not talk about financials more, it's to talk about financials with great courage and transparency. 


And here is the transparent, honest, unvarnished truth

St. Wenceslaus parish, every year is just barely making it, and many years is not making it, and is eating into what little savings it has. 

Last 3 years, income of an average of 1.14 M

But spent an average of 1.26 M

That's an average of $120,000 in the red every year. 

The only reason we still have lights on and A/C running are because we've gotten generous bequests and memorials in people's will and some other unrestricted donations. 

So thank God that Fr. Townsend for a decade has preached about the importance of leaving the church in your will. And if you haven't done that yet, prayerfully consider it. 


But you can't run a parish on people passing away. 

And besides, that's not consistent. 

In 2015 we received $111K in donations, bequests, and memorials. 

But in 2014 we only received $21K. 

A less than a 1/5 of 2015's. 



The finance council has calculated that if our current income and expenses continue as they are, we are going to be running a yearly deficit of 150-200K per year. 

If that's true, we'd be $1 million on the hole by 2021. 


You might remember that the the last time St. W had a big financial crisis was around 2004-2005. 

Do you remember what the debt was then?

It was $300K. 

Only ⅓ of where we could be in 5 years. 



I was warned on Friday that this homily might see weird to preach on Saturday night when there would be a lot of Bishop Neumann students and families here, all ready for homecoming dance. 

I didn't feel bad about it. 

If we want Catholic schools for these high schooler's kids to attend in 8-10 years, we need to take the blinders off. 

And if we want this church open in 20 years we need to be honest about what that requires. 


And here's the thing:

There's no safety net. 

The diocese doesn't currently have the funds to loan to building projects, yes, but that also means the diocese doesn't have the funds to save us if we run in the red. 


I'm trying to be 100% transparent here. 

We have to be as prudent as the children of the world. 

We know that our expenses, not unlike other businesses, have gone up about 4% a year, and will keep doing that. 

For awhile, we were matching that as our yearly tithes and fundraisers went up as we dug out of that 2005 debt. 

I have to give big credit to the Stewardship Committee and having an annual stewardship renewal. 

We grew Sunday giving at over 4% from 2005-2011. 

But from 2011 to 2016 we've only been growing Sunday giving by less than 1.5%


At this point, even getting back up to 4% won't save us. 

Because of the downward trend we would need either a big one-time bump this year of almost 200K and THEN grow at 4% the next 5 years. 

Or, more realistically, we need to grow Sunday giving and other income sources by a total of 8% for these next five years. 

To break even. 


That's not fun to say. 

But you'll dislike me more in 5 years if we're shuttering things. 


There are other hard truths, but need to be said in the interest of transparency: 

1) It would be the height of imprudence to take bids for building construction for this coming spring. 

That's something I so badly want to do, and having talked very positively about it when I got here, this is hard to admit. 

But if it were only a matter of getting that $400K that's already been pledged in in 6 months, that'd be one thing. 

I could saddle up for that task with ease. 

But my optimism was before I really understood the razor's edge we already stand on in yearly expenses.

That was before I was shown what an uptick in operational expenses more construction would cost. 

An example of this already exists in the very nice new front steps we have. They are beautiful, functional, and have an ingenious heater in them to keep ice and snow off them. But that heater also raises operational costs because we have to choose between running it sometimes, which causes the concrete to get warm then cold again (which wears on concrete) or to leave it  on all winter (which runs up the electric bill). 

To start taking construction bids we would be like the man in the parable 2 weeks ago who started the tower but couldn't afford to finish it (or in our case, do anything with it).  

You may ask what about building now? Are we not going to build?

No we need to build, but given our current bleeding we can't build this spring. 

It's like the kid asking if we're not going to Disneyland now. 

"We're going to Disneyland son, but not this summer. Your brother backed into the garage door and your sister needs braces. We want to go to Disneyland but we can't go there this summer."

In the meantime we're going to move the money from the building fund into a special savings account, separate from other savings, that can't be accessed for other things, and that can get us the highest return we can get on it in the meantime. 

Yes, nothing is growing that fast these days, but we have to not be starting something we can't finish, AND we know can't we just pocket that without a massive loss of trust. 



Two more things, for the sake of transparency, but only briefly. 

2) My excitement for building was also before I knew how much the diocesan assessments are going up this year. 

The main assessment: our tax, if you will, has to go up about $30K a year

We actually get off better than most parishes because we support 2 schools at such a high rate. 

Many parishes are at about 6.5%, we are about 3.5%


But also seminary appeal. 

The seminary has come a long way to balance their budget and keep the Sems responsible for much more than when I went through, but still every parish has a goal and what we don't collect is assessed. 

So give generously to that collection this weekend.


3) Final thing, and this deserves a homily of its own someday soon, is school tuition.  

The balance of our families' tuition and of a parish's portion of the cost of education is always tricky. But we have to ask hard questions about this and be very transparent. 

Almost certainly tuition will have to go up in some way. 




What do we do:


1) Hope 

Jesus is hope. The church has survived much worse than this. 

YOU have survived worse than this. 


2) Pray

And not just for an easy resolution. 

Not for a million dollar gift or lottery 

Pray for prudence and courage. 

Pray for your neighbors and pray for yourself. 

Commit to coming to parish mission October 15,16,17

A crisis in giving is often a crisis in faith 

"Do I trust God to be generous with me if I am generous with him?"


3) Be honest with yourself

I'm looking at my expenses, personally and I'm rectory and trying to be honest about my needs and my giving

Ask: am I doing my part?

Am I still giving what I gave when had 3 in grade school but now my kids are out of college?

Am I a young family playing keeping up with the Jones' but letting other people pull my weight?

Am I getting close to retirement and starting to get nervous and so trying to hold on to more and more? 

Do I not give because I don't know where it goes, and am I willing to change if things are made more transparent to me? 

Ask now, and in November act on it. 


4) Reevangelize  

How many people have fallen away or drifted away?

A little bit ago the finance council ran some numbers on our Sunday giving. 

There's always going to be that chunk that don't give anything, or give very minimally, or has been giving and then stopped. 

But also they found that there were about 200 families over the last 5 years whose giving dropped. 

When you look at giving dropping or stopping one naturally asks: What happened there?

Did the person feel hurt by the church?

Angered by something they heard?

Discouraged about religion in general?

A messy marriage, divorce, remarriage situation?

A personal struggle or crisis of faith? 

We don't know


But we know nationwide there are lots who don't practice, 
Don't practice like they used to,
Practice but that fervor has being snuffed out. 

That's the task of everybody. 

Christian re evangelization 

Tell them the good news that you've experienced

Get them excited again 

Promise to walk with them. 


If you're like "I can't deal with their issues" them point them to us. 

Fr. Rowan and I would so much rather meet with people who are sad, or broken, or have beefs they want to get off their chests, than to just sit crunching numbers all day. 

We'd way rather be doing spiritual direction and pastoral counseling than "spending all our lives trying to figure out how to save 3¢ on a length of pipe." (To quote George Bailey)

Do your best, because you're the natural connection to the church, but don't be afraid to refer. 

We care first and foremost about their souls, but a secondary benefit is how it helps the parish. 

Because you know who doesn't give?

People who are hurting. 

People who are in marriages that are crumbling. 

People who are angry or have lost trust. 

People who have addictions: alcohol, drugs, pornography. 

We as a parish—if we can help with those wounds—will find we also have a more robust, joyful, generous parish. 


So take courage and have hope. 

I'm not going to lose sleep over this; we have overcome worse.

It's not a matter of absolute crisis but it is a matter of digging down and finding the faith, courage, and prudence to do the right thing: As individuals, as a parish, and as a community.