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.