Monday, December 28, 2009

Shelter from the Storm

We've passed through the darkest days of the year and now the daylight will stay with us a little longer and longer.

I am slowly moving out of listening to Christmas music - which I've been hearing hither and yon since Halloween - by transitioning with classical Christmas-themed compositions. As much as I love certain songs, I am growing weary of "traditional" Christmas music at this point (although the Sarah McLachlan CD "Wintersong" and Loreena McKennit's holiday fare are still in heavy rotation on my iPod). So I've been listening to some classical, some jazz and some New Age music that while not specifically Christmas still creates a nice mood approriate for the season. But I've also been digging through this and that from the past, and this song kind of struck me as I was listening recently - "Shelter from the Storm" ( by Bob Dylan...

Shelter from the Storm (Bob Dylan)

'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

And if I pass this way again, you can rest assured
I'll always do my best for her, on that I give my word
In a world of steel-eyed death, and men who are fighting to be warm.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

Not a word was spoke between us, there was little risk involved
Everything up to that point had been left unresolved.
Try imagining a place where it's always safe and warm.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail,
Poisoned in the bushes an' blown out on the trail,
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

Suddenly I turned around and she was standin' there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair.
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

Now there's a wall between us, somethin' there's been lost
I took too much for granted, got my signals crossed.
Just to think that it all began on a long-forgotten morn.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

Well, the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount
But nothing really matters much, it's doom alone that counts
And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

I've heard newborn babies wailin' like a mournin' dove
And old men with broken teeth stranded without love.
Do I understand your question, man, is it hopeless and forlorn?
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation an' they gave me a lethal dose.
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

Well, I'm livin' in a foreign country but I'm bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor's edge, someday I'll make it mine.
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

A friend of mine is struggling with their partner's failing health. Another friend's mother is working through health issues. Another is struggling with the changing dynamic of their family, and another is challenged by how they will relate to their family in the future. The list goes on.

We all need shelter from the storm. We all need people in our lives to help us through the darkest days and give us hope. Especially this time of year, when many focus on joy and happiness others are struggling to find light in the darkness. We all need someone to walk beside us, take us by the hand, hold us up when we falter, hug us when we feel sad and alone. Shelter us from the storm.

Monday, December 14, 2009

With Arms Wide Open

I've been feeling a little abnormally joyous the last few days. Abnormal, because the Christmas holiday is fast approaching and usually my anxiety level is through the roof and I'm never quite as far along with things as I would like to be. And this year seems especially packed with meetings and activities and events and places to go and people to see. But this year feels different. I am actually somewhat on track to be ready for the holiday. But it's not just that.

For one thing, youth group is going spectacularly well this year. I approached this year with a certain amount of trepidation. I had a very involved and dedicated group of young people graduate out of the program this past spring and I really wasn't sure what to expect of the year ahead. This was a group of young people - the core of which - that had been involved in the youth ministry program for seven years. And most of them I had been ministering to since they were tots in our Children's Liturgy of the Word program. They were not only wonderful to work with and journey with they were great peer leaders, and they served the youth group well, opening their arms in friendship and genuine care to our "newbies." The legacy they have left is quite evident in the dedication and exuberance of their younger counterparts. And I have found my own dedication to my ministry re-invigorated as a result.

There is also a person I've been acquainted with for some time, but not really KNOWN. And there were a lot of factors that contributed to a sort of barrier that existed between us. Most mine. I think distrust was a piece of it. I'm not really sure what motivated it, but it was there. Misunderstanding. Fed by the mistrust. I always assumed the worst, became defensive, guarded. And something else, kind of intangible, that was just floating out there. Maybe fear.

We took a chance. A sharing that began with an email and continued with a meal together. Barriers came down. Mistrust disappeared. Understanding came. Fear dissolved.

We metaphorically opened our arms to one another. For so long my mental (if not physical) approach to this person was to be somewhat detached, arms folded, mind closed. But we took a chance. Stepped out of comfort zones that really weren't very comfortable at all. Opened our arms. Opened our hearts. And I think we have cultivated a friendship that has been beneficial to both of us.

Wasted time is so regrettable. But even wasted time can become a part of the process, this "work in progress" that relationships - relationships that grow - become. And maybe, just maybe the bitterness of time lost is part of what can make the here and now so much sweeter when we allow ourselves to be open to possibility.

I read a meditation once by Fr. Larry Gillick of the Nouwen Society ( and he had this to say about achieving universal solidarity...

"Allowing ourselves to be loved personally lets our tightly clenched arms and hands loosen and spread, as do the branches of the Christmas tree when it is brought inside. They are readied to receive decorations and then offer their beauty to others. Solidarity with all the others of the world begins with my 'yes' and 'ours.' God is saying that God loves us with an embrace which is as big as the world. When thawed out and thought out, my 'yes' is directed to God, to my gifts, and to those 'others' whom God calls 'ours.' The journey moves from the outside in and slowly from the inside to the world-side."

Open your arms. Welcome love in.

Monday, December 7, 2009

You're Invited!

Have you ever received an invitation to a party or some sort of gathering and ignored it? Or worse yet, received an invitation that you accepted, and then as the event neared you wished you hadn't accepted the invitation? And then came up with an excuse to not go? I certainly have. And I've been on the other end as well, planning a gathering or celebration of some sort and sending out invitations that are ignored, or reaching the big night and people you wanted or hoped would be there didn't show up for one reason or another. That feeling of sadness, that feeling of rejection must be felt by God when we refuse or ignore His invitation.

Every day God invites us again. And every day we have to decide for ourselves whether or not we're going to accept that invitation. And many days we surely start out with the best of intentions. We may arise feeling thrilled to be alive and thankful for all God has done for us. We work through our morning and perhaps attend Mass, and we feel strengthened and renewed by having accepted Christ in the Eucharist. Maybe in the course of our day we're planning on visiting a sick friend, or calling on a relative we haven't spoken to in a while. And maybe throughout our day we say little silent prayers again and again for all the needs in our world.

But like any invitation to participate, things sometimes get in our way. We grow tired of the routine, the "everydayness" of what it means to be a Christian. We fudge a little here, fudge a little there, and eventually that little bit of fudging and avoiding and straying begins to become the norm. And it gets easier and easier. We create a new routine, a routine that encourages us to ignore that invitation from God. A routine that seems to justify in our minds that it's okay to miss this one party, that it's okay toss away that one invitation. Because there will be other invitations, right? Unfortunately, we can fall into a cycle of ignoring the invitation, and then we just stop checking the mail. Because we don't want to see what's there. It becomes burdensome. It is annoying. It has become junk mail to us.

But God continues to invite us. Despite everything we do that says I don't want to join the party, or "I'm sorry I can't commit right now" God continues to invite us. Because like any good host, God wants us to be there. God doesn't want anyone left out.

Accepting the invitation to discipleship is a difficult one. Christ spoke about this in scripture again and again. "Can you drink the cup?" "I am sending you like sheep into the midst of wolves." "You will be hated by all because of my name." When Christ tells the parable of the man who gave a great dinner party and people didn't come, he is speaking to us about the occasion to sin, and how it gets in the way of us coming closer to God. He is speaking about the opportunities we have to demonstrate our faith in God, and yet we allow ourselves to get caught up in the burdens of the world that divert us from God. He speaks of the desire for all of us to join him in heaven and yet we still struggle with answering that invitation. This is normal. We are, after all, human. And for us there are times when rejecting an invitation seems much easier than accepting it.

Certainly there are times in life when we thrilled with invitation, look forward to it, and have a great time at the party. And ideally, that's the relationship we want to have with God - excited, anticipating, joyous in participation. But there's one other invitation scenario. That's the invitation we accept, and immediately make ourselves crazy because we're sorry we did so. It's not convenient, it's not something we want to do, it's a commitment of our time and energy when we feel like we can't commit any more. But out of a sense of obligation we go through with it. And we get to the party, and have a great time. All our worries and cares and anxieties are stripped away and we just live in that moment.

That's what I think heaven will be like. We're invited to discipleship and it's always going to be a rewarding and sometimes difficult journey. And we may have ambivalence about accepting the invitation at all. But the promise of the big party is always there for us as believers. The promise that by accepting the invitation with strong commitment and excited anticipation we will some day meet our host face-to-face, and be welcomed with open arms to a joyous eternal celebration.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What Are You Searching For?

Some years ago a film came out titled "The Air Up There." In it, Kevin Bacon plays a character named Jimmy Dolan. He's the assistant coach of a basketball team at a Catholic university. Dolan had played for that team himself in his college days. He was a star player; one that everyone felt was bound for a professional career in the NBA. But during his senior year he blew his knee out, ending those dreams. His team still won the national collegiate championship, and he stayed on as an assistant coach.

It becomes clear Jimmy is searching for something in his life. It's a life unfulfilled, and his dream is to be the head basketball coach and compete again for a championship. It begins to look as though that dream will be unfulfilled as well, until he learns of a basketball player in Africa he sees as his ticket to glory. He travels to Africa to recruit the player, and what Dolan finds out in the course of the story is that his dream is not everyone's dream. In fact, his dream pales in comparison to the struggles and simple dreams of the people he meets. Jimmy is searching for something, and comes to realize it's not another championship; it's a search for meaning in his life. It's a search for fulfillment that transcends earthly dreams and desires.

I love this film and years ago showed it to the youth group at my church. They enjoyed it as well for its message as well as for the entertainment value. After youth group one of the young people asked if they could borrow the film and I said "Sure." It was the last time I saw it. I'd forgotten I'd lent it out and by the time I remembered I couldn't recall who I had lent it to. A few years had passed and that group of young people had graduated and there was just no going back to try and find out who had it. So I started looking for it elsewhere.

The film has not been released on DVD - I suppose it wasn't quite popular enough. Stores no longer carry videotapes, so that was out. A secondhand copy would pop up on the Internet now and then for $35 or $40 and I just couldn't bring myself to pay that kind of money for a videotape. So I started scouring flea markets, yard sales and thrift shops. I'd always look through the videotapes hoping to find a copy, but was never successful. Then a few months ago when looking on the Internet again I came across a photo of what the box looked like that the videotape was in. Often when I see videotapes at flea markets and such they'll be stacked so you only see the end or side of the box. They're rarely in alphabetical order and if there are dozens or even hundreds of tapes searching becomes daunting. Knowing what the box looked like - sky blue with the word "AIR" in beg red letters - should make my search easier.

I went to a flea market on the other side of town and there was a woman there who literally had thousands of videotapes. All stacked so only the end of the box was showing. Not alphabetized, not in any kind of order. It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack, but I decided to take a few minutes and see if I could find the film. Amazingly, within about two minutes I spotted the box, high up on a shelf about eight feet off the ground. I climbed some boxes, reached up and pulled it down. I had found it! I was so excited! Here I had been looking for this film for years and now I had it. The woman sold it to me for $5 and I went home and watched it. And it was great. It was one of the most satisfying moments I've had recently, not just at having found it for my own personal gratification but also because I'd be able to show it at youth group once again (and I won't be lending it out).

We all know what it's like to have that feeling of excitement and joy when we've been searching for something and find it. Whether it's something simple like finding a virtual needle in a haystack or like Jimmy Dolan we're searching for meaning in our lives, the rush of finding what we're looking for is incredible. To have the anxiety and pain we go through in our searches taken away in a moment is a feeling of fulfillment and joy that is just a glimmer for us of what God feels when one of us returns to Him. When we fall away, when we're lost and alone, when we're suffering and sad God is always searching for us, looking for us, bidding us to return. Like the shepherd Christ speaks of in scripture he is always searching for us, regardless of how inconsequential we may feel. Every one of us is important enough to not be given up on.

God always desires that sense of joy and satisfaction. Not necessarily in the moment, not just for His personal gratification. But for us. For us to feel safe and secure. For us to not wander away but to stay close despite what life may throw our way. For us to understand that there is greater meaning in life that goes beyond earthly glories and possessions. Meaning fulfilled in the loving arms of our shepherd.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Gotta Serve Somebody

Bob Dylan once wrote a song titled "Gotta Serve Somebody." And in it he speaks of the entire range of humanity - everybody from rich to poor, weak to strong, famous to infamous and the arrogant to the humble. Everybody, regardless of their station in life has gotta serve somebody. He doesn't define exactly who that "somebody" is. In the chorus that's repeated again and again throughout the song he narrows it to one of two choices. He sings...

You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

The devil or the Lord. That's it, two choices. And it seems like a simple enough choice. Lord, devil. Okay. And if it were always so simple a choice, a choice as clearly defined as saying "Okay, chocolate or dirt?" Chocolate (and feel free to insert here anything you'd choose to eat over dirt). Where it becomes tricky is when we have a buffet of choices laid out before us. Maybe not chocolate or dirt, but perhaps chocolate or apple pie or cake or ice cream... or maybe something healthy or less fattening or... CHOCOLATE! Life throws a buffet of choices at us and they're not all good choices. But they certainly are tempting.

I remember once going with my family to the Double-T Diner. The menu at the Double-T is like most diner menus I've seen - page upon page of choices. If you can't find something to eat at the Double-T then you're just not hungry. Hundreds of entrees and sandwiches and appetizers and platters and desserts in all price ranges, and breakfast served 24/7. My daughter was about 9 or 10 at the time and as she went through the menu you could see that she was getting really upset. And in no time she had a complete meltdown. Why? Too many choices. It was more than she could handle at that moment. And that's what it's like for many of us at times in life. We have so many choices thrown at us that we reach a breaking point where we can't think properly, where we can't discern properly. It's then that we often take the easy way out. And that easy way is usually not the way of God.

It's not easy making the right choice. In Luke's Gospel Christ says "No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." (Luke 16:13) The word "mammon" represented material wealth, or the greed that rises within us in the acquiring of earthly treasures. But the word means more than just things or the acquiring of things. It's about the deification of things. About our tendency to create false gods out of the things we desire, the things we crave, the things we accumulate. Whether it's food or drugs or alcohol or our cell phones, computers, money, cars, property, etc., etc. we all can fall into that trap. Because that's what our culture tells us. Buy this! You have to have that! You can't LIVE without this! Everybody else is doing it, shouldn't you? You don't want to be left out! To fit in and be accepted you have to do this! I'm astonished how all of us - and especially young people - are constantly bombarded by the message that it's acceptable to allow ourselves to become enslaved by desire, or being told what it is we should desire and there must be something wrong with us if we don't desire it as well.

We constantly need to be assessing and reassessing our priorities. Sure, it's great to have nice things and nice clothes and a car that runs and yes, chocolate when we want it. But what we have to be watchful for is when we become the slaves. When our focus is pulled away from God and moves to other things. Things that are temporary. Transitory. When we lose sight of the long term goal in favor of the short term pleasure.

Choosing God is hard work, no doubt about it. Not a hard choice, but hard work. Because we do have to work hard to be disciples. We do have to sacrifice. We have to be humble. We have to look at ourselves and ask ourselves "What's important?" Near the end of the film "Schindler's List" Oskar Schindler has this moment of epiphany when he realizes that despite the good he has done he could have done more. He could have given up a little and gained so much more. But the opportunity escaped him. We cannot allow those opportunities to escape us. When faced with the smorgasbord of life we have to be careful in our choices, and understand that all of those choices come down to just two - Lord, or devil. Whatever the choice we make, we gotta serve somebody.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Called to be Sowers

In the Gospel of Luke Christ tells a parable about a farmer that goes out to sow his seed. The seed - being the Word of God – is spread and depending on the receptiveness or disposition of the hearer the Word either thrives and grows or else withers or falls by the wayside. The parable stresses the importance of the necessity of developing the gift of understanding so that when we hear the Word we can take root in it, grow and be nourished by it, and continue to strengthen and feed us as we develop as faithful disciples of Christ.

Each time I listen to scripture or read a passage I always try to look at it from another angle. In a Lectio Divina approach to scripture there are four movements to approaching God’s word. The first – Lectio – is about the reading. You take the passage, read through it slowly. Then read it again. And perhaps a third time. Each time allowing yourself to focus on the words, their meaning, what they’re saying to you. You look for a word or part of the text that begins to stand out, that seems to be speaking something specific to you. Or perhaps that you don’t understand and need to concentrate on further.

The second movement is Meditatio. This movement is a meditation on what you’ve heard or read. I’ve always found it helpful to write that word or phrase down. I do exercises where I’ll begin writing the word or phrase repeatedly, or just begin writing what the phrase means to me. What is it saying? What am I hearing? Am I hearing this in a new way? Is there something going on in my life today that this passage or phrase seems to be speaking to? What if I were present with Christ as he spoke these words – would they mean something entirely different to me? How would I react? How would they be written upon my heart?

The third movement of Lectio Divina is Oratio. It is the movement where we speak with God about what we’ve heard. Maybe that phrase was a challenge for us. Maybe it’s an affirmation of something in our lives we’re actively working on. When writing I may take that word or phrase and turn it into a prayer that I offer up to God. When I read scripture in the morning and that word of phrase jumps out at me I’ll turn it and consider it throughout the day, and make it into a silent prayer I share with God.

The final movement is Contemplatio. This is the resting upon the Word. We have now made it a part of who we are. Like the Word that fell on rich soil it now begins to germinate within us, to grow and bear fruit.

Lectio Divina is a technique for slowing down the reading, to absorb it and take personal ownership of it as we develop our relationship with God. When using this approach to scripture it’s important not to force our interpretation. It’s about resting in the Word, letting it rain upon us and being receptive to where the Holy Spirit will lead us in the understanding.

This is all about what it means to be a faithful listener of the Word. What we can do personally to be the rich soil upon which that word falls. But there is another aspect to this passage of scripture, and as I meditated and contemplated upon this passage it was what stood out for me. The phrase that stood out today for me was “The sower went out to sow his seed.”

As disciples, we’re not just called to be faithful listeners. We’re also called to be sowers. To take that Word of God out into the world and live it, spreading the seed through our own words and our actions. How we live our lives is akin to a farmer preparing the soil for the sowing. If we don’t till the earth, if we don’t prepare the soil properly the seed will not take root. If people can’t see Christ in us through our words and actions then those seeds are not going to take root in them.

We are called to not only be rich soil but also to be good sowers. Good caretakers of God’s Word, caretakers with a zest for spreading the seed, and lovingly help that seed to take root, to grow and flourish. Whether it’s with our children, or family or friends or acquaintances or anyone we encounter it’s our call as evangelizing disciples of Christ to nourish His Word in our world each and every day.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

All Souls Day

I have a new hobby. Or at least, a relatively new hobby. It's a hobby that I've been able to combine with my interests in photography and history. It's also a hobby that when I tell people about it some are perplexed, some cringe, and I'm sure a few wonder what must be going on in my head. My hobby is hanging around in cemeteries. Let me explain…

It all started a few years ago when my friend Peggy told me how she and her husband Joe had visited the ruins of a Catholic Church in the Patapsco State Park. I was intrigued and after finding out how to get there I went hiking in the park one day to look for the ruins. I found them where the church was originally built more than a century ago, on a hill overlooking the Patapsco River. At one time it was known as St. Stanislaus Kotska Catholic Church, and it served a community of textile workers at the mill complex on the river near Ellicott City. Over the years as the mill's fortunes waned Hurricane Agnes finally drove the last of the people from the area. The church itself had burned in 1926 after being struck by lightning, and a newer structure was unfortunately built closer to the river, and in the path of flooding, as was the rest of the town.

I enjoy visiting the church again and again, just sitting there within the crumbling walls on a quiet day and meditating or praying. I was fascinated with the way others that visited the church would occasionally leave prayers written on pieces of paper and wedged into the walls of the ruins. Someone even set up a small altar of sorts set up in a corner - a prayer space with candles and other written prayers and objects left behind. But what also fascinated me was the cemetery.

Just above the church on the hill is a small cemetery. For the most part the stones are well-worn and barely readable. A few have fallen over, either as the land has shifted over time or vandals have forced them over. It saddened me that there was this little forgotten plot in the state park. And so when I visited I would say a prayer for those whose earthly remains rested there.

I became particularly interested in one particular stone, a stone that seemed to have an interesting image on it that I couldn't quite make out. I took photos of it, did charcoal rubbings, but still couldn't determine what the image was. So I decided that perhaps the thing to do would be to go to other cemeteries in the area and see if I could find a similar stone from the same era.

Since then I have spent many quiet and enjoyable days strolling around cemeteries in the Baltimore area. My favorite is New Cathedral, the Catholic cemetery near my parish. I love walking around and looking at the stones and the statues that go back a few hundred years. I've enjoyed learning about the famous buried there - four Hall of Fame baseball players (the most of any cemetery in the country); Mother Mary Lange, founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence and who appears to be on her way to sainthood; a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination; actors, politicians, priests and religious. There are at least two bishops buried there and literally hundreds of priests and religious order nuns. And the people - people of faith, people each with a story.

I began photographing many stones and statuary and learning about cemetery iconography, understanding what the symbols and imagery on the markers represent. I always enjoy finding yet another stone for a priest, often with an image of the Eucharist carved into it. I'm always saddened by the markers for children. There's one in particular from the early 20th century commemorating three young children that passed away over a period of about five months - I would assume from some illness that swept through the family. And I often say a short prayer for those that have gone before and have been remembered in such poignant ways.

When I decided to become Catholic someone I knew argued that one of the things wrong with the Catholic Church was that we pray for the dead. They said it was not scriptural and a waste of time since the fate of the dead was predetermined. I don't believe that. I told the person that saying prayers for the dead was a waste is really putting human limits on God. We think in a linear fashion - that what's past is gone and what is in the future just hasn't come yet. But God is not linear. God is totality. God is beginning and end and everything in between. And our prayers for those that have gone before us or even those yet to come are all heard by God, all considered by God, all experienced in the totality that is God.

A few months ago I came across a stone that really excited me. Excited me because it was quite discernible and appeared to match that stone in Patapsco State Park that had been a mystery to me. And I've only seen this one stone like it. The stone is an image of heaven, with steps leading up to the gates. The gates are open, and through them flies a dove, a symbol of hope and peace. Throughout the history of our faith we have offered prayers for those that have gone before. Those that gave us life. Those that handed down the faith from generation to generation. All Souls Day is a time when we can remember those people and offer our prayers for them. But not just on All Souls Day, but any day. Any time we happen to think of it, any time we may find ourselves walking around a cemetery on a crisp autumn afternoon. Any time we think of that vision of the gates of heaven opening to welcome us, that we may all be united in the warm embrace of God's eternal love.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Roadtrip Spirituality

One of my favorite passages from the Bible is the Emmaus Road story. I've always thought that it encompasses the faith experience. At times, our hearts are burning within us. Other times, we're lost and afraid. And sometimes we feel as though our God has left us. But Christ is present at our side - even when we can't see him or recognize him - and it is in the breaking of the bread that Christ is revealed to us and strengthens us and sets our hearts on fire anew.

The Emmaus Road journey is the ultimate roadtrip experience. I have often felt in my ministry that some of the best catechesis, the best conversations, and the best explorations of faith happen on the road… walking, driving, flying. I've had profoundly deep conversations with people on pilgrimage in Germany for World Youth Day or on the streets of Baltimore at the gateway of Holy Week. Driving to and from retreats, where the "small group" discussions that happen in the car often surpass any session that may happen in the course of a weekend. Hiking in the woods, where the glories and subtleties of God's creation serve as an ideal backdrop for any conversation about God's presence in our lives.

My love of movies and background in film production got me thinking about the expression of the roadtrip experience - and spirituality - that is often portrayed on the big screen. While many might immediately think of more recent films such as the comedy "Road Trip" or culturally-ingrained excursions such as "Thelma and Louise" I gravitated more towards films that presented the roadtrip as an experience of learning and discovery rather than debauchery and intense drama.

Roadtrip films have long been a favorite of moviegoers. From the moment Dorothy stepped onto the yellow brick road until the flinging of the ring of power into the lava of Mount Doom the roadtrip experience has fascinated and engaged the viewer with tales of courage, adventure and escape. And the message - be it "there's no place like home" or true friends will stand by us when the forces of darkness are aligned against us - is revealed not in moments of triumph but in the journey itself. The journey of enlightenment.

Considering the spirituality of the roadtrip experience, I focused on four films which I built a retreat around for young adults. Each film I chose because they reflected different types of journey, different forms of spiritual enlightenment.

Our First Journey with Friends on the Road - "Stand By Me"

I have always loved this film. It captures the essence of the transition from childhood to adolescence incredibly well. It's about the indelible stamp that friends make on our soul for a lifetime, and that in spite of adulthood and distance we still feel their presence at our sides. Director Rob Reiner - whose other "roadtrip" films include "The Princess Bride," "This is Spinal Tap" and "The Bucket List" - creates a mood in this film anyone can identify with, regardless of where or when they grew up. Because the truths of that time in our lives transcend time and space.

On Pilgrimage with Others - "Heart and Souls"

This is a great undiscovered film. It pains me that so few people are aware of it. I hope that it's re-release on DVD earlier this year (driven, I'd guess by star Robert Downey Jr.'s recent high-profile films) will help this lovely little film find a new audience. Some have said it mirrors "The Wizard of Oz" in the way it brings together a diverse group of people on journey together and how they support one another and ultimately come to love one another. It's funny, joyful, and at times heart-rending. But the presence of God is woven into the fabric of this story, and it becomes clear this isn't just a film about friendship or reaching a destination. Most of all, it's about trust. Trust that there is a plan. Trust that in the end we will understand what God has in store for us.

The Family Roadtrip Experience - "Little Miss Sunshine"

I don't know that the dysfunctional family experience has been portrayed in a roadtrip film as well as this one. It has broad moments of laughter and pain that seem real and identifiable (as opposed to films such as "National Lampoon's Vacation" or "Are We There Yet?" where the comedy crosses from the familiar to the ridiculous, the pain from profound to slapstick). From the pre-tween Olive to aging Grandpa we see the spectrum of what it means to be a family and how difficult it can be to spend time with people you love but often don't like very much. And ultimately how the bonds of family can be stronger than any difficulty life may throw our way.

The Personal Journey - "Elizabethtown"

Sometimes we need to make the journey alone. We may receive guidance or assistance from others, but ultimately exorcising our personal demons comes down to standing our ground and facing who we are and how we are and what we are alone. Alone, except for the faith and strength we have been given by God and the people who care for us. "Elizabethtown" is about the journey of running away from one tragedy full into the face of another, and the cathartic experience we can have when we allow ourselves to be humbled and spent so that in the master's hands we can be forged so the fire burns brightly within our hearts once again.

As I reflected on these four films with others I realized that - completely unintentionally - I chose films that shared a theme other than the roadtrip experience. Death. Each of these films has death as an important component of the story. I began to wonder if it was the presence of death, the claustrophobia of mortality that makes a good roadtrip story better. I began to think of times driving from funeral to cemetery and all that ran through my own mind. Times when I wanted to comfort another and knew deep down there really wasn't much I could do to alleviate their suffering, but that being present to them had great value. The times in my life when I've been lost and alone and afraid and wandering my own Emmaus Road.

Even under the most difficult of circumstances there is joy in the journey. And that joy often doesn't come until we can step away from the experience, look back and see the whole picture. When we come to realize the presence of Christ that was with us when we didn't know it. The times when we have reflected Christ to others and didn't know it. The times when we came around the table and it was in the breaking of the bread that Christ became amazingly present to us once again.

Roadtrip spirituality. Taking joy in the journey. Opening ourselves to the experience. Opening ourselves to Christ's presence and having our hearts burn brightly within us again and again.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Making Mountains Out of Molehills - Youth Ministry on a Budget

I've had a long career - both in and out of ministry - that has had as one of it's requirements that I make mountains out of molehills. Specifically, working with little or no budget with an expectation of returning results - BIG results. Maximizing available resources has become an art form for me.

In my recent presentation at the Archdiocese of Baltimore Institute I discussed the "Five Steps to Failure: Understanding (and Avoiding) the Biggest Mistakes of Youth Ministry" that were written about in a recent Youthworker Journal article. I also discussed my experiences with a variety of strategies and resources to creatively utilize and stretch the assets we have available to us.

Following are a few of my favorite resources on the Internet that I use in my ministry to young people. A small disclaimer - not all of these sites are Catholic or faith-based, and you should always use discernment (and caution) when preparing to use ANY resource.

Websites with free resources:

Camp Games

Common Sense Media

Dramatic Parables that Teach the Gospel

EGAD! Ideas

Family Based Youth Ministry

FILM - Finding Inspiration in Literature and Movies

Finding God Activity Finder

Group Energizer Ideas

Icebreakers & Energizers

Improv Encyclopedia

Massive Games / Icebreaker List

Pastor 2 Youth Free Resources

Reflections Activities

The Source for Youth Ministry

Youth Specialties Free Resources Freebie Library

Blogs with Ideas, Information and Inspiration:

Catechist's Journey

Catholic Youth Ministry Blog

Insight - reflections and resources on christian youth ministry

Jesus Goes to Disney World

Rethinking Youth Ministry


This list is by no mean all-inclusive. There are literally thousands of good resources out there. These just happen to be some of my favorites. If you come across something you like, share the link with me - I'd love to check it out!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sacraments on Demand

A few years ago we finally broke down and got cable TV. We had resisted it for a very long time. I was never that motivated. For one thing, because I worked in television for years and when I got home from work at the end of the day plopping down in front of more television didn't have a lot of appeal for me. And second, I felt like we didn't need any encouragement to spend additional time in front of the TV. My wife and I didn't need it, our children didn't need it.

But a few years ago we finally broke down. The kids were grown. My daughter was in college (and she lamented that we waited until she was out of the house before getting cable) and there were stories in the news about the switch to digital broadcasting, so you were either going to need to be connected to cable or buy converters or else buy new television sets. So we got cable. And it wasn't easy at first because we were apparently the only household in our neighborhood that didn't already have cable. The cable company couldn't imagine we weren't connected. But after some calls back and forth they finally came out and connected us.

And it's been nice having cable. I get to watch things I wouldn't necessarily see - movies, documentaries, cooking shows - things I very much enjoy. And our cable came with this very interesting feature called "On Demand." I didn't pay much attention to it at first. But I soon found there were times when I was in the mood to relax in front of the TV and there wasn't really anything on that interested me. I could go to "On Demand" and pick from a wide range of choices and "poof!" I could watch it. And this just amazed me - anyone connected to that cable system any time of day has the ability to choose something to watch, all controlled from their fingertips. No more trips out for a video rental, no more setting up my VCR to record a film at 2 in the morning so I can watch it later. The technology blew me away.

We live in an "On Demand" society, an "On Demand" world. It's not all that long ago that stores that offered convenience were only open from 7 in the morning until 11 at night - now they're open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I gassed up my car at 6:00 in the morning today. I carry a piece of plastic in my wallet that lets me have access to my bank account and cash 24 hours a day. And many times I don't even need cash - the little plastic card is all I need. I remember a couple times being up with one of my children in the middle of the night when they were very small and going and doing grocery shopping at 3am. The ability to do these things were unheard of not so long ago.

Yet as in love as we are with convenience and being able to acquire things on demand many of us have forgotten that our church pretty much offers us "On Demand" sacraments. I once heard it said that 24 hours a day, 7 days a week Mass is being celebrated somewhere. We as Catholics pretty much have "On Demand" access to the Eucharist, yet we don't always seek it out. The other sacrament we pretty much have "On Demand" access to is the sacrament of reconciliation.

In the Gospel of Luke a woman that has sinned takes advantage of the opportunity to kneel before Christ in contrition. It is clear from her actions that her desire for forgiveness is genuine. And Christ understands that. Others criticize, because in that moment Christ welcomes the sinner, welcomes one that others deem "untouchable" - someone to be avoided, to be scorned. Yet Christ welcomes her and in that gesture demonstrates that all sinners are to be welcomed. That by our faith we can be saved.

Reconciliation on demand. The church offers it sacramentally. Yet so many pass it by, even avoid it. And I can understand that to some extent. The act of baring your soul before a priest and before God can be horribly intimidating. Admitting our sins, recognizing failure can be a very difficult thing for us to face, let alone share with someone else. Forgiving ourselves can be the most difficult thing of all. I've always said God will never beat me up as badly as I'll beat myself up over mistakes I've made, sins I've committed, people I've hurt. And some of those transgressions - even though I know I've been forgiven - I will carry in my heart to the day I die. Because everything I've done, everything I've failed to do is a part of my being, a part of what makes me who I am today.

That's how it is for all of us. We're human. Failure is what makes us human, and defines our humanity. Those unwilling to admit their failures, admit their sins - step outside of themselves and take a hard look at who they are - are only deluding themselves.

Sacraments on demand. What a brilliant concept! To open up our souls before God in reconciliation, and then be deemed worthy once again to accept His Son in the Eucharist is extraordinary. And this "On Demand" convenience is not something that has been made available to us in the last five years, or ten or twenty or fifty. It has been available to us for centuries. Available to us to the end of the age. Peace, salvation, through faith. On demand. All we have to do is seek it out.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Behold, Our Mother

The connection between a mother and her son can be a very special relationship. I know in my own experience my mother and I have shared a bond that has been unique among relationships I've had with people. I was the oldest of the children in my family and was the one that because of my place as the oldest often set the tone for the other children. I was the one that was made example of as I worked through the highs and lows of my childhood and adolescence. I was also the one my mother shared her pains and sufferings with. I was the one my mother shared her confidences with, the stories she didn't easily tell others, the secrets that she could bear no longer, all the bits and pieces of her life that made her who she was as a person, and by association made me who I am.

My mother has always symbolized two things to me - strength and faith. She has gone through a lot in her life. Her parents divorced when she was very young, and her stepfather was abusive both verbally and physically. She fell in love with my father and married him shortly after graduating high school and turning 18. She wasn't going to stay in the house with my stepfather any longer than she had to. My father came from a very poor family, worked at the plant where his older brothers worked. He drank hard as they did and became an alcoholic. At his worst he could be abusive and distant. As it turned out marriage wasn't much of an escape for my mother.

But she never gave up. She never lost her faith. When I think of people I've known in my life that have been people of great strength and faith my mother would be at the top of the list. She endured a marriage that most would have given up on and walked away from. She never gave up on God, even though many events in her life would have led others to question God's role if not existence.

Through it all she persevered. She stayed because of us children. She knew the pain of divorce and how it had affected her life. She stayed in a marriage that was at one time a shambles and has now seen that marriage become a relationship of love and respect as my father dealt with his problems and fought his way out of the clutches of alcoholism and found his way back to God. She has seen her children grow and lead successful lives and reward her and my father with grandchildren that love them completely and without the reservations and baggage that her own children carried with them.

Having had the experience of my mother in my life and how much she has meant to me it is easy for me to have a sense of how important Christ's mother was to him, and he to her. It is easy for me to understand her special place in all he did and all he continues to do. It is easy for me to understand why we all should look to her for guidance and strength. As she grieved at the foot of the cross Christ said to the beloved disciple "Behold, your mother." In that gesture Christ wasn't just turning over the care of his mother to the disciple. Christ was all about symbolism, and deeper meaning in everything he said and did. In that moment Christ speaks to all of us: "Behold, YOUR mother." OUR mother. Mother of us all. The mother we can turn to in our times of doubt and shame. The mother we can turn to when life doesn't make sense and we need to feel the safe embrace of her loving arms. The mother that is always there to pick us up when we fall, wipe away our tears, and send us on our way again.

"Behold, your son." Christ also turns over the care of all God's children to His mother in that moment. While His work as a man was nearly finished, Mary's work and relationship with us was just beginning. Because a mother's work is never ended. A mother's place of importance with her children is never diminished. Even when not physically present the spiritual presence of our mother looms large and active in our lives. She is always available to us to talk with, to share our troubles with as well as our joys, to seek out for security and guidance in our darkest hours. Just as Christ surely did.

When I think of that scene at the foot of the cross I imagine the disciple and Mary clinging to each other in love and mutual support. Surely it was their darkest hour. And that's the relationship we need to seek out with Mary. A relationship of love and support, a warm, passionate embrace, a relationship built on great trust and faith. On a day when we celebrate Mary under the title of Our Lady of Sorrows, we can reach out to her as she reaches out to us - desiring to be enfolded in an embrace of love and faith. Mary, the mother of God. Behold, our mother.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Simply to Thy Cross I Cling

Yesterday we almost didn't have a priest for Sunday morning Mass. Our pastor Fr. Marty is out of town and since he likes to plan ahead he made arrangements for priests to be here to celebrate Mass this past weekend probably 3-4 months ago. But we haven't had issues in the past, and the priests that were scheduled to celebrate for us had both been to St. William of York before. The priest scheduled for yesterday morning also has a tendency to arrive at the last possible moment so there's always a little bit of sense of adventure and anxiety for me as the "one in charge" as I wait for him to arrive for the 9:00am Mass.

But yesterday was a bit different. As it got closer and closer to 9:00 I had a bad feeling. And when it became 9:01 and then 9:02 and still no priest that feeling became much worse. Because I was faced with the prospect of having to stand before a congregation of people that had gathered for Sunday liturgy and explain to them that we would not have a priest to celebrate Mass. And while I had been here for Mass as a participant the last time that happened here at St. William it didn't relieve my stress any that I may now have to be the one to make that decision.

Thankfully, I was able to get in contact with the priest and he finally arrived. And he was embarrassed and contrite for having forgotten to be here. But he did get here and all went well. And I was much too relieved to be upset with him.

Doing a Mass or communion service takes a great deal of preparation. Of course there's all the "little" things like making sure the candles are lit, the Lectionary is on the right page, the key is in the tabernacle - all things that I have forgotten to do at one time or another. The reflection or homily takes a lot of thought and consideration. In preparing for this morning's Communion service reflection I learned about Ember Days - does anyone remember those? Ember Days could be days of thankfulness for the harvest or fasting and prayer observed at specific times of the church year. In the pre-Vatican II church Ember Days were observed the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of the week. This week following the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross we would have been observing additional days of prayer and fasting. I love learning about the saints and the traditions of our church as I prepare to give a reflection. It helps me grow in my faith and helps me feel prepared and confident when I stand before a group of people.

If it had come down to doing a Communion service yesterday morning I know it would have worked out. I've done Communion services before and I know what to expect and what the guidelines are and most importantly I think know the compassion and understanding of the St. William of York community. I have stood before them and been strengthened by the support and love they have shown me.

But I think what has prepared me the most, given me the support I need and continually demonstrates God's love for me is the cross of Christ's sacrifice. My entire life I have been surrounded by this great symbol of God's love. The church I grew up in we often sang hymns on Sunday morning such as "The Old Rugged Cross" and "In the Cross of Christ I Glory" and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." Hymns that featured lines such as "In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine, a wondrous beauty I see, for 'twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died, to pardon and sanctify me." That's what I grew up with. That's what I learned. That's where my strength comes from.

As Catholics we recall that symbol when we cross ourselves in prayer. I often wondered why people in the Latino community would often kiss their fingers after crossing themselves until a friend of mine explained they make a little cross with their thumb and forefinger and it's that cross they kiss. I once read that some believe the tradition of crossing one's fingers for luck actually originated as a way of symbolizing the Christian cross as a talisman against evil. We wear crosses, we surround ourselves with crosses. I love seeing the various depictions of crosses in cemeteries. It is the great symbol of our faith.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The cross of Christ's sacrifice. A symbol we can always turn to for strength and support. But most importantly, a symbol of God's great love for us as we know from the Gospel of John: For God so loved the world he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes might not perish but have eternal life and that the world might be saved through him.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

By Our Own Fruits

When I was growing up I had a cousin I was very close to. His father and my father were brothers - very close - and our two families spent a lot of time together. We got together at one point or another it seemed nearly every weekend. We occasionally vacationed together. I was the oldest in my family and my cousin the oldest in his. And even though he was three years my senior we hung around and did things together. I looked up to him because he was older and more worldly. And he always had a willing and dedicated cohort in me.

When he was in junior high I remember him inviting me to his bedroom one day. He was acting very secretive as we went in he quietly closed the door. He opened his dresser, pulled out a box and opened it to show me he had cigarettes. I was crushed. My father was a chain-smoker and I absolutely hated it. I was so disappointed that my cousin was now smoking. And while I'm sure at the time it was one of those experimentation things that most adolescents go through, I was certain it was the beginning of his journey on the road to ruin. As it turned out I wasn't very far from being wrong.

From that time on my cousin and I drifted apart, and over the next few years he did travel down that road. He stole. He fought. What started out as harmless pranks turned into serious property damage. He began drinking. And he fought some more.

We had never been in the same school until I reached high school. By that time we rarely saw one another, and the closeness we had had as young boys was gone. He was physically gone from the school when I got there, but his presence was gigantic. Every teacher that called my name in roll or met me for the first time asked me if we were brothers, or were related. It was immediately clear to me I was being judged by the horrible reputation he had for abuse and fighting there at the school. I remember I got so tired of people asking me if we were related my stock answer became "Yes, unfortunately." It was the only way I could think of to distance my name and myself from his bad reputation.

I think of my cousin when I read the passage from Luke's Gospel that states "For every tree is known by its own fruit." I was known - if just for a short while - by the tree that also produced my cousin. And as much as we may try to use old sayings in describing people like my cousin as the "bad apple" or the "black sheep of the family" it didn't lessen the impact on our family name, a name that for many people already conjured up images of alcoholism or hooliganism or abuse. And fighting against those misconceptions took a very long time.

We are known by our own fruit. Whether it's the fruit of our labors or the company we keep or the way we operate in the world. It's how we're known. And it goes well beyond saying the right things at the appropriate times. We have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. I can't help young people develop their prayer lives if I'm not spending time in prayer myself. I can't help people understand the importance of slowing down, taking a break, being at peace if I don't see to my own needs for rest and rejuvenation. I can't journey with people in their relationship with God if I'm not actively working on that relationship myself. I can't help others understand the importance of participation in the sacraments if I'm not coming to the Eucharist in awe and adoration myself.

In that passage from Luke Christ also talks of the importance of building a strong foundation. And for us that foundation is built on prayer and the sacraments. Each one of us has to build a strong foundation upon which rests our faith. And then like a tree our faith can grow and flourish and bear good fruit. And it is by that fruit we will be known.

I pray for my cousin. I pray for all those that stray from the path. I pray for those that need help finding their way back to God. But most of all I pray for myself. I pray that God gives me the strength and understanding to continue to grow and thrive in my own faith. I pray that in times of darkness God lights my path so that in some small way I may help light the path of others. I pray that what I do may be pleasing to God, and for forgiveness when it is not. I pray that we all can always be people that listen to Christ and act upon His words. And in doing so, we will all be known by our fruit as faithful children of God.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Golden Rule Days

School days, school days, dear old Golden Rule days. When I was young we were quoted the "Golden Rule" all the time. In school it was probably the first thing I learned. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It was repeated often, drilled into us, and despite the best efforts of many fine teachers the rule was often forgotten. Or perhaps not forgotten so much as ignored. And to be honest, my recollection was that others ignored it far more often than I did myself, because it seemed like I was often the butt of jokes and pranks and bullying. But I'm sure I inflicted my fair share of pain and suffering on my younger brothers as we grew up, so I suppose it evened out.

But evening out isn't the goal. Evening out almost has a connotation of reward, or retribution realized. I can't tell you how many times something has happened where I've seen myself or others get taken advantage of or worse and thought to myself "Oh, you'll get yours someday. What goes around comes around. Karma is going to catch up with you." And those weren't just statements - they were my hope. Almost prayers. I found myself being wronged and instead of praying for strength in adversity I essentially prayed that others would suffer the same fate (or worse) than I had. I hadn't learned anything from the experience. I had forgotten the "Golden Rule."

In the Gospel of Luke Christ addresses this wonderfully. He doesn't just say "Do to others as you would have them do to you" because this can be misinterpreted. He expands on it. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Give to everyone who asks of you. Expect nothing back. Be merciful. Stop judging. Stop condemning. Forgive. This passage from Luke is the essence of Christ's teaching in one convenient package. If we expect God to show us mercy, we have to be merciful towards others. We have to recognize the Christ that is within each person we encounter. When we show another mercy, we are showing Christ mercy. And that mercy will in turn be given us by God.

Loving one's enemies is a difficult thing. I was bullied a lot as a young boy. And it was very painful for me to see my son go through many of the same agonies. The constant fear and anxiety of each day, never knowing from where the next attack was going to come from. And it made my son very angry. And a lot of joy left his life. But he persevered. He didn't lose his faith, he never gave up, and he has consistently remained one of the most compassionate people I've ever known. Injustice angers him - whether it's racism, or sexism, or abuse or neglect. But he no longer allows himself to be consumed by the anger, and he is always willing to try and understand why things are as they are. And he always treats every person he meets with respect.

I think we all struggle with being judgmental. It's just so easy and natural and human to have knee-jerk reactions to the things that happen to us or that we encounter on a daily basis. I always get very upset when I see an adult screaming or hitting a child in public. And my immediate reaction is I want to go to them and scream in their face and see how they like it. But then I remember I had my own share of physical "corrections" growing up. And as I matured I came to understand why my parents used that form of "education" with me now and then. I understood that it wasn't their fault or that they were trying to be intentionally abusive or anything like that. They had been brought up a certain way and likely had been abused themselves, and it was all they knew. And it was difficult for them to break that pattern. But they eventually did, because that pattern was not continued through me. And I think I've learned that the best way to stop being judgmental is to work towards understanding. Understanding others, making an effort to understand their situations, and working towards solutions rather than merely reacting in kind.

Be merciful. Forgive. When I read this passage the theme that keeps coming back to me is humility. So much of what Christ teaches us is about humility. We all work hard to get ahead in life. To live comfortably. To achieve a level of peace. But that comfort, that peace cannot and should not come at the expense of others. We have been wonderfully blessed with God's grace. And like any gift freely given that gift needs to be freely shared. We must stand up for those that can't stand up for themselves. We must pray often and fervently. We must forgive so that we in turn will be forgiven. We must be willing to humble ourselves before God, and live that humility. It must become natural to our nature, just as breathing is natural to us.

Love. The greatest lesson of all. Love God, love all, and we shall in turn be loved. Do to others as you would have them to you.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Trust in Me

How many times have you been in a conversation with someone and one of you said to the other "Trust me"? Or better yet, "What - don't you trust me?" I have vivid memories of when I was a boy and the Disney film "The Jungle Book" came out. There's that scene when the evil snake Kaa sings "Trust in me, just in me" simultaneously seductive and sinister. And like that snake singing oh so sweetly every day our trust is tested. Ads on television tout the latest fad diet or some exciting new product that will make our lives easier and last a lifetime. We drive in automobiles we trust will keep us safe if we're in an accident. We use products daily that we trust will work and more importantly not harm us. We put our lives' savings in banks and into investment opportunities based on trust and hope that our money - and perhaps a bit more - will be there when we most need it. We are asked to trust our government officials and church leaders and teachers and co-workers. And we place our trust in friends and family, knowing that a breach of that trust can be devastating. And most importantly, we are asked to trust in our God.

As I look around it seems as though trust - and truth - gets stretched, beat on and abused more and more with each passing day. In the news we are constantly bombarded with stories of people that have embezzled money from unsuspecting investors, ministers that have taken advantage of those they have been called to serve, elected officials abusing their position and the trust placed in them by those that elected them. We rarely hear stories of people that placed their trust and were rewarded. And someone who placed their trust in the lottery ticket they bought and won does not count. When was the last time you heard tell of someone who placed their trust in another and had that trust respected and nurtured?

It's frustrating and demoralizing when we are constantly barraged by so much negative information that leads some to believe they shouldn't trust anyone. And that's understandable. Placing your trust - especially in someone close to you - is an intimate and soul-baring act. It is a surrender, it is making ourselves completely vulnerable to another. I know when my dog completely trusts me or another person or even another dog. He'll lie on his back exposing his underbelly - the most vulnerable part of his body - in a display of total trust. When we place our trust in one another we are exposing to each other the most vulnerable aspect of who we are as people.

Perhaps those positive stories of trust are the ones we just don't hear about too often. And that makes sense as well. Trust - when it's respected - is a quiet thing, a humble thing. And yet we can read about stories of trust and hear about them any time we want. All we have to do is open our Bible. From God's first instructions to Adam to the closing words of the Book of Revelation scripture is all about trust. Again and again scripture relates great stories of those that trusted - Noah, Abraham, Moses, Daniel, Peter, Paul - the list goes on and on. There are those that placed their trust in the wrong people, such as Samson. Those that placed their trust in family members - such as Joseph with his brothers - and were rewarded with enslavement or worse. The entire book of Job is about trust, trust against all odds and all adversity. The Psalms again and again sing of trust - trust in the face of the enemy, trust in the face of evil, trust in the face of death. Trust through all things in God and the salvation He has promised to each one of us.

And of course, two great stories of trust - Mary and Joseph. Mary trusted in God in effect giving up her life to serve God and bear His Son. We celebrate and are inspired by her trust and devotion. And Joseph. Scripture tells us when Joseph learned of Mary's pregnancy he was prepared to divorce her quietly and move on with his life. But the angel of the Lord came to Joseph and in essence said "trust." Trust in God. Despite everything in your life and your learning and your understanding that screams otherwise you must trust in God. Trust that God will not lead you astray. Trust in the promises God makes to you.

There are rewards for those that trust. Salvation has been promised to us all if we trust. As people of God we must follow the examples of Mary and Joseph as models of trust and carry that spirit of trust throughout the world. Trust can be a burden. When someone places their trust in us it is an incredible responsibility, because we hold the essence of their vulnerability in our hands. We have to respect the trust that is placed in us, and be willing to share our trust with others. And most particularly, always trust in God as Mary and Joseph did and His promises for all of us.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Work of Human Hands

Recently I was having a conversation with a friend about someone we both knew that had some kind of appointment scheduled for a Sunday. And my friend remarked that it seemed ‘weird’ because it just wasn’t the kind of thing you heard of being scheduled on a Sunday. Which was true. And I said it was because as a culture we had lost what it meant to observe Sundays as holy days of rest. Certainly, many of us retain that sense of Sunday being a day set aside for communing with God and taking a break. An opportunity, if you will to recharge our batteries for the week ahead. An opportunity to gather with family and friends to celebrate our bonds and our faith. An opportunity to do the things we love – whether it’s gardening, hiking, watching a football game, puttering around the house. An opportunity to tend to our soul rather than have our labor tend to the workings of the world. And I know often many of us have to work on Sundays. It can’t be avoided due to the nature of our careers. And many of us that do work on Sundays do the things that help others enjoy the sabbath. Whether it’s police officers or the newspaperman on the corner or television workers or store merchants all our lives are made simpler, safer, and more enjoyable by the work of others.

Because of our cultural shift away from the concept of a sabbath day of rest it may be difficult for many of us to grasp why Jesus incurred such wrath from the Pharisees when he healed the man with the withered hand. On the sabbath. In the synagogue, no less. In that culture in that time the sabbath was strictly observed in conformity with Mosaic law. As a faithful Jew you did nothing that could be construed as defiance – no matter how unintentional – of the law. And Jesus was a faithful Jew. And yet despite everything that said “no” Christ healed. It wasn’t reckless disregard and it wasn’t a way to thumb his nose at the Pharisees and embarrass them in their synagogue. Christ demonstrated that there is a moral imperative to do good that transcends law.

You may have seen stories in the news recently about St. Vincent de Paul parish in downtown Baltimore and their conflict with city officials because they were allowing homeless people to squat on their property. And I would guess that if the homeless people were hidden away there would have been little if any resistance. But these poor were living on a piece of property not only in full view but at an extremely busy city intersection. Not easily ignored. A place where many commuters and workers every day were confronted with the reality of homelessness in Baltimore. And it made people uncomfortable. It upset them. They began looking for ways to use the law against the pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church. And I know the pastor, Fr. Dick Lawrence. And I know for him this is a moral imperative. To be like Christ, serving the needs of the poor transcends the law. Serving the homeless – to heal – is more important than concern about whether or not a commuter feels compelled to look away from something they don’t want to see or acknowledge exists. A compromise was reached, which surprised me to some extent because Fr. Dick is not the type of person to compromise when it comes to serving the least among us. And the compromise? The homeless must vacate the property every day between the hours of 7am and 9am. Presumably so that the structures they use to protect themselves from the weather do not become permanent. Interestingly, between 7am and 9am – morning commuter rush hour – when the greatest number of people would be reminded and confronted with our moral obligation to serve the needy.

Christ’s action in the synagogue is not about justifying work on the sabbath. And while it can be assumed that it was part of the plan that set in motion events that led to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice, I don’t believe that is the lesson we should come away with. The lesson of the healing of the man with the withered hand is that the moral imperative to do good and serve the needs of the least among us transcends law. And I’m not advocating that we all go out and start breaking the laws of the land to do good. But there are laws, dictates, conventional wisdom that is unjust. This nation was founded by people seeking relief from unjust persecution of their faith. This is a nation of people that has risen and stood against injustice here and in our world. Whether it’s been on the beaches of Normandy or the jungles of Asia or the streets of Mississippi Americans have stood up against evils both great and veiled for justice in our world. In the late 19th century when the industrial revolution was in full swing the Catholic Church stood up for the rights of the working class. In his wonderful encyclical Rerum Novarum Pope Leo XIII laid the foundation for what has become more than a century of Catholic thought on social justice in our world. Social teachings most recently addressed by Pope Benedict just a couple months ago in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate or Charity in Truth. In that encyclical Pope Benedict reminds us "While the poor of the world continue knocking on the doors of the rich, the world of affluence runs the risk of no longer hearing those knocks, on account of a conscience that can no longer distinguish what is human."

We have a moral imperative to do as Jesus did. To listen, to serve, to heal. To reach out to those in need. To rise above our discomfort and stand against injustice in our world.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Trading Our Sorrows

Some years ago a book was released titled “In the Belly of the Beast.” It consisted of letters written by a man in prison, and detailed his own time in hell in the prison system. The book was quite popular when released, and it gave new meaning to many about what it meant to be in the belly of the beast.

In Matthew’s gospel Christ alludes to his own descent into hell and draws a connection to Jonah’s own time spent in the belly of the beast. (Matthew 12:38-42) Yet Christ wasn’t just preparing himself for a three-day trip to hell – he was preparing himself for taking on the weight of the world’s sins. Sins that you and I and all humanity helped lay upon his shoulders.

I guess that is why when I was growing up most images of Christ that I saw were that of the suffering Christ, the somber Christ, a Christ that was joyless. There was a rather well-known painting of Christ by Warner Sallman, which was painted in dark hues and pictured him looking off sadly in the distance. And there were films like “King of Kings” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” films that seemed to demonstrate that Christ walked about quietly and somberly, forceful yet morose. The weight of the world’s sins were surely great. But where was the joy?

Last week I was with a program sponsored by the Archdiocese of Baltimore called Justice Action Week. It’s what we call an “immersion” program, designed to gather young people from all over the diocese and introduce them to Baltimore – it’s people, it’s poor and suffering, and the agencies and organizations that serve “the least among us.” It’s a prayerful experience – rooted in Catholic social teaching – that I’m sure for some opens the door for a peak into the personal hell suffered by many in our midst every day.

And yet, again and again I saw joy. Our participants had the opportunity to be present to those suffering from AIDS at the Don Miller House or serve the homeless and hungry at Our Daily Bread. We heard of the horrors of human trafficking at YANA House and the struggles of refugees to find new homes through the International Rescue Committee. And at each one of these and many other places our Justice Action Week participants not only demonstrated great compassion for suffering, they brought their joy in God along in great abundance.

A number of times throughout the week the youth sang, and one of the most popular songs was titled “Trading My Sorrows.” The verse went like this:

I'm trading my sorrow, I'm trading my shame
I'm trading my sickness, I'm trading my pain
I'm laying it down for the joy of the Lord
I'm pressed but not crushed, persecuted not abandoned
Struck down but not destroyed
I'm blessed beyond the curse for his promise will endure
And his joy's gonna be my strength
Though the sorrow may last for the night
His joy comes with the morning
And we say “Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, Amen!”

I sang this song along with a group of youth at the Missionaries of Charity House of Hope in East Baltimore. We prayed the rosary with a group of men suffering and dying with HIV/AIDS and then sang with them. And in the midst of hopelessness I saw these men come up out of their own personal hell if just for a few moments and brought to the light through these young people to see again the joy of our Lord. Even Monroe – ailing, losing his sight, in the last days of his earthly life – smiled with happiness at the exuberance, joyfulness and love of God shared with him by the young people. And in those moments I saw the young people also transformed as that love of God reflected back to them.

Christ suffered greatly for us, and there is great suffering in the world today. But I cannot imagine that Christ didn’t also feel the joy of God and shared that joy with those around him. And if we are to be like Christ we are also called at times to journey to the belly of the beast and share our joy with those that feel cut off from the world. And cut off from God. The poor, the homeless, the refugees, the hungry, the suffering and the dying. These are the people that Christ himself would have reached out to. These are the people Christ would have taken the time to be present with. These are the people that more than anything need us to help them to come to the light, come out of the belly of the beast, come to see the joy of the Lord. Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, Amen!