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A large black bear roaming near a path through the woods.

Who do you let challenge you? 2nd Sunday of Advent

Who do you let challenge you?

Some years ago, my brother Joe was blessed to be hiking in the mountains in Montana, with two of his married friends, Tom and Peggy and with Fr. Gary Braun. They were making their way to a glacier tucked high in the mountains and were talking and enjoying the hike when two women came running out of the woods in front of them, then flew right past them on the narrow path, terrified, saying ‘Bear … bear … bear”.  And in a moment, a black bear came running toward them on this same narrow path on the side of a mountain. Tom was in front. Joe, Gary and Peggy found a crop of rock off the trail on which they could stand. Fr. Gary and Joe both called to Tom, “Tom, come stand here, there’s room on the ledge.” Tom didn’t move but stood face-to-face with the bear.  The black bear raised itself up on its back legs and then let its front legs drop back to the ground in an effort to get us to go away.  Tom still stood there.  But then Tom’s wife called out to him, “Tommie, don’t be stupid.”  When he heard that, Tom, came back to where we were, which freed up enough space for the bear to find a way off the path down the mountain. Tom listened to Peggy.  He gave her authority in his life.  Later, reflecting on the incident, Tom said, “I didn’t want the last words I heard in my life be my wife saying, “Tommie, don’t be stupid.”  He listened.

To whom do you listen?  To whom do you give authority? We all need a willingness to let someone outside ourselves speak a difficult word that we might need to hear. Today, John the Baptist says some challenging words to the people of his time whose lives needed some work, inviting them to repent of their sins.  His words probably stung … but here is what is worth noting: they were willing to hear him.

Do you and I have that same willingness? Are we willing to let others speak the challenging word to us?  I know I need it. One of the dangers of celibacy is that priests don’t the blessing of a spouse to whom we are committed who will sometimes get in our face and call the best out of us. I am, however, blessed to have my priest support group and some friends who are willing to speak the challenging word. I hope you have someone. But, when there is a truth about ourselves that is hard to hear, that might sting a bit, are we open to hear it?

And are we aware that God often speaks through people whom we did not expect? Who would have ever thought that this wild man named John the Baptist, clothed in camel’s hair and eating locusts, might have something worth hearing?  But for many his challenging word was in fact liberating.

Today’s Gospel challenge calls us to be those who LISTEN to the voices of all the “John the Baptists” in our lives and world. Do you and I let ourselves be challenged by the courageous, but imperfect lives of people around us?

  • On the world stage, I think of Pope Francis –his encyclicals to love the environment; to foster family life; be filled with the Joy of the Gospel. Then there are his statements when calls us to care for the immigrant; gay; the poor.
  • I think of the people in the Black Lives Matter movement. I sometimes find it hard to read those stories. They make me uncomfortable. They challenge my assumptions and sometimes even the part of me that could become racist. But if I shut them out, if I never hear what they are saying, then I shut out God shaping and molding and moving me to where He needs me to be.
  • Or I think of the women in the “#Me, too’ movement who had the courage to speak their stories of harassment and abuse so that others might step from the darkness of fear and speak out as well. Those are not comfortable stories either. But their truth must be heard.

Concretely, what might we do to teach us to listen better?

  1. What if, when we were reading the paper, we forced ourselves to ‘not skip’ the stories whose headlines make us want to keep turning the page?
  2. What if we asked for input from our spouse/best friend on ONE action that they find less than stellar in us – to give them a kind of magic wand with which they could change one behavior, action or trait in us?

As Tom stood on the trail face-to-face with a bear, he wasn’t going to move.  It was only when his wife called to him that Tom backed away.  So, too, for us. Many voices call out to us. To whom do YOU listen for the challenging word?

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