Saturday, August 29, 2009

August Recap, and Spiritual Hygiene

The Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 30, 2009

The Word:
Deuteronomy 4:1-8 (The Israelites are handed the Law: "Do not add to what I command you nor subtract from it")
Psalm 15:2-5 (The just will live in the presence of the Lord)
James 1:17-27 (What A Christian Does, Revisited: "Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you")
Mark 7:1-23 ("...Things that come out from within are what make unclean")

And - James 5:1-20 (What A Christian Gives)

Over the course of my life, the month of August has mirrored the spectrum of emotion - all the way from the extroverted frivolity of Mardi Gras to the introspective desert of Lent. Named for an ancient Roman emperor, Augustus, who likened himself to a god (as is July, named for Julius Caesar - the two months inserted into the Western calendar), it has reminded me of late of how artificial, vain, and unreal the "real" world can be.

When I was in grade school, the new academic year began the day after Labor Day - somewhere between the 2nd and the 9th of September. Suddenly, and without so much as a "welcome back", school started shortly after August 20.

The weather in Chicago this past month went from the hottest day of the summer (95 degrees on 8/2) to among the coolest (65 degrees today) in a summer that basically ended before it started.

In Europe, August is seen as a month-long holiday. Here in America, August is the single month to which no holiday is assigned. (While there are no legal holidays in March or April, schools take "Spring Break" in March and Good Friday/Easter occurs at either the tail end of March or in April.)

Earl passed away July 30; his memorial service was on August 8. Since then I have been called to sing at four Catholic funerals. Among all that was the coming and passing of my first son nineteen years ago.

My wife and I celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary quietly - and still managed, like so many others, to get caught up in the train wreck that is The Real Housewives of (fill in the blank), and wondering how long Jon and Kate Gosselin (estranged parents of eight) will take potshots at each other in the media before the reality of what they have become cancels their "reality" TV series.

My mother was released from a five-day hospital stay - but she didn't get to go home. Instead, she is now in a convalescent care center (nursing home) to continue to manage physical therapy, aggravated by Parkinson's Disease.

I went to visit her the other day, after work. My dad was there with her. They were preparing a bulk mailing, putting address labels and stamps on newsletters. (Dad called it "occupational therapy.") I sense my dad's frustration, and yet he is there, managing to do something other than watch time pass. One friend of my mom's also happens to be a resident of the same nursing home. She was in the room with my mom and dad and me. She thinks she's going home soon, and kept mentioning it while I was visiting. But there's little doubt in my mind that the three of us agree, this woman isn't likely to be leaving the nursing home anytime soon. My mom's got a better chance of getting released before her, and I don't think Mom's going to be going anywhere for at least a couple of months.

People who minister to the sick, the elderly, and the bereaved have to shield themselves (think in terms of an invisible plexiglass enclosure) from the reality they see. This doesn't mean we are indifferent; nor do we ignore those to whom we minister. But it means having a firm support system in place. It means having a compassionate partner, spouse, or network of friends and colleagues with whom to share and debrief.

It's also very important to see that you've tuned up your spiritual engine. Prayer becomes more than a wish list, as well it should be. It becomes more than the hymns you sing or the sermon to which you did your best to hear.

The Word this weekend touches on all this.

Moses was about to "lay down the Law" as the Israelites came to the threshold of the Promised Land. Of particular note was that the Law as God gave it was rather complete - nothing was to be added to it or removed from it. The apostle James knew that there were differences in interpretation among believers, and sought - in simplest and clearest terms - to instruct the community toward progressing, rather than in idle speculation.

Jesus gives us yet another paradox, and that brings us to the "Signs for Our Times":

It is interesting to note that as we leave the Bread of Life Discourse that when the miracle of the feeding of the multitudes took place, no mention was made of anybody washing anything. We return to Mark's account to find a complaint lodged against Jesus and his disciples as they didn't go through the ritual of washing every last thing before sitting down to eat. Obviously washing had become more than just the tribal knowledge that doing so was important to prevent disease.

Jesus responds by saying that his (and God's) sense of cleanliness is holistic. Further, if the mind and spirit are not clean, the state of the body is meaningless.

With all the attention paid to washing hands to prevent the spread of the H1N1 flu virus, with all the bitterness and anger being exchanged in town hall meetings across America "discussing" the "public option" in health care reform, this passage is indeed timely. If our leisure time is packed with Internet "What (fill in the blank) Are You?" surveys and waiting for the next celebrity wannabe to fall, are we not akin to another icon of ancient Rome, as spectators watching true Christians being thrown to the lions? Or Emperor Nero, playing his violin as the city of Rome burned?

There is a free "public option" for our spiritual health. It's available 24/7. It's called prayer.

Whether it is the recitation of common prayer, reflection on Scripture, or a few quiet moments pouring out your heart to God - these are our first and most important steps to remedy our ailments. Ultimately, if we are willing, we will be able to offer up virtually everything we do as prayer.

I have my moments. I'm no better at life than most of you. Lately I have understood the necessity of holistic cleansing in my life, and have renewed my commitment to do so, with prayer as a necessary step. Prayer for what I need. Prayer for what others need. Prayer to understand that my priorities are not necessarily God's.

Prayer works. It may not bring about the results you envision, but that does not mean it doesn't work. Sometimes that prayer is meant to help you stay on track, as it were, when the results don't meet the miracle.

In summary, Common Sense and the Law of God strongly recommend that you Pray Always...before leaving this room to resume work.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

As For Me and My House...

The Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Word:
Joshua 24:1-18 (As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord)
Psalm 34:2-3, 16-21 (Let my soul glory in the Lord...Taste and see the goodness of the Lord)
Ephesians 5:21-32 (Paul of Tarsus' often quoted and more often misunderstood treatise on married life)
John 6:60-69 (The Bread of Life Discourse, conclusion: "Do you also want to leave?")

And - James 4:1-17 (What a Christian Feels: 'Whoever wants to be a lover of the world makes himself an enemy of God')

On the eve of my son's 17th birthday last March, I posted in this journal a brief mention of the brother he has but has never known.

It was on this day nineteen years ago that a paradigm event for my wife and I came to its terrible end. Our first child, Adam Robert, was delivered stillborn in the 9 o'clock hour of the morning.

We had set out for a walk in our neighborhood the previous evening. We hadn't quite made it out the door when my wife's 'water broke' (as it's colloquially called), and before I knew what was happening, we were on our way to the hospital.

Within an hour of our arrival we were given the bad news by a doctor not our own (her OBGYN was on vacation at the time). During the long dark night of the soul that followed my focus was, out of love and necessity, on comforting my wife. Just the same, the nagging questions started to pop up. What had gone wrong? What did we do to deserve this? More importantly, How would we ultimately push through our panic-stricken, shock-numbing grief?

Looking back now and seeing where all this has taken us has been revealing.

For my wife, it was a big event that shaped her focus on health, holistic living, and ultimately, healing. Within two years she would lose one ovary and give birth to our (now seventeen-year-old) son. She has become acutely aware at various stages in her life about the effect much of modern lifestyle has on the body, and how that affects the mind and spirit as well. On her own she developed in her working memory a virtual encyclopedia of symptoms to ailments that would rival many professionals - and has a good handle on what she can treat.

For me, Adam's passing turned my focus in ministry formation toward bereavement. During my years as an active deacon this became being the parish minister at wakes. Since then, it has shifted to assisting at the funeral liturgy through my musical abilities. I don't see it stopping there. Not that I'm going to become a professional mourner (believe it or not, such a thing has been known to exist); but rather, continue to develop the lessons learned and the abilities I have to use them in the future.

In all of this is the bittersweet reminder of what was expected; what was supposed to be nineteen years ago. Truly, if Adam had been born in the normal course, everything would be different now. I might not be writing here; we might have been dealing with other 'soccer moms' and who-knows-what else; and our boy might not even have been named Adam!

Today's Sign for Our Times:

Actually, I found the text (minus the bogus phone number) on one of the type of sign one might use to advertise a garage sale or a political candidate; the type that has two small rods that you push into the ground. I  found it at the end of an expressway exit near home. Thanks to a few Internet entrepreneurs, you can design your own signboard; as I've done here.

I know I asked questions of God back then - so many times I lost count. And there was a big issue - our pastor at the time never called or came by to offer condolences or guidance or even prayer. But in the depths of grief and despair, to whom else could I go?

Several ministers I know have occasionally preached that God offers many people a "second chance." Let me take this one step closer to what I sense is reality. In Jesus, God has offered everyone a second chance. Further, in his infinite love, God has offered us third, fourth, fifth, who knows how many chances. And we may never 'get it right' in our human vision. The way I see it, the biggest of life's lessons have come through difficult times. There's always a choice - to wallow in the pit or burn in the fire, or to rise above it and sharpen the resolve to do better.

As for me and my house, we shall rise...and serve.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

When You Can't Get There

The Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today's Word:
Proverbs 9:1-6 (Wisdom has built her house..."Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed!"
Psalm 34:2-7 (Taste and see the goodness of the Lord)
Ephesians 15:5-20 (Do not get drunk on wine...but be filled with the Holy Spirit)
John 6:51:58 (The Bread of Life Discourse: "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life; and I will raise him up on the last day")

And: James 3:1-18 (What a Christian Says: "And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace")

The Sign for Our Times:

Sometimes, the route you plan isn't available to you.

I write this today from a special perspective. Both my wife and my son have summer colds. Son is on the rebound, but my wife is not doing as well as she spent a good chunk of the week first looking after me, then after my son. Ordinarily, I'd be at work; or, because it's Sunday, working at church. My dear wife of 28 years is fairly resilient and can usually get past these quickly. Today, however, it's at its worst. So, not waiting to be asked (something I don't usually do), I decided to stay home and attend to whatever I could.

It is a rare thing when I don't attend one church or the other of the two in which I serve, praise, and worship God. After doing it for so many years, I tend to feel a bit lost when I don't go. Not that I haven't made up for it; I served at three funeral services in the past week; but these can strain anyone's connection with the Divine. Another thing: staying connected with God doesn't end when the worship service or Mass is finished. What to do, then, when your access to the things you do is temporarily cut off?

Several organizations have helped to create what I call 'cyberchurch.' This started back when radio and TV broadcast some religious programming as well as local church services. Now, there are media 'giants' such as Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN, for Catholics) and Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN, for non-denominational Christians). These broadcast 'ministries' are available 24/7, and have provided vital service especially to the homebound.

Cyberchurch has its home in the online world. There are many sites that cover just about everything imaginable, including a social networking site, Pastors and ministers have public blogs and these have followers. And this morning, I discovered a couple of gold mines in the form of podcasts. These allow me to pray the Divine Office and hear the daily Mass readings from my computer anytime - and they're available several days in advance so I can download them to a portable MP3 device or my iPod and listen to them when I'm not tethered to my computer or TV. Other options are becoming available for people with 3G cellular devices such as the iPhone.

Some may scoff at this, saying this puts God in their face too much. I may have agreed to some extent in the past. But being who I am and doing what I do, I realize that I don't always maintain a prayer-filled discipline. Further, I'm sure there are many more who would like to have something like this around - but just don't know where to look. We've all become so busy managing the complexity that life has become. Even for all that I bring up about it, I get preoccupied - even downright lazy - and put the practice of my faith on the back burner; and that's the absolute last place it belongs.

A detour may be well known, or it may be something unheard of. It may seem an inconvenience - but it can also lead to a treasure to which you want to return. That's happened more than once in my life, in both mundane and spiritual areas. I would have missed these if circumstances at the time they were discovered hadn't forced a detour.

I should caution that one should be careful while traversing a detour. Watch (and listen) closely, for the route is sometimes unknown. If your faith and trust is where it should be, though, a detour has the potential to add to a fruitful journey.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Yes, We Have No Bananas

The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Word:
1 Kings 19:4-8 (The prophet Elijah eats of the food given by God while traveling to Mount Horeb)
Psalm 34:2-9 (Taste and see the goodness of the Lord)
Ephesians 4:30-5:2 (Do not grieve the Holy Spirit, with whose gifts you have been sealed)
John 6:41-51 (The Bread of Life Discourse: 'The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world')

And: James 2:1-26 (Faith vs. Works)
Isaiah 40:28-31 (They who hope in the Lord will renew their strength, and soar like eagles)
Romans 7:14-20 (Paul of Tarsus: 'What I do, I do not understand; for I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate')

Where do I begin  - especially when I want to keep this reasonably short?

Jesus is moving on to the greater subject at hand. Not only is there nourishment for the soul, but he's the one providing it. And as may be expected, some just can't believe this. Jesus does not appear as one who would command authority, like the king they've believed the long-awaited Messiah to be. They cannot see beyond the hard reality before them. We'll come back to this.

Today's message in the letter of the Apostle James can best be summed up in this catchy little ditty:
It's about as useless as a screen door on a submarine
Faith without works baby
It just ain't happenin'
One is your left hand one is your right
It'll take two strong arms to hold on tight
Some folks cut off their nose just to spite their face
I think you need some works to show for your alleged faith

Well there's a difference you know
'tween having faith and playing make believe
One will make you grow the other one just make you sleep
Talk about it
But I really think you oughtta take a leap off of the ship
Before you claim to walk on water
Faith without works is like a song you can't sing
It's about as useless as a screen door on a submarine

Faith comes from God and every word that He breathes
He lets you take it to your heart so you can give it hands and feet
It's gotta be active if it's gonna be alive
You gotta put it into practice

It's about as useless as a screen door on a submarine
Faith without works baby it just ain't happenin'
One is your right hand one is your left
It's your light your guide your life and your breath
Faith without works is like a song you can't sing
It's about as useless as a screen door on a submarine

--Screen Door (1996)
Rich Mullins

Okay, now on to today's Signs for Our Times:

Actually, this is an understatement. You probably won't see this sign (or it's graphic counterpart) unless you're on a slope with an incline of 6% or more for a distance of at least half a mile. By then, you're in at least the foothills of mountains (if not in the mountains themselves) or in great river valleys.

What's interesting about this is that when driving in these surroundings, you have to pay more attention to things up close. When going uphill, you may not have enough momentum to reach the top, requiring you to shift into a lower gear to provide more pulling power to the engine. When going downhill, you have to watch that you don't pick up too much momentum, in order to keep the vehicle under control and preserve braking power. Again, shifting to a lower gear is sometimes in order.

But seeing the mountain or drop-off ahead takes focus away from the overall view of the roadway.  Because you have to slow down in these areas, you can get a bit disoriented and think you've come out of the area when in reality you're somewhere deep in the middle of it. You have no idea where the crest of that hill is, or if you've reached the bottom of the mountainside. The driver has to make a judgment call; and once committed may not be able to correct himself if that call turns out to be in error.

Sometimes, a lifeline is thrown out in the form of:

But they're not always used, and even when used may not be effective in preventing damage or loss of life.

Believe it or not, there's a great connection here. Jesus' contemporaries can't seem to accept how God has provided for them, even as he explains himself. The sheer controversy behind this is what ultimately sends Jesus to Calvary, where he gives his flesh "for the life of the world."

Even the most devout of followers can be blinded by the immediacy of what's before them, watching gauges, looking for twists and turns, trying to figure out if they've finally come through safely.

Judas, one of Jesus' inner circle, was one such person. All this just didn't add up to him, so he turned Jesus over to the authorities. When he realized that their intent wasn't simply to reprimand but kill Jesus, he tried to recant. But as they had what they wanted and weren't about to give up their trophy, in utter despair Judas took his own life. Jesus could have forgiven him, but he was so blinded by the guilt of his action.

In our own time, people will come into times so difficult that they cannot see past it, even in prayer. God is forever patient; but we aren't. Push will ultimately come to shove. The descent down the mountainside is such that either the runaway ramp is missed or can't be accessed, if it's even there. It reminds me of another song that has a wry bit of humor in it - please pardon it under the circumstances...

It was just after dark when the truck started down
the hill that leads into Scranton, Pennsylvania
Carrying thirty thousand pounds of bananas
Carrying thirty thousand pounds of bananas.

He was a young driver,
just out on his second job.
And he was carrying the next day's pasty fruits
for everyone in that coal-scarred city
where children play without despair
in backyard slag-piles and folks manage to eat each day
about thirty thousand pounds of bananas.
Yes, just about thirty thousand pounds of bananas

He passed a sign that he should have seen,
saying "shift to low gear, a fifty dollar fine my friend."
He was thinking perhaps about the warm-breathed woman
who was waiting at the journey's end.
He started down the two mile drop,
the curving road that wound from the top of the hill.
He was pushing on through the shortening miles that ran down to the depot.
Just a few more miles to go,
then he'd go home and have her ease his long, cramped day away.
and the smell of thirty thousand pounds of bananas.
Yes the smell of thirty thousand pounds of bananas.

(The song builds up in intensity and excitement)
He was picking speed as the city spread its twinkling lights below him.
But he paid no heed as the shivering thoughts of the night's
delights went through him.
His foot nudged the brakes to slow him down.
But the pedal floored easy without a sound.
He said "Christ!"
It was funny how he had named the only man who could save him now.
He was trapped inside a dead-end hellslide,
riding on his fear-hunched back
was every one of those yellow green
I'm telling you thirty thousand pounds of bananas.
Yes, there were thirty thousand pounds of bananas.

He barely made the sweeping curve that led into the steepest grade.
And he missed the thankful passing bus at ninety miles an hour.
And he said "God, make it a dream!"
as he rode his last ride down.
And he said "God, make it a dream!"
as he rode his last ride down.
And he sideswiped nineteen neat parked cars,
clipped off thirteen telephone poles,
hit two houses, bruised eight trees,
and Blue-Crossed seven people.
it was then he lost his head,
not to mention an arm or two before he stopped.
And he smeared for four hundred yards
along the hill that leads into Scranton, Pennsylvania.
All those thirty thousand pounds of bananas

--from 30,000 Pounds of Bananas (1976)
Harry Chapin

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Catch It And You Keep It

The Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Word (RC):
Exodus 16:2-15 (Manna "fell from the sky" to feed the wandering Israelites)
Psalm 78:3-4, 23-25, 54 (The Lord gave them bread from heaven)
Ephesians 4:17-24 (Be renewed in the spirit of your minds)
John 6:24-35 (The Bread of Life Discourse: "Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life")

And (UMC): James 1:12, 16-19 (What A Christian Has/Does, qpka. 'What A Fool Believes')
('Fool' in this context is taken as the rejection of ways of the world to follow Christ!)

And today's Sign for Our Times:

Falling Rock

The puns and wordplay are all intended.

For once, I'm going to follow the advice of St. Francis of Assisi, who once taught his brothers in the Friars Minor to "preach the Gospel...and when necessary, use words."

I ask you quite humbly to figure this one out. A couple of well placed symbols and pictures speak a multitude of words.

If you catch it, you'll want to keep it.

Not Goodbye, But Welcome Home, Earl

It's been an unusual week in an unusual summer.

This summer in Chicago is one of the coolest I can remember. I don't recall one day when the temperature reached 90 or higher here (it managed 88 early in June).

I have been reminded in many ways of things to which I should focus. Because it's slow at work, I have even more time to ponder. I haven't slept all that well in weeks, though I'm not suffering aches or pains to any great extent. There's just a lot to have to consider, and no clear way to move in many ways. This is not a feeling of a lack of fulfillment; but more a feeling that I haven't quite expressed adequately how thankful I am for what I have and the people in my life.

And that was before I found out Friday afternoon that Earl died...which brings me to the Sign for Our Times:


Earl was a virtual "jack of all trades" at Cornerstone. I've known him nearly as long as I've known Mike. He sang in the old choir, and moved to the modern praise teams (even though I sense he didn't like some of the contemporary songs). He was a lay leader (the Methodist equivalent of an elder) and wore any number of hats; trying to list them all would be a disservice to him as I'm sure I would miss something. Earl was a tax accountant in his 'day job'. That meant putting in long hours from January through April - yet he would still manage to do any number of things at the church, including helping maintain the schedule of supporting ministers (musicians, ushers, and so forth). His wife directs the Sunday School program, and his daughter is part of the music ministry, following in her dad's footsteps.

I knew Earl had developed diabetes and had some health issues, but he seemed to take it in stride.

There's probably a host of things I don't know - at least not yet. But Earl found his "Dead End" sign last Friday, and it's my sincere belief that the next sign he sees might look something like the one I've included above. Life is not intended to end; but it is changed forever.

I know Earl is not Catholic, but I don't think he or anyone else will mind if I offer a traditional acclamation:
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord; and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he, through the love and mercy of God, rest in peace.

And for the rest of us:

Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light:
Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.

When my way grows drear,
Precious Lord, linger near,
When my life is almost gone,
Hear my cry, hear my call,
Hold my hand lest I fall:

Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.

When the darkness appears
And the night draws near,
And the day is past and gone,
At the river I stand,
Guide my feet, hold my hand:

Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.

--Precious Lord, Take My Hand (1932)
Thomas A. Dorsey
(Note: This is part of the standard repertoire I sing at many Catholic funerals.)