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.