Homilies and Poems

I am a Catholic Deacon and a Professor of English at Oregon State University. I've created this BLOG as a way of sharing my Sunday homilies, for anyone who would like copies, as well as some of my poetry. I'm also very glad to continue the conversation, over email or in person. Just click on "profile" and then onto my email address. Peace be with you and the Lord be with you. Also visit me at my website.

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Location: Corvallis, Oregon

Saturday, September 06, 2014


September 7, 2014

Twenty Third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20


     The readings today are the sort of readings that make most of us uncomfortable, I think.  They seem to go against the strong sense in our culture that we’re all just supposed to be nice to each other.  And they do.  They’re saying some things are wrong and some things are right and sometimes we’re supposed to say so.

     Like Ezekiel, we are all appointed “watchmen.”  “When you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me.”


     But notice, first, that we’re supposed speak out only when God says something, not just when we’re irritated or offended—when we’re prompted from deep down.  We shouldn’t do it very often.

      And what we’re supposed to focus on is conduct, is behavior.

     And we’re supposed to focus on central issues of conduct, on the basic issue of loving our neighbor, not on trivial things, not on personality conflicts, because that’s what all the commandments come down to:  to love.  “Love is the fulfillment of the law,” as St. Paul puts it.


      And the basic program that Jesus lays out in Matthew is really practical, really workable:  make sure that “every fact is established,” he says; then confront the person directly, several times; and if that doesn’t work, let it go. 


     I’ve told this story before but I want to tell it again.

     A few years ago I was having lunch in a restaurant and happened to overhear a professor from another department, in the booth behind me, say something derogatory about one of her Christian students.  Or I thought I did.  And I walked into my next class and used that comment as an example of how the university is at odds with Christianity, has this real bias.  And though I didn’t use that professor’s name, one of my students had a class from her, too, figured it out, and told her what I’d said.

    And here’s what that professor did:  she came to me in person, spoke to me directly, and said, calmly, it was wrong of you to eavesdrop, it was wrong of you to share what you heard, and you got it wrong anyway.  I treat my believing with students with respect, she said.  I don’t discriminate—as I found out later when she had my youngest son as a student and was very good to him, very helpful.

     And I paused, looked her in the eye, and said:  you’re completely right, and I apologize.


     We hate confrontation.  We don’t want to go to the trouble.  We don’t want to risk the embarrassment.  But what I admire about my colleague in this situation is that she did go to the trouble and she did take the risk.  She’s an atheist, a principled atheist, but in this case she was the one who was behaving the way Jesus tells us to behave, addressing my fault to me, as Jesus calls us to, keeping it “between us.”  Not pressing “send all.”

     And the results were only positive.  My behavior was changed, I knew I could trust her from that point on and she knew she could trust me, and finally I had my facts straight.  Nothing destroys a community like gossip, because gossip is always secret, behind the scenes, and it’s almost never actually right, almost never true, and by clarifying the facts, my colleague interrupted the whole cycle, kept the poison from spreading.

     And I knew her better then, and she knew me, and we liked each other better.  That almost always happens when we talk to people face to face.  They’re no longer stereotypes, they’re real people.  They’re complicated.  They’re like us.


     And if that doesn’t work, if talking doesn’t solve the problem, I think Jesus is saying that we should just walk away.  “If he refuses to listen,” Jesus says, “treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector,” which sounds really harsh at first, really terrible, but I think is maybe the most powerful element in the whole story.  

      Jesus doesn’t say, keep up the whisper campaign, keep talking behind the person’s back, keep writing nasty emails.  To treat someone like a tax collector is to ignore them, I think, to let them be.  To live with them.

     The tax collectors are not put to death.  The gentiles still exist.

     Chesterton famously defined the church this way:  “here comes everybody.”  Or as C. S. Lewis says, if at church you’re not standing next to someone you can’t stand, there’s something wrong.   I really admire the people in this parish.  I get so frustrated when I hear the institutional Church described again and again in only negative ways, as hypocritical and oppressive, when  every day I witness such selflessness and kindness and compassion.  But to keep coming to church Sunday after Sunday is to keep being reminded of all our humanness and limitations.  It’s to keep rubbing elbows with people who are every bit as flawed as we are, and who don’t necessarily share our own particular tastes, who don’t agree with us about everything, who keep stubbornly being themselves.  And that’s good.  That’s what we have to learn:  that we can’t always get our own way, that life is just life.

     Jesus is saying, speak your truth and then live with things the way they really are.  Because he did.  He didn’t turn away from the messiness.  He entered into it.  He became one with it.


     To be a Christian isn’t just to believe certain things.  It’s not necessarily to be martyred in some grand, heroic way.  It’s to treat with patience and compassion the person across from us at breakfast or behind the counter at the store.  We like to argue in the abstract, about the existence of God or the problem of evil or the role of the Church in the world, and those are important issues and they deserve to be thought about, hard.  But can we say a kind word?  Can we hold open a door?


     I think of the big potluck we had a few weeks ago to welcome Father Ignacio, in the gym, hundreds of people, all this food, and afterwards, going back into the kitchen and seeing this person doing the dishes, dirty pots and pans piled high beside him--one of the Knights of Columbus, sweating, up to his elbows in suds, not calling attention to himself, not worrying about the little things:  washing the dishes.

     This is the Church.   Whenever two or three are gathered together in his name, whenever we are behaving even remotely like Jesus himself, he is there, in the midst of us. 

     We have to read this absolutely literally.  We have to take this passage and let it really refocus our attention.  If we want to understand Christian theology, if we want to prove the existence of God, if we want the Church to be the true Church, this is what we have to do:  the dishes.      

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Nice Thoughts

August 10, 2014
Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
1 Kings 19:9-13; Matthew 14:22-33

     The other night I dreamed about my mother, who died seven years ago.  In life she was a bitter woman, but in the dream she was laughing and happy, and I woke up with a strong sense of her happiness.  Of her presence.

     A few days later I was talking to a friend about the dream and saying how much I wished it were true:  that Mom really was happy and that she really had come to me.  And my friend turned, looked at me, and asked:  well, do you believe in God or not?

     The Lord doesn’t come to us in a wind, and he doesn’t come to us in an earthquake, and he doesn’t come to us in a fire.  He comes to us in a still, small voice, and all we have to do is listen.

     The Lord is always walking towards us, on the water—and we are always jumping out of the boat, in our joy—and when we feel how hard the wind is blowing, we always sink.  And the wind is the wind of doubt, the wind is the wind that blows from the culture we live in, a culture that is always ridiculing religion, is always reducing the mystery, through a small and petty rationalism.  And that doubt is in us, too.  We are the petty rationalists ourselves.

      There’s an approach to the Bible we often take, and it’s not entirely bad--it’s the approach I usually take--but reading Father James Martin’s new book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage, I realized for the first time what its dangers really are, if we take it too far.  It’s the approach that some scholars have called “the Nice Thought” approach.  Jesus didn’t really multiply the fishes and loaves; he just inspired the people to share the food they’d brought.  Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead; the people just lived new lives in memory of him.  In other words, whenever we come to a miracle in the Bible, we explain it away, we turn it into metaphor, until finally the scriptures are drained of all their power and meaning entirely. 

     It’s not that we have to prove all the miracles actually happened in some obvious way.  That’s a reduction from the other side, a reduction to the merely physical, as if God were just a magician who can only get our attention through special effects.  Sure, he can.  He can do anything.  But why would he stoop so low—and especially when it never works?  The people in the gospels witness all these astonishing things, they see all these miracles, and in the end they kill Jesus anyway.  They hang him on a cross. 

     As Catholics, of course, we know that we’re not supposed to read the Bible literally.  This is the teaching of the Church, as Father Robert Barron explains in a really terrific essay that appeared in the Catholic Sentinel a few weeks ago:

God did not dictate the Scriptures word for word [Barron says]; rather, God spoke subtly and indirectly, precisely through human agents who employed distinctive literary techniques and who were conditioned by the cultures in which they found themselves.

So, the Bible is the Word of God, but filtered through human language and reflecting human limitations.

Thus [Barron says] one of the most basic moves in Scriptural exegesis is the determination of the genre in which a given Biblical author was operating.  Are we dealing with a song, a history, a tall tale?  Therefore, to ask, ‘Do you take the Bible literally’ is about as helpful as asking, ‘Do you take the library literally’?

The word “genre” here just means kind or form, and the idea is simply that form determines the questions we ask.  We don’t watch Lord of the Rings the same way we watch Apollo 13, or The Simpsons the same way we watch Restaurant Impossible. 

      A “gospel” is a form of its own, not the news, but the “good news,” shaped, faith-filled history, based on the eye-witness accounts of a certain people in a certain time and place and then carefully, artfully arranged to convey not facts, finally, but faith, faith in an ever-living God.  But that’s exactly the point, the most important point of all.  The point isn’t to reduce the idea of miracle, but to expand it.  The point isn’t to drain the Bible of its power but to show again and again that the power is present in our time, too, in every moment, not just long ago and far away but here and now and everywhere.

     In our beloved Lord Jesus the difference between matter and spirit and subject and object has been forever transcended.  What’s miraculous isn’t just the walking on water but the water itself, is the lake, the Sea of Galilee, which Barb and I have seen, a beautiful lake, 13 miles long and 8 miles wide, with the sun rising over it in the mornings, and every lake, Yellowstone Lake and Lake Pend Oreille and even Cronemiller Lake, the pond in the woods by our house, because God is everywhere, lovely in 10,000 places, in every kind of experience and every form of expression, from dreams to heart attacks, from “I love you” to “pass the salt.”  The miracle is life itself, is the ordinary, not just the exceptional, is nature and our bodies and all that happens to us day to day.

     This is why we come to mass, to offer up these moments, to consecrate them and so become more aware of them, to give thanks for them.

      Jesus didn’t just live, he died, and he didn’t just die, he rose, and he didn’t just rise, he ascended, and then he sent the spirit, the Holy Spirit, which is flowing through the universe and has always been flowing through the universe, from the beginning of time.

     Everything is miraculous.

     Barb and I were driving through the fields and hills west of Philomath a few weeks ago, taking our dogs to the kennel, and I looked out at the trees and the new cut hay, at the farms as we passed them, and for a while I felt an unusual peace, a sense of happiness and blessedness.  It lasted about an hour, this feeling, as we drove on to the coast, deeper than usual, quiet but intense.  I can’t put it into words.  I didn’t even tell Barb about it.  We were just talking about ordinary things, listening to music.  But for a while, an hour or more, I had this quiet sense of joy, of belonging, as if some kind of energy was flowing into me from somewhere else, as if I were being told, it’s OK, it’s OK, everything is OK.

     But not as if.  An energy was flowing through me. 

     Do I believe in God or not?

     Sure, this feeling could have been just a nice feeling.  Sure, these thoughts could have been just nice thoughts--just the product of brain chemistry—just the result of a good mood.   But that’s not what we’re called to believe.  That’s not what the scriptures are calling us to today.  Thoughts like this are not our thoughts, they are the still, small voice, they are Jesus coming towards us, on the water.  Sure, we’ll jump out and sink, again and again.  We’re all like Peter.  These moments pass and we doubt them and forget them.  We’re embarrassed to talk about them.  We return to our drowning, in our own small problems and issues.  But that’s OK, too.  Jesus reaches down and pulls Peter out of the water, he always does, again and again, and we just have to accept that about ourselves, our limitations, and believe that about Jesus, his forgiveness and persistence. 

     And besides, the water is fine, even as we sink.  Even in our drowning, the Lord is with us.  The water is clear and sweet and the light is shining through it.    


Thursday, July 24, 2014


July 24, 2014

Jeremiah 2:1-13; Matthew 13:10-17


     The image of the dry, broken cistern is very striking to me.  Because I’m digging them all the time.  Only God is the source of living water.  Only in God can I find happiness, and that water is flowing all the time and in everything.   But slowly, unconsciously, I start to think that only my writing will make me happy.  If I don’t write something today and something good, I’m nothing.  Or only if I get this work done on the house, solve this particular problem, then I will be happy.  Or only if I have more money, or only if I can win this argument with a colleague or figure out this issue in the department or design the perfect class.  Only if I find the right shoes.  Only if I.  Only if I.  It’s subtle.  It happens gradually and again, unconsciously, but it’s always happening, and it never works.  The cisterns I build can never hold water.  They always leak.  The always run dry.


      There’s another kind of dryness, a spiritual dryness, that often happens in prayer and is usually the reason people stop praying, and this is a different thing altogether.  It’s even a gift.  It happens when we leave everything else aside and turn ourselves to God.  At first there’s real surge and interest and joy, and they do come back, these positive feelings, they come and they go, but it’s inevitable that they fade after a while and we enter into an ordinariness in our prayer life or we even experience anxiety and sadness, and emptiness, when we have to sit with our needs and limitations and longings. 

     This kind of dryness is to be praised, is to be welcomed, and distinguished from the other, because like consolation, this desolation is from God and it’s teaching us the truth:  that we are helpless.  That we are not spiritual athletes.  That we can’t make grace come.

     We have to turn towards this and welcome it.


     But the other kind, the dryness of self invention, of self consciousness, the dryness of the broken cisterns we build, the lack of satisfaction, that’s something we can identify and turn away from and should. 


     Or maybe these two kinds of dryness are really the same and it’s a question of awareness:  the good dryness, in prayer, is when we face the fact that we’ve built our own cisterns and these are broken and won’t work.  God wants us to live with that for a while, face that, know that.


     And the gospel ties in here, too.  Today this troubling gospel feels encouraging to me.  Jesus is saying that he speaks in parables because he doesn’t want to be direct and clear sometimes, he wants what he says to be challenging, he wants people to have to work to understand him, to make an effort, and though that usually seems frightening or unfair to me, today it seems to be saying:  don’t worry when life is hard.  It’s supposed to be.  Don’t worry when you struggle with dryness and don’t worry when you struggle with your own sin.  That’s how it is.  Accept the reality of it.  Don’t expect there to be an easy answer.  Don’t think there’s something you can do—that goes back to the dry cisterns we build.  No.  It’s not up to us to understand everything, it’s not up to us to be God.  We’re just who we are, loved and valued infinitely, but small, flawed, in need of the living water, not the source of it.

     I turned 59 last month and I keep thinking I should be wiser than I am, more put together, less prone to my sins, but I seem to be getting worse.  I seem to be becoming more and more who I am.  But there’s a way to look at this in which this fact and the awareness of this fact become the source of great freedom and joy.  What did I expect?  I’m just a person, like everyone else.  I’m just here, one of God’s children, living and breathing. 

     And then you kind of laugh it off, in a good way.  You just go on.  You just leave it all to God, the God of all joy and forgiveness and subtleness, the God of consolation and desolation, the God of clarity and of indirectness, the creator of the universe who yet loves each of us individually, as a mother loves her child.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Sufficient Doubt

July 13, 2014
Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Isaiah 55:10-11, Psalm 65, Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 13:1-23

     “A parable,” says C. H. Dodd, “is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”

     A parable leaves the mind in sufficient doubt.  It teases it into active thought.

     Or the root meaning of the Greek word for parable, paraballo:  “to place one thing beside another.”


     Did you see the article in the paper the other day, about a new study, published in the journal Science?  Researchers asked college students and people from local churches and businesses to spend between six to 15 minutes in a bare room without any books or smart phones or other distractions and then to report on what the experience was like for them.

     57.5 percent indicated it was difficult to concentrate, 89 percent that their minds had wandered, and 49.3 per cent that they didn’t enjoy the experience at all.

     In one experiment, in fact, well over half of the men chose to deliberately shock themselves with electricity rather than simply sit there, alone with their thoughts.  I’m not sure exactly how this worked, but apparently 67 percent of the men and 25 percent of the woman administered a mild jolt of electricity to themselves at least once during their time in the empty room.  They actually zapped themselves, out of boredom, I guess, or nervousness.  One man shocked himself 190 times.

      I don’t think the problem is that God doesn’t exist.  I think the problem is that we usually don’t pay attention long enough to realize that he does.

     I think that grace is always falling on us like the rain and the snow that come down, in the words of Isaiah, that the word of the Lord is always going forth, and that it comes back null and void only because we’ve been too distracted to hear it.

     I think the seeds of grace are everywhere and all around us.  The Lord is throwing them out all the time, wildly and at random.  But our ground is too shallow or we have rocks in our heads or we choke the seeds out with all our various thorns:  our anxieties, our nervousness, our fears.

     Everything depends on those six to 15 minutes.  Because that’s where we can make contact with God.  Everything depends on us sitting in that empty room.


     Recently I took a class sponsored by the Corvallis Audubon Society called “Birding by Ear.”  We studied bird songs and bird behavior and took three field trips to listen and try to identify what we heard.  On the field trips we started with a simple exercise:  we simply stopped, closed our eyes, and listened for two or three minutes, just two or three, making an inventory of all the sounds we could hear.   The hum of the highway.  The wind in the trees.  Then a tanager chirping, then a Purple Finch.  A warbler of some kind.  A trilling somewhere else.  A run of notes in an ash tree.  Suddenly the trees were full of sounds, and the brush below the trees, and the sky, there were songs and calls and rustlings everywhere, all around us.

     That’s how the grace of God is. 

     Partly I mean that God is present in nature, continually—in the “fields,” as the Psalm puts it today, in “the valleys blanketed with grain.”  “The untilled meadows,” the Psalmist says, “overflow with it.”

     But in our kitchens, too, and in our cars, and in our offices, grace is as rich and subtle and varied as the bird song. 


     Though of course there are many moments of desolation and emptiness in our lives, too, moments of bleakness, when the birds don’t seem to be singing at all, and in a way these are even more important.   That’s why the participants in the study shocked themselves, I think:  because when turn off our distractions and sit with our thoughts we come face to face with our sadness, our weakness, our insignificance, and that scares us and confuses us, and it should.  That’s revelatory, too.   That’s God speaking to us, too, in our own groaning, as St. Paul puts it, in our own struggling, and unless we let ourselves experience that bleakness, unless we acknowledge that emptiness, we can never really admit to our need for grace, our need for God.

     The emptiness is the first necessary step.  It’s a kind of dying, and unless we die, we can’t rise.

     Because the ground only looks lifeless and bare.  Underneath it, in the dark, the seed is growing, and if we are patient, we will see new life emerge.  The sadness will give way, if we can bear it for a while.  It will open up.


     So let me ask you to set aside 6 to 15 minutes a few times this week.  Perform this experiment for yourself, and accept whatever comes.  If it’s birdsong, wonderful.  If it’s loneliness, that’s true and important, too.  All of it is grace and all of is good and all of it is real.  That’s the goal of Christianity, that’s what Christ wants for us:  to face reality.  Because reality, as Anthony De Mello says, is lovely.  It’s absolutely lovely.

     That’s what Christ wants, this master of the parable:  to tease us into thought.


     And let me ask you, too, to join me in praying for this same patience and openness and hope for us as a community of faith, to join me in praying for the parish in this time of transition.

     This is shifting focus a little, but a good friend of mine heard this prayer in another parish, in Washington, another parish waiting for a new pastor, and as soon as he showed to me I knew I should include it somehow today.

     It’s a prayer that calls us all to help cultivate the seeds of grace.  It’s a call to growth:


     O faithful God, as your people we cherish our memories and our history as a sacred gift.  We also ask you to guide us in our time of transition.

     We need your wisdom that we might be receptive to change, conversion, and growth.

     We need your grace to redirect our hearts that we may be willing to offer ourselves in joyful service.

     Do not allow fear, ignorance or pride to limit the work of your spirit, nor custom to prevent the creativity within us form bearing fruit.

     Open our hearts to the call of the Gospel.  Give us courage and renewed hope that we may meet the challenge of being the church of our time.


Thursday, May 08, 2014

The Gate

May 11, 2014
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14-41; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:20-25; John 10:-10 

     The other day I felt this urge to call my mom and have one of those long phone conversations we used to have.  But I couldn’t, because she’s been gone for seven years. 

     So I’d like to begin this Mother’s Day by asking you to join me in praying for the repose of the souls of all our departed mothers, and for all the mothers here, and for the mother inside of all of us, for the feminine wisdom we all possess, men and women both, that we all have the courage to imitate Our Lady in her patience and her compassion.

     It’s funny that St. Peter is so clear and confident in Acts of the Apostles today—“Let the whole house of Israel know for certain” that Jesus is the Lord, he says—because he’s the one who jumped out on the water and sank.  He’s the one who denied Jesus three times.  And he knew Jesus, in the flesh.  He touched him.  He looked into his eyes.

     Still, I envy St. Peter his conviction, and I envy him his firsthand experience of Jesus, because my experience, like yours, is indirect, through the Church and through the sacraments and through the scriptures.  And the sacraments are wonderful and the scriptures are wonderful.  But sometimes I long to see the face of Jesus.  To take his hand.  I pray, as we all do, and prayer sustains me, but sometimes I don’t know what prayer is anymore and I’m not sure what God is saying to me, or if he’s saying anything at all.

     Which is why I like this little book a friend recently gave me, Praying the Truth, by William Barry, an eighty-year old retired Jesuit.  Because it’s simple and sweet and clear, and it contains the best explanation I’ve read of what prayer is—not just that prayer is a conversation with God but that this conversation can take many forms.  Prayer, Barry says, is anything that occurs when we are “conscious in some way of God’s presence.”  It can be as simple as taking a walk or looking out the window; as simple as saying “help me” or “wasn’t that great,” as long as we are “consciously saying these words to God.”

     Even more I appreciate Barry’s sense of what actually happens inside us as we’re walking or journaling or saying the rosary.  Ideas come up, of course.  Feelings come up.  But how do we know that these are from God?  How do we know that we’re not just talking to ourselves? 

     Three ways.  Three tests.

     First, when an idea or a feeling is coming from God it has a certain resonance, Barry says.  It’s striking.  It’s like the feeling we have when we’re reading a book and a passage suddenly hits us as particularly true and right.  It’s in boldface.

     Second, when an idea or feeling is coming from God it has a clarity and a persistence.  We don’t forget it.  It sticks with us, and it keeps coming up, again and again.  It doesn’t go away.

     And third and most important, when an idea or feeling is coming from God it’s accompanied by joy and peace to varying degrees.  It lifts our hearts—we feel good, like ourselves—even if we later begin to question and doubt again.

       Because of course we all have moments of joy like this, and we all tend to dismiss them, and Barry says we have to make a choice, make a decision here, and say:  no, this is God.  The sheep hear the voice of the shepherd directly, in John’s image today, and they follow it.  But these feelings are the voice of the shepherd, too, these feelings of resonance and clarity and joy, and though they’re subtle, though they’re indirect, they’re not that hard to identify and separate out. 

     “It seems as though these thoughts come to me,” Barry says, “and I know what I am experiencing is different from when I am talking to myself.”

     And the negative voices are not that hard to identify either, the voices of the thieves who sneak in, the false shepherds.  Any feeling of radical self-doubt, any feeling of self-loathing, for example:  that’s never from God.  Never.   

     This is where the mass and scriptures come in, as the letter of Peter tells us today.  Christ left us an “example,” the letter says, “that we should follow in his footsteps.”  Any thought that would lead us to feel arrogant or proud or entitled,  that, too, is never the voice of God, because it doesn’t conform to the life of Jesus, who healed, Jesus who loved, Jesus who gave himself away.     

     Jesus is the test.  Jesus is the gate.  

     This is where our own life comes in, the test of what’s possible, of what the world and our own circumstances allow us to do, practically and logically, because God is in the world, too.  If we feel called to retire but the numbers won’t crunch, if we feel called to move to Seattle or to raise alpacas but our family would be hurt, that can’t be the will of God.

     Besides, as Barry says, God is “much more interested in a real friendship than in job placement.”  The particulars don’t finally matter.  God can reach just as well in Seattle as in Corvallis.  He loves us just as much whether we’re raising alpacas or raising children.  “Your grace and your love are wealth enough for me,” St. Ignatius prays.  “Give me these, Lord Jesus, and I ask for nothing more.”  Sickness and health don’t matter.  Obscurity or fame.  All that matters is our friendship with God, and we already have that and always will.

     So when as Christians we say things like we’ve “opened our hearts to Jesus” or we have “a personal relationship with Jesus,” we’re right of course, we’re completely right, but we’re also using a kind of shorthand, a kind of Christian jargon, to describe a real set of interior events, something that’s actually happening in us all the time, and if we keep this mind, religion won’t seem as crazy and unreal as it often does. 

       And if we keep this in mind, if we stay centered in our own prayer life, everything else will take care of itself.  Sometimes when we worry too much about external things, about changes in the church, for example—I mean, in our own particular church—it’s a sign that we’re avoiding the inner work we have to do or don’t trust in it enough.  It doesn’t matter where the Eucharistic Minister sign up is.  It matters where we are, inside:  where our grief is, and our compassion, and our hope.  If we think of the church as simply another human organization that has to run in a certain way, if we think of the outer world as more important than the inner world, we might as well just join a book club or start going to city council meetings. 

      If we really want to help the parish in this time of transition, the best thing to do is to pray, as a lot of people already are.  700 rosaries have been pledged already, 700 prayers for our good and the good our priests, and that’s terrific, that’s great.  We need more.  If we don’t believe in the value of that, if we don’t believe in the power of prayer to influence the church and world, what are we doing here?

     And if we stay centered in prayer, if we keep our focus on prayer, I think we can deepen our faith over time, we can get closer and closer to the confidence of St. Peter.  We may not be able to walk on water, but we can walk beside it—beside the still waters, in the green pastures.  We have to keep making a choice—we have to keep choosing to call these feelings of resonance and persistence and joy Christ—but the more we make that choice, the more it doubles back and strengthens us for the next time.  Our faith builds and builds, until finally we realize:  what happens inside of us, that is the Lord.  We are touching Jesus.  Whenever you touch me.  Whenever I touch you.  

     Which is maybe exactly what Peter came to realize anyway, after the resurrection.  Maybe we’re exactly in Peter’s position after all.

     Maybe one day—and I pray for this, for all of us—maybe one day our faith will have matured enough, it will have deepened enough, that we can stand up with Peter and with Mary in the temple, and we can raise our own voices, and we can proclaim, too, in all confidence and joy:  let everyone know for certain, that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ.

     Because it’s true.  Every bit of it.  It’s all true.


















Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Three Homilies from the Holy Land

Three Holy Land Homilies
            from the St. Mary’s Holy Land Pilgrimage, March 19-30, 2014

March 23, 2014
outside, on the Mount of Beatitudes, overlooking the Sea of Galilee
Matthew 6:24-34 

     Barb and I want to thank you all for coming on this pilgrimage—for your patience and openness and stamina.  You are the pilgrimage, you are the Church, and we are very grateful for your faithfulness and your generosity of spirit. 

     Last week at the Timberhill Starbucks in Corvallis, I was having coffee with a friend, a scientist, who has just learned that he is dying.  He has been given a few months to live.  And he said something very striking to me.  He said, “there are 73 trillion cells in my body, and all but the hydrogen comes from the stars.”

     He said this with a kind of wonder in his voice.  A kind of excitement.

     A few days ago at breakfast, here on the Mount of Beatitudes, I was having coffee with Jaga, and she said something really striking, too, about her research on the aging process in fruit flies.  We share 13,000 genes with fruit flies, she said.  We have more.  We have 23,000, but we share those first 13,000, exactly.  Fruit flies are our brothers and sisters.  They age like we do, only faster.  They get stiff.  They decline.

     And I think of these two conversations here, in this beautiful place, where tradition says Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, the Sermon on the Mountain, because it’s clear from the language of the sermon, and of everything Jesus says and teaches, that he loved the mountains and the waters and the trees, the birds of the air and the flowers of the field.  His language is everywhere full of the earth and the sky.  Look at these, he tells us.  They are made by God and so they are holy, they are beautiful, and they have lessons for you—be like them—be like the birds—be like the flowers.   

     And this is why we come here, on pilgrimage, to be reminded that the earth, too, is a temple, a church, and nature a great book like the Bible, the other great book, just as holy and sacramental as the scriptures. 

     God could have made the Incarnation happen in any place and time, but he made it happen here, at the Sea of Galilee, in these little villages, and in the first century, 2000 years ago, long before all the technology that speeds up our lives and drives us to distraction, and there’s content in this, there’s revelation.

     We are called to be like Jesus, to imitate him, and he moved through his life and his landscape so much more slowly than we move through ours—7-9 miles on an ordinary day, on his own two feet, one step at a time, slow enough to see the flowering mustard and hear the mourning doves and stop and talk to the people who sought him out--and we should, too, as much as we can.  “There’s no smallness anymore,” Joe Cantor said to me yesterday, in the Valley of Doves, and he’s completely right, no smallness and no slowness, and as Christians we have to challenge that. 

     That’s why we’ve come here to the Holy Land, even though it’s been so hectic and hurried sometimes, for the same reason we go on retreat, the same reason we come to mass:  to slow down, to quiet down, and to take inventory of all that keeps us from this quiet and peace.

     Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus says in the Beatitudes, the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, and being here together, on this grassy hill, above this broad, shining lake, we can feel for ourselves how directly this peace flows out from the peace and beauty of this particular landscape.  Blessed are the poor in the spirit, are the humble, the small and the slow, and being here together in the freshness of the morning we can better understand how humility and gentleness are the only way to be in right relation with nature and with the people around us.

     It’s not that God is more present here than anywhere else.  It’s that we are.  It’s we who change, or can, we who can learn to see again.  By coming into this small world, here in Galilee, Jesus came into all our worlds.  By coming into that particular time he came into all time—and transcended it, gathering it all into himself—and the call for us is always to be aware of this, always to be amazed, as Fr. Matt said, always to walk in this light.

     What Fr. Steve called “the liturgical East” is everywhere.  It is made up of atoms.  It is made up of stars.  It is made up of fruit flies and the cells of our bodies and the joy we feel and even our sorrow.


     Here’s how my friend put it, my friend who is dying, the scientist, in the prayer he wrote and asked me to read here on the Mount of Beatitudes.  Death has called him on pilgrimage—has slowed him and opened him the way we are slowed and opened now through our travelling—and in this prayer he uses the language of science to invoke in a new way the peace which Jesus proclaimed 2000 years ago. 

Our Father, who art Creator of the Universe,

God of Evolution and Ultimate Reality,

I praise you and I thank you for Your Word

and for the knowledge you have deigned to be revealed about Your Creation

through the human pursuit of science.

The evolving flow of creation throughout the universe

is majestic and clothed in your mysterious ways.

In the dynamic exchange between energy and matter, visible and invisible,

in the relativity of space and time,

I temporarily exist,

a collection of atoms forged in the nuclear hearts of ancient stars.

Now, as my death approaches,

I know there is so much more about life, and death, and existence

than I can ever comprehend.

And so, I trust.

I trust in your unfathomable love and mercy.

I trust that you will give me patience and strength during the weeks and months ahead.

I trust that what comes next for me will be alight.

I trust that in your love for them, you will hold and comfort my wife and children and grandchildren.

In these and all things, not as I will, but Thy will be done.

This I pray through Christ, Your Son, Our Lord.




March 26
Dominus Flevit Church, Jerusalem
Luke 19:28-45

     Judy Reed’s moment came at mass on Mount Tabor as we were singing a hymn.

     Jan’s at the River Jordan, when she looked up and saw a white dove descending—a real dove, over the waters.

     The tears came then, to both of them, what our tradition calls “the gift of tears.”


     For Tom it happened at Magdala, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, when he opened the door to the new church and felt the wind blowing and saw it bending the palm trees and he thought of the storm that rose over the sea in the Gospel, the storm that Jesus calmed.

     He thought:  everyone can feel the wind.


     And sometimes we don’t feel anything, we’re not moved at all, and that’s OK, too, that’s just as spiritual, because it gives us a chance to be in the wilderness, to be bewildered, to be barren.  At times like this we are reminded that all is grace, out of our control.

     Whenever we are moved, that’s what God wants us to feel.  It’s our turn.  It’s our job to feel what other people can’t feel in that moment.

     Whatever we feel is what God wants us to feel, including our negative emotions.  The gospels several times describe the irritation and the anger Jesus felt on his pilgrimage to the Jerusalem, and, we assume, his boredom and distractedness and fatigue.  He was fully human, after all, and if he was, so can we be, too.

     If Jesus embraced his own humanity, we can embrace ours—especially our sorrow, our grief.

     It’s not “blessed are the happy, for they shall always be happy.”  It’s “blessed are they who mourn”; “blessed are those who persecuted.”  Jesus wept over Jerusalem on just this spot, on this hill overlooking the stones of the city, and he had reason to, as we have reason to weep over Portland or Corvallis or Eugene, over all the sorrows and the losses in our lives and in the world, all the violence and ugliness, in us and outside of us. 

     There’s no use repressing it, it’s real, and we can’t heal it if we can’t feel it.

     As Judy Rubert says, the key to travel is this:  when you get tired, stop.  And this is the key to our psychological and spiritual health, too.  When you feel grief, grieve.  It won’t overwhelm us, it won’t carry us away, God will hold us up, as He always holds us up.  Feelings are just feelings, they come and they go, and if we can just admit to them—if we can acknowledge them without letting them define us—they will eventually pass.

     Or deeper.  To admit to our most negative feelings is to enter through the Door of Humility.  It’s to stoop down.  To die to ourselves.

     In a way the most striking thing of all in this gospel is that Jesus doesn’t force the people of Jerusalem to conform to his will, as the Pharisees demand.  “Teacher, rebuke your disciples,” they say, and he could, of course.  He could call down his armies of angels.  But he doesn’t.  In another, paradoxical sense, God himself is powerless here, because he wants to respect the freedom of others, as he must, being God, being Love.  He allows the Kentucky Fried Chicken on the way to the Church of the Nativity, and the “Star-Bucks,” and the tawdry music videos, out of love.  He allows the garbage and the poverty and the sheer human waste and stupidity because he wants to leave a gap, a space, in which we can move towards him ourselves, we can choose him. 

     I wonder if we can ever fully grasp who the God of our faith really is—not the dictator, not the granter or denier of wishes—but the one who surrendered himself completely, who entirely emptied himself out.

     I wonder if we can ever really understand that the most important thing about Jesus isn’t what he did but what he didn’t do:  he didn’t come down from the cross.

     I wonder:  if God himself can refrain from imposing his will on us, can’t we refrain from imposing ours—on our children, our co-workers, our friends?

     If God himself is willing to live with all these imperfections and unresolved contradictions, can’t we?

     It’s not just our humanity we have to accept.  It’s the humanity of others.


     I saw something out the window in Nazareth as we were waiting for people to board the bus.  A middle-aged man was walking with his son.  The son was 15 or 16, with wild eyes and a wild smile, his head at a crooked angle, bouncing and weaving down the sidewalk.  He was obviously disabled, mentally and physically, and it really shocked me.  I looked away.  I didn’t want to see it—not there, at Nazareth.

     But later I remembered.  I remembered how patiently the father managed to get the boy into a car.  I remembered how heroic the father seemed, and how terribly burdened.   

     Just how sad life is, and how beautiful. 

    I don’t know what to do with this.  I don’t know what this means.  It just makes me want to weep. 

     But I believe in the dove, too, descending from the sky.  I believe in the wind blowing against the door.  I believe that the man who wept over this city entered into it, and let it enter into him, and that we must, too, and that when we do, when we feel what must feel, we will rise with him and we will live with him and that somehow, in the midst of all this sadness and loss, there is joy, too, always joy, joy that we can’t explain either and don’t have to because it’s real, it exists, it’s true.  All of it.  All at once.


March 27
St. Peter in Gallicantu
Matthew 26

     Peter denied Jesus three times, in the courtyard here, around a coal fire.  He denies his master, his beloved friend, his very life.

      And we deny Jesus, again and again, in our kitchen, in our offices, in our parishes.  Our master, our beloved friend, our very life.

     We deny Jesus when we laugh at a joke we shouldn’t laugh at.

     When we turn on a screen rather than face our own emptiness.

     When we assume the worst about someone else.


     We deny Jesus when we fail to speak up for ourselves.

     When we don’t say what we really mean.

     When we let other people tell us who we are.


     We deny Jesus when we are too embarrassed to talk about our faith.

     We deny Jesus when we do talk about our faith, but for our own ends, or without gentleness or respect.


     We deny Jesus when we don’t really know what the Church teaches.

     When we make assumptions.

     When we simplify what is really nuanced and complicated and open-ended.


     When we drink too much, eat too much, talk too much.

     When we do a shoddy job.

     When we don’t make an honest effort.


     When we read the Bible literally, reducing its mysteries to mere fact.

      When we dismiss the truths of the Bible as mere myth and symbol.


     When we get obsessed with remodeling or cars or the way we look.

     When we measure our worth by how much money we make.


     When we expect our parents to be better than we are.

     When we expect our children to be better than we are.

     When we expect our friends to be better than we are.


     When we expect our priests to better than we are.


     When we fail to prayerfully listen to the teachings of the Church—

     prayerfully question the teachings of the Church—

     prayerfully think for ourselves, with the Church.

     When we fear change.

     When we fear sickness.

     When we fear growing older.

     When we fear death.

     When we give up hope—when we give up joy.

     But Jesus forgives us, as he forgives Peter.  He is always forgiving us, he will never stop forgiving us.  He is never shocked or put off or discouraged with us.  He makes us, too, the rocks on which the Church is built, even after being on pilgrimage with us for more than week, seeing us tired and cranky and not always at our best.

     We are made in the image and likeness of God, and deep down underneath all the layers isn’t something ugly and unlovable and vile but something beautiful and precious and beyond all price.

     The sin in the garden wasn’t that we were naked but that we were ashamed to be—that we couldn’t accept who we really are—that we had to cover up our true natures. 

     “If God loves me,” someone told me yesterday, “he can love anybody.”  No.  I know she was joking and I know what she means, but there’s an assumption underneath this all the same, an assumption I think most of us make, and it’s completely wrong.  Jesus loves us not in spite of who are but because of it—because we are lovely, and ordinary, and precious, and good.

     In a profound way Jesus isn’t really calling us to change.  He is calling us just to be ourselves, truly ourselves—to let go of all the masks and disguises. 

     It’s not just that Jesus is our beloved friend, it’s that we are his, and we deny him when we deny this.