Thank you to all who have asked about my mom. She is doing well physically, still plays a mean game of gin rummy, but her memory – or at least her access to her memories – lays somewhere between fuzzy and random with spots of complete clarity. Visits with her are a wonderful mix of storytelling and sometimes making a connection. Makes you wonder how memory works?
There are many descriptions of the different kinds of memory operative in people. There is implicit or procedural memory. This refers to the use of objects or movements of the body, such as how exactly to use a pencil, fry an egg, or operate the TV. There is semantic memory which refers to knowledge about factual information, such as the meaning of words. These and other similar implicit memory categories are independent of a context. These are working just fine in my mom. She still cooks breakfast, watches TV, and plays gin rummy – all without a hitch. And has no trouble expressing herself when she again has bested her son at the card table.
Most often when we talk about memory, we are thinking about what they call explicit memory. Explicit memory refers to all memories that are consciously available. A couple of categories within explicit memory are autobiographical, contextual, and episodic memory.
Autobiographical refers to events and personal experiences from one’s own life. Episodic memory is that collection of past personal experiences occurring at a particular time and place. They might not be written in an autobiography, but are part of our past. They have a significant context. A particular memory of biting into a really red apple and thinking it was the best apple ever could be a contextual memory, a different category of memory.
One day, seeing a particularly pleasing red you might recall the red of that apple, which could be connected to the trip to the orchard which you took with your 4th grade class. The memories can all be separate, or they can all connect and integrate.
My mom can recall all kinds of stories and detail from her youth up to about age 20 when she lived in Utah. Sadly, mom does not recall living in Paris for two years when she was in her early 60s. But life in Atlanta or Orlando is very much connected to the “red apple effect.” Certain things will spark the pathway to mostly complete memory recall, especially emotions. Emotional memory, the memory for events that evoke a particularly strong emotion, seems to have an operation in the brain that works a little different than other memory functions.
Many times during the visits with mom we will pull out pictures and start story telling. Somewhere in the context of the picture or story, a pathway sparks. Maybe its contextual memory, perhaps emotional memory, or some other reason the neurons fire and one of those moments of complete clarity comes about.
A common thread among all things one can read regarding memory is that repetition and connection to emotion/context at a young age establishes memory pathways that are most readily accessible. It should give us pause. What are the stories that we tell and retell in our families to the youngest among us? What are the stories we pass on from generation to generation? And do we tell them in a way that is memorable? Will they be “red apple” stories?
Rhys Amin is my mom’s great-grandson. My mom has met him but does not remember him. But will Rhys remember her? Depends on the stories his mom, grandmother, and aunt tells him.
What are the stories you are telling your children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, little brothers and sisters? Will they know from your stories that Jesus is our Lord and Savior? What stories will we pass on? What stories of Jesus will become their “red apple” stories?
We are a church which rightly teaches the Faith in catechism and theology. But it seems to me, when we are at our best, we are story tellers, ever bringing out the pictures and ever telling the stories of Christ in a way which connects to the deepest part of our life, our emotions, and our memory.
In a way, we are the stories we tell. Our young are becoming the stories they hear. May the stories you tell have meaning and grace.A Pastoral Plan
A few years ago I read Simon Winchester’s book, The Man Who Loved China
. It is a story about the British scholar and Cambridge master Joseph Needham, the author and editor of the monumental work, Science and Civilization in China
, which documents that Chinese inventiveness and invention generally came several hundred to a thousand years before its European counterparts. I learned that the printing press was used in China 550 years before Gutenberg. The Chinese invented the riding stirrup. And they invented the yoke/harness when the rest of the world simply tied a rope around the neck of the beast of burden. The Chinese invention removed the stress from a single point at the animal’s neck, a place not anatomically suited for such a task. The stress was transferred broadly across the shoulders and breast of the animals. A well fitted yoke and harness was “easy” and made the burden comparatively light. Often in Scripture, God refers to his people as “stiff necked.” Perhaps the people of God did not always learn to wear the yoke correctly, but rather chaffed at the conditions of the yoke and harness. What should have been light and easy – sharing the strain with the love and faith of God – somehow became something avoided. It could have been light and easy sharing the strain across the whole community. Somehow the practice of faith in religion became heavy and burdensome as the people resisted the yoke of discipleship.
Certainly one lesson from this summer’s Church History “course” on the Reformations is that we as church can become stiff-necked about the way we are disciples in the world. What caught my eye was a document this week wherein Pope Francis pointed to a pastoral plan meant to make the yoke easy and the burden light - “Proposing, not imposing; guiding, not pushing; inviting, not driving away; thought-provoking, never disappointing.” It seems to me that is one description of Jesus going about his earthly ministry. It is a description that should give us pause as we ask ourselves – “Is this how we go about our daily lives?” Something to work on, yes?June 29, 2014
Dear Parishioners of Sacred Heart,
There is an old expression - “All good things come to an end.”
With a very heavy, yet thankful heart, I regret to say that after nine very wonderful, graced-filled years the time has come to say goodbye. It seems like it was only yesterday, on a hot humid summer night that I was pulling up to the front of Sacred Heart in my compact U-Haul wondering what might lie ahead. The warm welcome I received from the homeless guests on the steps of the church reminded me that God journeyed with me to the south, and I was in the right place.
I was reminded of this truth again and again as I came to know and experience the community of Sacred Heart. In good times and in bad, in times of laughter and tears, you revealed to me the miraculous wonders of God’s grace. It was always such a privilege and honor to help some of you prepare for the sacrament of marriage, or your child’s baptism, to work alongside you in the hospital, the school, the prison, or the medical clinic in Haiti. I loved Saturday mornings preparing the gourmet meal with the Hands of Hope team and volunteers, and then serving our homeless brothers and sisters like they were our family. And I always marveled at how some of you could take your own suffering and pain from the loss of a loved one or an ugly divorce and reach out to others so they might find healing and new hope. It was these and so many other countless experiences that allowed me to…taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
My departure will lead me up north to Siena College where I first came to know and experience the friars. My early childhood encounters recall a colorful collection of funny and gifted men garbed in brown habits who sought to live the gospel of Jesus Christ in the spirit of the poor man from Assisi. They captured my heart at an early age because they were able to tell the story of Jesus in a way that was real and credible to all people, regardless of who they were, where they were from, or what they had done. When I think of the popularity of St. Francis of Assisi I believe it was his radical way of responding to the gospel. He lived it, and so did they, and I was hooked.
At the college I will be working in the Franciscan Center for Service and Advocacy. It is a special ministry on campus where students are involved in various service outreach projects within the community, along with service trips to places like Haiti, Jamaica, Africa, and our soup kitchen in Philadelphia. It encourages the students to learn and understand the best of the Catholic and Franciscan traditions as they contribute to the common good of society and the world.
As I head back to my old stomping grounds to face the chill of the winter air, know that I bring a part of you with me. I am, and will always be, forever grateful. Thank you, Sacred Heart.
At the end of his life, Francis said to his brother friars, “I have done what is mine to do; may Christ teach you what is yours to do.”
Peace and all good,
The first movie I saw after my years in mission in Kenya was “Shakespeare in Love.” There is a scene between Philip Henslowe, the theatre owner and producer, and Hugh Fennyman, the investor, which I have always remembered. Henslowe
: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. Fennyman
: So what do we do? Henslowe
: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well. Fennyman
: How? Henslowe
: I don't know. It's a mystery.
One thing I have learned is that while Divine Mystery seems furtive and cryptic, it is very real. Hard to explain, but real. It works out. Even if it leaves me perplexed. Church history often seems like insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster – at least parts of it. It is like a mystery. Who would have thought that in all the acrimony of the 15th and 16th century, today there could be a thing such as Christian unity?
This week our special six-week summer series will peer into the mystery of Church History. Here is a summary: how Christianity in the West got divided
. Maybe next summer we will have to look into the ecumenical/church unity movement. Yet, while preparing for the sessions I have had a lot of time to think about unity and lack thereof in the Christian Church. Throughout church history, Christians have come up with many ingenious ways of explaining why the one church can be divided into many factions. The easiest, of course, is to say that everyone outside of a particular circle is not actually part of the church. That was how the church patriarch Cyprian dealt with it: By definition the church is one, indivisible; so if there appear to be "divisions," the reality is simply the true church versus a wicked pretender. And outside the church, there is no salvation.
These days, even across the Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox-Pentecostal-“Bible believing” divide, we are not given to labeling others “wicked pretenders.” Chrissie Hynde excepted. Christians in one "church" have encountered those of another "church" and found genuine faith, piety, the movement of the Holy Spirit, grace, and good works. We are all worshipping communities who share the same Scripture: “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.
” (John 17:20-21) Occasionally there are insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster, but we are bound in our belief in Jesus, and we have Jesus praying for us. No mystery there.
Perhaps the lesson on Most Holy Trinity Sunday is that we celebrate the Divine Mystery of a Unity so deep, so amazing, that despite the worst of our human hubris and foibles, if we can but believe, strangely enough, it all turns out. Not through any real efforts of our own, but through the grace of the Most Holy Trinity which heals, reveals, and makes real the Oneness to which we are called as communities, families, and fellow travelers facing insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. In faith, it all turns out."and the Lord gave me brothes...."
Such are St. Francis' words when describing the followers of Francis gathering in and near Assisi as they convened a "chapter." And the brothers have been gathering ever since. My Franciscan province will hold its “chapter” from June 1-6 at Siena College just outside Albany, NY. For those “in the know” Siena College is actually in Loudonville, NY – famous, not for the college, but as the hometown of our very own Fr. Sean O’Brien, OFM. What is a “chapter” in the world of Franciscans? Originally it referred to a gathering of the brothers at which a “chapter” of the Rule of Life was read and discussed. Today it refers to a gathering of all the friars of a particular province – in our case, Holy Name Province. The General Constitutions of our Order say, “It is the responsibility of the provincial chapter to look honestly at the life and activity of the brothers of the province and to search for and propose suitable ways to foster growth and improvement. It is for the chapter to treat matters of major importance and new undertakings and decide these questions by communal deliberation. Finally, the chapter carries out elections.”
So, Sunday morning you will see us – and then you won’t, as we travel to begin the trek to Siena. One of the great things about chapters is that we get to see brothers who are stationed at ministries up north and overseas. We often talk about our “classmates” meaning those men with whom we went through novitiate, seminary, or some other part of formation. My classmates are in South Carolina, New Jersey, Lima Peru, and Tampa (that would be Fr. Zack). Fr. Sean will get to visit with his classmate, Fr. Russell – all 6’ 8” of him. Together they make up the long and short of it. It will be a good visit for them as Fr. Russell is being sent to Italy.
We also get to catch up with other friars who we have come to know and love. There is always a moment when you catch yourself and wonder if brother so-and-so will be well enough to travel. Some of the great men of our province are getting on in years. But you also get to meet the “young’uns” the men in formation: postulancy, novitiate, and post-novitiate formation. I will get to sit down with Br. John Aherne, OFM. John will spend the summer with us as an intern. I have talked with him on the phone, but it will be good to break bread and plan his time with us. We will also get to catch up with Daniel Beckham. Dan is from Tampa and just finished his first year with the friars.
We will meet and eat, pray, celebrate Eucharist, gather and deliberate together, and be a fraternity in mission. And we’ll be back. Please keep us in your prayers and we will see you on Saturday, June 7th.Pope Francis, Palestine, and the Tent of Nations
Pretty hard to miss the news that Pope Francis is traveling to the Holy Land. It will be interesting to see how the trip plays out in international news media and how the Pope traverses a land so divided. Certainly there is lots of coverage in the media about the Israeli and Palestinian positions, challenges, history, and more. It all seems inextractible
During Pope Francis' short tenure as leader of the Catholic Church, he has demonstrated an keen understanding of the transformative power of spontaneous or unexpected gestures to impact opinion and bring hope to those who have felt the sting of rejection.
On his first Holy Thursday Mass, for example, Francis washed and kissed the feet of prisoners, one of whom was a Muslim woman. Although this gesture shocked Catholic traditionalists, it was widely seen as a profound demonstration of humility and solidarity. A few months later, Francis made his first trip out of Rome traveling to Lampedusa, the island refuge for Africans seeking entry into Europe. It was his way of confronting the continent's growing anti-immigrant sentiment.
In addition to these planned gestures, there have been the more frequent unexpected papal acts that have made "Francis-watching" a rewarding exercise. Both the scripted and unscripted Pope Francis will be on display during his three day visit to the Holy Land.
The cultural, social, religious, and political elements of the parties in the Holy Land is well known. Perhaps less know is the plight of Palestinian Christians. Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation has a wonderful video
that I would recommend to you.
The Franciscans of Holy Name Province are active in increasing awareness of the life among the Palestinian Christians. Another group that we actively support is the “Tent of Nations”
program. You can read more about this on our provincial website
Since this was originally written, the Israeli government has uprooted some 1,500 fruit trees on the “Tent of Nations” farm. The "Tent of Nations" motto is "We refuse to be enemies" - a herculean task of faith in such a divided land. Pray for their efforts and the efforts of all who seek peace in the Holy Land.
"No one comes to the Father except through me."A Word from Pope Francis
Jesus’ whole life, his way of dealing with the poor, his actions, his integrity, his simple daily acts of generosity, and finally his complete self-giving, is precious and reveals the mystery of his divine life. Whenever we encounter this anew, we become convinced that it is exactly what others need, even though they may not recognize it... Sometimes we lose our enthusiasm for mission because we forget that the Gospel responds to our deepest needs, since we were created for what the Gospel offers us: friendship with Jesus and love of our brothers and sisters... We have a treasure of life and love which cannot deceive, and a message which cannot mislead or disappoint. It penetrates to the depths of our hearts, sustaining and ennobling us. It is a truth which is never out of date, because it reaches that part of us which nothing else can reach. Our infinite sadness can only be cured by an infinite love... In union with Jesus, we seek what he seeks, and we love what he loves. In the end, what we are seeking is the glory of the Father; we live and act “for the praise of his glorious grace.” (Eph 1,6) If we wish to commit ourselves fully and perseveringly, we need to leave behind every other motivation. This is our definitive, deepest, and greatest motivation, the ultimate reason and meaning behind all we do: the glory of the Father, which Jesus sought at every moment of his life. As the Son, he rejoices eternally to be “close to the Father’s heart.” (Jn 1,18) If we are missionaries, it is primarily because Jesus told us that “by this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit.” (Jn 15,8) Beyond all our own preferences and interests, our knowledge, and motivations, we evangelize for the greater glory of the Father who loves us. Apostolic Exhortation « Evangelii Gaudium / The Joy of the Gospel » § 265.267 (trans. © copyright Libreria Editrice Vaticana)
4th Sunday in EasterMother's Day
A word of advice to everyone: if you can't remember whether or not you called your mother, you didn't. But what about when your mom doesn’t remember if you called? And it has only been five minutes.
My mom turned 90 in November and is of solid pioneer stock. I really cannot remember a day when she was sick. She was active, played golf until she was 88, even occasionally broke 100 from the red tees. A little over two years ago she had a heart arrhythmia event, blood pressure dropped like a rock, and she fell like a pine tree onto a concrete walkway. Did not break anything – except her front tooth. That annoyed her completely because she had just finished paying for the cap on that tooth. But there was a severe concussion, but over time mom has had more moments of forgetfulness.
Last week, I was on the way to visit mom in the Mt. Dora area, when my sister called telling me to meet them in the ER at the hospital. Routine blood work showed her to be severely anemic, her resting heart rate was quite elevated, and she was pointedly confused. There had already been signs of increasing forgetfulness, episodes of confusion, and the slow erosion of easy access to memories. Now, it was more severe.
Mom hasn’t lived with her siblings in more than 70 years, still it is disconcerting when she has moments when she asks, “Do I have sisters and brothers?” In time, her granddaughter Julie became “that girl who lives in Salt Lake and just got married.” That’s Julie. She remembers there is another granddaughter, she’s married too, and she lives somewhere up north. That would be my niece Katie. Mom has two other grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. They don’t come up much these days.
Me? There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is sometimes she doesn’t remember I am her son. She thinks I am a cousin and wants to know how my mother is. I just answer the question. Sometimes, I am not even a cousin. That’s the good news. I am “that well-mannered, good-looking young man.” But most times she knows who I am. Although the whole being a priest thing seems to throw her off. My mom is Mormon. So she wonders why I haven’t met someone to marry. I just tell her I have been busy. Maybe next time I will take someone with me and introduce her as my wife. Just kidding.
But it is still a good Mother’s Day. By the time you read this we will have already gathered at mom’s house. Maybe I will be the cousin, or the young man. I am pretty sure I will mostly be her favorite son (being the only son has its advantages). But all the while, I am aware that in the moments when we are not recognized it doesn't mean we're forgotten. Holding a hand, a kiss, a story, a familiar voice, and laugh. It all makes a connection. Amidst the frustrations, the anxiety, the concern, and the uncertainty, there is always an opportunity to love. And that is the deepest calling of a parent, a child, or anyone who would take on the name Christian.
Happy Mother’s Day, mom.Recognizing the Journey
Our gospel on this 3rd Sunday of Easter is St. Luke’s telling of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. It is a story about a journey of faith even as it is a journey to faith. The thing about journeys is that you often do not realize that you are on one, or if you do, may not recognize that the nature of the journey has changed. The two disciples had journeyed to Jerusalem with one set of hopes and expectations. They were following Jesus, were in Jerusalem for the events of Holy Week, and saw one journey seemingly end at Golgotha.
But on the third day, when the reports began to filter into the community of believers, what journey did they begin? Or did they recognize that the original journey was simply becoming clearer? It is the same day that the women discovered the empty tomb, were told Jesus had risen by two dazzling angels, and ran to tell the other disciples. How is it that, instead of a journey of joy, the walk to Emmaus scene is more like a trudge of disappointment? Had the journey of faith been derailed? Had the road zigged when they zagged?
Everyone is on a journey, but we are not always able to recognize it, to describe it, or give it meaning. I can tell you from experience that you can transit the entire Pacific Ocean in a submarine and never experience motion or turbulence. It is more the monastic enclosure than the cruise liner. But interestingly, we all arrive at the same destination. But there are lots of things that can happen out in the broad expanse of the Pacific, just as things befall us in life.
A rogue wave in the shape of the unexpected telephone call in the middle of the night. A storm surge disguised as a biopsy report. The unexpected passing of a loved one too early in life that leaves you rudderless and without headway – adrift. The world travelers whose age now limits them to trips to the clinic and the front yard. The missioner who did not expect service in the name of God would entail such suffering, humiliation, and death. Everyone is on a journey. Every journey changes. The waves lift you high and take you low. The trade winds speed the journey along; the gale force winds make you batten the sails.
One of the things that I love about our gospel story, known as the “Road to Emmaus,” is that Jesus meets them on the way. He doesn’t come and stop them in Jerusalem. He doesn’t wait for them at home. He doesn’t bid them make some holy pilgrimage or undertake some pious feat. Rather, he meets them where they are on the road when they are in the trough of the waves plowing into a headwind.
These two disciples are as exhausted as they are discouraged as they trudge the seven miles from Jerusalem to their home in Emmaus. We don’t know why they have forsaken the company of their fellow disciples, only that their journey is taking them home. Perhaps it’s all they could think to do. And then right smack in the middle of all the pain, frustration, and despondency that threatens to overwhelm them, Jesus is with them – even though they don’t recognize him at first.
They need to get their bearings. Scripture gives them a line of sight and the breaking of the bread makes the meaning and destination clear. And with that they set sail in a new direction, with new purpose and vigor – the journey renewed. The promise of Christ is that we will never be alone on the journey. We might be lost, adrift, or stuck in one place. But never alone. Sometimes we just need to get our bearings.
The ancient mariners looked to the heavens. It helped them get their bearings. The two disciples looked to Scripture and the Breaking of the Bread. Where do you look?He is Lord of All
Last week I wrote that if Lent was about making “room for God” – and that is a good start – then the Easter season and beyond should be about coming to realize that God is the entire room! “God should be not merely the reference point but the whole context out of which we operate. God is not merely the source of our existence, he is the substance of our existence, the very life we have, and without God we would be lifeless, even if we are alive. Put another way, if Jesus is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.”
I think St. Francis understood that God is not just the philosophical construct as the “ground of being,” but the One who gives us life every day, is the reason we get up in the morning, and is the focus of our praise. God is both our creator and our redeemer. Both our raison d’etre
and the reason why we do what we do. God is both the source of love and the sort of love we should have and express. God is the overwhelming, awesome, all-loving being that can sweep our lives into wholeness, completeness, and rest. He is Lord of all.
But that transformation in the way we view God does not leave us in control. Frankly, it can be scary. Rather than seeing it as being swept up in the arms of a loving parent and held close, it seems like the flood waters sweeping us away. So, it is safer to domesticate God, turn God into our buddy, shrink him down to our size, to manageable proportions. We can even turn it all into a popular Top-40 song: “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus?” (words by Eric Bazillian, sung by Joan Osborne, 1995)
. While I liked the song and even sing along with it, I am deeply aware that God was indeed one of us and while He was right there on the bus, he was not a slob like one of us. Jesus did not come to merely try on humanity, or hang out with us. He came to show us the fullness of what humanity was intended to be. He came to save us from ourselves, and for Himself.
But so often we just cannot see that. But then vision is often a problem in the human condition. I can remember being in high school and really wanting one of my classmates to “really see me.” I just knew that if she really knew who I was, well heck, she would invite me to the prom. Now take that same kind of experience and blow it up to cosmological proportions. If we could just really see God, we would run to the “divine prom,” the perichoresis
, (peri –
around; chorea –
dance) that divine dance of the Triune God in, with, and through all life, all being, all love.
It is indeed a Divine Mercy that God waits for us to simply realize who He is. He is Lord of all.Getting Our Bearings
May the grace and peace of the Risen Lord be with you. I trust these words find you well, blessed, and part of the Easter people celebrating our awesome and loving God. As an Easter people we are about to begin a whole season of Easter from now until Pentecost Sunday on June 8th. Just about the same time as your life begins to accelerate with Confirmation (next Sunday!), First Holy Communion (May 10th), Mother’s Day, final exams, graduations, summer vacation and camp planning, getting ready for college, and a whole list of things around the home and office.
Life can be breathless. Sometimes we need to take a breath and see how far we have come. To ponder our successes, our failings, all the hurdles we jumped, disasters we dodged, and things that got accomplished. As strange as it might seem, to think about Lent. At the beginning of Lent, I wrote, “Lent isn’t about denial. It is about transformation. It is the season in which we prepare to encounter the mystery of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection by endeavoring to become more Christ-like ourselves. Transformation is about letting ourselves be filled with God’s presence so that we can be shaped by God’s grace. But we have to make room for God’s grace. We have to empty ourselves to make room for God.”
How did that go? Lent has passed and we have journeyed through the mystery of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection in the celebration of Holy Week. Now that our transformation has started, where is it going?
Recently someone spoke to me about that idea of “making room for God” in the midst of their incredibly busy schedule. In the course of the conversation, it seemed to me that the conclusion was that “God needed to be my co-pilot.” As I listened, my thought was that maybe we should all get out of the cockpit and just let God be the pilot. And I was not excluding myself from the thought. Thinking about that conversation I wonder if “making room for God” has its own limitations as a metaphor.
It is perhaps fine as a starting point, someplace to begin, or a way to think to become intentional about becoming more Christ-like in our lives. But that just brings me back to the question of where is this all going? Life with God in heaven is the answer in the long-term, but it strikes me that a nearer term goal might be centered in the way we look at all this. If Lent was the period in which we “made room for God,” I would suggest that the next segment of this transformation would be “we should make God the room.”
What I mean by this is that God should be not merely the reference point, but the whole context out of which we operate. God is not merely the source of our existence, he is the substance of our existence, the very life we have, and without God we would be lifeless, even if we are alive. Put another way, if Jesus is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.The Challenge of Giving
In a recent issue of American Magazine, Mark Neilsen wrote a wonderful piece called “Asking for Change: The challenge of giving without grudges.” He tells of his ongoing and frequent encounters with a poor woman named Donna. She appears in his life when there is need in her life. What was especially wonderful about the article was his own ongoing reflection on his reactions and emotions surrounding each encounter:
“Like the time she asked me to loan her $20 for an emergency, and I came to learn that it really was not a loan at all, but more like a gift, minus the generosity.”
When she catches Mark on the street or comes up and knocks on his door:
“Typically breathless and perspiring, she comes to make a pitch—for bus fare or a ride home, for money to pay for a prescription she waves in her hand or occasionally offering to sell small bags of coffee or some other commodity she has come upon. Donna is resourceful. Known among the neighbors for her panhandling as well as her stories—her seven children who have not eaten for days, her grandmother who died out of state and without money for a funeral, the surgery she is about to have—Donna has worn out several welcomes, even at some church pantries. She is probably addicted to drugs, and no doubt a liar, but she is clearly in great need. After hearing the words of the Hebrew prophets and the story of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 over many years, I find it hard to turn her away with nothing. Not impossible, but hard.”
There is a wonderful honesty in his reaction: “Her life is so precarious and my sympathy so very thin. She knocks on the door, and her need opens up like a gaping abyss from which I need to stand back and carefully dole out any little favor at arms-length.” The writer reflects how grudgingly he gives anything at all from his storehouse of time and treasure. A story from Pope Francis often intrudes upon these encounters. Pope Francis commented that when hearing confessions back in Argentina, he would ask the penitents if they ever gave alms. Did they look in the eyes of the beggars and touch their hands? In those moments the Pope remarked, we are “touching the flesh of Christ, taking upon ourselves this suffering for the poor.” The Pope went on to say that Christ became poor in the Incarnation in order “to walk along the road with us,” to share our life. “If we reach out to the flesh of Christ [in the poor], we begin to understand...what this poverty, the Lord's poverty, actually is; and this is far from easy.”
The article went on to describe a number of other encounters with Donna. One in which she asked him to buy a chicken dinner, “A family pack, all thighs.” He asked her “‘How much is that going to cost?’ Why? I guess I just wanted her to be aware that I had my limits. ‘Not much’ she said.” In that moment he wondered did she need to suffer his scorn just to get a few pieces of fried chicken?
While he was buying the chicken dinner, Donna took spare change and took money from the car. When confronted, she denied it: “I didn't take no money out of your car. I swear before God, I didn't take no money.”
“Angry, saddened, and frustrated by the whole interchange, I just turned, walked back to the car and drove off. Hadn't I tried to do the decent thing? Hadn't I gone the extra mile to buy her some food? Did she have to steal and then lie about it? What exactly is the lesson there?”“This is far from easy
, said the pope.” If we reach out to the flesh of Christ in the poor, we begin to understand poverty, the poor, and Christ. Indeed, it is far from easy.Oh my gosh...did you know
When I became pastor, Fr. Andrew told me that this column space was a task that was unrelenting. It does keep coming around. I would love to tell you there is a grand vision in the background that connects the dots from week to week, but there isn’t. Sometimes it is driven by the liturgical season, things at the parish, events on the national scene, one of many other items important to the parish, or once in a while, something I have just been musing about. Like last week; it was gossip.
I have been writing the column for almost three years now. No one has thrown rotten fruit or declared that I am a heretic. And that’s a good thing. Once in a while people will say they enjoyed it. But mostly it passes without comment or feedback. Until last week that is. I think I received more comments, asides, emails, and calls/voice mails about the column on gossip than all previous columns combined. Interesting.
Among the wide variety of comments were several that wanted me to know that gossip has benefits. Did you know there is a whole body of research on “prosocial gossip?” Researchers have found that gossiping – specifically spreading information about a person who has behaved badly – can play a critical role in maintaining social order, preventing exploitation and lowering stress. The researchers did not focus on the reputation smearing, mud-raking, vicious kind of chatter. They focused on the act of spreading negative information about people who aren't participating in the conversation, refined it to what they called "prosocial" gossip, which has the function of warning people about the untrustworthy or dishonest behavior of others. Interesting.
Can prosocial gossip be Christian?
I suspect this is a topic that needs more than a column, but…it seems to me that are at least two things that should frame our thinking about prosocial gossip. If our intent is to warn others about untrustworthy or dishonest behavior of others, do we have a prior responsibility? “If your brother sins, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.”
(Matthew 18:15) It would seem so.
There is a difference between truth and its communication. “The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional. Everyone must conform his life to the Gospel precept of fraternal love. This requires us in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it.” (Catechism §2488)
In all cases, the words we speak should be true, necessary, and helpful. Even if the words are true, if the speaking of them are necessary and helpful to our own self, that should perhaps give us pause. If the words are conformed to fraternal love, then we are challenged to make our words helpful – and that begins with words we choose and the way we speak them. That too should give us pause.Oh my gosh...did you hear?
In Sunday’s gospel Jesus encounters the man born blind. Miraculously Jesus gives him the gift of sight and then the poor guy goes through the wringer of one interrogation after another about it all. The Pharisees have a miracle laid right in their laps, and if you are like me, I am wondering, “Wow, how did they miss that one? How could they be so blind!” Which is of course the question we should ask about them. But what about us?
All this made me begin to wonder what are the blind spots we still retain. There is no shortage of candidates. Maybe one blind spot we all share involves the one of the other gifts of God: speech. There are some studies that say 60% of conversations between adults are about someone who isn’t present and most of these are passing judgment of some kind or another. That is among adults. I was too timid to see if there were studies for middle- and high-schoolers. I pray they are better Christians than we adults! The characteristics of the conversations included gossip, idle chatter, lies, exaggerations, harsh attacks, and uncharitable observations and remarks. I don’t think any of us consider this an admirable list to be emulated. Why is it that we do so much harm with this God-given gift that is capable of so much good?
We all know it’s wrong to gossip, and no one wants to seem malicious. So why do we indulge in this guilty pleasure? Of course, why do we call it a “guilty pleasure?” Pleasure? I don’t know about that, but the “guilty” tag is correct. St. Matthew offers us some insight on the topic: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak.
” (Mt 12:36)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church includes gossip under the 8th Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” St Thomas includes it in his treatise on justice (II, IIae 72-76) in the Summa since, by it, we unjustly harm the reputation of others, through either lies or truths shared inappropriately. Harm? Destroy a reputation might be a better description. I wonder if we shouldn’t have discussed gossip under the 5th Commandment: “Thou shall not kill.”
My dad did not tolerate our idle chatter or gossip. Our “hey, dad, did you hear….” was mostly met with, “Why I am surprised. That person called just this morning and had the nicest things to say about you. I can’t believe you would repay their kindness this way.” We knew the person had not called, but we were reminded of our blindness about ourselves. We were reminded that gossip’s sinful tendrils could be stopped, that we could shed a little of God’s light into the moment, and that we need not choose to remain blind. We should all hear that.No Guarantee History Will Get It Right
Most people still think of Mary Magdalene as the unnamed sinner (possibly a prostitute) in Luke 7:36-50. Of course we think of her as “the repentant prostitute” because she turns her life around because of the encounter with Jesus. The problem is that for the first 300+ years of the Church, she was only seen as the first witness to the Resurrection. Did you know that Mary Magdalene is mentioned 12 times in the gospels, more than most of the Apostles? She was present at the crucifixion and was the first witness to the Resurrection (John 20 and Mark 16:9). She was the “Apostle to the Apostles,” an honorific that St. Augustine bestowed upon her in the fourth century, and possibly he was but repeating a moniker already in use.
The first written evidence we have of Mary Magdalene being a repentant prostitute comes from Ephraim the Syrian later in the fourth century. What really sealed her reputation was a homily from Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century (homily XXXIII). Since then, despite the biblical record, it is this image of Mary Magdalene that continues in art, sculpture, film, and even musicals.
One of the more striking images of Mary Magdalene is Donatello’s sculpture, located in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence, that captures the repentant part.
The other parts of the reputation is reflected in art such as Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ
, in José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ
, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar
, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the
Christ. 16 Jesus said to her, “Go call your husband and come back.” 17 The woman answered and said to him, “I do not have a husband.” Jesus answered her, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ 18 For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”
The Samaritan woman at the well gets the same treatment. The most popular understanding is that this woman has skittered through one marriage after another. She is an adulterous person and a pariah to the village – hence she has to go to the well at noontime, in the heat of the day, because she is a sinner.
The thing is, this text is not, as so many almost unanimously assume, evidence of the woman’s immorality. Jesus does not judge her; any moral judgments are imported into the text by tradition. There are many possible reasons for her marital history other than her moral laxity. Perhaps the woman, like Tamar in Genesis 38, is trapped in the custom of levirate marriage (Deut 25:5-10; see also Luke 20:27-33), and the last male in the family line has refused to marry her. Isn’t it interesting that the reasons for the woman’s marital history intrigue us but do not concern Jesus. Jesus engages the God-given dignity of the woman. In the end, even before Mary Magdalene, she goes on to be the Apostle to the Samaritans, well before Philip (Acts 8:4 and following).
What is common to these two women – other than not being treated well by “tradition,” – is that both encountered Jesus at a deep and intimate level. The encounter propelled them beyond their society-assigned roles, beyond their own self-image, beyond their imagination, beyond their life – whatever it was. Such is the power of Christ.
Apostle or prostitute, there is no guarantee that history will get it right. Be assured that Jesus is none too concerned with the history we write down, but rather with the life we live before God. For we are that and nothing more.Paying Attenetion
This weekend, my Franciscan brother, Fr. Bill McConville, OFM is preaching at all the Masses as part of the Lenten Parish Mission (which I hope you are planning to attend). Having a guest homilist is a secret pleasure for a priest – even if you like the whole process of preparation and presentation (which I do). Still, it is a like a holiday that shows up at your door step. Woohoo!! It is a double blessing because I know Fr. Bill well. I know his homily will be great and I will get to listen to it. At least I hope I listen, pay attention, and even more, consider all that Fr. Bill has to say about this wonderful gospel describing the Transfiguration.
The Apostle Peter has just witnessed the Transfiguration: “And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him.
” Wow! The Transfiguration, that momentary uncovering of the Son of God’s own intrinsic glory, which has been temporarily veiled in his earthly life and will be reassumed at the Resurrection and Ascension. The Transfiguration that anticipates the Resurrection of all the faithful and gives us a glimpse of the glory that awaits us in heaven – when there is no more death, no illness, when we are no longer burdened by our sins and our choices, when we love completely and without reservation. Peter has witnessed it and … and …. well, I wish he had just taken a long, long moment to reflect on what he had just witnessed. No, not Peter, he just plunges right in, wanting to build tents or some such things. It makes me wonder. Was Peter paying attention to all that Jesus taught during the Sermon on the Mount? Was he paying attention when Jesus cast out demons, calmed the storm waters, cured Peter’s mother-in-law, made the blind see and deaf hear, when lame walked and lepers were cured? Did he even hear his own testimony when he proclaimed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
Was he paying attention? But then the real question is are we paying attention. And this is not as simple a question as “do you read and think about Scripture.” It is deeper… do you let these Gospel stories illuminate your life? Because your life is filled with experiences. Every human life is filled with experiences from when we get up until we go to sleep and even in our sleep when we experience our dreams. What do we do with these experiences? Mostly we pass over them; some we forget.
Life is filled with experiences past, present, and to come. Many of these experiences are profoundly mysterious. We have all the experiences you could hope for - and God is in them all - and yet we don't reflect on much of them - and so we miss a lot. Maybe the world is being Transfigured, but we are busy building tents or some such things. Especially in Lent, Jesus invites each of us to the holy mountain to prayerfully consider our experiences. It might be shrouded in the ordinary or in mystery – maybe we have a good idea who Jesus is; maybe not – we may be confused by the experiences of life and feel lost – but Jesus invites us to come with him. To listen, to trust him, to have faith in him. To keep reflecting about our experiences while listening to Jesus. And maybe, just maybe, we will see something beyond our imagining: Who Jesus really is and who we are becoming – two things inextricably woven together.
If we are paying attentionWhat is your Lenten Plan?
I hope you were able to celebrate Ash Wednesday this year. If you blinked, it has already passed us by; it is quickly receding in the Lenten “rearview mirror.” If you blink again it will be Holy Week and the “best of intentions” will have to wait for another year. So… as I asked two weeks ago, what is your plan for Lent?
We are called to be intentional in our life of prayer and to create a place and space in our life to be in relationship with God. Now that Ash Wednesday has passed, what is your Lenten plan to make room in your life to be filled with God’s grace? How about a Lenten check list? Set aside time every day for prayer and reflection with
- Daily Scriptures www.usccb.org/bible/readings/index.cfm
- “Joy in the Journey” booklet available at the back of the church (while supplies last!
- Follow my Lenten reflections on the daily gospel – only 140 characters long! How long could that take to read? Twitter address: @GeorgeOFM
- Receive a daily Lenten reflection email from Fr. Robert Barron – sign up on our Lenten Resources webpage. http://bit.ly/MTLZlh
- Your own awesome resources and spiritual reading. Lenten Simple Soup Suppers and Stations of the Cross
Fridays at 6:30 pm in the Parish Hall with Stations beginning at 7:30 in the church. Lenten Mission with Fr. Bill McConville, OFM
March 17th, 18th, and 19th at 7:00 pm in the church. Sunday Morning Parent Enrichment Group (PEG)
Every Sunday at 10:30 am at the Sacred Heart Campus PEG room (2nd floor, just at the top of the stairs).
The Light is On for You
March 27th celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation from 5:00 pm until 7:00 pm. Our Lenten Resources webpage http://bit.ly/MTLZlh
Select some reading materials, podcasts, video, or daily reflection emails for your private prayer.
It is your spiritual life. Make it your plan!So...what are you giving up for Lent?
Isn’t that always the question? As if that is the reason for the season. Growing up, everything I remember about Lent circled around the acts of self-denial – what food, entertainment, or habit one would give up and how hard it was to deny oneself of that thing. It was not always made clear that the denial was meant to help one think about God and Christ’s sacrifice.
Of course it’s understandable that the deeper meaning of Lent can be missed. Even elsewhere in this bulletin we mention the religious traditions, rituals, and “Lenten obligations,” which are easier to promote, understand, and implement than spirituality and faith. We Catholics understand rules. It is far easier to tell kids (and ourselves) to obey rules than to explain to them why we should desire to act rightly. We can end up following the rules simply because…well, because that is what we do, that is how we think of religion. In Lent, too often we are denying ourselves for the sake of denial. We give up chocolate or Facebook thinking that act of denial is the purpose of Lent. And we end up missing the point.
Lent isn’t about denial. It is about transformation. It is the season in which we prepare to encounter the mystery of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection by endeavoring to become more Christ-like ourselves. Transformation is about letting ourselves be filled with God’s presence so that we can be shaped by God’s grace. But we have to make room for God’s grace. We have to empty ourselves to make room for God – and that may mean Downton Abbey reruns, chocolate, or whatever else takes up time, space, and energy in your life. And so we give up things/habits as a way of beginning the transformation. In our faith tradition, this process has a word: kenosis
– the “self-emptying” of one's own will and becoming entirely receptive to God's divine will. Denying ourselves in order to allow God to fill us. The Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving help prepare us to be transformed. We deny ourselves so that we can be reborn as new creations – to live more fully as the Kingdom citizens God desires us to be – to go and do the good that God would have us do.
Last week I spoke about being intentional in one’s life of prayer and about making a place and space in your life to be in relationship with God. Once Ash Wednesday passes, what is your Lenten plan to make room in your life to be filled with God’s grace? Will you create time to join the community in the Lenten Simple Soup Suppers and Stations on Fridays? Mark your calendars to join us for our Lenten Mission with Fr. Bill McConville, OFM (March 17th thru the 19th at 7:00 pm in the church). Go to our Lenten Resources webpage and select some reading materials, podcasts, video, or daily reflection emails for your private prayer (http://bit.ly/MTLZlh). Create the space for God in your life this Lent. Be intentional! Be with GodBeing Intentional
Someone asked me why I get up most mornings for 5:30 swim practice – wouldn’t I like an extra hour or so of sleep, or maybe be able to stay up a little later the evening before? Extra sleep – sure. Stay up a little later – maybe. But the basic reason I get up so early is because I am intentional about having some semblance of a balanced life and that includes physical exercise. Once I am back at the parish, the course of the day may go as planned…or not, but I am free to respond without wondering if I can squeeze in a workout later in the day. It is liberating, even if a little bleary-eyed.
Being intentional is an essential and intrinsic part of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. Discipleship, spiritual maturity, or however you would wish to describe being whole and complete as a Christian, is not an accident. Seeking God speaks of intentionality — the believer who desires to know God in a deeper way and strives toward that goal. When Jesus invited disciples to follow Him, it was a call to intentionally seek Him, to know Him, and to live for Him. This involves spending regular time with Him.
Worship at Mass, individual prayer, Bible Study, private reading and reflection, journaling – these are but a few of the intentional ways of seeking a deeper relationship with God. Hopefully, coming to Mass is intentional in that you prepare and participate in the Divine Worship, but it is only an hour or two out of 168 during a week. What about the other 167 hours or so? How do you intentionally seek out God? How much time is given to God? Add it up. I think you will be surprised.
Surveys indicate that women are more likely than men to pray outside of Mass. About 50 percent of people say they set aside a point in the day for intentional prayer a few days a week. 30% report intentional prayer between weekly and monthly. The remaining 20% report rarely to never being intentional about prayer. How about you? Or how about me? Am I as intentional about prayer as I am swimming? I am, but then I also have the benefit of a communal prayer life with my Franciscan brothers that frames and sets a rhythm for the day. In between I have my own prayer and reading.
Lent is coming up. Ash Wednesday is March 5th. If there is a season of the liturgical year that just calls for intentionality about prayers and reflection, it is Lent. What is your plan for Lent? What is your plan to plan? It has been said that if we aim at nothing, we will hit it every time. The same is true for prayer. If we are aimless in our prayer-life we will pray randomly, at best. May your Lenten season be intentional for Him.February 16, 2014
At the beginning of December, we announced that the Vatican wanted to hear your voice about “Ministry to the Family.” More than 6,800 folks from the diocese took the time to complete the online survey. Bishop Lynch promised he would report on the “sensus fidelium”
of the people on these matters. True to his word, last week he published the summary on his blog (http://bishopsblog.dosp.org/
). There is also a link to a far more detailed report. Given that there were survey and narrative responses, the Diocesan staff did a great job reading and compiling the narrative results. I thought that I would share a synopsis of the Bishop’s report. Who Responded
. As the Bishop noted: “The survey responses generally reflect the ‘choir,’ those people who faithfully attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation [85%]…[the survey does] not represent the feelings of those who have fallen away from the practice of their faith, are angry or frustrated or feel alienated by the Church. How I wish I could have heard from them as well…” Another group that was not well represented within the responses were “young single” and “young married” couples – together they only comprised 4% of the respondents. Nonetheless, Bishop Lynch wrote: “Overall, the Church which I am privileged to lead has some real concerns about precisely the matters which the Holy Father wished tested.” What did they have to say?
As you can imagine, summarizing the free-form comments and responses was a challenging exercise, but the Bishop reported them in the following summary [with some editing herein for space limitations
- There was very strong support for the notion that marriage is sacramental and is between one man and one woman.
- Having said that, it was also clear that the respondents felt that the Church needed to be prepared to better respond to the reality of same-sex marriage and not engage these folks in a way that comes across as judgmental and ready to drum them out of the pews.
- The respondents generally tended to suggest that the Church needed to be kinder and gentler to those who identify themselves as gay and lesbian, be less judgmental and more welcoming.
- Very clearly stated was the opinion that an adopted child of same-sex parents should be treated in the Church exactly the same as a child born of a traditional marriage between a man and a woman.
- The respondents felt very strongly that something needs to be done to reconcile and welcome back the divorced and remarried beyond the present annulment process. But it is also clear that there are many misconceptions about divorce, the status of children of a broken marriage, and sacramental participation.
- The media takes a hammering in the survey results, largely because it is seen as the force majeure for challenging traditional concepts about marriage and family life. The respondents strongly said that the Church needs “to wake up and smell the coffee” on cohabitation. It is commonplace and there are some reasons for it which cannot be summarily dismissed.
- Finally, on the matter of artificial contraception the responses might be characterized by the saying, “that train left the station long ago.” Catholics have made up their minds and the sensus fidelium suggests the rejection of Church teaching on this subject.
Bishop Lynch wrote: “So, a natural question is ‘What next?’ The survey results raised issues that can only be resolved by the universal church and ultimately by the Holy Father himself. I gather from what I read that our results are not markedly different from those being reported elsewhere around the world. I hope that the effort to canvas the thoughts of the People of God in this diocese, which was unique in Florida, will be helpful to those who will soon gather in synod with the Holy Father.”
“But there are pastoral results from the survey which we can attend to and I hope we will. I have made it known that I will not tolerate any discrimination or anything which smacks of the punitive to children of same-sex couples. I think all representatives of the Church’s many ministries can be kinder, gentler, more welcoming and less judgmental of those who find our praxis and preaching on marriage and family life to be at odds with their experiences. We need to address clearly that divorce itself is not something which bans a person from reception of the sacraments and that annulments do not illegitimize children born of previous marriages. Working with our diocesan Marriage and Family Life Office and with our priests and deacons, we can either begin or strengthen the process of healing for many in the Church. Finally, if the “choir” is singing this anthem, imagine what we might have heard had we had the time and access to those alienated, fallen-away, hurt or frustrated.” My Own Initial Reaction.
First, my thanks to the Bishop for hosting the survey and reporting the results. Second, I am hopeful. Not that there is theological or magisterial change in the wind, but that at the core of so many responses is the echo of St. Paul’s words from Holy Family Sunday: “Put on, ….heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, …And over all these put on love
.” (Col 3:13-14) It seems to me this is the Spirit of God, the example of Pope Francis, the calling of each of us, and our mission as Church in the world. We are not here to impose, but only to propose our Faith. “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence
.” (1 Peter 3:15-16)Being Salt and Light
Last week I wrote about the Sermon on the Mount, which contains the Beatitudes and is one of the great discourses in the Gospel according to Matthew. I thought I would provide some more food for thought as our Sunday gospel continues with the Sermon on the Mount.
In our reading today, Jesus uses two of the most well-known metaphors: “You are the salt of the earth.
” and “You are the light of the world.
” (Mt 5:13-14) Two things that are vital to human life – not nice, but vital. Several years ago, NPR aired a report about an isolated area of Myanmar (Burma) with no natural salt deposits. This very fertile land was unoccupied because of that reason until an earthquake moved a mountain and a road was opened to the region. At least then people could live there and travel to market to buy salt. Salt is vital to human life. But beyond the minimal life-giving aspect, salt gives flavor and is used to preserve, to prevent corruption.
“You are the salt of the earth.
” This is what Jesus proclaims to the disciples, to the ones who have already responded to his call to follow him. And all of this is in connection with the Sermon on the Mount’s focus of letting disciples know the demands of the kingdom. Disciples of Christ need to be life-giving, need to add the distinctive flavoring of being “blessed,” and to preserve others for life in the eternal kingdom.
Disciples, if we are true to our calling, make the earth
a purer and a more palatable place. But we can do so only as long as we preserve our distinctive character: tasteless salt has no value. The Rabbis commonly used salt as an image for wisdom (cf. Col. 4:6), which may explain why the Greek word translated as “lost its taste”
actually means “become foolish.” A foolish disciple has no influence on the world; a foolish community makes no difference in its locale.
It raises the questions whether as a community or individuals – are we salt for the earth? What is distinctive about us as disciples? Our church building is very distinctive. But are we?Have A Blessed Day
This weekend the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (Feb 2nd) falls on a Sunday – and so we celebrate that event in the life of Christ. When the Feast falls on Sunday, it replaces the Ordinary Time celebration and the associated Gospel, which happens to be “The Sermon on the Mount.” The Sermon contains the listing of the Beatitudes and is one of the great discourses in the Gospel according to Matthew. I thought I would at least provide some food for thought here in the column.
Each Beatitude begins with “Blessed are…
” Blessedness is something that is part of, or should be part of, the fabric of our life. As a friend pointed out, the message on my phone concludes with “Have a blessed day.” I am not sure what people think, but I always feel hopeful when I hear it and I appreciate its spirit of goodwill. But it carries no guarantee. My friend who kids me about my message tells the story of being in line behind a woman at the grocery store who seemed agitated and in a real hurry. The check-out clerk finished bagging her groceries and said, “Have a nice day.” The woman replied, “I'm sorry, but I have other plans.” Some days the best attitude in the world can't keep misfortune at bay. What does having a blessed day mean on those days? What does it mean to be blessed?
A lot of people think the Beatitudes originated with Jesus, but they are found in the wisdom literature common to the Old Testament Psalms and Proverbs. Israel's sages and poets used them to commend admirable but traditional actions and attitudes.
- “Happy the one who finds wisdom, the one who gains understanding.” (Proverbs 3:13)
- “Blessed those whose way is blameless, who walk by the law of the LORD. Blessed those who keep his testimonies who seek him with all their heart. They do no wrong; they walk in his way.” (Ps 119:1-3)
- “The just walk in integrity; happy are their children after them!!” (Proverbs. 20:7)
The Psalter opens with this Beatitude: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in company with scoffers. Rather, the law of the LORD is his joy; and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Ps 1:1-2)
The Beatitudes offer formulas for what constitutes blessedness—not good fortune or prosperity or personal achievement, but rather being surrounded by a sphere of spiritual well-being as an individual and as a community. In the Old Testament that meant pursuing wisdom, following the commandments, and treating others with respect. The fruit of such a path in life is, “He is like a tree planted near streams of water that yields its fruit in season; Its leaves never wither; whatever he does prospers.” (Ps 1:3)
Jesus' beatitudes have a paradoxical twist. They begin well enough in Matthew's version. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:3) But quickly blessedness is associated with mourning, meekness, being merciful, being persecuted, and also reviled. What about self-reliance and building a good reputation for productivity and success?
Positive attitudes are a good thing. But Jesus' Beatitudes are less about insuring individual prosperity and reputation and more about risking it for the sake of his vision of God's kingdom. They seem not to care about personal success and security. Rather, it is our alignment with the values of risky faith, radical mercy, and an active search for justice for the entire community that matters to God.
So when Jesus says to us “Have a blessed day,” the response “Sorry, but I have other plans!” is not what is called for. Perhaps we can borrow from the Prophet Samuel and reply, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”Contagious Generosity
Parish life has its own ebb and flow. There is an annual event that falls between the Christmas season just past and the Lenten season ahead: the Diocesan Annual Pastoral Appeal (APA). You might be thinking, didn’t we just finish the appeal for 2013? We did, and last year’s campaign ended well! For the first time in the history of the Diocesan appeal, our parish met its assigned goal of $236,197 – in fact we exceeded it by a little over $16,000 (all of which, by the way, was returned to the parish!). For the first time when we reach the end of the fiscal year in June, I will not have to write a check out of funds for parish operations to the Diocese to make up the difference between our pledges and the goal. My first year as pastor, the check was for $107,000. It was “breath taking” in all the wrong ways.
Some folks wonder about why the Diocese takes this collection each year and why the recently completed capital campaign does not cover such things. Simply put, the capital campaign is about the future; APA is about funding the ministry and work of the Diocese this year. There are many ministries that are best served at a Diocesan level; they are just too much for any one parish. Examples include Pinellas Hope; faith-based adoption services and pregnancy centers; mobile medical services to immigrants and refugees; temporary and permanent housing for the least among us; as well as all the ongoing work of the offices of finance, human resources, information technology, insurance, risk management, construction, schools, and the important ministry of forming seminarians for service as priests in the Diocese. Trust me, there are many more examples of the work, ministry, and support done for us and in our name.
There is a “contagious generosity” afoot! Last year, parishioner pledges increased 44% with 35% more families and households participating – although overall only 15% of all the registered households contributed. But the contagion of generosity is reflected across a wider span than just APA. People are increasingly giving of their time, talent, and treasure across any number of parish ministries and events. It is a wonderful contagion of the Spirit moving people’s hearts to ever engage more deeply in their life of faith and in the life of the parish.
Over the coming weeks we will provide information to you in many different forms about the APA leading to the weekend of March 1st/2nd when we will come together as a community to make our pledges and do what is ours to do.
Thanks for listening.What Kind of People Worship Here?
On Monday, we as a nation will celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I thought it would be good that we, again, listen to the words of Dr. King from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
“I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi, and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: ‘What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?’
“Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson, and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
“There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.
“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”