Sunday, June 27, 2010

BASE Camp 2010 Day Six - Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 24, 2010

BASE Camp 2010 Day Five - Humble Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BASE Camp 2010 Day Four - Witness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

BASE Camp 2010 Day Three - Small Things

"It is not what we do that is important, but how much love we put into what we do: we should do small things with great love."
~ Mother Teresa

Small things with great love. Again and again today we were told that these seemingly small things we do when we venture into Southwest Baltimore demonstrate great love. And, as Brother Joe told me today, "your young people have truly transformed our community."

It was a busy day today with multiple crews going in varying directions. We did everything from street cleanup to setting up for a retirement party to moving furniture. Along the way we talked with a great many people, many who shared with us the joy they felt we had brought to their community. One young man - who goes by the name "Pig" - kept circling around us on his bicycle. Every time he came close and we tried to strike up a conversation with him he'd turn and ride away. But within a few short moments he would return, each time venturing closer. Finally he dismounted the bike and - still not really conversing - picked up a rake and began helping with the work. He helped us finish the work on that street and then rode off again. But little moments like that, where we have the opportunity to make even the smallest connection with someone are true gifts.

During lunch our group was visited by Laurie, who shared with us her struggles with alcohol and drug addiction and how organizations like Hezekiah Movement helps keep her clean and productive. She talked with joy about her three children, the middle one planning on entering college this fall. Her journey into addiction began at the age of 13 as a result of peer pressure and it's been a 27 year battle for her, But there was much joy and hope in how she views her life today and her continuing recovery. Our young people strongly affirmed her path and promised to pray for her.

One of our crews worked on a prayer garden behind the newly opened "Island of Hope" building. If you're familiar with the television program "The Wire" which infamously chronicles the drug wars in Baltimore or "Homicide: Life on the Street" you may also know that the Baltimore writer whose works these are based on - David Simon - also co-wrote the book "The Corner" about Baltimore's most notorious drug trafficking location. Island of Hope is located on this corner. It is indeed an island of hope for the community - a place where people of the community can join together to pray, to meditate and to find healing. The prayer garden itself was one of the first lot cleanups we did back in 2005 (before BASE Camp was BASE Camp). It's incredible to see what the small seed planted five years ago has grown into. That crew was supervised by Jerry Buettner - a fellow youth minister, good friend, and social justice shining light. Jerry calls Baltimore "Smalltimore" because of it's neighborhood character. And it seems everyone knows Jerry - again and again I encounter people that have somehow had their lives touched by Jerry. Our young people had a great day working with him.

We made new friends on the basketball courts of the Hollins Market community and unfortunately had to say good-bye to one old one... Sr. Kitty. Sr. Kitty had to travel to a national conference of Mercy Sisters in Charlotte, North Carolina and won't be able to be with us for the remainder of the week. This pained her greatly because she loves spending time with our young people. But she also left town confident in the knowledge that our young people would perform the work spectacularly, infusing each small act with great love. We won't let her down.

Monday, June 21, 2010

BASE Camp 2010 Day Two - Presence

Our first on-site day of BASE Camp went very well despite ridiculously hot temperatures throughout the day. The young people worked, and sweated, and worked and sweated some more. But they never backed off on the work, despite a dead animal removal to start the day to spreading bag after bag of mulch in the hot afternoon sun. Attitude was great and we accomplished more than we were expected to.

At lunch we talked with Sr. Kitty about the history of this area of Baltimore as well as her own time here. She spoke of coming to the community in 1978, and despite a planned retirement spent in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia, she has continued her work against all the odds - a spiraling economy, issues with the city, her own battle with cancer - in her current and always home. Sr. Kitty talked frankly of "getting down" when she first found out she'd need to continue with her chemotherapy, but how she concluded that she wasn't going to let it get in her way, she wasn't going to allow it to slow her down, all because she still has much ministry to do in her beloved Hollins Market community. One of the Hezekiah Movement volunteers spoke with our group about the "broken, battered down and wounded" nature of the community. But he also strongly reminded our youth that they "give people hope" and lift people's hearts in the community by showing we care. A group of us were able to visit the site of one of our first community cleanups back in 2005 and see how the space has been turned into a lovely prayer and meditation garden. And how we'll have a hand in finishing it off in the days ahead.

The evening was filled with prayer and laughter and visits from old friends and new. The BASE Camp faithful met the new pastor for our soon-to-be-joined relationship with St. Agnes parish, Fr. Michael DeAscanis. Fr. Michael appeared impressed with the size of our group as well as our focus on the teachings of Mother Teresa this week. We shared with him a little about our work in the Southwest Baltimore community as well as our relationship with Sr. Kitty.

We spoke much of presence today. Not just our being present to the Southwest Baltimore community, but being present to one another in our own woundedness. And understanding that like the mustard seed of scripture we can grow big things from the smallest of seeds. We have the opportunity to make great change with the smallest of acts.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

BASE Camp 2010 Day One - Dignity

"We should not serve the poor like they were Jesus. We should serve the poor because they are Jesus." ~ Mother Teresa

Treating others with dignity. Understanding that it's not always our responsibility to attempt to "fix" others, but that there is a great gift in presence, in the extending of one's hand. These ideas are the foundation of what we're focusing on this year at BASE Camp.

The first day is always joyful. I love seeing everyone come together for liturgy, for prayer, for friendship. Seeing some we have not seen in weeks, months, perhaps since last year's BASE Camp. Seeing the instant camaraderie. Seeing the way our BASE Camp "newbies" are immediately welcomed into the community. Seeing the ways the ties of this family continue to bond, and that bond be strengthened.

We're focusing on the words of Mother Teresa for this year's BASE Camp experience because her life, her ministry was all about treating others with dignity. Each day our prayer focus will be on her words and what they speak to us about the human condition and our call as Christians.

Tonight we watched the film "The Soloist." And as I explained to the young people it aptly portrays the stages we often go through in our relationships... the first tentative reaching out... developing our conversation and interaction... going to that next level of empathy and compassion... our sometimes misguided (no matter how noble) attempts to make change in someone else's life... and finally realizing that what's most important is the be present, to be a friend.

We will have many opportunities in the week ahead to be present. To be present to our good friend Sr. Kitty. To be present to the people of Southwest Baltimore. And sometimes most importantly to be present to one another. To be present, and treat others with the dignity they deserve. To see the Christ that is present in others. To be the presence of Christ to all those we encounter.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Who's in Charge Here?

People that know me well know that I'm pretty big on control. And while I would not go so far as to label myself as a "control freak," I think you could say I'm a bit of an "organizational freak." I like things organized. I like things to have a place and I like them to be in that place when I return to them. When I put something somewhere and it's not in the same place when I come back to it I often get upset or anxious. Perhaps I have a touch of obsessive compulsive disorder. Being organized helps me to have control in my life. So if you were to look in my office you may see this array of books and papers and other items and think to yourself "How does he have any idea where things are when he needs them?" But I do. I have things organized in binders and my computer files are organized into neat folders. So if you came to me and asked, for example, what we served for dinner at BASE Camp on the Wednesday of 2007 I would go into my documents file, open my Youth Ministry folder and go into the BASE Camp folder and then into the 2007 folder, open up my Excel workbook for that year and go to the tab labeled "Daily Checkoff" and I could tell you we served lasagna and even tell you what adult volunteers provided a salad and dessert for us that evening.

Being organized like this helps me feel in control. I don't like surprises. I used to play chess a lot and to be a good chess player you have to be really good at thinking ahead. Thinking through all the possible moves you can make and what your opponent may do in response and then how you will respond to that, etc., etc. And I think that way a lot. I think about conversations before I have them and how people may respond to what I say to them and then how I'll respond in turn. This helps me feel in control.

So last week when the pastor went out of town and left me in charge there's a wealth of things to think about and do and take care of, because frankly he's more of a "control freak" than I am. When I first started doing this I took all kinds of notes as he led me around and showed me what doors to lock and unlock and how the heating and the air conditioning works and setting alarms and what to do if the alarms go off and yes, if they go off in the middle of the night I'll be meeting the police here at the building (and that's happened a few times). I even made a diagram of how he sets things out for Mass so that I could be sure things were arranged as he'd want them.

I was fretting a bit because I heard early on that there was a weather prediction that we may be getting 15-20 inches of snow over the next few weeks. And I thought "Great - just my luck we'll have a weekend snowstorm" and then I'll have to worry about snow removal and whether or not the priest is going to show up and everything else that could be thrown off kilter. But as the week progressed the predictions went down. It became 2-4 inches, then 1-3 inches, and then a dusting of snow. And Facebook has this feature where you can enter in little things about your life - what's going on, what you're doing, what you're thinking. And Friday I wrote something like "I'm glad we're not getting much snow this weekend so I don't have to deal with snow removal and making sure the priest can get here for Mass." I was feeling in control and safe.

Then Saturday morning came. About 10:30am I looked outside and I remember thinking "This doesn't look like a dusting to me." Three hours later I was shoveling snow and getting myself worked up with anxiety about the rest of the weekend. I no longer felt in control. But everything worked out. And I updated my Facebook status to say "Every time I think I'm in control I'm reminded who really holds the reigns." And some of my friends - including some of our parishioners - thought that pretty funny.

Who is really in control? Not me. As much as I may try to take command of my environment and events I'm reminded again and again that God is in control. No matter how much I may plan and organize and think ahead it's God's plan that I have to follow. And trust in that plan. Mother Teresa once said "I know God will not give me anything I can't handle. I just wish that He didn't trust me so much." And that's the way it is for most of us. God lays a lot on us at times. And as much as we may try to control our lives ultimately we just have to give it up and give ourselves over to God. In the Gospel of Mark we hear of the man possessed by many demons. The man was not in control. But he trusted. He gave himself over to Christ and was set free.

We all have moments in our lives when we work really hard to be in control and find we're not. But our lives are full of demons that possess us and misguide us and may even lead us away from God. True faith is prostrating ourselves spiritually before God. Trusting in His plan. Trusting in His care. Trusting in his boundless love for us and desire in nothing more from us than to return that love. Return it in how we live, how we pray, how we worship, how we come to Christ. And then the demons that seek to possess us - fear, anxiety, mistrust, worry - will be driven out. We will be set free. We just have to remember who is really in charge.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Fierce Was the Wild Billow

It seems that over the last few weeks I’m encountering more and more people struggling. Struggling with their jobs (or lack thereof), struggling with their relationships, struggling with their faith. Unfortunately, we're simultaneously being bombarded with strife and worry on a grand scale every day. The tragedy of Haiti. Terrorist attacks and war in the Middle East. Starvation and genocide in Africa. A spiraling economy and political dogfights here in the United States. And because of this confluence of events I'm continually hearing people say things like "My life is terrible right now, but those people in Haiti have it much worse so I guess I should be thankful." And I agree to an extent that sometimes we do need to put things in perspective. Sometimes we need to ask ourselves just how bad things really are for us when there is so much going on with others in the world. Sometimes we need to step back and consider the blessings we do have in our lives.

The problem can arise when our own troubles seem to be constantly overshadowed by the things we see and hear and read about every day. Then we may begin to disregard seeing to our own spiritual and mental health needs. We can fall into a malaise driven by helplessness and the belief that we should just keep our problems to ourselves because somebody else has it much worse than we do. We become trapped at the center of a maelstrom we can't control and can't seem to escape. The storm continues to build and consume us until hope and rescue seem lost to us. We may feel abandoned and alone. But we are not.

Life is often one storm after another. For some people it's a never-ending series of storms large and small that beat us down and take our strength. For others it's the sudden squall, the storm that appears when all seems peaceful and sweeps us away and terrorizes us and leaves us exhausted and powerless. For others it's the constant storm that hovers above us and threatens and worries and leaves us trembling in fear. We may feel abandoned and alone. But we are not.

You may have heard people jokingly use the expression that someone is having a “come to Jesus moment,” a time when we have reached a precipice in our lives, a moment when all may seem lost and our options are extremely limited. Perhaps a moment when failure or embarrassment is staring us dead in the eye. A time when we look for support and help and no one is there to save us. We may feel abandoned and alone. But we are not.

The disciples felt this. They put all their trust in Christ and set out in a boat on the waters. The storms came, they rocked and swayed and seemed in danger of capsizing. Their world seemed to be crumbling down upon them as Christ slept calmly. They screamed in terror. They felt abandoned and alone. But they were not.

Christ calms the storm. "Why are you terrified?" He asks. "Do you not yet have faith?" Christ is with us in the darkness as well as the light. He stands beside us when no one else will. He carries us when the weight becomes too great to bear. He draws us to His arms when we are cold, alone, and afraid. But we must have faith. We have to seek Him in worship and in prayer, in the Eucharist and in the openness of our own hearts. If we can't open our hearts to Christ we will be lost. We will feel abandoned and alone.

St. Anatolius wrote a beautiful poem titled "Fierce Was the Wild Billow." A poem inspired by the reading from Mark's Gospel, a message of calm, comfort and hope…

Fierce was the wild billow, dark was the night,
Oars labored heavily, foam glimmered white.
Trembled the mariners, peril was nigh,
Then saith the God of God, "Peace! It is I!"

Ridge of the mountain wave, lower thy crest,
Wail of Euroclydon, be thou at rest;
Sorrow can never be, darkness must fly,
When saith the Light of Light, "Peace! It is I!"

Jesu, Deliverer, come Thou to me,
Soothe Thou my voyaging over life's sea;
Thou, when the storm of death roars sweeping by,
Whisper, O Truth of Truth, "Peace! It is I!"

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Measure for Measure

In recent years there has been a program on television titled "My Name is Earl." In the show, the main character - Earl - is a man who has spent most of his life lying, cheating and stealing. Taking advantage of situations and people, without regard for the consequences. One day fortune seems to smile on Earl. He buys a winning lottery ticket, only to be hit by a car and then loses the ticket. He has an epiphany during his recovery in the hospital. He concludes this has happened to him because of "karma," that all the bad things that he has done throughout his life are now coming back to haunt him. He decides to make a list of the things he has done and the people he has wronged and sets out to make amends one by one. As he does he realizes this is not always a simple thing, because he isn't settling for just apologizing - he wants to make things right. Earl learns two things in the process. One, that his actions have often had far-ranging repercussions that he never imagined. And two, the "solution" wasn't always a simple reversal of the wrong that had been done, that to truly make amends often involved a conversion a mind and spirit as well as paying back a simple debt.

This idea of karma or fate or some other force that repays you for what you've done is certainly not a new one. I'm sure we've all heard sayings such as "You'll reap what you sow" or "What goes around comes around" and "You can fool some of the people all the time, and all the people some of the time. But you can't fool all the people all the time." Shakespeare wrote a play titled "Measure for Measure" that explores this idea that our actions and words and deeds will come back to haunt us, that regardless of how hard we try to hide or obscure our true purpose we can't escape who we are. We can't escape the consequences - consequences not always what we had hoped for.

The title of Shakespeare's play is drawn from the Gospel. "The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you..." Measure for measure. Many times I've heard threats of hell or retribution and many times failed anyway to live up to the standards God expects of me. We all fail now and then. We all fail at measuring out to others that which we would want measured out to us in return. We allow ego or weakness or desire to drive us and end not just hurting ourselves but others in the process. When we take and take and take without giving in return much will be taken from us as well.

I was talking with the young people I minister to recently about the far-reaching effects our actions have. That everything we do or say somehow affects the world we live in. An argument we may have with a friend may seem to us a simple disagreement between two people. What we don't consider is how that argument may affect each of us. Will we treat others badly because we're so upset about the argument? Will we become depressed and how will that affect the others around us? Will we break off the friendship and end up regretting it in the future? Will the argument instill in us a distrust of others, a hesitation to cultivate other relationships? By the same token, a simple kindness may grow into something wonderful that we never imagined.

I've always loved the image of a drop landing in a pool of water and the ripples slowly spreading out. Because that's what the things we do are like - drops of water that land and spread and ripple throughout everything around us. Some things we may never know how it has affected others. And sometimes we may. Recently I was visited by a young man I hadn't seen in about ten years. He had come to youth group years ago when I was a volunteer - somewhat against his will - and even though he struggled with his faith and projected an air of distrust and disassociation I always enjoyed talking with him. There was a spirituality that I sensed there that transcended the fa├žade, and I told him that. In the years since I thought of him often, wondered what became of him and prayed for him. He visited me just before Christmas and it was a joyful reunion. He spoke of all he had been through - serving in the military in Iraq and all the horrors he had seen and how it had affected his life. Other troubles he had experienced and temptations that had been placed before him and how through force of will and character he had risen above it all. And how my interest in and kindness to him was something he'd never forgotten, how it helped him in some of his darkest hours during the war, and how he desired to come back and share his appreciation with me. It was one of the greatest Christmas gifts I've ever received.

We don't know how every word or action will affect others and the world around us. But like ripples in a pond they do. And that which we measure out to others will indeed be measured out to us in return.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Biggest Social Network

The big thing today - and especially among teenagers - are social networking websites on the Internet. And while Facebook is the largest and most popular such website, there are literally thousands out there that a person can use to connect with other people, stay in touch, share similar interests and ideas, and waste a whole lot of time if one has a mind to.

I have a Facebook page, and when I began it a few years ago I saw it as an extension of the ministry I do at St. William of York. And for the most part I still do. I'm sure you've heard the old adage "If you can't say something nice don't say anything at all." Well, I live on my Facebook page pretty much by another saying I heard some years ago - "If you wouldn't say it to someone in the back of church after Mass don't say it at all." And I think that's a pretty good standard to live by, because by and large I don't think I say anything in church that I'll get in trouble for.

When I first set up my page it wasn't a big deal. I figured since this was the way teens were connecting with each other I had to be on top of it because I work with teens. And soon I found I had connected with ten, then maybe twenty young people. Soon I added some colleagues in ministry, some close friends, a few relatives. In no time I had 40-50 "friends" I was connecting with, and it was nice. It always surprised me looking at some of the young people's pages to find they had 100, 200, and 500, perhaps 1,000 or more "friends" that they had connected with. Now I know for young people many of them were adding anyone and everyone to their "friends" list - chance encounters, people they met once at a conference or concert, whatever. I was trying to be a little more discerning. People I talked with on a regular basis, people I know well.

But even that went by the wayside to some extent. Before long I had young people connecting with me that had come to youth group once. Parents of young people and parishioners at church. Relatives I hadn't seen in some time or see just once a year. In the last few months I've been contacted by half a dozen or so different people I was friends with in high school or grade school that I haven't talked to in 30 years or more.

And for the most part, it's been a nice experience. And it's also given me a better understanding of the lives all of us touch every day in our comings and goings. My "friends" list is rapidly closing in on 300. And that doesn't include many people I see and talk to often - the person that checks out my books at the library; people I work with in our school; people I see at church and work and at the grocery store and the gas station and throughout my neighborhood when I walk my dog. Yet these, too are people that in some way I touch their lives, and they in turn touch mine.

This is how Jesus' ministry began, grew, and grew rapidly. He started out with a small group of twelve followers. As time passed the number grew to dozens, then hundreds, and before long he was preaching before thousands. He did this without the benefit of a computer or the Internet or cell phones or the tools and devices we use to try and maintain connections and relationships with one another. In Mark's Gospel we read of an event when Jesus gathered a crowd around him - shortly after he had appointed his twelve disciples - and made it clear that the notion of "family" transcended blood relations. That being connected wasn't limited to just those people he walked and talked with, the ones he saw every day, the ones he would place his trust into to share and spread God's Word. He told those gathered "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

Whoever does the will of God is my family. This was a bold statement, one that turns on its head the understanding of what it means to be family. It recognizes that what connects us is not just blood or friendship or Facebook or always being in close proximity to one another. What connects us most is common belief. Belief in God and Christ and the Holy Spirit. Belief in the Eucharist and worship and community. Belief in the power of prayer. Belief that we have a mission here to share the Gospel in everything we say and do. Belief that God forgives us for those times when we stray and don't reflect the Gospel in our words and actions. Belief that we must stand up for others, give to those in need, embrace those that are friendless and alone.

Christ was a master at social networking, a master at connecting with others. The center of a circle of friends and family that continues to grow in faith and love with the common goal of becoming one social network with God in the kingdom.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Great Commission

When I drive around I'm always curious to look at those signs that churches have on their front lawns. You know the kind - the ones with the changeable letters where they often put up some witty saying about the message the pastor will be sharing that week. Things like "Free Trip to Heaven - Details Inside." "Quit Telling God how Big your Storm is and Tell your Storm how Big your God is." And one of my all-time favorites, "Read the Bible - it'll Scare the Hell out of You." I'm sure these are seen as a way to evangelize as well as to attract people to come inside. And those signs often say something like "Come Join Us" or "All are Welcome." For some people the name of the church may be what attracts them, whether it's "Saint William of York" or "The Full Gospel Bible Church" or "The Church of What's Happening Now."

There are other things that may pull us into worshipping at a particular church. I know people that love the music at their church. They'll talk about how it's very contemporary and uplifting and how they have a band and the kids love it and they walk out of church feeling all energized like they've come out of a rock concert. Others may talk about the wonderful preaching abilities of their pastor. How they can weave words together like fine silk so they caress and enrapture you. Or how they can preach with such force and fury that you feel well-armored for the battle against the forces of evil. Some people are attracted to churches that have spectacular multi-media setups, with wonderful sound systems and lyrics to songs or pretty pictures or videos projected throughout the service to keep you interested and entertained. Of course for Catholics the "selling point" is the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, of central and unparalleled importance in the experience of our faith.

A lot of motivations to attend a particular church or participate in a faith community. But I often wonder if we place too much emphasis on pulling people in? Not that great music, a great message or the true presence of Christ isn't substantial motivation. The key for me is do these things motivate us to not only attend a service on weekends, but also to go out and carry that message out into the world?

Jesus didn't talk about building churches or temples or a "better mousetrap" to attract people and convince them to attend services. There were no sound systems or bands or angelic choirs. There was the Word, of course and certainly if you were fortunate enough to know Jesus and be one of His disciples you experienced His true presence. But Christ's message was not about gathering together once a week, getting our dose of God and moving on with our lives until desire or obligation brings us back.

In Mark's Gospel Jesus says "Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature." Plain and simple. Not go into church on Sunday and hear what the minister has to say to you (not that you shouldn't stop going to church because experiencing Christ's presence in community is what sustains and strengthens us). Go into the world and proclaim the Gospel. This is the Great Commission. These are the words Christ spoke to His disciples. This is the message he left them with. That it's not only important just to hear the Word and ponder upon it. We have to go out into the world with that message. We have to live it and share it and nurture it and when we return to worship be fed again by the Word and the presence of Christ. Find renewal and strength in Christ so we can again go onto the world with confidence and compassion and the love of God to bring His message once again to all we encounter.

Our faith is peopled by a communion of saints that understood Christ doesn't just reside in a building on Sunday mornings. Christ is in the world. In every person we meet, every situation, every joy, and every tragedy. Christ is in the strong and the weak, the mighty and the meek. And Christ resides in each one of us. We aren't called just to come and join others and visit with Jesus now and then like an old friend we can share our problems with. We're called to a Great Commission - just as the disciples were. We're called to go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature. And not just in our words but in our living. In our example, in how we reflect the message of Christ in our actions and our behavior. And that, more than any witty sign or catchy music or pretty pictures is what is going to bring the world to Christ. We are the church of the Great Commission, a building without walls or boundaries yet full of the presence of Christ and the love of God.