“Be watchful!”

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Icon of ChristA few weeks ago we had the reading of the parable of talents in Matthew’s gospel. Three servants are given different amounts of treasure to invest for their master while he is away – one is given five talents, the second is given two and the third is given one talent. On the master’s return we learn that the first two servants doubled what was entrusted to them (and were therefore rewarded generously by their master) while the third servant buried the talent in the earth that he had been given. He neither lost nor gained anything for the master and was therefore chastised for his laziness and was punished by being cast into “the darkness outside.”

I refer to this because I think we can learn something from this parable about what our Lord means when he says, “Be watchful!” in today’s gospel.  The action of the third servant – in contrast to the first two servants – was the opposite of being watchful.  The burying of the talent entrusted to him was, in essence, an act of ignoring the master. 

It is safe to assume that the third servant, after tucking away his talent, went about the business of his day and what he wanted to accomplish – not really thinking about the master until the day he showed up again. The first two servants, working to increase the talents given them, were active and they were continually thinking about and focused on the master’s return. They were not going about their own plans but were planning and working for their master even as he was away. Their doubling what had been entrusted to them demonstrates this attitude.  The first two servants were watchful where the third was not.  The first two disciples were mindful of the master. 

The watchfulness that our Lord calls us to is not a watching in order to be entertained or amused or even scandalized by the ever-present corruption of sin and evil that we find in life.  All of this is a passive watching.  The watching that our Lord calls us to is an active engagement – just like the first two servants.  This is where we find ourselves, these are times and situations we find ourselves in – now, what are we going to do about it?  How will we live our lives today in a way that increases what the master has entrusted to us?  The first two servants worked hard – anticipating the return of the master.  They did not just sit passively bemoaning the state of things. 

By working hard, the first two servants demonstrate both their obedience to and even their love for the master.  The third servant might have spoken quite eloquently about how he had hidden the talent away in order to present it safely back to the master upon his return but, in reality, his heart was not connected to the master.  The third servant was more focused on what he wanted to do and what he wanted to accomplish with his time.  The first two servants show their love for the master by their willingness to work hard, get messy in the process and even risk what had been entrusted to them in order to bear fruit. 

The watchfulness our Lord calls us to is a watchfulness found in a life being lived in faith, in hope and love and in service to one another.  The prophet Isaiah (from the first reading) knew this type of watchfulness when he wrote, “Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways!”  “Be watchful!” says our Lord – live in such a way that your life anticipates and yearns for the return of the Master!     

 

Closed Secularism and the Failure of the Third Servant

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Parable_of_the_Talents_002.jpegIn Mt. 25:14-30 we find our Lord sharing the parable of the talents. Three servants are given different amounts of treasure to invest for their master while he is away – one is given five talents, the second is given two and the third is given one talent. On the master’s return we learn that the first two servants doubled what was entrusted to them (and were therefore rewarded generously by their master) while the third literally buried the talent away that he had been given. He neither lost nor gained anything for the master and was therefore called out on his laziness and was punished by being cast into “the darkness outside.”

The three servants did not own these talents. This is important to note. The talents were given and entrusted to them by the master upon his departure with the expectation that they would be returned and increased upon his return. The master is the only one in the parable who has a rightful claim on the treasure. I do not believe that the parable is about developing our own skills, gifts and abilities (as important and praiseworthy as this might be) but rather about something much deeper and transformative. The Christian has been given things by God in Christ – things that we have no claim to on our own – and the Christian is expected to make these things grow and will be judged accordingly.

Before getting into what I believe is one set of things given to us by God in Christ I would like to propose that the temptation to live according to a closed secularism – so prevalent in our world today – is the temptation and failure of the third servant. (For a helpful presentation of the distinction between a “closed” and “open” secularism, I would refer you to the book Church, Faith, Future: What We Face, What We Can Do by Fr. Louis Cameli.)

The third servant, out of fear, buried the talent entrusted to him. God calls us to the freedom of his Kingdom but such a freedom can be frightening. Remember the Israelites yearning to go back to the bondage of Egypt? Burying something away is a way of side-stepping and avoiding the responsibility of freedom. Burying also means ignoring. It is safe to assume that the third servant, after tucking away his talent, went about the business of his day and what he wanted to accomplish – not really thinking about the master until the day he shows up again. The first two servants, working to increase the talents given them, were active and they were continually thinking about and focused on the master’s return. They were not going about their own plans but were planning and working for their master even as he was gone. Their doubling what had been entrusted to them demonstrates this attitude. Finally, burying is choosing the lesser and valuing it over that which is higher. In our modern sensibility we stumble with this imagery but the highest goal of the servant should be that of seeking to fulfill the will of the master. The third servant placed his own security and his own designs over the task entrusted to him by his master. He therefore chose that which was lesser.

In the choice for a closed secularism we are in essence burying what has been given us. We are choosing the world before the Kingdom of God. We are side-stepping the true freedom of living as a son or daughter of God with its duties and responsibilities (and abundant graces) for the shallow pseudo-freedoms of choosing our next form of entertainment and/or distraction. We are ignoring the call and promise of God for the business of what we think our day should be about and therefore we are choosing that which is lesser over that which is greater.

Now, what has been given us by God in Christ that we have no claim to on our own? One gift, I believe, are the theological virtues and when we choose to live according to the narrative of the closed secular we, in essence, bury what has been given and entrusted to us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that the theological virtues have their origin, motive and goal in God. These virtues, in the Christian understanding, are gifts from God and can only be brought to fulfillment through our having relationship with God. If God and the realm of the divine is bracketed out of our reality we sidestep the responsibility of the freedom of a child of God, we ignore God in favor of our plans and preoccupations and we lose sight of the greater in favor of that which is lesser.

Faith, rather than being the virtue that confirms our belief in what God has said and revealed is reduced to an allegiance to what I and my particular group believe and hold to be true above all else. Hope, rather than being that virtue anchored in the coming Kingdom of God – the virtue which pulls us forward through the tumults of life – becomes (at best) a naïve optimism rooted in the ever-changing slogans of the day. Charity, rather than being the love of God above all things for his own sake and our neighbors as ourselves for the love of God, becomes a bargaining with a God relegated to the role of being the source of my comfort and a care for those people within my own personal echo chamber – a care which allows only a grudging acceptance for those people without.

How do we avoid the failure of the third servant? We learn from the first two servants. We do not bury what has been given us by co-opting and choosing to live by the narrative of the closed secular. We remain active, living in such a way in the reality of today as to keep the Master in our thoughts and anticipate his return. We live in such a manner as to make the talents of true faith, hope and love grow in our hearts and in our world!

The temptation of closed secularism is the failure of the third servant. As in all the parables, there is much to learn here if we have the ears to hear.

Do not let self eclipse the Son.

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get behind me satanI am not much into church signs and I am glad that we do not have one here at St. Dominic’s because I am not witty enough to post a profound thought each week. I did see one church sign thought the other day that I did like though. It was, “Do not let self eclipse the Son.” Since we all survived the recent solar eclipse we can now breathe a sigh of relief! But the church sign thought is good and it connects well with the today’s gospel (Mt. 16:21-27).

We are told that after our Lord shares how he must go to Jerusalem, suffer and be killed; Peter takes him aside and begins to rebuke Jesus, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” Peter’s self – expressed in his view or our Lord and his view of how our Lord is to fulfill his mission and how the Kingdom is to be brought about – attempts to eclipse the Son. The temptation is there for all of us. In subtle and not so subtle ways we can easily fall into the same error – we can try to tell God how to do his job, we can try to tell the gospel what it really means but this is foolishness. It is like the moon trying to tell the sun how to shine. No real light is shed, only shadows are cast.

What struck me for the first time in praying over this gospel is that Jesus “turned” before rebuking Peter. Peter had taken Jesus aside. Peter was conversing with and rebuking our Lord to his face. By then turning, our Lord already had his back to Peter when he said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” It would do us well to take our Lord at his words here. We are told that our Lord was tempted in every way but never sinned. Our Lord is tempted by this rebuke and these thoughts of Peter. Peter’s words, even his care for Jesus in that moment, was an obstacle for our Lord. In Jesus’ response we can see that the thought is there with which our Lord wrestles, “Maybe there is another way to fulfill the mission? Maybe there is another way to usher in the Kingdom? Maybe I do not have to go to Jerusalem?” The temptation is there and it is real but our Lord does not sin. He does not turn away from God’s will. Rather, he very physically turns his back to this limited, human way of thinking which is not God’s way of thinking.

Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans (Rom. 12:1-2), “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” This is part of the path of discipleship – to learn how to turn away from our human ways of thought and to think as God thinks. It is not easy. In fact, it might actually be the hardest part of discipleship. We like our presumptions and our views and our way of doing things. Lord, you mean this too? This also has to be offered up and denied and taken to the cross? Our Lord responds, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

But how do we go about this renewal of the mind according to the will of God? We turn and we turn to God! There is something almost dramatic and even jarring about our Lord’s turn from Peter and his words “Get behind me, Satan!” Our thoughts and presumptions can entangle and trap us, even those which on the surface seem so normal, so commonsensical and even caring and reasonable. There is a power to the sharpness of our Lord’s response. No, there is another way. There is God’s way and by that way I will live, whether understood by others or not! Jesus shows this to us in this moment and he shows that all things – even our presumptions, our thoughts and our way of doing things – must give way to the truth of the Kingdom.

Do not let self eclipse the Son. Be transformed by the renewal of your mind!

Christian Community and Charlottesville

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In light of the violent and tragic events that have occurred in Charlottesville, VA a dear friend asked me what can one person do “on a regular basis to fight racism and some of what’s going on in this country/world?” It is sad and frightening what is going on in our country and what we see happening in our world. We must reaffirm that there is no place for bigotry, prejudice and violence in our country, our world and in our hearts as Christians and, I think, we must do this as we also reaffirm and in many ways, rediscover, the value and unique power of Christian community.

In Matthew 18:15-20, we read that our Lord gives his disciples some instructions on the reality and role of Christian community. “If your brother sins against you,” our Lord says, then go and tell him the fault, if he fails to listen then take one or two others along with you and if he still refuses to listen then tell the Church and if he fails to listen even to the Church, “then treat him as you would a Gentile or tax collector.” It is worthy to note that Jesus often entered into relationship with the Gentile and tax collector throughout his ministry and that he sought their healing and salvation. Jesus then gives to the community the authority to bind and loose. “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Our Lord then doubles down on the unique power and authority of the church community. “Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

The power of the Christian Church, the power of our Christian faith, is a weak power. We do not have the force of arms or military or police might, neither do we have economic or even (in our increasingly secular age) social might. What we do have is the presence of Christ in our midst and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This alone is that power that can bind and loose and that can open and call forth the grace of heaven through prayer.

Like many people, I have viewed the imaged coming out of Charlottesville including the video that recorded and interviewed a group of white supremacists during these sad and horrendous days. I was truly shocked by the vitriol, hatred and anger expressed by these people and I was also extremely saddened for them because I saw people locked in fear and hate. Theirs is a pseudo-community. Despite the bravado and the appeals to white unity there is no community there. They are people locked in a sad echo chamber stoked by the negative isolation of social media, resentment, fear and ignorance. They are imprisoned in their hate.

To this pseudo-community we are called to be community in Christ – the only community that can both bind and loose and here is found our unique and weak strength. Because Christ is with us and the Holy Spirit has been given us we can both bind and loose. Through the living of Christian community, we can work to truly bind those forces in society and in the human heart that seek to separate and isolate each one of us in resentment and fear. Through the living of Christian community, we can even help to loose those brothers and sisters who have become bound and imprisoned by resentment and fear. This has been my prayer and my hope since I have viewed those sad images coming out of Charlottesville. Pseudo-community only leads to a sad mockery and false caricature of true community as well as human dignity. All the pseudo-communities of our time must be met by the true community of the disciples gathered in prayer, truth and the mercy and the grace known in Christ.

In Christian community we are united by the presence of Christ and by the gift of the Holy Spirit. We are also united in the recognition that we are all sinners who stand in need of a savior. Scriptures tells us that “perfect love casts out all fear” (1 Jn. 4:18). This is the dynamic of true Christian community – not a community where everyone looks the same and thinks the same – but a community where we come to know the perfect love of Christ and where we are set free from those fears that bind us. Christian community is a community of sinners being set free by the perfect love of Christ!

There are many sad and broken things that lie at the root of the violence and hatred given expression in Charlottesville the past few days. One of these, I believe, is a crisis of true community in our society. People are isolated, people are lost, there is pain, uncertainty and fear and in such circumstances the false appeal of pseudo-community can be strong and alluring. This is all the more reason for us to strive in humility, love and grace to be Church – the community where Christ is present and where the Holy Spirit is given and the only true community that has the power to bind and to loose.

Charlottesville and the Call to be Community in Christ

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Charlottesville, VAIn light of the violent and tragic events that have occurred in Charlottesville, VA a dear friend asked me what can one person do “on a regular basis to fight racism and some of what’s going on in this country/world?” It is sad and frightening what is going on in our country and what we see happening in our world. We must reaffirm that there is no place for bigotry, prejudice and violence in our country, our world and in our hearts as Christians and, I think, we must do this as we also reaffirm and in many ways, rediscover, the value and unique power of Christian community.

In Matthew 18:15-20 our Lord gives his disciples some instructions on the reality and role of Christian community. “If your brother sins against you,” our Lord says, then go and tell him the fault, if he fails to listen then take one or two others along with you and if he still refuses to listen then tell the Church and if he fails to listen even to the Church, “then treat him as you would a Gentile or tax collector.” It is worthy to note that Jesus often entered into relationship with the Gentile and tax collector throughout his ministry and that he sought their healing and salvation. Jesus then gives to the community the authority to bind and loose. “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Our Lord then doubles down on the unique power and authority of the church community. “Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

The power of the Christian Church, the power of our Christian faith, is a weak power. We do not have the force of arms or military or police might, neither do we have economic or even (in our increasingly secular age) social might. What we do have is the presence of Christ in our midst and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This alone is that power that can bind and loose and that can open and call forth the grace of heaven through prayer.

Like many people, I viewed the Vice media video that recorded and interviewed the white supremacists during these horrendous days in Charlottesville. I was truly shocked by the vitriol, hatred and anger expressed by these people and I was also extremely saddened for them because I saw people locked in fear and hate. Theirs is a pseudo-community. Despite the bravado and the appeals to white unity there is no community there. They are people locked in a sad echo chamber stoked by the negative isolation of social media, resentment, fear and ignorance. They are imprisoned in their hate.

To this pseudo-community we are called to be community in Christ – the only true community that can both bind and loose and here is found our unique weak strength. Because Christ is with us and the Holy Spirit has been given us we can both bind and loose. Through the living of Christian community, we can work to truly bind those forces in society and the human heart that seek to separate and isolate each one of us in resentment and fear. Through the living of Christian community, we can even help to loose those brothers and sisters who have become bound by resentment and fear. This has been my prayer and my hope since I have viewed those sad images coming out of Charlottesville. Pseudo-community only leads to a sad mockery and false caricature of human dignity. All the pseudo-communities of our time must be met by the true community of the disciples gathered in prayer, truth and the mercy and the grace known in Christ.

There are many sad and broken things that lie at the root of the violence and hatred given expression in Charlottesville the past few days. One of these, I believe, is a crisis of true community in our society. People are isolated, people are lost, there is pain, uncertainty and fear and in such circumstances the false appeal of pseudo-community can be strong and alluring. This is all the more reason for us to strive in humility, love and grace to be Church – the community where Christ is present and where the Holy Spirit is given and the only true community that has the power to bind and to loose.

The God who tramples the waves of the sea.

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Julius Sergius von Klever Tutt'Art@ (36)

“Jesus Walking on the Water” by Julius Sergius von Klever

 

Matthew’s presentation of the occurrence of Jesus walking on the water (Mt. 14:22-33) is not about showing Jesus as someone with magical or superhuman powers but rather about showing Jesus as the one who can do what God alone does.

Matthew, fully conversant with the Hebrew Scriptures, knows the connections and they are alluded to in his telling of this miracle. In the ninth chapter of the Book of Job (9:8), we hear that it is God “who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea.” Here we find Jesus walking calmly on the water, trampling the waves of the sea. In Psalm 144:7 we hear the cry of the creature before the Creator, “Stretch forth thy hand from on high, rescue me and deliver me from the many waters.” Here, Peter having taken some steps in faith becomes fearful, he begins to sink and he cries out, “Lord, save me!” We are then told that Jesus immediately “stretched out his hand,” took hold of him and lifted Peter to safety. God alone is the one who can stretch forth his hand and rescue us from the waters that threaten to drown us!

There is a third connection, I believe, and it is from the first reading (1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a). Elijah, the prophet, is told to go outside because God is passing by. There is a strong and heavy wind but God is not in the wind. There is an earthquake but God is not in the earthquake. There is a burning fire full of fury but God is not in the fire. Finally, after all this, there is a tiny whispering sound and the prophet hides his face because he knows that now God is passing by. In the Gospel, the wind is rolling and the waves are crashing but God is not found in this tumult and chaos rather, quietly and calmly Jesus walks on the water. Christ (who does that which only God can do) neither fears nor needs the tumult and power of the forces of the world to make his presence known because he is the Lord of Life and all creation bows before him. The “tiny, whispering sound” which underlies all things and all creation is the full grandeur of God!

Our lives and the tumult of our world can get chaotic and overwhelming. God is not in the strong wind because God is more than the wind. God is not in the waters that threaten, that can overwhelm us, because God tramples on the waters.

Matthew, in his Gospel, is making use of this occurrence of Jesus walking on the water, to say something utterly unique about Jesus. Jesus is not just another mystic or guru and neither is he a person with magical or superhuman powers because none of these figures would be able to trample the waters because none of them would be more than the waters. Jesus does what only God can do. Jesus is beyond the tempests of life and creation precisely because he is the Lord and Author of Life! And the Author of Life is also the Lord of Mercy! Jesus, who does what only God can do, tramples on the waves of the sea and he stretches out his hand to save us even as the waves threaten to overwhelm. “Lord, save me!” is the only authentic cry of the creature before the Creator and Savior.

WWJP? What Would Jesus Post? The Feast of the Transfiguration as corrective to the reductionism of social media.

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Transfiguration_of_Christ_Icon_Sinai_12th_centuryIn our social media driven world I sometimes find myself wondering “WWJP?” or “What would Jesus post?”  I do believe that the positives of social media outweigh the negatives but there are negatives and these negatives do have effects.  I recently heard a news story on how Facebook is having an impact on the number of people attending high school reunions – actually lessening the number.  One reason that some people are giving is that they no longer feel the need for a reunion in order to catch up on things because they have already seen it all on Facebook!  The more primary reason though (and this is more on the side of negative effects of social media, I think) is that via Facebook people have come to realize how much they actually disagree with old classmates on certain things and how they can’t seem to get beyond that.

Here is a danger of social media.  Because I am looking at a screen while on social media and not actually sitting across a table from a live person having a discussion, I can – all the more easily – fall into the temptation of reducing a person made in God’s image to just one issue.  Full relationship and interaction is lost in favor of a focus on whatever that one particular issue might be.  Social media is a paradox – it connects yet it also separates and isolates.  In the focus on that one issue presented on a flat, one-dimensional screen I forget the full humanity of the person on the other side – a human person who can never be reduced to a one dimensional, cut-out reality – a person who might be a parent or a spouse, someone who has had his or her own experiences in life, someone who might be selflessly serving his or her community in some particular way, maybe even a person who is just having a bad day.  These are but a few examples.  A human person can never be reduced to a one-dimensional reality yet this illusion can be given through social media. 

The Transfiguration is neither flat nor one dimensional.  Jesus invites Peter, James and John up the mountain and even within his encounter and relationship with the Father.  Time itself seems to bend as Jesus is seen conversing with Moses and Elijah.  Peter – as any of us would – wants so desperately to remain in this moment and space!  Yes, because the glory of the Son is revealed and the voice of the Father is heard but also because the depth of true relationship is experienced in the Transfiguration!  Jesus is fully human just as he is fully divine and now, through Christ, we are adopted sons and daughters of God.  The relationship revealed in the moment of Transfiguration is also a relationship we are meant for in Christ.  We are meant for full relationship with God and one another and are not meant to be reduced and constricted to a one dimensional reality.

In the vision of Daniel, the “one like a son of man” only receives dominion in and through his relationship with the “Ancient One” sitting on the throne.  He also receives it within a gathering of “the court”, within a community.  Peter, in his letter, remarks how “we” do not follow concocted myths because “we” have been eyewitnesses of the majesty of Christ and “we” possess the prophetic message that is true.  None of this is one-dimensional.  All of this is within true relationship and true community! 

So much in our world wants us to separate, to isolate and to reduce one another to one dimensional realities.  To this the voice of the Father says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”  Listen to the voice of Christ – a voice that always sought out, a voice that never reduced the other person.  Peter, who entered that moment of Transfiguration, writes, “Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable.  You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”  Even as we live in a world that reduces, we hold on in hope for that day when we live in full relationship with God and one another and we set our lives by that hope.

“Pastor”

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Artist Unknown.  Snapped a picture of this print when I was staying as a guest at St. William Catholic Church in Gardiner, Montana. 

 

Of all the titles that can be weighed upon a priest or bishop, I think “pastor” is the one closest to the heart of our Lord. And the one to which every priest and bishop must give the fullest account of when he stands before the Good Shepherd.

Church Clutter

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safe_imageIt is interesting how some things stay with us and even become operating principles in our lives.

During my junior and senior years in high school and into college I worked in the maintenance department of Appco (Appalachian Oil Company) which owned a number of convenience stores scattered throughout the Tri-Cities and beyond. What I and my fellow workers heard over and over again from our supervisor was that every store had to be clean and well maintained both within and without.  In that job I spent countless hours at these stores pulling weeds, planting shrubs, mowing lawns, painting doors and helping with some mechanical and plumbing repairs.  I must say that the Appco stores were always well maintained and clean and to this day I cringe whenever I walk into a dirty convenience store and, if it is too dirty and unkempt, I will not return.

Likewise, part of me grieves within whenever I encounter an unkempt and cluttered church both within and without. Old bulletins and papers stacked on the table beside the presider’s chair along with a plethora of missals drives me nuts as do parish hallways strung with outdated posters and fliers.  Scattered and poorly maintained landscaping does little to bring a sense of beauty and prayer to a house of worship I believe.

De-cluttering does not have to cost a lot nor take a lot of time. “Start small and do what you can when you can,” is a good motto I believe.  Our diocese is in the midst of building a new cathedral and it is neat seeing the artwork that is currently going within that sacred space but it is not just cathedrals that should witness to the beauty of God and our faith.  Every church, chapel and mission is “God’s house” and can have a simple and noble beauty that helps to set the soul at rest.

Here are a few thoughts to reflect upon. Most regard the outside landscape of a church (maybe because that was the area I worked in mostly at Appco.  I still cannot walk past a weed without feeling the need to pull it up!) but the principle of de-cluttering certainly applies within churches and chapels also.

Know the geography and terrain. The parish I am currently at has a very thin top layer of soil.  As soon as it does not rain for a day or two in summer, plants and grass begin to dry up and turn brown.  We recently received a bequest which allowed us to redo the landscaping in the parking lot and in front of the church and parish office.  It would have been foolish (and poor stewardship I believe) to put in plants that would require heavy amounts of water and care.  Rather, we made use of river rock and specifically chose plants that were hardy, drought resistant and low maintenance.  The end result looks quite good and fits the terrain.

What is manageable to your community? What does the Gospel ask of us?  I am all for parish landscape crews if it fits your community but it does not fit every community and it also seems that life is getting busier and busier for most people and families.  Parishioners should take pride in their church but at the end of the day what is more important – that the lawn was perfectly mowed every Sunday or that parishioners and their families grow in their discipleship and strive to live that discipleship out in the world?  I do not pretend to know the answer but it is a balance worth reflecting upon.

IMG_5745What is best for the environment? This is a question I find myself continually returning to after reading Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si” as well as my own growing interest in protecting and safe-guarding creation.  Do the plants and shrubs we favor around churches help benefit the environment or do they just look nice from our human perspective?  Can our parish grounds themselves become places that benefit and support creation?  A couple of years ago now I planted two butterfly bushes in front of our Parish Life Center because they fit and enhance the space, they are low maintenance and hardy and, in regards to this question, they are a benefit to bees and butterflies.  A simple choice in a planting can have ripples of effect.

Time can become cluttered also. Last fall, our parish went through the process of changing our Mass schedule – no small feat.  In the old schedule there was only thirty minutes between each of our four Sunday Masses.  There were a variety of factors necessitating the change but one that I saw as pastor was the limiting effect of such a small window of time between Masses.  People came in for their Mass and then they hurried out in order to let the next group in.  The opportunity for community and fellowship was stunted.  Now that we have more time between Masses (as well as making space by clearing out clutter from our vestibule) people are actually spending more time talking and enjoying each other’s company after Mass.  Sometimes schedules in the life of a church community can get cluttered also.  It is worthwhile to step back and evaluate our schedules every now and then.

A church, chapel or mission should strive as much as it can to be an oasis for the soul in a busy and distracted world. Often times in the church world we focus on the “big architecture and art work” to facilitate this and we overlook the more simple, daily and nuanced realities.  Clutter “clutters” and it distracts.  Seeking to move aside the clutter that can accumulate both within and without the church should be seen as an act of hospitality.  It is the discipline of keeping God’s house open and clean as a place of welcome, a home where the soul can find rest and respite.

Creation and our concern for it

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On Sunday, July 9th I drove to the roadside picnic area in Ice Box Canyon in the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park. It was the last day of an eight day visit to Yellowstone that consisted of wildlife watching and numerous day hikes. I wanted to make one more drive through Lamar Valley and I wanted to go to this picnic area specifically because it was there in January on the last day of a three day visit that I had spotted the four members of Lamar River wolf pack in the snow. This first visit had whetted my appetite to return to Yellowstone.

During my most recent visit, I had the opportunity to view wolves on three separate occasions. One evening I watched in Hayden Valley as a mother wolf led her five pups (four gray and one black) out from their den in the tree line to explore for a few minutes much to the delight of the crowd of people gathered on Grizzly Overlook with their binoculars and scopes. Another time was at the same location just as the sun was going down when a gray yearling wolf came out of the same spot in the tree line to explore a bit before disappearing into the tall sage and darkness. The highlight of my visit was being able to follow the Junction Butte pack for four hours as they made their way along Lamar Valley.

IMG_5640Wolves (for which I have always had an interest in since I was a child) were my main interest in visiting Yellowstone but during these days I was also thrilled to view numerous black bears (a few with cubs), bison, elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, an osprey nest inhabited by mother, father and two chicks, foxes, coyotes, badgers, a bald eagle flying and numerous smaller animals and birds.

All in all, I went on seven day hikes throughout the northern region of the park. These hikes allowed me grand vistas to stare out at as well as meadows of flowers to walk through. I sat before a towering waterfall as well as by a small quiet stream.

IMG_5641[3392]For a week, I was “unplugged” – to some degree. Other than sharing some pictures on Facebook and Instagram and talking with the people I met or was around during the day I had no idea what was going on in the world. I would rise early to get into the park before the heat of the day became too oppressive, return to Gardner for lunch and a short siesta and then return into the park not to leave until late in the evening.

I am not “Mr. Outdoors” – I don’t feel the need to hike cross country or scale cliffs with my bare hands. If I were ever on a survivor show I am sure that I would be among the first eliminated. I don’t own a tent and I don’t seek out camping because (some truth in jest) I like air-conditioning. But I am more me when I allow some room for nature.

Pope Francis is correct in “Laudato Si” as has been Pope Benedict XVI in his writings and St. John Paul II. We find and know ourselves within the context of creation and when we lose creation we lose ourselves. On my day hikes I found myself naturally drawn to sing hymns as I walked along – partly because I was walking through bear country and needed to make noise – but mostly because my heart wanted to. I wanted to (had to – really) give praise to the Creator for all that I was seeing and for being reminded of my place within it.

IMG_5276Although I have an interest in wolves and have now spotted three packs during my two visits to Yellowstone I do not think I have some “mystical” connection with them because the wolves are unconcerned about me and that is the way it should be. The wolves are just out there being wolves and if something were to happen and all of sudden humanity disappeared from the face of the earth the wolves, bears, bison, elk and all animals would just continue continuing on. But the wolves and other animals are of concern to me and that is what makes me human.

This concern, I believe, is part of our “Imago Dei” – our being made in the Image of God. Scriptures tells us that God looked upon his creation and said it was good. Jesus tells us that not one single bird falls to the ground without the Father being aware of it. Creation is of concern to God and for us to share in this concern is to live within a reflection of the Image of God in which we are all made and, conversely, to believe there is no connection, to live withdrawn and cut off from creation nor concerned when creation is wounded is to be reduced, to lose part of who we are and to forget in whose image we are ultimately made.

Even though I went to Ice Box Canyon and I drove through Lamar Valley I did not see any wolves on my last day in Yellowstone. I will be honest and say there was some disappointment in this but then the better angel in my nature said it was okay. The wolves are not beholding to me nor anyone else. It is enough to know that they are out there being wolves and that there is a place where these animals can just be and by that give glory to their Creator. And it is good that I have concern because that also gives glory to the Creator … and makes me more human.

(Pictures from top are view of Ice Box Canyon roadside picnic area in summer, two photos of wolves of the Lamar River pack at picnic area in winter and wolves of the Junction Butte pack in Lamar Valley.)