What and Who will we follow? A personal reflection.

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Death comes in threes.  I am not sure why but I have experienced it often in my ministry.  Things are relatively quiet in the parish and then three deaths of people seemingly disconnected from one another occur.  It happens in threes.  Maybe the angel of death is a value shopper…

Loss can also come in threes it seems. 

My father came from an affluent family.  His father was a successful businessman who started and maintained a number of businesses with the most successful being Cummins Oil Company – which my uncle would eventually grow to Appalachian Oil Company (Appco).  My grandfather made sure that my brothers and I inherited our share in the original Cummins Oil Company which was a good thing because this is what maintained my family through my father’s disability brought about by being legally blind compounded by his alcoholism which would eventually kill him.  But things of this world do not last … even shares in an oil company.  My uncle wanted to retire and sell out and, on paper, the company wanting to purchase vetted well and looked good but corporate capitalism can be cruel.  Rather than maintaining what was bought as promised, the purchasers gutted the company and declared bankruptcy.  Promissory notes carry little to no weight in a bankruptcy court and therefore, I had my inheritance stolen from me in a corporate robbery. 

My mother did not come from an affluent family.  Her father worked in a paper mill and he died while she was a young woman.  Through the struggles of her own life and the struggle of her marriage to an alcoholic husband, my mother took comfort knowing that my brothers and I had the security of the shares in Cummins Oil.  I am grateful for that also as it allowed me to financially take care of my mother in her last years.  I am also grateful that she never knew what happened because while the drama of the company was unfolding in court, my mother was actively dying.  I never told her about the bankruptcy and the day before she died, I told her that my brothers and I would be fine and that she could let go.  This brought her comfort.  She died the next night.  The nurse woke me up to tell me that my mother had died while I was asleep in the chair by her bed.  Just like my mom – never wanting to be a disturbance. 

The morning of my mother’s funeral, I left the Catholic Center at ETSU to walk my two dogs around the neighborhood.  This is the time, I believe, that someone slipped into the Center (easy to do as there was a front door code known by many) and stole my wallet.  I did not realize the theft until later that evening.  I have my suspicions about who it was but only God truly knows and God will judge … but talk about salt on a wound. 

Three major losses all together and now, a number of years after it all, I realize how much of a gut punch it all really was.  I miss my mom, sometimes terribly.  I miss how I was able to help before.  I supported the assignments I was in – parishes and ministries.  I helped a few people attend college.  I cannot do as much now financially like I used to but I do what I can. 

Yet, truth is, I am fine like I told my mom and life does continue on.   

This coming Sunday is the Feast of the Epiphany and in Matthew’s account of the visit of the three magi (Mt. 2:1-12) we learn that they lost sight of the star as they neared Jerusalem and it was only when they had departed the city and they neared Bethlehem and the Christ child that the star appeared again.  They were, “overjoyed at seeing the star”.  The machinations of this world – symbolized in the brutal power and manipulation of Herod and his court – can often seem to obscure the light of God’s promise as shown in the star.  It is in these moments that we have a choice to make.  Who and what will we follow?  Do we follow the pain that this world can give?  Do we let that settle in our hearts?  Because if we do then we are following it.  Do we follow our fears, our uncertainties or our own grasps for power and control?  Or do we follow our faith, our trust in God and his promises? 

I do not have a magic bullet to offer here.  What I can offer is my own dogged persistence in believing.  The hours of Holy Hours spent before the Blessed Sacrament when it seemed like nothing was going on and there was no felt presence of God.  The call to serve and minister, to read – yet again – a familiar Scripture passage.  To humbly ask forgiveness when I know I have sinned.  This is what I have done these years and through it I have begun to learn that yes, the cruel machinations of the world might indeed seem to obscure the star of God’s promise, but they can never overcome nor extinguish it.  There is a hard-won joy found in this that is perhaps similar to that deeper joy the Magi felt upon once again seeing the star after they had cleared Jerusalem and the royal court.    

Life will gut punch us at times.  It is in those moments that we need to choose what and who we will follow.       

The Active Waiting of Advent

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Near the end of his little book, “Obedience” Cardinal Cantalamessa reflects on an expression found throughout Scripture that is very dear to God.  “Here I am.”  These words are dear to God because they are an expression of an obedience rooted in love (imagine a parent walking into a home and calling out to his or her child, “Where are you?” and the child, playing in the back room, simply responding “Here I am”).  It is a simple automatic connection of love, relationship and obedience and it is through all of this that God is able to do great things. 

To continue Cardinal Cantalamessa’s thought – Abraham responded, “Here I am” and God made him the father of faith and brought forth from him innumerable descendants – as many as the stars in the sky.  Moses said, “Here I am” and through him God was able to set his people free and lead them to the promised land.  The young Samuel did not fully understand at first but after being instructed by the elder Eli answered, “Here I am” and God made of him a great prophet who would anoint David as king.  Isaiah said, “Here I am” and through his writings we are given the beautiful imagery of the coming Messiah as the one who would bring forth God’s reign and also be the suffering servant.  We are told that the word of God came to John the Baptist in the desert and his, “Here I am” was his willingness to go forth and proclaim the coming of God’s Kingdom even to the point of giving his life.  Mary, the mother of our Lord, said, “Here I am” when she responded to Gabriel’s message by saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word.”  Jesus’ whole life, every aspect of his being, was, “Here I am” to the Father’s will.  He took this loving response to the call of the Father to the level of the infinite and through that he won salvation for all. 

The life of every Christian should be lived as an expression of these simple words, “Here I am”. 

We talk about the season of Advent being both a time of waiting and of hope.  How are the two connected?  Here is a thought. 

The waiting of Advent is not a passive thing.  As Christians we are not just sitting, twiddling our thumbs waiting on the Master’s return.  The waiting of Advent is an active waiting. 

It is said that a large part of success in life is the willingness to just show up.  It may sound simple but it is a key ingredient in success and accomplishment.  Being willing to “show up” is saying, “Here I am” to God and to neighbor.  We show up to God when we value our relationship with Him – when we take the time to pray, when we give priority and value to worship and adoration of God.  We show up when we strive to both learn and live by God’s teachings for us through Scripture and Tradition.  We show up when we are obedient to God’s will for us.  We are that child in the back room playing and we should easily and automatically in love respond, “Here I am” when our loving Father calls out for us. 

We respond, “Here I am” to our neighbor when we also show up for them.  We show up when we strive to be fully present to the other person – spouse, child, parent, neighbor, stranger.  We show up to our neighbor when we desire and choose to live the particular vocation God has called each one of us to.  We show up when we live our commitments and responsibilities in life.  It is the mature thing to do and there is no substitute. 

This willingness to just show up, to say, “Here I am” is the active waiting of Advent and it is connected to hope. 

Hope is a theological virtue in our Christian understanding.  Part of being a theological virtue means that the source of this virtue is God.  We – on our own – cannot make hope, we cannot contrive it.  Hope is a gift from God that is only received by living in right relationship with God.  We cannot make hope but we can live our lives in such a manner as to be open to receive this most precious of gifts.  We can make the choice to live in a way that opens our hearts to this gift, that will allow this gift to take root in our lives and to bear fruit and then, our lives, can be a witness of hope in our world. 

The active waiting of Advent is living is such a manner as to receive hope.  Responding, “Here I am” is allowing hope to take root within us.  Just showing up is the willingness to live in hope. 

The waiting of Advent is active, in fact, it is probably the most active thing we could ever do.  It is the willingness to say, “Here I am”.  It is the desire to just show up. 

The Reign of God and the Trophic Cascade

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I and Bodaway

Any interest in wolves will eventually lead a person to Yellowstone National Park and the work of reintroducing wolves into the ecosystem there.  It is in this context, that one will hear the term, “trophic cascade”.  The term is used to describe an “ecological phenomenon triggered by the addition or removal of top predators which then brings about changes in the relative populations of predator and prey in an area. A trophic cascade often results in dramatic changes in an ecosystem.” (Stephen Carpenter) In the case of Yellowstone, it was the healing of the ecosystem. 

When wolves were extirpated from the park in 1926, their natural prey, the elk, increased to unmanageable numbers.  There was overgrazing by the elk and the whole ecosystem suffered.  Since being returned, the wolves have helped to reduce the number of elk to a number that the ecosystem can actually support.  The wolves changed the grazing patterns of the elk so that valleys and riverbanks (where elk are more vulnerable) are no long overgrazed.  The wolves have even strengthened the elk in that the wolves cull out the sick and weak elk, thus helping to reduce the risk of spread of disease in a herd.  All of these factors have allowed areas that were overgrazed to rebound allowing plant life to again flourish naturally which, in turn, attracts more and varied fauna back into the ecosystem. 

All of this cascade of effects from one change. 

Here is the connection to the readings.  James, in the excerpt from his letter that we just read (James 3:16-4:3), lays out the human condition under sin quite clearly.  We are a mix of pride, jealousy, selfishness and envy.  We are at war within ourselves and this violence seeps out in many ways.  Yet, even in the midst of all of this, we yearn for that “wisdom from above” which is peaceable, pure, gentle, full of mercy and good works.  We yearn for this because we know in our deepest core that we are meant for it.  We are made and meant for that authenticity of self and life. 

In the gospel (Mark 9:30-37) we see this played out in real time.  The disciples are confused about what Jesus is telling them and they have fear within them about asking.  When the group arrives at the house, we come to learn that they were arguing about who was the greatest disciple among them.  The disciples themselves have been caught up in that whole mix of pride, jealousy, selfishness and envy that James laid out in his letter!

Jesus knows full well the human condition.  He sees the sad circumstance of the mix of who we are under sin but he also knows the truth of who we are meant to be as children of God.  What does he do in the face of all of this?  He makes one change.  He brings in a child and says, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”   

In this one act, Jesus shifts the attention of the disciples away from themselves and towards another.  Now, instead of being caught up in the whole mix of pride, jealousy, selfishness and envy; focus is on the other and welcoming the other.  Pride is forgotten, jealousy gives way, selfishness and envy are put aside.  The shift in focus allows for a whole cascade of effects. 

It can all be very daunting when we are honest and recognize the truth of the mix that we are – a good chunk of it which is not so great.  Rather than demanding wholesale change which is beyond any of our abilities, the lesson given here by Jesus is to make one change.  Do one thing in our lives for the Kingdom.  Shift the focus.  Welcome one person in the name of Christ.  From the one change in our lives for the reign of God there will then come a cascade of effects. 

Do one thing. 

“…the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.”

The Christian as Tapper

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I just learned a new word.  The word is “tapper” and I heard it in an interview of an athlete at the Paralympics in Japan.  In the interview, a blind relay swimmer spoke about his tapper.  A “tapper” is the person stationed at the end of a swimming lane whose job it is to reach out with a pole and tap the blind swimmer to notify him or her when they are at the wall and need to either turn around for the next lap or end the race.  The blind swimmer cannot know exactly where the wall is, so this role is critical both for maintaining the speed and momentum necessary for the race as well as the basic safety of the swimmer.  

In a race every second counts so the tapper needs to truly know the swimmer and the swimmer’s speed and style.  The best interest of the swimmer must be foremost in the tapper’s mind and focus throughout the race.  This type of knowledge and attention takes training, dedication, practice and familiarity on the part of both the swimmer and the tapper.  The tapper’s job is to be the eyes for the swimmer and to look out for him or her.  It is a critical role. 

St. Paul used the image of the athlete running the race to speak of the life of Christian discipleship.  I think that the Apostle to the Gentiles would find the role of the tapper to be another apt metaphor for the life of the Christian disciple.  Yes, as Christians, we are called to certainly run our particular race of faith and we are called to look out for one another.  In fact, looking out for others, is an important and critical aspect of running our own individual race of faith.  The two are connected.   

The Christian must be concerned for the welfare of the other – whether that welfare be spiritual, physical, emotional or material.  We look out for the other because we realize that just as we run the race we also run the race together and we help one another along.  The Christian disciple cannot be selfish in his or her approach to the race of faith.   

Christians are to be tappers for others.  This is a critical role in the life of every follower of Christ.   

The most effective tapper knows when to “tap” the swimmer at the best possible instant to capitalize on the speed and momentum of the swimmer.  We encourage one another, we support one another, we uphold one another in order to push one another along to keep running (or swimming) the race in the best way possible.  But, we must also keep discerning and learning when is the best possible time to tap the other.  Timing is important and knowledge of timing comes only with practice, perseverance, reflection, prayer, humility, love for the other and familiarity with the other.  All of these factors go into good timing and timing is key in the race.   

The tapper also “taps” the swimmer to caution that the wall is near in order to protect the swimmer against serious injury.  We caution one another against sin and error, we challenge one another to the life of virtue, we pray God’s protection for one another and caution against despair.  Correct timing is also of upmost importance here because just as the tapper does not want the swimmer to slam into the wall, so the Christian does not want another person to enter into serious harm (spiritual, physical, emotional) but the warning must be given in sincere concern and love for the other to truly be effective.  The most effective tapper truly knows his or her swimmer and this knowledge can only come through an authentic concern and charity for the other.  Both timing and an authenticity of care are key when giving a tap of warning. 

We live in precarious and confusing times.  There are many things that seek to distract and turn the Christian away from the race of faith as well as dividing us from one another.  A temptation in the face of all of this is to just focus on one’s own race and let others worry about their races.  But this is not the call of the gospel nor the witness of Christ.  Just as we run the race we must also be concerned for one another.  We run and we swim the race together. 

As Christians, we must also be tappers.   

Nurse Rocks and the Rock of the Church

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I first became aware of “Nurse Rocks” on one of my early trips to Yellowstone National Park.  These “glacial erratics” dot the landscape of areas within the park and northward throughout Montana.  When glaciers from the mountains last marched through the area (the Wisconsian and Pinedale glaciations) they picked up and carried rocks of all sizes, some quite huge. When the climate began to warm and these glaciers melted, they dropped the rocks trapped in their ice.  These are the rocks and boulders that one sees randomly strewn across the terrain. 

The term “nurse rocks” come from an interesting ecological niche they occupy.  In a harsh and quite unforgiving landscape these boulders actually create a microclimate that is more conducive to life taking root and growing.  The boulders buffer against the wind as well as animal grazers while also providing a needed bit of shade during the hot summer months.  Radiating the warmth of the sun during the colder months, the rocks also warm the surrounding earth which both delays the freezing of the ground immediately around the rock as the cold of winter begins to set in as well as contributing to a quicker melt off of packed down snow around the rock as winter gives way to spring, thus allowing for an earlier growing season.  (It is quite common to see the first tufts of green grass of spring around these rocks.)  In this way these boulders actually help to extend the growing season in their immediate area.  In summer the rocks and the shade they cast also slow down the evaporation of the morning dew giving just a little bit more moisture for surrounding plants to draw upon.  With all of these factors adding up, it is therefore no coincidence to notice that trees in this harsh landscape of sage brush tend to take root and grow right beside a “nurse rock”.    

A spiritual thought for reflection is this – can we as Christians individually and collectively be “nurse rocks” for others?  Can we be a source of shade, protection and even nourishment so that life might take root and grow around us?  Might we, by our very presence, help create a microclimate of life and growth especially in harsh circumstances?

We are aware of our Lord in the gospel giving Simon the new name “Peter” – the rock on which he would build his church.  We traditionally think of rock as strength, foundation and cornerstone – and these are all true – but can we also add “nurse rock” to our understanding of the rock of the Church?   

Life can be harsh, very harsh and unforgiving.  Many people are hurting in a variety of ways.  Places of shade, protection, comfort and nourishment are truly needed.  The Church, at its best, provides this and even each individual Christian can help affect it.  We might look at all the problems of the world and toss up our hands in frustration and despair, “What can one person or one church community do?!”  We might not be able to change the world – and we are not necessarily called to – but we can affect our immediate surroundings for the better and that is a good thing. 

What stands out about the nurse rock is not the rock itself but rather the life around it.  Nurse rocks are not flamboyant.  They do not tend to immediately draw one’s attention.  In Yellowstone what initially grabbed my attention as I looked out upon the different open areas were the trees, it was only when someone pointed out the rock beside the tree that I began to notice a trend and learn a connection.  Then I began to notice these glacial erratics and see the life-giving effects of their microclimates.  After that, I began to see rock nurses all around the park!  There is almost a humble, hidden-in-plain-sight quality to the work of the nurse rock. 

It is the life around the nurse rock that truly witnesses and testifies to the blessing that the rock is. 

Isn’t that both a good metaphor and goal for the life of the Christian disciple? 

Paul’s “Thorn in the Flesh” and the Century Plant

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The Century Plant (Agave Americana) is a type of agave plant that is native to northern Mexico and southern Texas.  I came across it in my recent travels.  It is particularly suited for dry, higher elevations.  The plant’s name is a misnomer.  It does not live for a century.  Generally, it lives between eight and thirty years.  When it blossoms, it puts out a single stalk that can rise up to twenty feet from it’s thick, leafy base.  Little branches will grow out of the stalk and at the end of each branch a cluster of bright yellow flowers will grow upward – attractive to insects and birds.  The sight of these towering plant stalks with their yellow blossoms is quite dramatic against the dry desert landscape.  What is also dramatic is that the plant will (for the vast majority) only bloom once – at the end of its lifespan.  So, when you are looking upon this amazing spectacle of height, color and beauty you are also looking at a plant that is actively dying. 

Our Christian faith is centered around a God who died for us and in that dying revealed the depth and beauty of God’s love.  This same God – who died for us – also taught us that – as his disciples – we must pick up our own crosses and follow after him.  That to be true disciples we must also go through the journey of “dying to self”. 

Can we recognize the beauty in this?

In his second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes about the “thorn in the flesh” given to him, “an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.”  Much ink has been spilt over the centuries arguing what this “thorn” might have been.  I do not believe that Paul ever specifically says and he does not have to.  It is valid that every person has some things kept between himself/herself and God.  Despite what social media tries to impress upon us all, we do not have to be open books to the world in every aspect of our lives. 

What Paul does share is that there was a grace and wisdom which he gained from this “thorn”.  Paul writes that God responds to his entreaties with, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  So, Paul will boast in his weakness, he even goes on to share, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” 

Following upon my trip to Big Bend National Park, when I read these words by the apostle I now easily envision the century plant – a witness of life, beauty, height, strength, color even in the very midst of its dying. 

Is there a beauty to be found in dying to self?  Very much so.  It is a real beauty and an authentic beauty and so often (for those with eyes to see) it does stand out from its surroundings in dramatic contrast. 

“I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong,” writes Paul and writes every disciple (maybe not by word on paper but most importantly by the witness of their life) who undertakes the journey of dying to self.

God sees the beauty and God rejoices.

Remain with the Creed

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“Remain with the Creed,” is a good maxim that has stood the Church well as she has navigated through the centuries with all of its upheavals and turmoil.  Faced with continual challenges throughout history, the Church has faithfully looked to the Creed for guidance and direction in meeting those challenges.  Today’s world is no exception and the beginning and the ending of the Creed are worthy of note for helping us as Church in answering today’s challenges. 

Both the Nicene and the Apostles’ Creed proclaim God as Creator.  I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth… (The Apostles’ Creed).  The Nicene Creed further professes each person of the Holy Trinity’s involvement in creation.  I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.  I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ … through him all things were made … I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life…

This is a core aspect of our Christian faith – that God is the Creator of all, ex nihilo.  Creation reveals the love of God as well as revealing the omnipotence of God.  Scripture tells us that God is love (1 Jn. 4:8) and love by its very nature pours itself out and this is what God did in the act of creating and continues to do in sustaining all creation and transforming it through the resurrection of his Son – the firstborn from the dead.  Creation is therefore a revelation of both God’s love as well as God’s power.  The Judeo-Christian tradition, distinct from the pagan religions it was initially surrounded and overshadowed by, proclaims creation not to be the result of a primordial conflict between competing gods and divine forces but the deliberate choice by the one and true God – a choice which was a willed act of love.  It is love and not violence and conflict that comprises the foundation of all creation. 

Why is this important?  We live in turbulent times and, increasingly, there seems to be worldviews creeping into our social landscape that emphasize violence and conflict as core and even foundational aspects of life and society.  These worldviews maintain that violence is just the way of the world.  Only through conflict can things be changed.  Only through exclusion and suppression of the other can peace be maintained.  That something is a crime only if the perpetrator gets caught.    

We, as Christians, must be determined to say “no” to these sad trends.  Remembering and recognizing that all of creation is founded on a divine act of love grants us the fortitude that is necessary for the times in which we find ourselves and the wisdom needed to recognize the dignity in all people.   

The term “love” is manhandled quite easily in our world today and can even be used to mask manipulative actions and conflict itself but even as the word can be misused and misinterpreted that does not mean that the truth of what authentic love is comprised of is lost.  Love that wills the good of the other (credit to St. Thomas Aquinas) is what we know and have been entrusted with as Christians and it is what we bring to these turbulent times with its tendency to view everything solely through the paradigm of conflict and division.  There is a different way and we fool ourselves when we buy into the assumption that there is no other way than that of conflict and that Christian love has no true power to effect change.  We fool ourselves when we fail to acknowledge that it is love and not conflict that, in fact, undergirds all creation.  Creation’s foundation in love is a truth that our Creed boldly proclaims from the very beginning. 

The ending of the Creed also has something important to say to our society’s current context.  …I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come (Nicene Creed).   I believe in … the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting (Apostles’ Creed). 

There is a danger of over spiritualizing (to the detriment of the material) our notions of what happens after death.  The profession of our belief in the resurrection of the body is an important stop and corrective to this tendency.  After death we do not become pure spirits for all eternity in heaven – spirits who have finally shaken off their material bondage.  This is not our belief as Christians.  Our belief in what comes after death is grounded in the truth of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus, who is the firstborn from the dead.  Jesus appeared in his risen and glorified body to his disciples and he went to some pains in those resurrection appearances to show that he was neither a ghost nor a shade but rather was fully and physically present in their midst. 

Our bodies matter and our bodies are a core component (along with mind and soul) of the fullness of our person.  The thought of only being resurrected in spirit is not an exaltation in our Christian understanding but rather a diminution because, if such were the case, then we would be less than what we are now.  All of our person, all of that which authentically comprises who we are is to be brought into the Kingdom of God. 

Why is this important?  Body and gender, in Christian understanding, are not accidentals that can be changed at will but rather core constitutive components of who we are.  There is much confusion in our society regarding this and great pastoral sensitivity, courage and prudence is called for while navigating these issues when ministering to people who are themselves trying to deal with all of the conflicting views that we are awash in within our society today.   

Can traditional gender roles evolve and be changed?  Certainly.  Men can be nurturing and women can be competitive.  (Yes, two simplistic examples, I know.)  While these “changing and evolving” roles in no way deny a person’s masculinity or femininity, they also do not say that there is no value to gender at all.  A wholesale tossing out of gender and body as if they have no real, inherent value in favor of viewing them solely as societal constructs reflects an extremely shallow and sad understanding of what makes a person a person.  It also demonstrates a very limited understanding of human reality that is cut off from both the wider context of all creation and of time. 

The Creed reminds us that we are part of something much bigger than just ourselves (… all things visible and invisible …) and that we experience salvation within this overall context and not apart from it.  An attitude that too easily dismisses the reality of the corporal is not Christian in outlook and rather reflects modern humanity’s disconnect from the rest of creation.  It is also a worldview essentially locked into a narrow understanding of the present with no remembrance of the past (creation) nor a hope for the future (the promise of the fullness of God’s Kingdom).  It is a sad imprisonment within an extremely limited temporal scope of reality, yet the truth of the resurrection continually liberates us from all of the sad imprisonments encountered in the world.  I believe in … the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting (Apostles’ Creed).

What can we as Christian community do in the context in which we find ourselves?  How can we best minister and witness?  By remaining with the Creed and finding ways to keep sharing the truth of what we profess in inviting and life giving ways. 

Here are some thoughts:

  • Offer a faith study series on the Christian understanding of love drawing from the Catechism, the liturgical texts for Christian weddings and writings such as “The Four Loves” by C.S. Lewis
  • Have time within marriage preparation specifically devoted to truly discussing and reflecting on the Christian understanding of love.  We can no longer just assume that persons coming for marriage preparation already possess that understanding themselves. 
  • Offer Scripture Study sessions on the Book of Genesis reflecting on creation as a revelation of both God’s love and power
  • As a Christian community seek to always grow in a theological understanding that holds together both the transcendent and immanent dimensions of the Incarnation.  Jesus is indeed Lord and Savior and he is also brother – a man like us in all things but sin. 
  • Encourage participation in the faith that is lived in the context of real community and not primarily online. 
  • Offer study groups on Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ and Amoris Laetitia.
  • As parishes, participate in the seven-year Laudato Si’ Action Plan.
  • Offer day hikes and outdoor retreats as opportunities to get people to re-engage with creation and overcome the disconnect we’ve inherited.
  • Offer Scripture Study sessions on the resurrection appearances found in the Gospels.
  • Make use of liturgical moments to proclaim our belief in the resurrection of the body (i.e. in the funeral rite, take a moment right before the incensing of the casket to share that we use incense to mark that which is holy and that through baptism the deceased loves ones’ very body became a temple of the Holy Spirit and that we believe and we have that hope that all of who we are will be raised on the great day of resurrection).

These are some ideas and there certainly can be more.  Are these big moments?  No, but they do not have to be in order to be effective.  These moments are more about planting seeds and nurturing them to grow.  These moments are also about providing space for a different message than what we are so often bombarded with in our confusing times. 

If the message is true – and we as Christians believe it to be so – then it will speak to people’s hearts and will help awaken them to the journey of coming to fuller understanding.

“Remain with the Creed.”  It is a good maxim that has stood the Church well throughout the centuries and it is just as true for us today.  The beginning and the ending of our ancient Creed indeed have important words to speak to us now.   

The Story of Robin Redbreast

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(This story is adapted from “Robin Redbreast” by Selma Lagerlof found in the book, “Easter Stories” by Plough Publishing House.)

There is a story about how the robin redbreast bird received its distinctive red color.  The story begins on the day of creation when God created all of the birds.  After God formed the bird, he would paint it a beautiful mix of colors and give it life and the bird would fly forth from the hand of God singing!  God arrived at the last bird but all the colors God had in his paint pot were used up except for a dull gray color.  God painted the bird all in gray, told the bird that it would be called “Robin Redbreast” and it flew forth from his hand. 

At first the bird flew and sang and looked upon all the world from the sky.  The bird saw all of the other birds in their amazing colors and became curious as to what he looked like.  The bird landed by a pond and looked at himself in the reflection of the water.  He was all gray!  There was not a speck of red to be found on him! 

The little bird flew back to our Lord.  Landing in our Lord’s hand, the bird asked, “Why should I be called Redbreast, when I am all gray from my beak to the very end of my tail?”  The Lord smiled at the little bird and said, “I have called you Robin Redbreast, and Robin Redbreast shall your name be, but you must look to it that you, yourself earn your red breast feathers.”  The Lord opened his hand and the little gray bird flew forth deeply thoughtful. 

What could a little bird do to earn red feathers?  The only thing that the bird could think to do was to make his nest in a briar bush, among the thorns, hoping that a petal from the red rose would cling to his breast and give it color.  But this never happened.  Generations of birds came and went; generations build their nests among the briars but the bird remained gray.  Every generation would pass on the words of the Lord hoping that one day they would gain their red feathers. 

The little ones would ask their parents if the birds had never tried to do anything to earn the red mark.  “We have done what we could,” they would say, “but we have yet to earn the color.  The first little robin redbreast met another bird exactly like himself, he loved her with such a mighty love that he could feel his heart glow.  He thought that surely that would change his feathers red but even though the love was strong it did not bring the red color.  Another redbreast thought song would turn her chest red.  She sang the most beautiful songs but even though it filled her with great joy to sing and all the other animals would stop to listen her feathers remained gray.  Another robin thought courage and valor would earn the red color.  He was courageous in defending his nest and little ones and other birds but that did not do it either.”  The little birds would peep sadly, thinking they would never earn the red mark. 

Now, it happened once that there was a small robin redbreast nest in a briar bush on a hill outside of Jerusalem.  In the nest was three young ones and their father who was feeding them.  Suddenly, the father cried out “Be quiet!” and he covered the little ones with the span of his wings.  A great crowd of people marched past them.  There were soldiers, and priests in long robes, a howling mob of people and in the midst of them all were three men carrying crosses.

The Robin Redbreast father watched the whole horrible scene even as he shielded his little ones.  “This is horrible,” he said, “why are the humans so cruel to their own?  There is even one who has to wear a crown of thorns that is piercing his forehead!  I see blood flowing from his wounds!  And this man is so peaceful and looks on everyone with such love.  I feel like an arrow is piercing my heart when I look on him.” 

“Even if I am just a little bird, I can still do something for this poor man.”  The bird flew toward the man on the cross, he circled around him a few times and when he gained the courage he softly landed and pulled out a thorn that was imbedded in the forehead of the man.  It was a little gesture but the man looked on the bird with gratitude.  Some blood from the man’s forehead fell on the breast of the little gray bird and colored the feathers a crimson red. 

As soon as the bird returned to his nest his young ones cried out to him, “Your breast is red!  Your feathers are redder than the roses!”  “It is only a drop of blood from the poor man’s forehead,” replied the bird.  It will vanish when I bathe in the spring.  But no matter how much the little bird bathed, the red color did not vanish and when his young ones grew up the red mark showed up on their feathers also.  There it remains on all Robin Redbreast’s until this very day – red from the wounds of Christ.   

The little bird received mercy from our Lord and he also lived that mercy as he brought comfort to our Lord on the cross.  On this Divine Mercy Sunday, may we learn from this little story of the Robin Redbreast.     

“God saw”, the dignity of life and the challenge of Jonah

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In this Sunday’s first reading (Jonah 3:1-5, 10) we are told that God saw how the people of Nineveh turned from their evil ways and therefore God spared them.  In the Gospel reading (Mk. 1:14-20) we hear that Jesus saw Simon and Andrew about their ordinary and daily work of casting the nets and then later that Jesus saw James and John again about the very ordinary work of mending their nets.  The scriptures help to teach us that how God sees is different than how humans see.  God sees the human heart.  We do not. 

We know the story of Jonah.  Jonah is sent to Nineveh to call the people to repentance lest they be destroyed for their evil ways.  The people hear Jonah, they repent and they are spared.  The Book of Jonah is about the overflowing and abundant mercy of God for all peoples.  The people of Nineveh experience conversion … but there is more to the story.  The story is also about the conversion required of Jonah.  Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh.  The people of Nineveh were the sworn enemies of the people of Israel at this time.  Jonah would have been happy to see the city of Nineveh wiped off the face of the map!  Jonah’s heart was hardened towards these people, so after the conversion of the city of Nineveh, God needs to come to the sulking prophet for his own personal conversion.  God tells Jonah that all people are his children and that he has a fatherly care for all.  Who is Jonah to judge?  Who is Jonah to decide who lives and who dies?  Who are we to judge?  God alone sees the human heart and for God, all persons are his children. 

The Book of Jonah offers an important lesson for us living in these polarized times.  It is all too easy for us to judge the “other” whoever our own personal “other” may be.  It has even become quite easy to wish ill on the “other”.  But who are we?  Did we form that person or persons in the womb?  Did we call them to life?  The Book of Jonah cautions us to avoid the pitfall of allowing our hearts to become hardened and embittered against the “other”. 

In the gospel, God also sees into the human heart.  Jesus sees Simon, Andrew, James and John all about the very ordinary work of life.  They had probably cast their nets hundreds if not thousands of times before.  They had probably mended their nets just as many times.  Life can be tedious and we can fall into the rut of thinking that things can never change, that this is all there is.  But underneath the tedious ordinariness of it all; Christ saw the yearning these men had in their hearts.  A yearning placed there by God himself.  Things can be different!  We are meant for more!  The Kingdom of God is possible!  We can set our lives by the newness of life that Christ alone brings! 

How God sees is different that how we see.  God sees into the human heart.  Yet now, in Christ, God calls us to begin to see how he sees.  How can we do this?  How can we avoid the pitfall of a hardened heart against the other and the rut of thinking nothing can change? 

I want to share a prayer because I think from its language, we can learn some lessons. 

Last Friday, our nation celebrated a tragic anniversary – the Supreme Court ruling of Roe v. Wade and since that tragic ruling sixty million lives have been lost.  The Church has asked that a Mass be offered on this anniversary each year for the Dignity of Life.  Here is the opening prayer for this Mass. 

God our Creator, we give thanks to you,

who alone have the power to impart the breath of life

as you form each of us in our mother’s womb;

grant, we pray,

that we, whom you have made stewards of creation,

may remain faithful to this sacred trust

and constant in safeguarding the dignity

of every human life.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,

who lives and reigns with you

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever. 

There are beautiful lessons for the human heart to be learned from this prayer and, in learning these lessons, we can work to ensure that our hearts remain human and not hardened.    

We have a Creator – each and every person!  We are not merely the result of random chance or fate.  We are each and every one willed into existence by God. 

We give thanks.  The most authentic gift we can give back to God, really the only gift we can give back, is gratitude.  The discipline of gratitude in one’s life helps to keep the heart human and open to the possibility of new life. 

God alone has the power to impart life.  Who are we to try to claim that which belongs to God alone?  Our hearts are hardened when we try to lay claim to that which is beyond us.  Our hearts are hardened in this sinful pride. 

We are formed in our mother’s womb.  Not only is each and every person willed by God, each and every person is lovingly willed by God!  Each person is valued by God.  Each person is formed in the womb in love. 

And we are called to be constant in safeguarding the dignity of every human life.  The preeminent dignity of the child in the womb – the most innocent of life – the life of the poor, the life of the elderly, the life of the handicapped person, the life of the refugee and the immigrant, the life of the person in jail and on death row and … here is where the challenge of Jonah comes in … even the life of the person who disagrees with me.  The life of the person whom I am tempted to see as the “other” and the enemy.  Even the person who may mock me and my beliefs and who may see me as the “other” and the enemy – even that person we, as Christians, must strive to safeguard the dignity of.  This is the challenge of Jonah and God does indeed call each of us to this conversion just as God calls each of us to do the work of promoting and defending the dignity of all human life. 

God does not see as we see.  God sees into the human heart yet God calls us – now graced in Christ – to begin to see as he sees.  All persons are his children.  Every life has dignity and worth.  Avoid the pitfall of the hardened and embittered heart.  Don’t succumb to the despair that nothing new is possible, that there can be no conversion. 

In Christ, all things are possible!   

It is time to stop tearing down and time to start building.

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In the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we are told that our Lord goes to his home synagogue at Nazareth and there he reads the following passage from Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. 

Then, Jesus says, Today, this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.

It is quite easy to tear down.  Tearing down does not take much courage nor intelligence nor faith.  Within this past year we have witnessed many instances of tearing down in our nation … and add on to this all that Covid has torn down in our lives and in our society.  Yes, some things must be torn down, yet, it remains all too easy to just tear down.  It is not easy to build.  To build takes intelligence.  To build takes courage.  To build takes cooperation.  To build takes perseverance and faith in God, faith in oneself and faith in one’s neighbor. 

During his public ministry, our Lord dismantled the structures of sin in our world by building the Kingdom of God.  This is important to realize.  … bring glad tidings … proclaim liberty … let the oppressed go free … proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.  These are all actions of building.  These are actions of moving forward in trust, hope and true liberation.  Yes, our Lord certainly called sinners to repentance and he cleansed the temple but this was all within that primary mission which our Lord was about – to usher in and build the Kingdom of God. 

Today, this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing. 

In light of all that has occurred within our country this past year and what has occurred now even in the capitol of our nation; it is time to forswear the easy work of tearing down and time to begin the hard and mature work of building.  Build true civic engagement and responsibility.  Build systems of justice and mercy that strive to right injustices for all persons who are oppressed.  Build and fortify true community.  Build forums of dialogue that do not isolate people in their own opinion but rather bring people into real encounter.  Bring the glad tidings of education and the awareness of the dignity of every man, woman and child.  Proclaim a true liberty founded not on bias, fear and baseless conspiracy theories but on truth, humility and honesty.   

It is so easy to tear down.  It takes work to build. 

The Gospel of Mark ends with these words; So, then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.  And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it.  Amen.  (Mk. 16:19-20)

Strengthened by Christ and gifted with the Holy Spirit, the disciples go forth into the whole world to do the work of building the Kingdom and in this work the structures of sin are dismantled and triumphed over.  This is what we do as Church, we build. 

May God bless our nation and, in this particular moment of our history, call us all back – each and every one – to the continuing work of building a more perfect union and may God bless us as Church in the most sacred work of building his Kingdom.