Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tare or Wheat? Sixteenth week in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

Wisdom 12:12, 16–19; Romans 8:26–27; Matthew 13:24–43

I think Jesus is talking about my yard in this week’s readings, because regardless of how much I water and tend it, I constantly have weeds in my flower beds, and I have stopped even trying to sort them out. Clearly, if I’m following scripture correctly, I’m supposed to let the angels sort them out at the end of time. That means my yard will look awful for the time being but will look fantastic at the final judgment.

I wish I had the patience to wait that long.

 In last week’s readings, the disciples questioned Jesus about his use of parables, and this week, we really get a good dose of Jesus’ parabolic teachings. I want to focus on the first one because I think it highlights a particular bit of spiritual nearsightedness that many of us have, yours truly included. We see the master sowing good seed in the field, but as everyone sleeps, the enemy comes and sows weeds. Our English translation uses the word weeds, but the actual word, tzitzania, refers to cheat grass or tares—a plant that looks a lot like wheat when it’s growing, but when mature is a lot easier to identify.

So the servants are able to see that something is not right in the fields, but the master knows that uprooting the weeds will also cause some, perhaps many good plants to be uprooted and destroyed as well. This decision on the master’s part no doubt rankles a few of his servants, who probably believe that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If they take care of the weeds now, they won’t have to work as hard separating them during the harvest. The danger is that they will accidentally destroy the good with the bad. The master recognizes this and stays their hand, instructing them to wait until they can clearly see the fruits that have been sown. In the master’s wisdom, judgment has been reserved until the fruits are obvious to everyone.

Now, the master in this parable is obviously God, and clearly He knows the outcome before we can see it. So why does He wait to sweep the field? Why does he let the unclean mix with the clean? It seems counterproductive to us at least, but even dangerous if the weeds somehow stunt the growth of the healthy plants or even choke them out altogether.

Does this line of thought sound familiar? I hear it pretty frequently from various parties in our Church concerning the people on “the other side.” Those people who can’t really be Catholic because they don’t hold the right opinions. I recently read about a proabortion and procontraception politician back east who was touting her credentials as a devout Catholic and decrying how her faith had been hijacked by extremists who didn’t believe in abortion or contraception. I have to wonder just what faith she was actually practicing since the teachings of the Church have always since the first century condemned both.

On the reverse side of the coin are those who insist that Catholic teaching is equivalent to US policy or capitalist ideology. Anyone who suggests that US policy might be errant or that capitalism might need constraint are branded as Godless communists. But the Church has never declared capitalism as sacrosanct, and US policy is made by very fallible human beings.

And very recently we’re hearing a whole lot in the news and elsewhere about the problems down on the border. Now here’s a perfect example of our moral blindness at times, when we can look at the wheat and see nothing but weeds. When we look at children coming across the border and all we can see is an illegal alien. There’s a problem with our perception. In most other countries, when a child is sent away from home because of violence and danger, we don’t call them “illegals.”

We call them refugees.

So who of us are being truly Catholic and truly Christian in our perceptions? Now I like to apply the original meaning of the word Catholic in such instances. Katolikos means universal in Greek, so whatever is truly Catholic should universally offend and rankle those on all points of the political spectrum. To be Catholic is to be universally irritating and challenging. I say that with tongue in cheek, and hopefully not with foot in mouth, but there is some truth to this as well. Our faith isn’t meant to reconcile us to our culture. Our faith is meant to help us to see through God’s perspective. We are supposed to be leaven in the mix and cause the dough to rise, to start as a small bush but give everyone a place to perch. Our Church is a broad net that catches all kinds of fish, and it needs to accommodate that diversity without being undermined and distorted. I frequently tell people that Catholic social teaching has something to tick off both progressives and conservatives. That is not a sign of falsity but of truth, because our culture and its biases tend to obscure our vision.

The problem here is that we ideologues don’t see the world by the infinite wisdom of God. We look at the world through our own culturally conditioned lenses, through our own rose-colored glasses. And that means we never see what is true. We see what we expect to see and judge accordingly. We lack mercy, wisdom, and a true notion of justice.

The reading from the Book of Wisdom brings to the foreground how we should understand God’s perspective. First, He has care over all:

  • not just those who are properly documented 
  • not just those who are pacifists and proponents of gun control
  • not just those who are straight
  • not just those who support nationalized health care 

and not just those who conform to whatever we with our personal preferences consider righteous. He knows who is truly righteous. Might is the source of his justice, as the reading from Wisdom asserts. His power is what allows him to be just. He isn’t worried about anyone’s opinion, so He applies true justice untempered by external bias.

We underestimate just how different we are from God. We forget that our notions of justice, of mercy, of might, and of wisdom are all limited and fragmentary. For us, these are all separate qualities, but God is infinitely simple. That means that there is no difference for these qualities in Him. His justice is His mercy is His might is His wisdom. When we read that there is no partiality in God, that is meant both in how He judges us and in how He knows our world. This isn’t to say that we don’t need to discern objective moral right and wrong, but we do need to recognize that we do not see the big picture, and we never will until we meet God face to face.

Our Catholic faith is one of few hold outs for objective truth. Our faith insists that there is an objective truth by which all will be judged, but it also insists that we not judge the hearts of our fellow travelers in this world. We have to seek communion rather than division. And that means that we have to forgive. And sometimes we need to recognize our own need for forgiveness because all of us fall short of the kingdom.

In a few minutes, we’re going to celebrate the paschal sacrifice of our Lord. This celebration has always had two realities as both a sacrifice and as a meal—one shared with friends and family. Just like a family is one even though it is made up of very different personalities and opinions, our family in faith is also diverse.

But in a greater sense we are one. We are one Body of Christ, and we need to hang together. We’re seeing signs of new pressures in our country that will be coming down on us, and we need to recognize that if we’re for Christ, we also have to be for each other—one bread and one Body, to quote the hymn.

Our Catholic faith is counter cultural and it challenges all of us. If you want to be a rebel, be Catholic. If you want to resist the inexorable drumbeat of so-called progress and seek instead the kingdom of God, be Catholic. You will be walking in the footsteps of Christ if you reject the popular road and stick with the Lamb of God. You might be crucified for it… but you will be raised in the end.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

My Daddy's Caddy

My father bought his first Cadillac in 1973, perhaps a bit after he was promoted to Lt. Col. in the US Air Force and when we were still living on Fairchild Air Force Base.

It was a black Coupe de Ville, and it was fancier than anything we'd ever owned (although Doc had owned an Austin-Healey in his bachelor days). At the time, we still lived in base housing, and I suspect that Mom wasn't fully on board with the purchase. But I think Dad needed to have some physical representation of his accomplishments. We named the car "the Black Torpedo," and I think Tim and I loved every moment in it.

In three years, Doc traded up for a Sedan de Ville, a very nice four door that looked a bit more like a stately family car, just shy of a limousine. He made the trade during the summer while Tim and I were back and forth for summer camps, so it was a few weeks after he made the purchase that I finally noticed. And I wasn't impressed. I liked the Black Torpedo. Of course, by that time, brother Patrick had arrived on the scene, so a four door made much more sense. I suspect that Mom had something to do with that decision, but we were going to miss the Black Torpedo.

Doc dubbed the new sedan the Blue Sapphire. We accepted the new name, but I don't think we ever bought into it. Despite many happy adventures (some 30 years of them), I think Tim and I would have preferred the coupe. I don't recall that Doc ever named another Caddy after that.

That's not to say we didn't have great times in that boat. We drove that beast to Alaska, up the Trans Alaska Highway and back. I don't recall if we lost our muffler on the way up or the way back, but it happened on once of those trips. I remember that we ate a whole canned chicken in White Horse, a metropolis in the Yukon which was smaller than the small town (Medical Lake) just outside of the air base where I'd spent most of my life. Doc thought it pretty funny to talk about talk about the Al-Can Super Highway on which we were driving: It was a dirt road from the US Canadian Border north of Skagway to the Alaskan border.

Three years later, we made the same trek back in the same car. If you want to know why my dad bought Cadillacs, that's why. We hauled a trailer up and a boat back. Or vice versa. Doc probably liked the status symbol of owing a Cadillac, but ultimately, the reliability of the car kept him from buying a Lincoln.

That car remained with the family until Doc completed his  residency for Child Psychiatry and moved back to Boise in the 90s. He purchase another 70s era Eldorado that Patrick drove for a while, but the sedan was his primary vehicle for many years. Eventually, the Blue Sapphire became a utility vehicle. That Caddy hauled camping and boat trailers all over all kinds of roads you wouldn't believe.

Doc later made a point of buying used Caddys every few years. After the first two, I don't think he ever bought another new one off of the lot. He never again bought a black or blue sedan (and they were always sedans), but I recall one red sedan and mostly silver.

My mom preferred smaller, less ostentatious cars, but even when Doc was ill and she drove back and forth to visit him in the hospital, she drove his car (maybe because he didn't want to be seen carted around in a subcompact—not really sure).

I got used to seeing the silver sedan parked by St. John's Cathedral, and occasionally I would catch him as I drove by and wave. Or I'd see him driving down State Street heading toward the cathedral. I equated seeing a later model silver Caddy as seeing Doc on his way to or from his late vocation.

Doc passed away a little over a month ago. The car is still at the house, but it will be sold soon. It's another in a long line of Caddys, so none of us are attached to it, but we're attached to the memory of Dad's love for his Caddys.

Yesterday, I rode out in my Honda Odessey to pick up an order of beef from a packing company in Nampa. I didn't want to listen to the chatter of DJs, so I plugged in my phone to hear my Pandora channels as I made the return trip.The first song that came on for my return trip was "Finally Home" by Mercy Me. It's a beautiful song, even though it's not theologically accurate. The first verse is this:
I'm gonna wrap my arms around my daddy's neck, and tell him that I've missed him. And tell him All about the man that I became, and hope that it pleased him. There's so much I want to say,There's so much I want you to know.
Doc battled cancer for a good eight years or longer. I had prayed that he would be able to see me finish my master's in theology and see me ordained. I had even hoped for him to see me finish a Ph.D. But I'll take two out of three.

Anyway, I pulled on to Ten-Mile Road and headed for the interstate. When I got to Victory road, I pulld up behind a silver Cadillac Sedan de Ville, and for a split second, I thought, "Hey, maybe that's Doc."

And then I realized that it wasn't, and that I'd never drive by him in his Caddy again.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Proclaim the Gospel to the World!—Fifteenth week in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

Isaiah 55:10–11; Romans 8:18–23; Matthew 13:1–23

Each of the readings in this week’s liturgy relate in some way to fertility or birth—to the fecundity and creativity of God’s word in the world and in the lives of those who hear it. God’s word goes out and it moves our world, it moves our hearts and our souls.  I think these passages are evocative because they touch on our experience, and probably did so even more for the people of the times who were more familiar with the agrarian contexts.
First, there is the fertility of earth and seed compared to the word of God in the writings of Isaiah. The word doesn’t simply fall and return to God but is fruitful like the rain and snow that falls. St. Paul describes the coming of the kingdom—the redemption of creation—in terms of labor. Finally, Jesus’ “Parable of the Sower” describes how the word of the kingdom falls like seed onto different types of ground and then responds accordingly. Each passage presents the Word of God or Revelation as something that is sown and which then grows into a new creation, if the conditions favor its growth.
All three passages, then, have a theme that has been very common in the writings and homilies of the last three popes. Pope St. John Paul II introduced the phrase “the New Evangelization” during his pontificate, and both Pope emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis have each contributed to this conversation in word and in deed. Our pastors, from the popes down to our parish priests, have been encouraging and exhorting us to take the gospel out into the world. They are trying to remind us of the core mission of the Church—and the mission of all baptized people. We are not just to come in here on Sunday or the Saturday vigil and fill up the tank with high-octane grace and then go out to cruise for the rest of the week.
We’re supposed to take what we get here through the sacrament and through the preaching of the word, and we’re supposed to take it out to the world and offer it to everyone we can: that means people in our own families, in our workplaces, sometimes even in our own parish. That’s what is meant by the New Evangelization, but the mission is as old as the foundation of the Church. In Matthew 28, Jesus tells the Apostles to go out and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. So we are sent by Jesus and by our pastors to proclaim the good news to the world.
“But why is that necessary?” you might ask. “Don’t most Americans know about Jesus? Aren’t we a Christian nation? Isn’t 1.2 billion Catholics in the world enough?”
As it so happens, 1.2 billion Catholics are not enough. Would it be enough if only half of the people in the world knew who Jesus was and knew that he came to give them salvation? Would it be enough if only half of your family knew? Of course not. We want everyone to hear the good news, but our effort has not been enough.
In fact, it hasn’t been enough for a while. Europe can barely be called Christian these days, where church attendance across all denominations is at record lows, where a secularist mindset dominates, and where an implicit atheism spreads and festers. And if you think things are much better here, well, they’re only marginally so. Even among believers in Christ, a true understanding of Christian doctrine is weak, and among Catholics, basic doctrines are completely misunderstood.
But what’s more is the simple good news is often unknown. Doctrine is important, but doctrine is not the good news. The good news is not a something. The good news is somebody: Jesus Christ. The good news is that Jesus Christ came to repair what mankind broke. He came to heal the rift between us and God. He came to make us adopted sons and daughters of the Father. And He came to show us what real love is. That’s the good news. That God loved us so much that He came to live with us, to suffer with us, and to die for us so that we could join Him in heaven. But would you believe that more and more generations are growing up in our post-Christian nation without that very basic belief?
They need to be told. They need to hear of God’s love. They need to see God’s love in the way we live our lives.
They hear more about what we supposedly believe from the distorted reports the news media gives on TV. We have to take back our story and tell it the way it should be told.
People are searching for what is good. No one intentionally seeks what is bad for them. They want what is good, but they can’t see past the things our culture puts in front of their faces day in and day out. They wallow in excess, in sex, in drugs, in material things and distractions until they are drained. I’m sure I don’t have to point you to examples of this self-destructiveness in our popular culture. You might even have family members and friends whom you see trapped in these lifestyles. They want what is good, but they don’t know what it is or where to find it.
As one Catholic speaker put it recently, these people are dying to hear the good news. They just don’t know it.
Well, people, that’s our mission, and we all have a part to play. We can be those who sow the seed and plant the words of truth in people’s minds. That’s when you tell your friends, family, and acquaintances about your faith and tell them why you have accepted Jesus as your savior. You don’t have to be pushy. Just be honest. In fact, sometimes it’s more effective just to live in such a way—to live with such Christian joy—that they can’t help but ask. As Peter said in his first epistle, we need to be ready to give an account of our faith. So be ready. You are planting a seed in their minds. The Holy Spirit will do the heavy lifting.
You might also be one of those who prepares the soil. In Jesus’ parable, the seed falls on different types of ground. If the seed falls on the beaten path, it can be taken away by any opinion or cultural prejudice. If the seed falls on rocky ground, it might sprout, but it doesn’t grow deep enough to take root. If the seed falls among thorns, the plants are choked by other concerns. So someone has to prepare the soil, to till it, to remove the thorns and rocks. We have ministries like Returning Catholics that operate in the parish. We also have groups like St. Paul’s Street Evangelization that go out to public places; give away rosaries, prayer cards, and medals; and tell people about the teachings of the Church. They help to prepare the soil so that the seed of another’s faith can be planted.
Or you might be one of those who tends the growing faith of those who have been drawn in by God’s Word or by another’s faith. You might be assisting in a bible study or in RCIA. All of these ministries work together to help God’s Word take root and thrive. Ultimately it’s up to the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of those who hear the good news, but there needs to be the seed. They need to hear the news before the Holy Spirit can help it to take root.

I know that it can be uncomfortable to share your faith, and some people can challenge you and intimidate you. Pray for courage from the Holy Spirit, and ask our patron St. John the Evangelist to intercede for you. There’s a world out there that needs to be saved, and like the Blue Brothers, we’re all on a mission from God. Take up that mission. Take up that cross, and proclaim the gospel to the world.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

A reductio ad absurdum

Let's try a little thought experiment.

Imagine some time in the future that the Supreme Court has ruled that all citizens have the right at all times to carry a sidearm for self defense. You can't fire or refuse to hire a person who chooses to carry. They can't be barred from businesses, but of course, they are "responsible" for whatever they do with their firearms.

Now, imagine that some employers, wanting to attract and keep employees, decide to start providing related employment benefits: holsters, shoulder straps, firearm lessons, and so on. The practice becomes so ubiquitous that everyone expects it when they're employed. Some people even perhaps lobby for legislation to have mandatory firearm benefits from large public corporations (maybe those employing 50 or more employees).

Maybe someday in the future, the government says, "Okay, since these programs are practically ubiquitous, and people with useless firearms are in danger because they can't defend themselves, all employers must now supply ammunition to their employees. If they don't want to supply it themselves, they have to pay for someone else to supply it."

Maybe you own a small business—an LLC or an s-corp. Maybe you have a family-run business, a c-corp, of 100 employees, and your family has always believed that personal ownership of firearms for self defense is immoral. Is it an infringement on your rights to free exercise of conscience to do be forced to supply someone's ammunition or be forced to pay for it to be supplied?

If you took the issue to the Supreme Court and found that it infringed on your rights, would you be guilty of pursuing a war on gun owners?

Reasonable arguments for or against are welcome in the combox. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Vigil

It was after they changed him from home care to hospice that we got serious about the business of waiting. Of course, we had been waiting for eight years, since the first time the word "cancer" hung in the air during tense conversation.

For the last few months, he spent less time in the front room when we gathered. In the last few weeks, he came out mostly for his meal and retreated quickly again, and so we ate on the back porch with the French doors to the bedroom open.

We had planned an evening to have the grand kids in the back yard playing so he could see them one last time. He wasn't able to get out of bed anymore, so we each took our turns talking to him, telling him how much he meant to us, making sure we didn't leave anything unsaid. I told him I would bring communion to him in the mornings.

"You know, you will get to meet someone there we've never met ourselves. You'll get to meet our unborn child."

His face changed and lightened, and he smiled.

I brought communion each morning, except for Sunday since I had a long day of service at our parish. I sprinkled him with holy water, blessed him and my brother, and offered whatever I could to my mother. Tim sat with him for long hours, just as he had done for my grandmother and Uncle Bob when they had passed.

By the middle of the next week, he became less communicative, less engaged. He could still respond, but he was letting everything go. The caregiver told Mom that he was waiting for someone—waiting to be told that it was okay to go, waiting to see someone for the last time—waiting... for something.

On Thursday before noon, they called and said, "It looks like it's getting close." I called my daughter and her mother, and everyone began to gather to wait with him. He could still respond to us, but spoke very little. He had started morphine that day, and there was a moment when there was no one who could respond to his request for more relief. While we waited, I began to pray the evening hour from my iPhone. The pain agitated him, and he didn't seem welcome the noise. I chanted the Our Father, and that seemed to calm him. I resolved to talk less and chant more.

Finally we were able to get his medication, and he relaxed a bit. I called my daughter's brother in Brazil by Skype and carried the laptop into the room so he could say goodbye. We told him we loved him, that we would take care of each other, of Mom, of her sister, and that he could go when he was ready. I asked if he would like Fr. -- to come and bring him viaticum, and he nodded.

That was the last lucid moment that I had with him.

We continued to gather in the evenings, but after the last anointing, he began to let go. The nurse gave him days. He fell deeper into sleep. His breathing became very regular, and it gradually began to slow. Tim sat by his bed and waited. Mom stood at the foot of his bed and held his feet, or she kissed him and caressed his head. I sat and prayed.

Our Father who art in heaven...

O salutaris hostia...

Pangue lingua generosi...

On Sunday, Father's Day, we gathered again, aware that this would be his last and wanting just to celebrate fatherhood. His favorite meal was prepared, and we milled about and chatted as usual. As everyone sat outside, I went to sit and pray the evening hour. And I went to give him one last song.

During the Easter Vigil this year, my first as a deacon, I was given the gift to sing the Exultet. Doc was not able to attend these long services anymore, and we mistakenly believed that it would be carried on the local Catholic radio station. He had not heard me that night. He would hear me this night.

Exult, let them exult, the hosts of Heaven. Let angel ministers of God exult. Let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud the mighty King's triumph...

I told him that he'd soon hear the best choir ever and that he shouldn't keep them waiting.

We said grace that night and thanked God for the gift of each other and even the gift of grief that we shared. When we parted, I think we all knew it was the last night.

He passed the next morning at 6:00 AM.

The grace of these last few days is that all of us came and did what we knew how to do for each other. Tim was present, which is a greatly undervalued gift. My mom lavished affection on my dad. My brother Pat cooked and fed us. I offered what I could through music and prayer. Everyone offered something up.

I know I will miss my father, but right now what stays with me is the grace of family and of a good death. I told my daughter this, in part to console her, but in part simply to verbalize my own desire for a good death: with family at my side, with the sacraments, with prayer, and with the knowledge that this end is not the end. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Dr. John B. Burns (USAF Retired): Jan. 7, 1936–June 16, 2014

My father passed away this morning after eight years of fighting cancer. He was a physician in the USAF for 20 years, a pediatrician for much of that time. When he retired (a Lt. Col. by choice, having turned down several promotions), he went into residency at USC in Columbia, SC for psychiatry and child psychiatry. He was also very active in Boy Scouts for 45 years, and sponsored a chancel choir at our cathedral and another local parish.

Here is a photo of us at my brother's wedding two years ago.

The wedding was held at the Mountain Magnolia Inn in Hot Springs, NC. Naturally, at the end of May, the bugs were out in force. My father had a remedy, though: Bounce dryer sheets. He would tuck one into his shirt pocket and another in the collar of his shirt behind his neck. He went bug free all weekend and went around the wedding rehearsal and reception singing the praises of Bounce.

I wrote a poem a few years ago as a Fathers' Day tribute, I think. It's not very good, but it had sentimental value to my father... a lot like the belt I made for him. Here's is the belt I made in 7th grade. He gave it back to me around Christmas time this year.

When I was working on my MA in theology and finishing diaconal formation, I prayed on a number of occasions that he be able to see me finish both of those goals. I had hoped he'd be around to see me finish a doctorate, but I am happy that he at least saw his son ordained.

Enjoy those heavenly choirs, Dad. You have earned a seat in front.


I apologize to anyone who perhaps doesn't quite get my family's sensibilities or sense of humor. The funeral home that is handling the arrangements usually drapes the bodies of veterans as they remove them from the homes. Unfortunately, the last person who took out the van forgot to restock the van with flags, so we looked around to find a suitable flag. Dad had a couple around, but the first one we found in his closet was a Betsy Ross flag. We didn't notice until we started to unfold it that it only had 13 stars. The only other flag had been used at summer camps over the years and had water stains and rust marks. So the Betsy Ross flag won out. Before the attendants removed my father from the house, I stepped out side where my sister-in-law Emily waited, and I told her that they had draped my father with a flag from his childhood.

In actuality, it was more like a flag from my childhood. I have always been a colonial history buff. Perhaps my father intended it this way because he was aware that I would be helping with the final arrangements. In any case, he went out draped in a revolution-era flag.

Update 2:

My father's obituary and tribute wall.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

The Fire of the Spirit—Pentecost (Cycle A)

Acts 2:1–11; 1 Cor. 12: 3b–7, 12–13; John 20:19–23

The feast of Pentecost commemorates, for Christians, the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, the Paraclete who would remind the Apostles of all that Jesus taught them. However, this festival, like Passover, was originally a Jewish festival that was transformed as a result of Christ’s death and resurrection. The Jewish festival is called Shavuot and for them, it commemorates the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
We have so much in our faith that derives directly from the Jewish liturgies. We refer to the Eucharist as the “pascal” celebration because of its relation to the Pascha or Passion of Christ, which happened during the Passover of the Jews. We celebrate the day when the Spirit came and breathed life into the lungs of the Church, much like God breathing life into the A’Dam, the man Adam, whom He made from clay. Our faith and liturgy and all that we read about in scripture reverberates with the tones of Judaism.
            This point was brought home to me a few years ago when I was traveling to the Holy Land on business during the time of this same celebration. I was invited to a colleague’s home for the Shabbat evening meal. I was honored to be asked to join them, and I was struck by both the joy and solemnity with which they shared this weekly meal. But here is what really opened my eyes.
            As we began the meal, my colleague’s husband held up a glass of wine, and he said the following:
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha-olam borei p'ri hagafen.
And this means
Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe who creates the fruit of the vine.
And then he lifted a plate with two loaves of challah bread, and then he said,
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha-olam hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz.
Which means
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.
Now, why is this at all relevant to what we do here today? Some of you may already recognize the language here—that what the father of this family was saying is so very similar to what our priests say when they begin the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Blessed be the Lord, God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received this bread we offer you.
So that meal really drove home to me the kinship we Catholics have with Jews. On that same trip, two days later, I was blessed to pray the Divine Office in the Cenacle, which is the upper room we hear mentioned in both Acts and Matthew today. I had visited the Cenacle in my previous trips to the Holy Land, but there was truly something blessed about that visit, as it occurred on the feast of Pentecost some 1976 years after the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and the birth of our Church.
            This feast is about the life-giving spirit, the Holy Spirit, and His presence in our Church—in the clergy and in the people who have professed our Catholic faith since that day in the upper room. Prior to Christ’s presence here on earth, the Jews had the Law, which they memorized and struggled with from the time of Moses on. The Pagans, well, they had a pantheon of capricious, petty deities who seemed to be more like a cast from a soap opera or reality TV show. Fortunately, they also had reason, and philosophers like Plato and Aristotle pointed them to the One, the Logos—something that sounded very much like the God of the Jews. The Truth was there, but it was veiled. The Jews did the best with what they had, but as St. Paul noted, the Law was too hard to follow. They needed something more. They needed the Law to be written on their hearts, and they needed a savior.
            Likewise, the Spirit was also veiled but there from the beginning. In Genesis 1, the Spirit of the Lord moves across the water. The word for spirit in the Hebrew version of that book is ru’ah, which means breath. In Genesis 2, God breathes life into the nostrils of the man he has made. So God brings Adam to life by breathing it into him. In the Gospel of John, Jesus breathes on the Apostles and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit, and that word “spirit” derives from the word inspirare, to breathe. And in the Cenacle, the Upper Room, there is the sound of a rushing wind with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the breath of God that writes the truth on the hearts of the Apostles and gives the gospel life. And with the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles speak in the tongues of many nations.
            So Jesus is the fullness of revelation, and the Holy Spirit imbues the Apostles with this fullness of revelation so that they can teach the truth with fidelity. And they did! They passed down the teachings they heard from Jesus in their words and liturgy, which is what we call Sacred Tradition. They collected letters and wrote down eyewitness accounts of Jesus that we call gospels and together call the New Testament, and they continued to check and balance all that the Church taught through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We call this last element the Magisterium. It is the teaching office of the Church, established by Christ but confirmed by the Holy Spirit at the Feast of Pentecost. This Magisterium is with us today, still guided by the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Father and the college of bishops gathered from around the world. We can see the spirit when we see our bishops and priests continue to stand for the moral teachings of the Church; when the Church carries out its ministry to the poor, persecuted, and imprisoned; when we celebrate this ancient liturgy whether it is done in Latin, Greek, Aramaic, or English; and when we go out into the world and proclaim the Truth.
Notice that the Holy Spirit descends and the Apostles are given the ability to speak to the world. The breath goes in, and then the breath comes out transmitting the Word. That is how speech works, and it is so perfectly exemplified in Acts. The Holy Spirit descends and the Apostles begin to preach.
            So this same spirit that teaches the Apostles, that inspired Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, guides the Magisterium of the Church today and is still present and active. It still dwells and stirs in our Church.
            The question I have for you is whether it stirs enough. If you follow the news, either religious or secular, you’ve probably heard all about the Holy Father’s encouragement that we evangelize—that we go out and share the good news. Now, contrary to popular belief, this isn’t a new teaching. Francis isn’t telling us something new, but he’s reminding us of the Church’s central mission. Pope Benedict said the same thing, and Pope St. John Paul II even coined the term the New Evangelization. The mission of the Church is to evangelize—to speak the good news to the world. The Holy Spirit has given us the breath—the medium to use. Now we just have to open our mouths and flap our lips and tell the world why we are Catholics, why Jesus came, and why it matters. That sounds so simple!
            But it’s not. Our culture cuts us off in this conversation. It tells us that we’re superstitious, old fashioned, oppressive. None of that is true. If you dig into science, you find the Catholic Church. If you dig into philosophy, you find the Catholic Church. If you dig into social justice—in Poland, in South America, in Africa, in Syria, and all over the world–you find the Catholic Church. The Holy Spirit is still here moving among us. We need to open our mouths and our hearts and preach the truth. We need to tell the world our story, because it’s the story of a tiny oppressed people, the People of Israel, who gave birth to the savior of the world; a story of a remnant of them who chose to follow an obscure rabbi from a backwater in Galilee despite the rather monumental setback of His death; a story of the remnant who saw Him again after he rose from the dead; a remnant that cowered in the Cenacle, the upper room, until the Holy Spirit breathed fire, life, and spinal fortitude into them so that they could go out and preach the truth. That is why the Holy Spirit came to us on this day 1976 years ago—that we would go out to all the world and tell the truth.

            At the end of every Eucharistic liturgy, the deacons send you out with the command of this mission. Go in peace, glorifying the Lord with your lives. On this Pentecost, I impress upon you the need of the gospel in the world. I implore you to have courage. And I send you out to make fishers of men, to preach the good news to the world, and to glorify the Lord with your lives.
For further reading:

·         The Lamb’s Supper by Dr. Scott Hahn
·         Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist by Dr. Brant Pitre

Sunday, June 01, 2014

For a Lulabell

Photo courtesy of Starry Night Media.

You wouldn't know to look at her
that death awaited at her door
her toothy sometimes toothless gaze
and giggly girly gushing love
grace that she poured on all of us.

Oh sprightly eyes and purple locks
your impish grin, your mismatched socks
so draw us to the mystery
of you, which is to all of us,
that gap between what is and seems.

No angel but with angels dwells
the Lulabell I’ll never see
but Heaven sent and Heaven claimed
your soul a flit, a flight, a fling
that traipses through our sweetest dream.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Give Generously to TOUCO

I have a couple of links to some programs Gina and I like to support: Catholic Cross International Outreach and Salesian Missions. Both of these organizations are excellent, and we trust them to use our donations wisely. However, a new link will be going up shortly for a project that is near to our hearts.

First, let me tell you about my spiritual director, Fr. Bruno Denyutali Mgaya. He came here from Tanzania to complete his doctoral studies in sociology. While he worked on his dissertation, he took a position at a parish in our diocese. He very quickly became a much-sought confessor, and it is not unusual to see long lines of people waiting outside his confessional on Saturday afternoons. (Fortunately, spiritual direction also provides ample time for confession.)

Fr. Bruno was orphaned when he was 13 and had to work to finish school and seminary.  His experience formed his sense of mission, and he has since been looking at how to develop homes for orphans that allow for children to grow in an atmosphere of dignity, mutual support, and self respect. And so the concept of TOUCO was born.

Currently, the project consists of three homes with 10 to 12 children each and a Mama Mkubwa (typically a widow or single mother recruited by the local villages). Support currently comes from outside, but the aim is to help each home become self sustaining. Fr. Bruno believes strongly that it is not just to ask people (meaning those of us here) to simply take on the support of others who are not willing to work and grow to support themselves. Consequently, the children learn how to do things that most of us don't (like digging their own wells for water or terrace the landscape for farming). They will be learning how to expand their own homes, plant and harvest their crops, market their produce, and more.

If you'd like to know more about the project, or perhaps to help support it financially, please go read more at Tanzania Orphans' Upendo Community.

Fr. Bruno (now Rev. Dr. Bruno) is returning to get some new building projects started, and eventually he will leave us permanently to return and continue his work there. I hope someday I can travel there and contribute whatever talents I have. Until then, I'll be here asking for your support for TOUCO.

And please pass a link to this post along to anyone who might be interested.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Are you ready for the Way?—Fifth Sunday of Easter (Cycle A)

Acts 6:1–7; 1 Peter 2: 4–9; John 14: 1–12
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Last week, Jesus called himself the sheepfold, the gate through which the true shepherds and their sheep could be saved. Today, in a completely different context, he says that he is the way. What does this mean?
The Gospel of John is the most theological of the gospels, so we can expect to grapple with Jesus’ words here. And much of it simply has to be accepted as a matter of faith. When Jesus says that he is the Truth, we have to accept that this is a mystery. John calls Jesus the Logos—that’s a Greek word that indicates that he is the word or thought of God the Father. Everything that the Father conceives in His intellect is passed to the Son because the Son is the one complete and perfect image that God the Father has of himself. When Jesus says, “I am in the Father and the Father in me,” he speaks the truth because he is the fullness of truth with and in the Father from the beginning. That’s understandably difficult for us to grasp.
When He says that he is the life, we again have to accept on faith that He created us and gave life to us. He continues to give us this life through his body and blood. The baptism he proclaimed raises us from death to life. His own death destroyed death forever to bring us eternal life. In chapter 6 of this gospel, after Jesus has made the scandalous suggestion that people must eat his flesh and drink his blood, he turns to the twelve apostles and asks if they too will leave him, and Peter says, “To where shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” This they have to accept on faith, even though they don’t know where it will lead them. So, too, do we accept all of this on faith.
He is life. And he is truth. As difficult as these claims are, the apostles don’t question him but simply accept them on faith.
It’s strange, then, what causes the confusion. Jesus says that they can follow him because they know the way. Thomas asks point blank, “How can we know the way?” And the response is baffling.
I am the way.”
What does this mean? What is Jesus claiming to be? To a Jew in first century Palestine, this approaches blasphemy. “The way” is how they spoke of the Torah and the Law of Moses, but here’s Jesus among a bunch of Jews saying, “I am the way.” Not the Law of Moses. Not temple sacrifice and observance. But He himself. That was the scandal of Christianity for early Jews—that Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” That claim was appalling to them.
In our own time, I think we have become a bit complacent—a bit too sure of the gospel, even if we as Catholics aren’t the best at proclaiming it. But the truth is becoming a scandal again. To claim that Christ is the exclusive way to the Father—to God—is these days scandalous. To suggest that God’s commandments are real and that there are real consequences for ignoring them—that is scandalous.
The age of a lukewarm Christianity and Catholic faith is coming to an end. We have to face the scandal of a man who claimed to be the only way to the Father, who claimed to be the way, and the truth, and the life. It won’t do anymore to claim to be a Christian but not to recognize the claims Christ makes on us. It won’t do anymore to only be committed to the benefits of the Christian faith. We will soon have to commit ourselves to the liabilities.
That, of course, was the case from the beginning. To truly embrace Christ and take him as savior has always been costly. Jesus didn’t tell us to pick up our golf clubs and follow him. He didn’t tell us to hop in our Lexus and follow him. He didn’t say, “Follow me downtown to my great condo in the Royal Plaza.” He said, “Pick up your cross and follow me.”
Now, I’m not saying that it’s wrong to have earthly goods in this life, but understand that when God blesses us, he also obligates us. Those of us who have done well, we are obligated to provide for others. And no, we don’t get to let Uncle Sam do that work for us. The government is not our proxy in loving our neighbor. We have to do that ourselves. And that obligation extends to every aspect of our lives. We can’t put our faith in a box with our Sunday best and take it out for only one hour on the weekends. It must be lived, and it must be lived on God’s terms, not on our own.
So Jesus shows us a way, and whether it’s a way that looks attractive, it is the way that leads to the Father. It is the way of the cross. It is the way of suffering. But it is also the way of glory. Jesus is the way, and we follow the way by doing as he did: by loving our enemies, by praying for those who persecute us, by giving away all we have to follow him. That’s what it means to accept and follow the way.
Our reading from Acts points us to two exemplars of those who embrace the way. The Twelve chose the seven, and the seven were ordained with the laying on of hands, which is the traditional form of ordination. Two of these ordained are the subject of stories almost immediately, and both of their stories tell us what our response to Jesus should be. First we have Stephen, considered by the Church to be the first deacon martyr. In chapter 7 of Acts, Stephen witnesses to Christ’s death and resurrection and then is himself martyred. He imitates Christ by testifying regardless of the cost, and he follows Jesus in his death by asking God to forgive those who murder him. Just after that event, we hear of Phillip traveling to Samaria, where he preaches, heals, and baptizes. He does precisely what Jesus did and what Jesus commanded.
So both of these men follow the way of Jesus by doing what he did and what he commanded the Apostles to do: to preach the gospel and to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. St. Stephen was ready to pay up in full. We know the stories of the other Apostles. Eleven out of the 12 were martyred for their faith, and Christians existed under the threat of persecution for hundreds of years. And so history repeats itself. Christians right now are the number one persecuted population throughout the world.
The message in today’s readings is clear. If you accept Jesus as your savior, there are demands that faith makes on your life. The gift of grace is free, but the commitment of faith will cost you, and it may cost you everything.

Are we ready to pay that price? Do we recognize Jesus—the way, the truth and the life? Are we ready to pick up our cross and follow him?