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, November 15, 2014

The Horse and the Bird


November 16, 2014

Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Proverbs 31:13-31; Matthew 25:14-30

 

     A horse was trotting along when it saw a little bird on the ground, flat on its back, sticking its legs into the air. 

     What are you doing, asked the horse? 

     I heard the sky was falling, said the bird, and I wanted to help hold it up. 

     That’s crazy, said the horse.  What can you do with those skinny little legs?

     Well, said the bird, I do what I can.

 

     Some of us are horses and some of us are birds--some of us are given ten talents, some five, some one--and that’s OK.  We shouldn’t envy anyone else.  We shouldn’t wish we had more, or less.  We are given what we can handle, each “according to our ability,” as Jesus says in the parable today, and our only task is to do what we can.

 

     And I think Jesus is telling us that the little things are not really little, that if we are “faithful in small matters,” we will share in the end in the master’s joy.  To long for adventure and excitement, to long for attention, is to think in human terms, not in God’s. 

     “A thought,” says Teilhard de Chardin, “a material improvement, a harmony, the enchanting complexity of a smile or glance—we serve to complete the work of creation, even by the humblest work of our hands.”    

     I know a woman who is a financial advisor.  She invests the talents of others, and she does it with integrity, and she treats her clients with courtesy and respect.  She is doing the will of God.  She is doing God’s work.

      I know a woman who is a barista.  She makes each latte with precision and skill, and she knows many of her customers by name.  She is doing the will of God.  She is doing God’s work. 

      I know a woman who is a first grade teacher.  Every day she walks into a room full of six year olds, of all different abilities, and she teaches them to read, and she respects their differences, and she loves them and cares about them. 

      She is bringing Christ to those children, and to their parents and to the people she works with.

 

      I think it’s very, very important that we renew our commitment to the mass, as Fr. Ignacio and Fr. Federico have been saying, that we pray and worship in this beautiful and sacred space, wholeheartedly, with our full attention.  I think it’s very, very important that we return to the precious tools of our tradition, to the rosary and to adoration and to all the rest, that we understand them and appreciate them, because they increase our “density,” as Fr. Ignacio put it last Sunday.  They increase our strength.  They give us the clarity and conviction we need to go back into the world and endure what we have to endure and stay steady for the people around us. 

      Because this is our vocation, all of us.  This is our work:  to be Christ in the world.

 

     We do this work especially in our families.  We go from the sanctuary to the kitchen, and to the living room and to the bedroom, because that’s what the sanctuary is teaching us and giving us the strength to see, that all the world is sacred, that everything we say and do our matters, especially with our spouse and our children.  When one finds a worthy wife, Proverbs tells us, her value is “far beyond pearls,” and I have been blessed with a wife like that, I have been blessed in my marriage, which is a sacrament, too, of course, a visible sign of the presence of God, as is our doing of the dishes, and our taking out the garbage, and our getting the car fixed.

    

     And I think this parable is telling us to be not afraid.  To trust.  The wicked servant acts out of fear, or fails to act.  He admits it:  “out of fear I went off and buried your talent,” he says, and maybe it’s not just fear of failure or fear of risk that makes him so cautious but fear that nothing he can do will ever matter anyway.

     I know a woman who has worked long and faithfully in her life, and yet she told me the other day that sometimes she feels that she’s made a mistake, that she’s missed the boat, that all her work has been for nothing.  And I understand that feeling.  I understand it very well. 

      But later I thought again of this lovely, haunting prayer by Blessed John Henry Newman, a famous prayer.  It’s sad, I think, and wistful—the prayer of someone near the end of his life—and yet it’s sweet, too, and hopeful, and inspiring:

 

     God has created me to do Him some definite service.  He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another.  I have my mission.  I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.  I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.  He has not created me for naught.  I shall do good; I shall do His work.  I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments.  Therefore, I will trust Him.  Whatever I am, I can never be thrown away.  If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him.  If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him.  He does nothing in vain.  He knows what He is about.  He may take away my friends.  He may throw me among strangers.  He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me.  Still, He knows what He is about.

 

     This is what the parable of the talents is saying to me today.  It’s not trying to scare us, I think, but to reassure us.  It’s saying:  trust.  Do what you have been given to do and leave the rest to God.  Let go of the outcome. 

 

     Fr. Ignacio and Fr. Federico have been giving us homework lately and I really like that.  I’m a teacher!  So here’s my homework for this week: 

     Make the best latte you can make.  Invest your client’s money as wisely as you can invest it.  Do all the things Fr. Ignacio and Fr. Federico have been urging us to do, praying and deepening your attention at mass or in the rosary.  Then use that energy, use that faith:  vacuum the floor.  Say a kind word.   

     And when the tasks of the day become especially tedious and boring and empty, try to think of that tedium and that emptiness as an opportunity for spiritual practice, too, as a spiritual tool itself, a chance to die to yourself and humble yourself and trust in God. 

     God knows what he’s doing.  We serve to complete the work of creation even by the humblest work of our hands.

     This is what the horse doesn’t understand.  It has missed the point, as horses generally do.  The little bird isn’t foolish and it isn’t small.  It really is holding up the sky.

 

Monday, October 27, 2014

As of a Fragrant Aroma


Monday, October 27, 2014
Ephesians 4:32-5:8  

     Be imitators of God, Paul says, be like Christ, who “handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma. 

     Scientists say we fall in love in part because of the other person’s pheromones.  Because we like the way they smell.  We use smell as a metaphor, too, for intuition, for the sense we get of people or of a situation.  It just didn’t smell right, we say.  There was something wrong there.  We could smell it.

     I was at a conference over the weekend, here at OSU, and I saw a lot of former students and friends I haven’t seen for a while, and I could pick up right away, as I talked to them, whether they were happy or sad.  We all do that.  We just get a feeling.  Of course there’s always the possibility that we’re projecting our own feelings, but still, with some people I just got this good feeling.  They just smelled good in a way.

     Jesus is calling us to smell good in that sense, or to give off the right energy or to radiate a light—that’s another image in Paul, at the end, that we are now light in the Lord, we are “children of light”—and to do that we need to ground our life in prayer and the Eucharist, we need to be continually aware of our own sinfulness and our own darkness and not try to hide from it but to ask for the Lord’s mercy and healing.  Father Ignacio talked about this in his homily on Sunday and I was very moved by that, how our love for God overflows into our love for others, and I think what Paul is saying is that we can just feel this when we are in the presence of a loving person and that this is what we should strive for.  That we effect people just by being with them, just by being who we are, and even when we don’t think we’re doing much or matter much, we do, quite a bit.  We add a smell, we add an energy, we add a presence, wherever we go, and as Christians we want what we add to be Christ, to be kindness and compassion and forgiveness.

     Over the summer I read George Eliot’s great nineteenth century English novel Middlemarch.  I never had before.  It was a wonderful experience, and I wanted to share the great last sentence of the novel.  Eliot is summing up the life of her main character, Dorthea:

The effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.

O Lord, may we be like Dorthea, may we be like You, may we radiate light.  Through your grace and your love may we be the sort of person who has a quiet, positive effect on the people around us.  May we be fragrant with your love.  May we be conduits of your love.  May we live faithfully our hidden lives, in You and for You.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Mistaken for the Gardener


October 19th, 2014
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21 
 

     One of the things I heard when I was reflecting on this famous gospel passage again was “render unto OSU what is OSU’s.”  “Render unto HP what is HP’s.”

     All we owe our employers is a good day’s work, however meaningful and important that work is.  All we owe is our best effort.  Who we really are is apart from all that, much deeper down.  We render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s but we render unto God what is God’s, and that’s everything.

 

     But what struck me even more this time is not what Jesus says here but how he says it.  Not his argument but the way he makes it.

     Because this is the kind of discussion I get drawn into all the time.  Someone wants to ask me about faith, but not really.  They’re just trying to trip me up, they’re just trying to make me look bad, and I fall for it too often, get caught up in some long theological debate that only wastes my time and exhausts my spirit, and what’s so helpful to me in the reading today is that Jesus doesn’t do that.  He knows better.

     In a way he makes a great argument.  It’s simple and subtle at the same time.  But in another way it seems to me that Jesus refuses to argue with the Pharisees, doesn’t really try to engage them.  When he takes the coin and holds it up and asks them the question, it’s as if he’s saying come on, don’t waste my time, don’t try to turn this into something complicated and mysterious.  He knows he’s not going to persuade them.  He knows there’s malice in their hearts. 

     There’s such a thing as theological reasoning, and great minds have been engaged in it for centuries, and there’s a time and a place to try to share that tradition, as best we can, to help someone reason their way towards the truth, however limited our own understanding.

     But there’s no point in trying unless the time is right, unless the person is really ready and open, and until then, we just have to suffer being taken less seriously, we just have to be kind and courteous and present, we just have to let ourselves be crucified in a sense, in a small way, which of course is what happens to Jesus in a big way, despite his mastery of apologetics.  The new evangelization isn’t just a matter of words and it’s certainly not a matter of coercion.  To be a Christian in the world is to be a Christian in the world, in the presence of others who don’t believe, convincing them if we can by our compassion and our good humor and our confidence—by our actual lives, which is the really hard part, a lot harder than talking—and then living with the experience of being misunderstood or ignored or rejected.

     This is particularly hard when the person who is trying to trip us up or doesn’t want to listen is our husband or wife, or a sibling, or a child, or a good friend.  It really hurts.  But fighting back, trying to win the argument, is most likely not going to work, not in itself, because ultimately reason is limited.  Faith exceeds it.  “For our gospel did not come to you in word alone,” Paul says to the Thessalonians—and word here is lowercase, just human words, just language—“but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.”  This is how people come to believe, not just through reasoning, though that can help, and help a lot, especially for a certain kind of person, with a certain kind of mind, but finally, for all of us, through lived experience, through grace, from the inside. 

     I often have the experience of talking with someone who really does want to talk about the faith--there’s no malice in them, they’re not trying to trick me--but they’re just too much in their heads, they’re talking about ideas because they don’t want to face their own emptiness, their own need, and the key then is to listen, and be sympathetic, and to try to explain a few things as best I can, but more than that, gently to move towards the heart, towards experience, towards prayer.

      Again, I’m not saying faith isn’t rational.  It is.  It is smart, it is intellectually coherent, it is intellectually beautiful, and it’s really important for all of us to try to develop ourselves as thinking Catholics, too, to know our own theological tradition.  It’s not as if any of us have this all figured out.  Far, far from it.  I’m just saying that faith isn’t only intellectual and not finally intellectual and that there’s a time and place for talking about it in that way—I think usually after the real moment of grace, the real experience of Jesus, as a way of explaining it and validating it and reinforcing it. 

 

      And there’s another issue here.

     The Pharisees are right about one thing:  Jesus doesn’t care about the opinions of others or about status.  He’s not trying to look good.  But we do care, I think, and we are trying to look good.  I think that often that’s our real motive in arguments like this, not to help the other person but to convince that person and the world and maybe most of all ourselves that we’re just as smart and cool as anyone else.  We want to win the argument so we can win approval, and we shouldn’t.  We shouldn’t care about what other people think of us, only what God thinks of us.

     I quoted a Wendell Berry poem in a recent homily and I’m still reading him, especially this wonderful book of what he calls Sabbath poems, poems he’s written over many years on Sundays and about faith.  Berry is a Kentucky horse farmer and essayist and poet and a wise and gentle Christian, and there’s another poem of his I love and can’t get out of my mind, a poem based on the resurrection account in the Gospel of John.  It’s only a few lines:

            The politics of illusion, of death’s money,

            possesses us.  This is the Hell, this

            the nightmare into which Christ descended

            from the cross, from which also he woke

            and rose, striding godly forth, so free

            that He appeared to Mary Magdalene

            to be only the gardener walking about

            in the new day, among the flowers.

 

“Death’s money” makes me think of the coin Jesus holds up, “the politics of illusion” how we get caught up in the wrong arguments and care about the wrong things.  But what I really love is this image of how Jesus when he rises is so free of all those fantasies and illusions and false values that other people, even his beloved Mary Magdalene, mistake him for the gardener, just a simple gardener.

      And that’s what will happen to us if we follow the gospel where it leads.  We don’t want to be mistaken for the gardener.  We don’t to be seen as simple and plain.  We want to be seen as smart.  We want to win the arguments.  But we’re not going to and it’s not going to matter anyway.  We’re going to be crucified, we’re going to be underestimated, but we’re also going to rise, we’re going to be free, and the garden we’ll be walking in then will be the Garden of Eden, it will be the earthly paradise, our foretaste of heaven.  This is who we can be, and who we should want to be.  All of us, the gardeners.  All of us walking about in the new day, among the flowers, happy and free.  

     And there’s nothing more persuasive than that.  There’s nothing more persuasive than courage.  There’s nothing more persuasive than compassion.  There’s nothing more persuasive than joy.     

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Dishes


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

Cisterns


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.