Thursday, October 31, 2013

What has changed?

I've had several people come up to me in the past few days and ask, "Do you feel any different?"

No. And yes. Do I feel more confident of my opinions, more holy, more virtuous? Not really. But I do feel a sense of joy at being able to impart blessings on people, and I do have to say that I am feeling a lot more love for people. I have had very few down moments in the last few days, and Mac (the other new deacon at our parish) and I got to attend the weekly RCIA class for the first time as deacons this week. I'm sure the shine will fade eventually, but for now, I'm enjoying it.

I am amazed by the outpouring of support and love from parishioners, other Catholics in the diocese, friends, and social-media connections who know me only through my blog and Facebook. The comments have been very kind and supportive. I had more page views on my post "Weeping and Laughing" than I think I've ever had. (This blog has never been very high traffic.) I hope that I will be inspired to write more, and I will definitely finish the story of my spiritual journey now that these other matters have been wrapped up. A new homily will be coming tomorrow evening after the All Saints Day liturgy.

Here are some of the photos from ordination. Our very gifted photographer is putting the finishing touches on the others this weekend.

Here's a black-and-white version of us during the Litany of Saints.

And here I am giving my promise to the bishop of our diocese.

Dang, all that core work hasn't done a bit of good. Glad the dalmatics are roomy, even if they are a bit hot.
I have started a new blog, The Deacon's Diner, which will be strictly for homilies and reflections pertinent to my ministry. I've had requests for the homily I gave on Sunday, so this new blog will be a place where I can share them without all of the theology essays, poems, stories, and other stuff getting in the way.
Grace and peace to you all!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Pharisees, Tax Collectors, Beggars All (30th Sunday, Cycle C)

Sirach 35:12–18
Luke 18:9–14

“O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

That’s the prayer of the tax collector, and it’s the basis for a common devotion of the Eastern Church called the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” a prayer that is repeated continually. It’s a great reminder that despite all that we do, we come as beggars to God. We come with nothing of our own because everything we have is from Him.

Marc Barnes, a brilliant young man who has a blog titled “Bad Catholic,” has this to say about our condition:
Surely we recognize that the universal postures of prayer are identical with those of the homeless man who begs by the gas station? Kneeling, pleading with fingers interwoven, imploring with hands folded, bowing, weeping, rocking, extending open palms — this is the dialect of the poor and the faithful, the common ground between the wealthy churchgoer and the beggar outside the door. Both are engaged in radical honesty about the nature of their existence.

That’s incredible wisdom from a 20-year-old college student, incredible all the more because of his recognition that he, too, is a beggar.

One of the dangers Christians throughout the ages have often fallen into is to think that somehow we are solely responsible for our spiritual growth, our piety, our personal holiness. This was also the problem that many of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time had—the idea that keeping every detail of the Law would save them. Theologians have an old word for this belief: Pelagianism— a 5th century heresy that proposed that we can work our way to Heaven on our own merits without the assistance of God’s grace. It was a heresy in the 5th century no less than it is today, and it seems just as popular now as then.

Luke presents to us two opposing images in this parable: the Pharisee, who believes his pious practices justify him in God’s eyes, and the tax collector, who recognizes his sinfulness. One is rich with his own accomplishments, and the other is a spiritual beggar.

Now, I’m going to take this moment to confess that at times, I am a first-class Pharisee: self-righteous, quick to judge, unwilling to mix with the ritually impure—that has been me at various times in my life. How many other Pharisees do we have here today?

One of my father’s favorite stories to tell is about how I would always try to get my older brother in trouble for picking on me. “See how bad he is and how good I am?”

So I am guilty of being just like that Pharisee in the temple—of pointing to that guy over there who is so much worse than I am—I, who say my prayers, abstain from meat on Fridays, go to reconciliation every week, practice numerous devotions faithfully. I do such holy and pious things, and I go to Mass every Sunday, unlike those Christmas and Easter Catholics. See, God, see how holy I am? Unlike that guy in the back pew who works for the IRS. I’m so glad I’m not like the rest of those people.

I am guilty as charged. And that helps me to remember that I, too, am a spiritual beggar. I didn’t come by my practice of faith because I’m holy through my own natural ability. If I do any good, it is God who does it through me.

Now, I’m not saying that devotions are wrong, or that we shouldn’t pray, abstain on Fridays or perform penitential acts, or to practice devotions with love. These are good things to do out of love for God, just as acts of charity are good to do out of love for our neighbor.

However, when these acts become matters of pride for me, when I assess myself approvingly in comparison to that sinner over there, when I take my acts as being from my own merit, I am that Pharisee Jesus warns us about in the Gospel of Luke.

It’s sadly easy to slip into the complacent mindset that it’s all about my doing things. But it’s really about letting something be done to me.
  • It’s not about how often I go to confession, but whether I let Jesus heal my sinfulness.
  • It’s not about whether I pray the rosary every day, but whether I let the mysteries of Christ’s life change me into Christ.
  • It is not about whether I darken the door of a church every Sunday. It’s about whether I let Christ lighten the doorway of my heart.
Jesus isn’t telling us not to be concerned with outward holiness and outward practices, but He is saying that we need to have the inner disposition to match, and that comes through humility, through recognizing that it isn’t all about me and my doing through recognizing that I am the one who usually avoids picking up my cross through seeing myself as someone who begs to God daily for the grace to not lie, steal, and cheat my neighbor in those subtle ways that we modern people do.

Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me... a sinner.

We are beggars for every gift we have, especially for God’s grace. For that reason, God in His mercy gave us His only Son. We are beggars at the table of His Eucharist, this Holy Communion in which we are about to share. Verse 17 of today’s first reading from Sirach 35 is a good reminder of how we should approach our prayer. I especially like the RSV version of it: “The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds.”

So let’s pray like the beggars we are, and let us show our gratitude for God’s mercy, by giving back generously to Him.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Weeping and Laughing

The alarm went off at 6:00 so Gina could get up and have time to curl her hair. I had set my iPhone alarm for 7:00, but that was pretty pointless. I was wide awake. That gave me enough time to work in a short run this morning—which probably helped to burn off what would otherwise have been nervous energy. So I finished up my coffee, prayed my morning hour, walked and fed the dog, and hit the road.

I don't get out for morning runs often, but they are so good for clearing the head, cleansing the lungs, and focusing the thoughts. (It has other effects, too, so I was grateful that the coin-op on 28th was open, since the Elm Grove Park toilets were locked.)

As I was finishing the last 1.2 miles of the run down 28th, I considered God's mercy (particularly because my homily tomorrow will touch on that subject). I thought about the last 30 years of my life and where I have wound up. Karen, a friend at my parish whom I've known since high school (and a fellow air force brat), stopped me and Gina on our way out of mass and said, "Look where we are?" I don't think either of us would ever have thought we'd be working at the same parish and devoted to our faith.

So as I ran and considered this, and what God's mercy and love has done for me, and I began to weep... and to laugh.

Weeping and laughing. That's been my day. Intermittent weeping and laughing.

First, I imagine many of the people who have known me in the past would be floored to know that I have been ordained. The contrast between my life then and now is stark beyond the darkest and the most bright. Second, I'm a bit amazed that I made it through the formation process at all. The academic aspects weren't an issue, but I tell you, when you have a head for theology and a temperament for lawful goodness (my D&D/geek creds intrude here), it is really easy to be harsh in applying the cure. And I was zealous enough at times to give my future colleagues at the parish pause (rightly so). Third and most importantly, I know my frailties, vices, and nasty dispositions.

Why the heck would God choose someone like me? And here I am. At every moment in today's ordination, I thought about my bumbling way along the path. And here I am. Laughing and weeping at this joke God has played on the Diocese of Boise. (I didn't mention that I was baptized at the air base just 50 miles southeast of here.) This diocese welcomed me into the Body of Christ. It sanctified my marriage. It baptized all of our children. And now it has welcomed me into the order of the diaconate. Weeping and laughing.

When I wasn't just smiling, or praying, or doing something on the altar, I was weeping and laughing. (Okay, I was more accurately chuckling silently during the liturgy.)

The ordination rites went so much more quickly than the rest of the liturgy. We came up, knelt down, prostrated ourselves, and it was over so quickly. And it was done. Gina and my mentor, <fe>Deacon Bill</fe>, came and vested me. No undoing this! They can't take it back! Weeping and manical laughter!

(Not really. Weeping, yes. No maniacal laughter.)

It was a beautiful liturgy. Most of us who were ordained had family members assisting, and we also had so many people who traveled just to see the moment. I had family and friends, including another great friend, whom I won't name, and who did more than he suspects to help me back into the Church.

Weeping and laughing. All day.

I could go on all day about the love and grace from my fellow parishioners, friends from youth ministry, first and third-order religious, non-Catholic friends who came to celebrate)... and on. I am so grateful for all of you!

But I'm going to jump forward a bit to my family celebration. We had a simple little party at Smoky Mountain Pizza. The restaurant put us next to a soccer party, and I recognized a couple of the kids as members of our parish. They were a pretty rambunctious bunch, yet we managed to celebrate, eat, and communicate well enough. I was able to give some of my first blessings to family members, and I told them that I would likely be blessing people and things with abandon. After all, I'm just the human instrument. God gives the blessing. I'm just trying to be generous with God's grace (as if).

We left the restaurant, and everyone wended their way out of the parking lot. As I was turning out of the lot and into the adjoing alley, I remembered that just a little over 20 years ago, I used to pull into that same alley for work. The building that now houses Smoky Mountain Pizza once housed the Blue Note Cafe and the Blue Unicorn, a "metaphysical" bookshop. The place where my family celebrated my ordination was also the place were I, twenty years earlier, sold New Age books and supplies. Twenty years ago, I sold tarot cards and books on the occult in that very spot where we dined. Today, I blessed my family members at the same spot in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Our Lord and God has an amazing sense of humor.

Weeping laughing I began my day. Weeping and laughing I began my ministry. With God's aid, weeping and laughing it will end.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Three days

In three days, my life changes forever: I will be ordained as a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Boise. Last night I woke up around 3:00 AM (which is not unusual), but where I usually dwell on some issue concerning work, this time I was wondering about whether I would be ready for this ministry.

Am I going to blow it on the altar? Yes, many times over.

Am I going to tick some people off with my homilies? Undoubtedly.

Am I going to let some people down? Almost certainly.

I think the only time I don't have doubts about whether I am meant to be in active ordained ministry is when I am assisting at the altar, at RCIA, or otherwise doing ministry. I think people will be more free with their critiques about my performance, though.

If I had gone down this route earlier in life, I don't know that I would be ready. In my early professional and academic life, I was a bit more thin skinned, a bit more in need of approval from peers and students. While I still like to have agood rapport with peers and the people I instruct, I've gotten much better at not personalizing their responses to me. But occasionally, I still hear the nagging, whiny little voice and still feel like that simpering grade schooler. But I've also learned how to put that side of me in its place, if for no other reason than that it gets in the way of getting something done. In the business world, that has paid off. We will see how it serves me in ministry.

But there are real fears as well: that I won't have the stamina, that I will fail God, that my relationships will suffer, that my other dreams will not be fulfilled. I've rarely taken on anything at which I've failed, and this could be a blazing catastrophe waiting to happen. Or it could be the most grace-filled adventure.

In three days, my life changes forever.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Tuesday, Twenty-Fourth Week in Ordinary Time —Cycle I

This passage in chapter 7 of the Gospel of Luke is a bit like a bookend. It closes off a section of the gospel that begins with Jesus reading in the synagogue in Nazareth and being rejected by his neighbors. There He refers to the prophet Elijah and the miracles he performed for the widow of Sidon. Sandwiched between these two passages is Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain,” a basic primer of Christian moral teaching. When Jesus enters Nain, He is still accompanied by His disciples and the crowds who were with Him on the plain where he preached.
Nain lies about 8 miles southeast of Nazareth and is not far from Sidon where Elijah the prophet raised the dead boy to life in 1 Kings 17. Jesus’ raising of the widow’s son in Nain would have immediately evoked the story of Elijah. These people proclaim Jesus to be a prophet, the first such proclamation in Luke’s gospel. The language Luke uses here is identical to the language used in 1 Kings, so clearly the parallel is intentional. His disciples and the crowds are both being given a signal—that the prophecies He made in the sermon are coming true here and now. He is a prophet—and more.  “God has visited his people” the people proclaim.
It’s a great story, and there is so much going on with all of Luke’s careful crafting of the parallels with Elijah and with Moses that it’s easy to miss the point. Luke is great for drawing parallels and for those typological connections, and it’s really easy for a scripture geek like me to get caught up in all of that—obviously, since I’ve been expounding on those very notable elements.
Buried in the middle of that passage, though, is a theme that spoke to my heart.
What motivates Jesus to raise the widow’s son? Does He plan this great PR stunt back when He’s at Nazareth being rejected by His own community? Does He see the crowd of mourners mixing with His own followers and see this as a great opportunity to fulfill scripture?
No, He acts because He feels compassion for this widow. He is moved with pity for the woman’s loss. He recognizes the position this puts her in economically, of course, but He also sees the wound that needs to be healed—that whole in her being where she once held her son. She has lost her son, and He returns him to her.
“Blessed are you who weep, for you will laugh.” Do you suppose that amid the clamor there might also have been some laughter that day?
The passage speaks to me because, analogically, I was a lost son and because my daughter and my stepchildren are in some ways “lost.” I’m sure I’m not alone in this experience. Our kids find that the world seems to have so much more to offer—much more than the Church and religion with their long list of NOs. Why listen to a bunch of old men when you could be having fun? It’s common for people have a crisis of faith as adolescents or to be dazzled by material pleasure. So we lose our children—despite our best efforts—to a culture that sells cheap, fake grace. Our children die spiritually.
We’re the ones who mourn and weep. And Jesus responds to that pain—Jesus, a prophet and more, yes—but most of all Jesus, our compassionate savior, who came to mourn and weep with us and then to save us. He will hear our mourning and weeping, and He will bring our loved ones back to life—both in this world and the next.