Monday, June 29, 2009

Two Pillars

When I first entered college I was in the midst of a period of faith searching. I had stopped going to church because at the time I felt it didn’t have anything to say to me, or at least, what I was hearing at Sunday services didn’t move me. Not that I stopped believing. I continued to read my Bible and sought a relationship with God in places other than church – usually in nature. I would spend many hours hiking in the Gunpowder State Park, meditating and communing with God. And I grew to love early morning walks on the beach at Ocean City, where I would stop as the sun began to crest the horizon, sit on the sand, and just enjoy the awesome nature of God as the day began. For me, these were significant moments of commune with God, and I still find great solace and inspiration during forest and beach walks.

As wonderful as these times were for me, I still needed to search out where my faith life was heading. And at college I soon became friends with a sort of ragtag group of Christians. I still wonder how we ‘found’ one another, but I suppose like believers from the earliest days of Christianity God finds a way to bring together those of common belief. We weren’t brought together by a common theology of belief – there were Baptists and Catholics and Methodists and Lutherans. I had one friend that belonged to the Salvation Army Church and another that described himself as a ‘Jew for Jesus,’ someone that practiced messianic Judaism, accepting Christ as the Messiah. We often gathered during any free time we had – especially for lunch – and occasionally attended services at each other’s churches. These times with this group of friends did a great deal to help me find my faith and understand what it meant to be a Christian in today’s world.

I recall one day at lunch we discussed who we thought was the first Christian. This was the sort of theological question we often discussed while munching sandwiches in the student union. There were a variety of opinions, as you might expect with such a diverse group (despite our common belief in Jesus Christ). Some suggested Mary, because she was the one who said that great “Yes” to God when asked to bear His Son. Some favored John the Baptist, for his pronouncement of Christ as the Lamb of God. Others suggested Andrew and John because they were the first called to follow Jesus. I favored Simon Peter, because as we hear in Matthew’s Gospel he was the first to stand up and proclaim, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16) I don’t know that we solved this little puzzle to our satisfaction that day, but I’ve never stopped thinking about Peter and his place as a believer and why he was chosen by Christ to be the foundation of the church.

If one could make the case for Peter as the first Christian, you could also make the case for Paul as Christianity’s greatest convert. His influence on the Christian faith is inestimable – I know non-Catholics that have suggested Paul’s letters are of greater significance than even the Gospels for our understanding of what it means to be a Christian. And while I myself will always go back to Christ in the Gospels as my own foundation, I cannot diminish the importance or great influence of Paul on our faith.

On the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul we celebrate two great pillars of our faith. Two men that despite a variety of obvious shortcomings were chosen by Christ to lead his church, not just in their own time but two thousand years later and beyond. Christ chose Peter that day to be the rock upon which his church would be built, a rock that not even the gates of the netherworld could overcome. Talk about great responsibility. And Christ chose Paul on the road to Damascus, despite his persecution of believers. Chosen to preach, chosen to share the Word of God throughout the world.

Both men certainly had moments of doubt and shame. We all have. And that’s one of the reasons they are great models of faith for us. Because like us they were all-too-human. They stumbled and struggled and yet they persisted. They were both great missionaries for Christ, taking the Good News everywhere they went and bringing new believers to Christ. There were plenty of times when they each could have given up and turned away from Christ completely, but they did not. Even in the face of certain death. They both learned from their mistakes and setbacks – as we all should – and grew stronger in their belief for it.

I will always remember with great fondness that time of searching for my faith. Searching for something I could grasp hold of, say it’s mine. Take ownership of what I believed. And those people that surrounded me and helped me find my way. And to this day the people that continue to help me find my way. To stay rooted, to stay strong, to keep the faith. And as disciples, we all have that ability to help others find their way. Because despite all that Peter and Paul were and the fact they were each chosen personally by Christ they still weren’t able to do it alone. They had to have help. They needed the support and strength and love of other believers to help sustain them. We all do. Like Peter and Paul, Christ has extended a personal invitation to each one of us. An invitation to believe, an invitation to serve, an invitation to go out as missionaries in the world and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to all nations. That is the model of these two great pillars of our faith. They are the model of what Christ expects of each one of us.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

BASE Camp 2009 - Reflection

This past week our young people participated in our annual BASE Camp experience. When Kate Kleintank and myself first starting forming plans for a joint project for youth from St. Mark and St. William of York parish I don't think we quite envisioned what BASE Camp has become. Originally it was to be a workcamp, an opportunity for a group of young people from the two parishes to come together and get to know each other better while putting their faith into action through community service. Certainly a laudable goal in and of itself. However, BASE Camp has evolved into something much more than that, with much of the credit going to Mercy Sr. Katherine Nueslein, or "Sr. Kitty" as we affectionately call her. And that transition began when we stopped calling this a "workcamp" and began calling it BASE Camp, the letters "B," "A," "S" and "E" standing for Baltimore - Act, Serve, Evangelize.

Through many conversations between Sr. Kitty and myself and trying new things we've come to the conclusion that as important as the work is, it is just as important (if not more so) for our young people to experience something that goes well beyond doing a "good deed for the day." We want our young people to feel the pulse of the city, to form relationships with its residents, to hear their stories and understand that reaching out and helping is much more than cutting grass or cleaning up trash. We want our young people to see that there is much healing that needs to happen in our city, and that they have the power to make that healing happen as disciples of Christ. Today, BASE Camp is less about the service and more about the EXPERIENCE. It's about putting your faith into action not just in a physical way but in a way that encourages advocacy for peace and justice. And through that advocacy we can be healers.

Each day of our BASE Camp experience featured a different theme. Day One was "Solidarity," and we prayed on that theme throughout the day as we discovered what it truly means to stand in solidarity with our less fortunate sisters and brothers. The theme of Day Two was "Care of God's Creation," and much of our time was spent working on a park that serves as a small oasis of peace in one of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods. Day Three was "Witness," and we witnessed to our faith through our actions, and were amazed and gratified by the large number of people that pitched in to help or merely stopped by to say 'Thank You' for all we were doing to try and restore pride in community in the southwest district. Our Day Four theme was "Discipleship," and we heard profound testimony all week of what it means to be a disciple from the clients at Hezekiah House, who told us that through the darkest hours of our lives we had to continue to seek God's light. And we heard from the residents of Jonah House, who explored with us the pervasive and suffocating violence that permeates our world. And finally, our Day Five theme was "Go Forth," with the idea being that our last day of BASE Camp is not an ending but a continuation of what it means to go forth and shout to all nations the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Each day of our BASE Camp experience our youth prayed together in our Mary garden before we left for the worksite, and in the evening assessed each day with reflection, prayer, meditation and the writing of our prayer intentions on our BASE Camp prayer cloth. And our prayer intentions went well beyond just praying for the people of Baltimore and those we met through our work. We prayed for the grandmother of one of our youth that passed away this past week. For the mother of another participant that was hospitalized during our week. For Vincent Woodward from Resurrection parish in Ellicott City - where Kate Kleintank now works - who was tragically killed in an automobile accident. For our families that were missing us and for our friends and acquaintances in pain and suffering. For Sr. Kitty and each person we met during BASE Camp. And of course, for one another. For strength, for safety, for continued blessings on the work of our hands and for peace and justice to come to the city of Baltimore, and throughout the world.

It was particularly gratifying for me to see not only the way our young people work and reach out to southwest Baltimore, but to see how they reach out and support and comfort one another. Our new participants were welcomed with open arms and quickly became part of our BASE Camp family. And a group of our older participants stepped into the role of "Young Adult Leader" with maturity and grace.

In many readings from the Gospels the theme is healing. Christ demonstrated to his disciples the power of healing and that all who believe in him will be healed. This week at BASE Camp, despite a different theme each day, it was all about one thing - healing. We healed through our work and we healed through our prayers. We healed by being the answer to someone else's prayer… the person too sick to clean up their own property; the person caught up in addiction; the poor and the hungry and those just struggling each day to get by. And of course, the prayers of each other. Solidarity, care, witness, discipleship and mission. They all add up to one thing: healing. Jesus said "…as you have believed, let it be done for you." (Matthew 8:13) Our young people are believers, our young people are disciples. Our young people stand ready to go forth and be healers in our world.

Friday, June 26, 2009

BASE Camp - Day Five+

Oh, the best-laid plans of mice and men...

Day Five+ of our 2009 BASE Camp experience began with a bang - literally. As we arrived to drop off a crew at the community service center we heard a loud 'BANG' followed by a slow hiss... Sr. Kitty had a flat. She seemed completely unperturbed, however. "Oh, this happens all the time" was her response. Despite the seeming setback our ever-enthusiastic BASE Camp crew eagerly took on the task of changing the tire (even though none of them had any experience in this area). Although it looked like the beginnings of a bad joke ("How many BASE Camp participants does it take to change a flat tire?") they met their first challenge of the day head-on and with success.

Our large project for this last day of BASE Camp was at the Traci Atkins Park. Traci Atkins was a young girl who was killed when she was hit by a truck as she played in the water of an opened fire hydrant on a hot summer day. The park was created as a place for children to be able to play safely without the worry of traffic. Our task was to dig a relief trench for water that was backing up onto the wading pool deck. Even though it was hot, sweaty work our team dove in (no pun intended) and dug the trench, using the dirt they removed to fill in other holes around the park property. The team also cleaned up trash around the park, and even managed to find some time to play basketball with some young people from the neighborhood. It was a great project on all kinds of levels for our BASE Camp participants - not just for the opportunity to make the park a little nicer for the youngsters that visit there, but also to spend time building relationships with their peers in the neighborhood.

We made a financial donation to the Hezekiah Movement, and there were food donations to sort in the morning as well. Much from one of our St. William of York parishioners, and also food from BASE Camp that we knew we would not need. The crew divided the food donations into bags to be presented to needy families in the area. Another crew spent part of the day cleaning out a storage garage at the community service center, and we ended our time with a group walk to Hollins Market where we sampled a wide variety of treats.

We had a final assessment with Sr. Kitty and focused on our theme for the day, "Go Forth." The youth talked much of their experiences of the past week, and also talked of their dreams for continuing the work we've done. It was particularly gratifying for me to hear how profoundly our young people experienced their faith in action over the last few days.

It's nearly 11pm and a group of about a dozen of the youth have gone over to the church to pray and write prayer intentions on our BASE Camp prayer cloth. Tomorrow is our cleanup day at St. Will's. I know it will be a day of tears and sad farewells. But the 2009 BASE Camp crew is ready to "Go Forth!"

Thursday, June 25, 2009

BASE Camp - Day Four+

Today at BASE Camp - Day Four+ we had a relatively easy day. And the group certainly deserved it after the volume of work they did yesterday. But that doesn't mean they didn't work at all. The youth still cleaned up three blocks, helped out at the community service center, and managed to squeeze in time for some of our group to visit a local "arab" stable. "Arabbers" as they were called used horses to pull carts full of fruit and vegetables around Baltimore, a sort of "home delivery" service of fresh produce. A Baltimore cultural institution for nearly a century, there is now only one arabber stable still in existence, and it's in the Hollins Market community of Southwest Baltimore. Our "newbs" enjoyed visiting this bit of Baltimore history, learning about the arabbers, and seeing the many horses and carts at the stable.

In the mid-afternoon we took the group on a field trip to Jonah House. Their brochure states that "Jonah House began as a community in 1973 with a group of people that included Philip Berrigan, a Catholic priest, and Elizabeth McAlister, formerly a Catholic nun. The community later called itself Jonah House. With the name, meanings accrued: 'If God could use Jonah for the works of justice, there is hope for each of us.' 'Are we not all reluctant prophets?' From its inception, the community included religious and lay people, married and single people, children and adults, younger and older people.

"The community lived in a row-house in west Baltimore for 23 years, and moved to St. Peter’s Cemetery in 1996. The Jonah House community lives in the 22 acre cemetery and cares for the grounds. One third of the cemetery has been cleared; the rest is woods overgrown with vines. The community maintains a vegetable garden and dozens of fruit trees, berry bushes, flowers and ornamentals.

"People at Jonah House are committed to making nonviolence a way of life. We agree that 'Thou shalt not kill' has no exceptions: we believe that we are commanded by our faith not to kill and, beyond that, to resist killing in our name. More – we know that nonviolence involves the utmost respect for each other, for all people (individually and collectively), and for all creation."

The youth very much enjoyed their tour of the cemetery property (which includes the burial site of Philip Berrigan), seeing the variety of animals there and sampling some plums from the trees. Most importantly, the opportunity to discuss systemic violence in our world with the residents at Jonah House. For some of the adults in our group it was an honor to meet Liz McAlister. The youth were especially taken with her explanation of Jesus' command to "turn the other cheek." The youth asked if we could make Jonah House an all-day stop next year, to help out on the property and continue to mine the great wisdom of the family there.

Our theme for the day was "discipleship," and we heard about what it means to be a disciple in a very vivid way at Jonah House. But throughout our BASE Camp 2009 experience I have seen discipleship displayed in an equally vivid way by our young people. They have repeatedly reached out to anyone they could, taken on every task offered, and displayed a great deal of self-motivation and camaraderie. They were talking this evening with a bit of sadness about how our BASE Camp experience for 2009 is nearly over. At Mass tonight Fr. Marty implored them to continue doing what they do, but also to continue taking it to the next level, to walk boldly as Christians, true models of discipleship in our world.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

BASE Camp - Day Three+

Day Three+ of our BASE Camp experience is winding down and if nothing else I can honestly say I saw mountains moved today. Our theme for the day was "Witness," and our young people were very visible witnesses to God's presence in Southwest Baltimore.

For the past few years there is a rather large property at the corners of Pratt and Mount Streets that our group has been working on. The property is owned by Southwest Visions, one of the many organizations that Sr. Kitty is associated with. The intent when the property was originally purchased was to one day build housing for low-income families. But changes in the economy - at both the national and neighborhood level - thwarted those plans. The property sits in the shadows of a former Catholic parish, Fourteen Holy Martyrs. The building now houses a Baptist Church and Dismas House, the objective of which "is to aid residents in making a smooth transition from the penal system, or to act as an alternative to incarceration for those serving sentences of three years or less."

Since we have been working the property for a number of years (primarily to keep it in compliance with city regulations) our group has taken a real sense of ownership and pride in the work that we've done there. As we drove by on Monday morning it was evident that the property was in serious need of attention. Our group wasn't disheartened by what they saw - the saw it merely as a challenge, and one they were prepared to take on.

It took the better part of two days, but the work our young people did was extraordinary. Not only did they cut the very high and thick grass, they removed dozens of bags of trash and debris, moved huge mounds of vines, clippings and branches, weeded, swept and sweated buckets, all the while maintaining their good humor and enthusiasm. Throughout the day people stopped by the tell our youth how much they appreciated what was being done, and how impressed they were that this group of young people gave of their time and talents to make this part of Baltimore a better place for it's residents.

During our lunch break we heard from Stefan, a success story from Hezekiah Movement, yet another of Sr. Kitty's connections. Stefan spoke of his coming to America from his homeland of Trinidad and Tobago, and how he fell into a pattern of substance abuse and the darkness that enveloped his life. His rollercoaster ride through recovery and drug-taking came to a screeching halt when his 7 year old daughter - just two days in the United States - was murdered in front of him. It was a heart-rending story, but one of hope and trust in God. Stefan spoke proudly of his three years of being clean, and his efforts now to help others in recovery.

Each evening we have an assessment of the day and prayer, and each time we gather the youth speak of the wonderful experiences they're having. Most of all they have learned that Baltimore is much more than the Orioles and the Ravens; much more than Harborplace and Little Italy; much more than drugs and guns and violence. It is a city of people like them, people just trying to make it through each day. People that are warm and friendly and appreciate the efforts of our young people. People that need a little help to see the light of Christ in the world. People that have their hearts touched by the amazing witness of BASE Camp 2009.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

BASE Camp - Day Two+

The theme for today's BASE Camp experience was care for God's creation. We returned to Stockton Street to help our friend Steve with a community park he has built and we have returned to year after year to assist with landscaping, dredging of the pond, painting, and general cleanup of the area. Steve has built a little oasis of peace in the middle of one of Baltimore's poorer neighborhoods, but it's a sizable task to maintain the property. There is a pond, which includes a masonry structure topped by a cross and water fountain, many, many trees and bushes and open space. But it's a quiet, peaceful place nestled just a stone's throw away from the bustle of Pratt Street. This is our fourth year working this property and it's something our group has taken a sense of pride and ownership about. Even our "newbs" jumped into the project with gusto, and were rewarded with a walking tour of the area which included a visit to Hollins Market and then snowballs from a streetside vendor on the way back (featuring four - count 'em, FOUR - delicious flavors to choose from... grape, strawberry, banana and egg custard). Tommy noted the providential nature of our snowball stand visit - after a discussion of snowballs and sausages at Hollins Market we bought snowballs from a vendor that was using a sausage machine to grind the ice. God has a sense of humor as well as tying things up neatly with a bow.

As always our youth dove in with enthusiasm, clearing and trimming shrubs, repairing masonry and painting walls that have been damaged by graffiti. Steve feels it important to share God's Word with all who visit the park, and the nearby walls are another way of getting that Word out. The artists in our group loved re-painting the walls and adding new verses to those we've painted in the past. They even were able to demonstrate their creative side on one of the walls. We also finished our work on Poppleton Street, and look forward to tomorrow when we'll tackle the big lot at the corners of Pratt and Mount Streets.

We met many, many new people today, and the one thing that has been particularly exciting to see is the boundless enthusiasm of our young people. They have worked hard while maintaining a good humor, have gone out of their way to meet and greet the local residents of the community, and displayed humility in accepting the "Thank Yous" for the fine work they've done. One of our young people was told today by a resident that they are so grateful to have us come there and help them once again have a community they can feel proud of.

Our young people have been models of prayer, justice and love in all they have done these first two days. As we chanted "Veni Sancte Spiritus" to open our evening prayer I couldn't help but be moved by their young voices singing as one, asking for the Holy Spirit to be with us this day and throughout BASE Camp. Their youth is a gift. Not just to the community of South Baltimore where we do our work, but to all of us. They ARE Christ present among us, and like Christ they are (in the words of Walter Brueggemann, from our closing prayer) "giving gladly... giving in abundance... giving in joy... giving as he gave himself up for us all."

Monday, June 22, 2009

BASE Camp - Day One+

We've just finished prayer to close out Day One+ of our 2009 BASE Camp experience. The "+" because we really started yesterday with Mass, orientation, and some time getting to know one another. But today was our first on-site day. The exciting thing for me was to hear how the "newbs" were touched by today's many happenings in such a positive way, despite a somewhat ominous start (a drug bust in progress on Monroe Street as we were driving down at 8:45am).

It was great as always to see Sr. Kitty and to see her excitement at having a large group of BASE Camp young people to be at her service throughout this week. I know this sort of thing energizes her a great deal and I know it gives her hope for the future - a future where understanding will help to break down the barriers that separate people from one another.

There were a number of interesting moments today, but one struck me especially as the epitome of how small gestures can reap great rewards. Early in the day as we were preparing to move off in different directions we were scrambling a bit with deciding which tools to send where because we had a tool shortage. The shortage being that all of Sr. Kitty's tools had recently been stolen out of her back yard. But we worked it out and divided up our groups and began the work. At the Poppleton St. site where we had groups weeding and picking up trash I noticed a pile of trash laying in the middle of one of the alleys. As I walked closer I could see that this small pile of trash was the end of a trail that ran behind a house where there were literally hundreds of books, papers, articles of clothing and a wide variety of "knick-knacks" strewn about. When I reached the pile in the middle of the alley I realized that laying there amongst the trash were about a dozen bottles of prescription medications. Since there were small children about I immediately called over two of our young people - Megan and Joey - and asked them to clean up the trash in the street and especially dispose of the medications.

A few minutes later I was approached by a man - Tom - who asked me if I had seen who dumped the trash. He was very upset because he owned the house where all this trash was. As Tom later surmised, he had renters that had left recently and their idea of cleaning out the house was to dump everything out the back windows and into the yard. He left, and when I related the story to our youth they immediately took it upon themselves to clean up the man's yard. It took a while, and yielded about a dozen large bags of trash. When Tom returned a few hours later he was blown away that we had done the work. He tried to give me money, to buy the youth "pizzas or something." When I refused it he asked if he could make some kind of donation. I suggested he walk down the street to the Hezekiah House (a substance abuse rehabilitation center and our base of operations) a make a donation there, which he promptly did. When he returned he again thanked us and was getting ready to load all the trash in his truck when our youth again pitched in and loaded it for him. He came to me again and asked if he could buy us something - maybe tools. I told him about Sr. Kitty and how all her tools were recently stolen. At that moment she came out the front door of her house. Tom rushed across the street and offered to replace her stolen tools.

Answered prayers. In his homily Sunday morning Fr. Marty Demek talked of how this week these young people were going to be the answer to someone's prayers. And we saw it today, a ripple effect that began with picking up some prescription drugs in the middle of the street. Perhaps a mother whose prayer was her child never get started in the drug trade had her prayer answered when we removed that temptation from the middle of the alley. And perhaps Tom's prayer was answered for a relief from the stress and anxiety he was feeling because of what happened to his property. And perhaps Sr. Kitty's prayers to have her tools replaced was also answered.

Ripples... answered prayers... we all have the opportunity to be someone's answer to prayer. I saw it tangibly today, at BASE Camp - Day One+.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Barnabas the Peacemaker

I had never really given St. Barnabas much thought before the last few days. I knew of him, but hadn’t considered his ministry, why he was a saint, why he was important. There are dozens of saints that are far more ‘popular.’ Everyone from Paul to Teresa to Francis to Therese to Maximilian Kolbe and someday Theresa of Calcutta and John Paul – they are more well known, more revered, more time spent in devotion to. They are invoked and looked to for intervention and assistance. Jude, Anthony, Joseph and Mary, of course, are called upon constantly in times of trouble and strife and worry and need. But honestly, when was the last time any of us prayed to Barnabas? Perhaps on June 11 of last year. Yet the more I have read and learned about Barnabas the more I want to understand his importance.

When we think of a saintly patron of peace, chances are we think of Francis of Assisi. And the great love of Francis by the faithful has probably overshadowed Barnabas. While Francis was a man of peace – a very Christ-centered virtue – Barnabas was a man who MADE peace. The patronage of Barnabas isn’t just peace, but peacemaking. He is the patron of mediators – according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Law “…one that works to effect reconciliation, settlement, or compromise between parties at variance.” While Christ is the one mediator between God and people (I Timothy 2:5) Barnabas was an earthly mediator, seeking compromise between groups in disagreement.

Being a mediator is not glamorous work. Nor is it fun. I’m sure everyone has had the experience of being the ‘go-between’ in an argument or disagreement. Whether between family members, co-workers, acquaintances or friends each of us has had times where we had to act as the one that brings those two sides together, to find a common ground with which everyone can be reconciled with if not completely satisfied. And occasionally, the task seems almost impossible. Or we lose the trust and confidence of one or both sides and then we are not just the one in the middle, we are the one that ends up caught in the crossfire. We end up damaged and beaten down and no one is any the better.

But being a mediator can also be incredibly rewarding work. And there is every indication that Barnabas was very good at what he did. He was a sponsor of Paul to the other apostles and was his close companion. He was one who visited the various communities of early Christians, encouraging them and helping them understand their new-born and developing faith. He brought communities together that were moving in different directions and helped them understand the centrality of Christ to their faith. And like many early Christians who shared and evangelized their faith in a very public manner he was martyred. In the Acts of the Apostles he is described as “a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith.” (Acts 11:22-24) There really isn’t a higher compliment.

In the Sermon on the Mount Christ exhorts those gathered – and us today – to be reconciled with one another (Matthew 5:23-24). We can’t live a true Christian life if we are constantly at odds with one another, if we are criticizing one another, if we’re constantly holding others in judgment. In everything we do we have to open our hearts to one another – even when it’s difficult or uncomfortable. In everything we must “go first and be reconciled.” These commands are ones Barnabas was surely familiar with because he carried his own handwritten copy of the Gospel of Matthew, a copy he had with him at the time of his death. Not just commands he was familiar with, but commands he lived by, and commands he was willing to give up his life for.

In the days, months and years ahead I know Barnabas will be much more in my thoughts and prayers. Two of the great evils in the world are misunderstanding and distrust. Barnabas’ life was all about helping people understand one another, and helping people to learn to trust one another. Besides his patronage of peacemakers, he truly is a model of what it means to be an apostle of Christ even though like Barnabas we aren’t one of the original twelve. A model of what it means to live as a Christian – to go out and share God’s love with others and help them understand through our efforts God’s place in their lives. A model of evangelization, reconciliation, and great faith. St. Barnabas, the peacemaker. St. Barnabas, the good man filled with the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

When Salt Loses its Flavor...

The reading from the Gospel of Matthew on the similes of salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16) is a favorite reference point when we want to address the themes of justice and service, of sharing our gifts and talents, of putting our faith into action. We often cite it in youth ministry circles as a rallying cry for the young church – “You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world! Your light must shine before others!” These are powerful words, a powerful command directly from Christ. But as I thought about this passage I began to approach it from a different perspective. I keyed in on a phrase that perhaps doesn’t always get the same amount of 'attention.' “If salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?”

I’m into the beginning of what will become the busiest, craziest time of year for me. Multiple programs with a couple of hundred participants. Each program presenting a different set of challenges and problems. Six weeks of coordinating volunteers, meals, locations, transportation, teenagers, sleeping arrangements. And if that wasn’t enough, there are prayer experiences and liturgies to plan. Prayers and liturgies that I need to make sure are meaningful for the participants.

Now I’m not trying to make myself out to be some sort of superman. I know each of you has times in your life where you have to juggle work and family and activities and church and recreation and major decision-making and all the other crazy things that we try to stuff into this box we call 'Life.' And each of us has periods where all this seems to converge like a runaway train hurtling down the tracks and no matter how hard we try we can’t put the brakes on to stop it. These times in our lives, these times when we feel lost or overwhelmed or spiritually barren are the times when the salt has lost its flavor. When we are so spiritually drained we cannot 'season' life and our relationships with others and our relationship with our God.

The problem for many of us is that this puts our living on the edge. It’s a fine balance, and a balance easily tipped. Maybe an illness, an unexpected financial need, something that comes to us from out of nowhere that begins to tip the balance the wrong way. And we feel it. We feel our grasp slipping away, we feel the foundation beneath us crumbling, we start dog-paddling, desperately trying to keep our heads above water. The salt that we are has lost its flavor.

Sometimes we need to treat life as a marathon. The next eight weeks for me are a marathon. And I know it’s coming. And like a marathon, I need to train. I need to be on top of my planning and not allow things to slip by. But most importantly, I need to see to it that my spiritual needs are being met. Because if they aren’t I’m not going to be able to facilitate the spiritual needs of others. I cannot give something to someone that I don’t have myself. I need to spend time in prayer. I need to make time to have quiet reflection. I need to come to worship with an open heart and mind and actively seek Christ’s embrace. We all do! I can’t wait four, six weeks to do this. I need to do it NOW. I need to build up my spiritual stamina NOW. Some of us have the opportunity to go away on retreat, and we need to take those opportunities. My friend Deacon John Langmead used to call it "retreat to advance." Stepping back, assessing, resting, and praying, and then moving forward.

Now I know that no matter how much I try to plan and prepare, there will be things that will go awry. That’s part of life as well. The trick is not seeing those interruptions to our routine as setbacks. We need to be ready to recognize God in those interruptions. And ask ourselves, “What is God saying to me in this moment? Do I need to slow down? Am I doing too much, trying too hard? Do I need to rely less on myself and more on God’s will? What do I need to do to remind myself that it is God – not me – that is in control?”

In his book “The Cost of Discipleship” Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about how Christ doesn’t say we MUST be salt or that we HAVE salt. Christ says we ARE salt. We are the essence of seasoning on earth, and on earth we have been entrusted with the work of Christ. We are what Bonhoeffer calls “The Visible Community.” Yes, Christ wants us to be salt and light for the world. But we cannot give what we do not possess ourselves. We need to pray, we need to make time to pray. We have to come to God in worship; we have to meet Christ in the Eucharist. And we have to be serious about it. Christ is the salt that seasons our lives, the light in times of darkness. And if we have Christ in us we can be salt and light for others.