Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Old Rugged Cross

When I was a boy my favorite hymn was "The Old Rugged Cross." I don't know why, really. It was written by a Methodist evangelist back in 1912 and it was a standard part of our Sunday hymn-singing repertoire. Singing was a big part of my faith growing up. My mother was in the choir, and the heritage of her side of the family was one of simple folk - mountain folk - who sang often. Sang all the time, really. There wasn't an aspect of living that they didn't sing about. History was sung and romance was sung and work, humor and suffering was sung. But most of all, they sung about their faith. Gospel singing, raising our voices up to the Lord, was probably the type of singing we did most.

We probably sang "The Old Rugged Cross" multiple times during Lent, and I'm sure other times of the year as well. The lyrics were simple… "On a hill far away, stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame. And I love that old Cross where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain." There was something about the simplicity of it, the slow almost dirge-like character that really appealed to me. And it brought a tear to my eye just about every time I sang it.

From a young age it was also important to me to wear not just a cross, but a crucifix. There are times when I think I was preparing to become a Catholic my entire life. We never had crucifixes in our church or home or anywhere - that was a Catholic thing. In the Protestant church simple, plain representations were the norm. But I gave a lot of thought to it, and it was important to me not to just see the cross as symbol of our faith, but to be reminded of the sacrificial nature of it. Of Christ, and of His suffering and the gift he gave of life for us.

The importance of the cross in our lives as Christians, as a symbol of what it means to be a Christian would be truly difficult to measure. The cross was not embraced immediately as a symbol of Christ's redemptive suffering. And for good reason. It was a symbol of fear and pain for those punished justly or unjustly. It was a threat, the ultimate form of embarrassment and shame. And I'm sure for many of the first Christians, it brought memories not of Christ's triumph but of the sadness of His death.

St. Paul began to change the way we thought about the cross. He wrote of it often in his letters. He spoke that the cross would be made void if he dishonored Christ's teachings. In times of his own suffering and persecution he wrote of how he was nailed to the cross with Christ. He wrote about how those that persecuted Christians were not just enemies of Christ, but enemies of the cross. And he wrote that the only glory one should seek as a Christian was in the cross of Christ. There are many other examples. But Paul changed to way people thought about the cross. It changed from what the song called "an emblem of suffering and shame" to something completely different. It became an emblem of triumph. An emblem of the protective force of God. An emblem not just of sacrifice, but of God's absolute love for each of us.

Some years ago I brought the youth group I work with into the church one evening to talk about the cross. And one of the things we did was count the number of depictions of the cross in the building. I don't remember how many we found, but I know there were dozens. In this one, small building, dozens of depictions of the cross. In the Stations of the Cross. Above the Stations. On the chair backs. Topping the gates in the back.  On the tabernacle. On the old marble altar rail. A rosary cross on the statue of St. Anthony.  Another on the relief of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Again and again. If that doesn't speak clearly to the importance of the cross as symbol for us I don't know what does.

I have also been fascinated by the way the cross became a symbol of comfort. A symbol of safety. I think of all the people I've visited who were sick or suffering or dying and how many of them had a cross close by, or clung to rosary beads to the end, because of the great comfort they bring. I've become aware at times when I'm in prayer about some difficulty in life I have unconsciously reached up and taken my own crucifix between my fingers and gently stroke it. It is a calming influence, a comfort. I've worn out quite a few crucifixes that way. When I had a health scare a few months ago my crucifix was lost somewhere in transit between clinic to ambulance to hospital. Ultimately, that was the most distressing aspect of my experience.

I do believe in the power of the cross. History and my own experience has shown me that as symbol and as object the cross can change the world. It has been carried before us in physical battle and spiritual battle. It is symbolic of our efforts to ward off evil and bring hope. My prayer is that it always symbolize the outstretched arms of Christ - not in fear or surrender, but in welcoming. Outstretched not just in sacrifice, but in love.

Cling to the cross. Once, a symbol of fear and suffering and shame. For us today, it is a symbol of sacrifice and love. It symbolizes everything we are to be about as Christians. A people of that sacrifice, willing to take on burdens and give freely of ourselves in the service of others. And it's a symbol of love. The great love God has for us as His children, and the love of God we are all to share with one another. We are people of sacrifice. We are people of love. We should always carry the cross before us - either figuratively or literally - and exalt the great meaning it has for us as children of God.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Oh, Baltimore - Bruised, not Broken

When I was in college Randy Newman - one of my favorite singer/songwriters - released an album that brought him great commercial success.  More for it’s controversial subject matter than artistic excellence (it’s not remotely among my personal favorites of Newman’s work) the album “Little Criminals” lit up the single and album charts on the strength of its hit “Short People.”  Newman’s wicked social commentary on intolerance was misunderstood by many and the song written off as prejudice.  In his best work (notwithstanding his amazing body of soundtrack work that has netted him 20 Academy Award nominations) Newman grabs us by the scruff of the neck, shakes us to our senses and demands we look at the world and it’s many ills and our own reactions, and inaction.

While most of the nation raged over “Short People” a different wave of unrest arose in my beloved Baltimore.  Another song on the album, titled “Baltimore” related a depressing view of the city, with its beat-up seagulls, hookers, drunks and other allusions to a dying city that certainly no other city in America had experienced prior. It’s closing lyrics told the whole story...

          Live out in the country
  Where the mountain's high
  Never comin' back here
  ‘Til the day I die

Baltimore flipped out.  Politicians vilified Newman and the seemingly narrow-minded slant of the song.  People wrote letters.  Long-time city comptroller Hyman Pressman - as great a cheerleader for Baltimore City as there ever was - wrote a poem in response.  According to the book “Randy Newman's American Dreams” by Kevin Courrier, Newman himself admitted his entire experience of Baltimore to that point had been a single train ride through town.  Newman came to Baltimore to perform in concert and the city bent over backwards to show Newman the error of his ways.  The “controversy” displayed Baltimore at both its best and its worst.

A long time has passed since that wailing and gnashing of teeth in 1977.  We were slapped in the face by our football team sneaking away in the night, crime and poverty grew, and affluent exodus to the suburbs created an urban apartheid that the city still struggles with today.  In recent years the impression many outside the city have of Baltimore are the television programs “Homicide: Life on the the Street” and “The Wire.”  Without a doubt some of the best television created in the last few decades, but not the kind of work that makes people stand up and shout “Damn! I want to move to that town!”

This brings us to last week.  A blogger on medium.com posted an article which quickly gathered steam through Internet sharing.  Titled “Baltimore City, You’re Breaking My Heart,” it presented an angry, nihilist picture of the city as a “complete shit-hole war zone depending on what street you turn down.”   While the author made some valid points about crime in the city it seemed to me the majority of the “good” they saw was focused on particular bars and parks.  In a word, limited.  The photograph that heads the article of a dilapidated, run-down, boarded-up neighborhood in a deep blue hue completes the picture.

Well, that “neighborhood” doesn’t exist any more.  It’s an area of North Duncan Street that was uninhabited at the time of the photograph in preparation for a major renovation in that East Baltimore community.  And yes, I’m well aware of the challenges created by development that often pushes people out of their homes, raises property taxes to the point where those with limited means can’t maintain their residences, and gentrification of neighborhoods permanently changes the character of a town that many refer to as “Smalltimore” because of the wonderful vibe of tight-knit communities drawn together by ethnicity, religion, national origin or just plain love.

These are not challenges unique to Baltimore.  These are not challenges which are jump-starting a massive new exodus out of the city.  Yes, there is much work to be done.  Yes, crime and education and racism and poverty are huge problems we must continue to engage with and work towards meaningful solutions.

I will always be the “glass half-full” guy.  I prefer to look for signs of hope rather than harbingers of disaster.  I prefer to believe in the better angels of our nature rather than demons that drag us into darkness.  And I will always believe when we look at the world and act out of love rather than fear or anger good will triumph.  Maybe, as John Lennon wrote “I’m a dreamer” but I know through my encounters with people at all walks of life in the City of Baltimore I’m not the only one.

Damn, I love this town.  I can’t imagine living anywhere else...

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Once More Unto the Breach

It has been a very long time since I've publicly blogged. And I guess with the passage of time the desire (need?) has grown. Sometimes I wonder what the point is... Is it ego? Is it rambling? Is it genuine desire to share a perspective and invite dialogue? A desire to lay down publicly the goings-on of my existence? A diary/journal/spiritual expression? A desire to recover something that isn't limited to a 140 character Twitter soundbite? Perhaps all this and more. So, here I am back...

Since I last wrote here over three years ago much has changed in my daily goings-on. At our parish we closed our school. We lost a pastor. We gained a pastor. We gained a sister parish. We lost a pastor. We gained a pastor. Significant upheaval in the parish life of two communities in a short period of time.

Perhaps the upheaval nudged me to look more intentionally at my own life. I have rekindled and reassessed some relationships, finding healing and hope in unexpected places, love and care in people I've opened myself to. I have adjusted my approach to other relationships, taking to heart the old adage "You can't change other people - you can only change yourself." My grandmother passed away last year - it's been an odd adjustment realizing someone that was a part of my life for nearly 55 years is gone. A piece of that adjustment has been gratitude for the blessing of that presence for so very long, coupled with the understanding she really isn't gone at all. And I lost a dear friend that informed so much of my thinking on what it means to be a person of justice and peace in our world. It has indeed been a time of significant change and transition. The kind of change that I think would send many screaming "STOP - I've had enough!" And the changes continue...

Sounds dire, eh? Not so much. Change is a funny thing. We can run screaming from it. We can cross our arms across our chests and defiantly resist it. We can endure it. Or we can embrace it. And grow. And quite honestly as much as I would like to believe (and have others believe) I'm all about embracing it and growing, like the stages of grief I have moved through the stages of change forward and back and around and back again. In and out of the tunnel, through darkness and light. Seasons change. Reality changes. It's not easy. It's not always pleasant. And there are many temptations that come along that look as though they are an easy way out. A way to recover a level of comfort. A way to return to something - an idea, a culture, a reality - that just doesn't exist any longer. But the growth... well, the potential there is immeasurable.

I've worked very hard to embrace the changes. It has led me at times to question myself. Who am I really? Others questioned as well. Much more concerned than in a complimentary way. "You're different." "What happened to you?" And it has pushed me to consider who or what is my "authentic self"... who do I allow into my comfort zone? How many layers am I willing to peel back?

Change has forced me to grow in ways I never imagined, forced me to think outside the box, encouraged me to be an agent of possibility rather than an agent of resistance. This is a good thing. When we embrace the challenges, the hurts, the various negative impulses that impact our lives we can create context for light in our darkness. As Henri Nouwen wrote, "When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope."

Signs of hope. In recent months I have made it my goal to not just seek out signs of hope, but recognize them. In people. In events. In the world. Seek out and spend time with those that inspire and energize me. And accept those that struggle - as we all do - and seek to understand the "Whys" of behavior rather than focus on the results of actions.

So here we go, once more unto the breach, dear friends...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

BASE Camp 2010 Day Six - Family

"There is a terrible hunger for love. We all experience that in our lives--the pain, the loneliness. We must have the courage to recognize it. The poor you may have right in your own family. Find them. Love them." ~ Mother Teresa

Our fifth and final on-site work day began as all did this week... hot, muggy and a little bit slow. But the group soon got revving and the work quickly completed. Our friend Steve started our day with a rousing prayer and the Stockton Street park - which we have worked on every year of BASE Camp - was soon buzzing with activity.

Our last-second addition to our participants, Hser-Wah (pronounced CHAIR-wuh) soon led the charge on the dredging of the pond. Throughout the week Hser-Wah gained the reputation as our "BASE Camp ninja"... busily flying in every and any direction, vaulting vans and chasing down squirrels. Despite a limited grasp of the English language he was immediately embraced by the other participants as a member of the family, and a promise to return and join us next year was extracted. We were also joined on the last day by Grady Hipley, who after years of regaling us at BASE Camp with stories of Samurai and sword techniques finally got his chance to show his stuff by wielding a machete to hack through some serious growth that had blocked a pathway around the park.

Katie Parry - who stepped in to help with prayer and meal planning as well as on-site organization - took groups to the Arab stable for a visit. Other groups made the pilgrimage to the Hollins Market, sampling large quantities of Chuckie's Chicken as well as smoothies, snowballs and fried clams. Visits were made to our friend Robert's shop of museum-quality African art and ethnic trinkets, always an interesting experience. Throughout the week - wherever our participants traveled to - they joyfully greeted the residents of Southwest and engaged them in conversation. They took to heart Sr. Kitty's desire that the BASE Camp experience not just be about the work, that it is also about RELATIONSHIPS.

Our annual cookout at Stockton Street featured the usual jungle juice and blackened hot dogs, as well as visits from some of the more "colorful" local characters. But this, too is also part of the BASE Camp experience. It's what the memories are made of, and what keep us coming back.

Throwing 30-odd teens and young adults together for a week is not without it's challenges. After all, we are human. But we are also family. And even though there were the usual dramas, minidramas, microdramas and melodramas, this year was one of the smoothest BASE Camp experiences we have yet had. Like a family, our love and respect for one another always trumped any perceived failings. And those family bonds make us stronger.

After our return to St. Will's Fr. Marty celebrated Mass for us - his last liturgy specifically for youth at St. Will's before he moves on to his new parish. It was bittersweet, and following Mass we treated Fr. Marty to a SWYM tradition - a laying on of hands and praying over a family member that is moving on to new adventures and new challenges. Many tears flowed as the youth spoke of all Fr. Marty and his support has meant to us at St. Will's and to our youth ministry program.

Our day ended with a cookout and ultimate frisbee and music and games and fun and prayer and conversations that carried through the night into the early morning hours. All things that reminded us of the importance of what we are to one another - family... family in unity, family in Christ, family in love.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

BASE Camp 2010 Day Five - Humble Work

"Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do humble work." ~ Mother Teresa

Thankfully due to the great volume of work performed over the previous three days we had a light workload on Thursday. Thankfully, because as temperatures climbed near 100 it was clear working in that heat at the height of the afternoon would have been miserable. So, following lunch we headed back to our home base.

The morning was not without it's share of work, however. We had a crew finish the clearing and trimming of the lot on Pratt Street, even moving more debris out of the way creating more cleared green space. Part of the crew roamed the neighborhood collecting copious amounts of trash, and then we finished our work on that part of Pratt Street by weeding the property where two of the nuns connected to Hezekiah Movement live. While working the lot we had a visit from Taz, who spoke with our young people during last year's BASE Camp about the difference Hezekiah had made in his life. He was taking a group of people to Bible study, but took the time to stop and say "hello" and tell us again how much everyone in Southwest appreciates our work.

Last night one of our BASE Camp alumni - Kate Cohagan - brought us a large donation of bread items from Atwater's in Catonsville. We delivered the bread to the community service center, where Dienna was thrilled to receive ANY donation, and ecstatic when she found it was about four dozen loaves. Dienna - who has known Sr. Kitty for 27 years since she was a 13 year old religious education student - explained that with the impending brutally hot weather many of the community's poor elderly would not venture out to try and get food. She was hopeful that she'd be able to distribute the bread along with peanut butter and canned fruit to tide those folks over.

Our crew finished the morning at St. Peter's, helping with a variety of tasks including staking up some "discovered" tomato plants and planting new flowers in some of the flower boxes. During lunch we were joined by Michael, another Hezekiah Movement success story. Michael talked of his own struggles with addiction and how Hezekiah had changed his life. He told the young people they should always remember that "God shows us a lot of love, even when we aren't deserving." Michael said he was hopeful he'd be able to give back to the community by woking at St. Peter's Center.

After lunch we headed back to St. Will's, where a large group of our young people assisted Fr. Marty in moving his office to his new parish. He greatly appreciated the help of the youth and their willingness to jump right into the task regardless of the weather. And, he treated them to a tour of his new parish.

Tomorrow will be our last day in Southwest with BASE Camp, and while there's a great sense of accomplishment there is also a sense of sadness. Our group grows very close during these experiences and creates bonds and memories that will last a lifetime. More and more we have been affirmed in our "humble work" by the community. As I returned the keys to the garage where we have been storing our tools this week to Brother Joe he said how sorry he would be to see us move on, but also how transforming our presence this week has been. I can guarantee that this has been a transforming experience not just for the Southwest community, but for our BASE Camp 2010 participants as well.

BASE Camp 2010 Day Four - Witness

"Love has a hem to her garment that reaches the very dust. It sweeps the stains from the streets and lanes, and because it can, it must." ~ Mother Teresa

Our third day of site work was brutally hot. Again and again people say to me "You certainly seem to pick the hottest week" for BASE Camp. Trust me, I had nothing to do with the picking. And it does seem that over the last few years our mid-June forays into Southwest Baltimore have been ridiculously hot. But as much as our participants acknowledge the heat I haven't really heard complaints about the heat. It is almost a source of pride that despite the less-than-ideal weather conditions our group presses on, and not only completes our assigned tasks but move beyond them.

Most of our group started the day attacking the Pratt Street lot which was a major undertaking in 2009. And although it wasn't easy work by any means this year, we were clearly able to accomplish more in a shorter amount of time thanks not only to last year's work during BASE Camp, but also due to the efforts of a group of our young people that returned to the site (on their own initiative) later in 2009 to work on the lot a second time. Our crew dug in and dove in, clearing the lot of trash and debris and mowing the grass.

But that wasn't all we did. One group worked with a volunteer from Southwest Visions and moved up and down local streets clearing weeds and removing trash. Other groups continued our work this week with the "Clean and Green" program that operates out of the Bon Secours of Maryland Foundation facility. "Clean and Green" is dedicated to improving the quality of life in Southwest Baltimore by turning acres of vacant lots in the area into attractive green spaces. We've worked with this organization for a number of years through Southwest Visions, most significantly with the creation and maintenance of a community vegetable garden on the corner of Fulton Avenue and Lexington Street.

We took a group of young people to Traci Atkins Park on Stricker Street to clear trash. The park was created in memory of a young girl who died after being struck by a car. She had been playing in the street because in her neighborhood there was nowhere safer to play. This was our second trip to the park and within a very short while we had it cleaned up and looking presentable and attractive.

Another group assisted at one of our favorite sites, St. Peter's Adult Learning Center which serves developmentally disabled adults in Baltimore City. Our group there helps with anything that can possibly be done... moving furniture, washing vehicles, weeding a lovely prayer garden we've been instrumental in maintaining throughout our years of BASE Camp. And of course, interacting with the center's clients, always some of the most joyful people we encounter in Southwest.

We also squeezed in a walking tour for our BASE Camp "newbies" to the Arab stable on Carlton Street. A true and unfortunately diminishing piece of Baltimore history, our young people have always enjoyed hearing about the long history (this particular stable - one of only two remaining in Baltimore - has been in operation for 110 years) and of course having the opportunity to visit with and feed the stable's "residents." Our young friend Donte always seems happy to see our group come and visit each year, and you can see the great pride he has in the work they do there.

Our evening was filled with much laughter and joy and more than a few tears. A constant stream of BASE Camp alumni kept things lively at our home base, and our young adults had the opportunity to sit down with Fr. Marty and speak with him about all he has meant to our parish community and youth ministry program at St. William of York. Fr. Marty will be moving on next week to a new parish assignment, but his legacy of support for youth at St. Will's will carry on, and carry on due to the efforts and involvement of the many youth and young adults whose hearts he has touched during his 14 years at the parish.

Our packed day finally ended with stories and thoughts and prayers of witness... of Kevin, who worked with the Clean and Green crew and all he shared about his life struggles with drug abuse and how his faith has saved and sustained him. Of Donte at the Arab stable, the latest of generations of people who have worked served the residents of Southwest Baltimore. Of Chip Woods at St. Peter's and his constant energy and joy in what he does to make the community a better place to live and work for all it's residents. And of course, of Fr. Marty and all he has meant for our family.

The list goes on and on. And as we manifest that "garment of love" in what we do for Southwest Baltimore our young people can be secure in the knowledge that they also are joining that great cloud of witnesses to the faith. Witnesses to what it means to be a person of Christ in our world today. Witnesses that live the "E" of Evangelization (in BASE Camp) in everything we do.