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

Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Family is Where We Go to Learn the Word No (Homily)

Feast of the Holy Family
Luke 2:41-52

The Christmas commercials would have us believe that in a good family everybody is happy. In a good family everybody is always getting what they want.

But I think that’s really wrong.

I think the family is the place where we learn the word no. I think the family is the place where we learn to say the word no and to hear the word no. And I think that’s what the gospel is about today: that for holiness there must be obedience.

*

Last term a really angry student stormed into my office complaining about his midterm. And when I refused to change the grade he started yelling and swearing. This is baloney, he shouted. You’re a really bad person. (Or words to that effect.) And he kept shouting and calling me names as he jumped up and stormed down the hall, past a line of other students waiting to see me.

I walked to the door, looked out, and said, next?

Another student emailed me a complaint: why did I get a D on my paper?

I sent a one sentence reply: because I’m easy.

Now, I’m not telling this story because I take any of this personally, but because I don’t. I’ve been teaching a long time, and I know that much of what I get from my students is transference, positive or negative, that when a student treats me the way these students did I’m getting a taste of how he treated his parents and how his parents treated him. This isn’t about me, it’s about the failure of our families to say the word no, and believe me, I can tell, in class after class, student after student. I experience the results of our bland assumption of niceness again and again.

The family is where we learn to be holy, and we can’t learn to be holy unless we learn that the world doesn’t always bend to our needs. Holiness depends on humility, and it’s the family that’s supposed to teach us that. Not every urge needs to be satisfied, or can be, not every itch needs to be scratched, and in this sense it’s the parents who stand in for God, who do his will.


*


And it’s not just children who need to be denied. It’s parents. It goes both ways, as it does in today’s gospel. Yes, Jesus finally obeys Mary and Joseph and goes back home, after his seminar with the rabbis. But Mary and Joseph have to obey him, too. They have to listen to him.

“Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

I remember very clearly when this happened with my daughter Maggie. I don’t remember the reason I was yelling exactly, but I’ll never forget Maggie standing there in the kitchen, looking up at me, and saying very calmly and very rationally, no, Dad, you’re wrong. No, Dad. And I was. I was way out of line.

There’s a fine little book called Boundaries written by a couple of ministers back in the eighties, and it notes that everything in the development of a child depends on whether or not the parents can accept her necessary assertion of independence. It has to come, and we have to accept it, and if we don’t, the child will always be wounded, unable to resist the pressures and demands of others, however unhealthy and wrong. We are all Abraham and we are all called on to sacrifice our beloved children, to let them go.

In this way, too, we are conduits for the grace of the divine Father and Mother, the divine Parent, we reflect and express the divine, or should, because that’s the greatest gift of all the gifts God gives us, the gift of freedom, of distance, of separation. He allows us to say no to him. He wants relationship, not blind, robotic trust. He wants to be in relation with a person who freely chooses to be in relation with him, and so there must be distance, there must be the absence of coercion, there must be the possibility of rejection. No hell, no dignity, Flannery O’Connor says.

The real Holy Family is the Trinity, the unity among diversity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, each person giving himself away to the others again and again but without losing his own individuality, his own unique identity, and this is what family is supposed to mirror. Kids shouldn’t be chips off the old block. They should be their own blocks.


*


And notice. In all of this, the Lord says no to us intellectually. He says no to our demand for certainty. He says no to our desire for complete comprehension. Even Mary and Joseph don’t understand what Jesus is telling them, Luke says. Even Mary and Joseph can’t pretend to grasp the reality of the Son. How can we?


*


So the rest of this Christmas season, I ask you to think about the no’s in your life.

I ask you to reflect on a particular issue, a particular situation in which you have failed to say no, especially in the family. The Gospel today is calling you to risk the enormous love involved in the saying of no, and in the accepting of whatever rejection and unhappiness might result.

I ask you to think, too, of some situation in which you have failed to hear the word no, in which someone has to say no to you, or has tried to, and you haven’t listened yet, especially a spouse or a child. I think the Gospel is calling you to try again, to start the conversation a second or a third time and just to listen, and to accept. To let go. To believe the boundary.

Who knows what might happen?


*


That student who yelled and called me names came back about an hour later, shaking. Maybe he was playing me. I don’t know. But he slumped in the chair by my desk and apologized, tears in his eyes, and I believed him. He was having a tough term, everything was going wrong, and what he really wanted to know was what he could do to improve, what the next step was.

I’m not trying to take credit for this little breakthrough. I don’t say no often enough--I am easy. In this case it was the young man who was getting the point and making the effort. And of course, it doesn’t always work out this way. Too often the person never comes back, he just walks away forever, and we have to be prepared to accept that and the sadness of that.

But this time, through grace, it all worked out. This time, we got to the right question, the right point.

I think there’s a conversation like this waiting to happen for everybody here. I know there is. And I know that the grace I experienced will be there for you, too. It’s always there. It’s the yes beneath the no, the great and enduring yes of God’s great and enduring love.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Random Review (poem)

“I don’t want to burst
your theological bubble,”
she said, after my talk.
“Yes you do,” I said.
It’s taken me years to see this.
Fine October afternoon.
Leaves all the way to the library.
In the morning I walked in the forest
and watched how the sun picks out
the trunks of the trees, one by one.
Loneliness is a craft.
You have to learn how to live
with yourself, among your thoughts.
But it gets easier, over time.
The day has a thousand pockets.

Rain Down (poem)

The thing about Hell
is that the deeper you go
the narrower it gets
until finally you’re standing
in the Center for the Humanities.
Everyone is crowding the narrow
little rooms and you can’t move.
You’re stuck. That night, blessedly,
it starts to rain. And it rains so hard
you wake up and open an window
so you can listen to the abundance
of rain and the generosity of rain.
The precision of rain: every leaf.

O Key of David (poem)

O Key of David

After the storm the road
so thick with branches
I think Hosannas, I think
the road to Jerusalem
winds through the trees.
Or the way the water seeps
forward as I shovel the trench
to drain the lake in the yard,
the muddy water flowing
towards the bank as I carve
the channel inch by inch
the way the water leads.

The Narrow Path of the Everyday (homily)

Third Sunday of Advent
Luke 3:10-18; Philippians 4:4-7

Today’s gospel makes me think of the people at Les Schwab. The way they run out when you pull up. How efficient they are, and skilled. Just what a good job they do.

Today’s gospel makes me think of my young colleague in the English Department, Tara Williams. When I observed her teaching this last quarter, she was so clear and prepared and on top of things. I know this was partly because she had someone observing her, but all her students say the same thing: that she has integrity as a teacher, and competence, and judgment.

Today’s gospel makes me think of my doctor and his receptionist. There was a snafu the other day and I couldn’t get in at first. But then the receptionist made a special effort to rearrange the schedule, and the doctor stayed late. And it wasn’t just that he was nice about it. He was nice, very nice. But that’s not what I came for. I came because he was good, I came because he was skilled, I came because he’s very accomplished at his craft, and that’s what I want to celebrate about him, and Tara, and the tire people.

“What should we do,” the people ask John the Baptist in the Gospel today, and he doesn’t say: leave your job. He doesn’t say, be someone you’re not. No. To the tax collectors he says, be tax collectors. Just be good ones and honest ones. To the soldiers he says, keep doing what you do. Just do it with honor and integrity.

And he doesn’t say go out and pray, he doesn’t say go out and act like monks and priests, go out and kneel before some stained glass window. Not that there’s anything wrong with monks or stained glass. The problem is when we think that that kind of thing is the only expression of the Spirit, that somehow we’re not holy or good if we’re working under a car all day, trying to fix the transmission, or sitting at desk, answering phones.

Maybe the biggest misconception in the Church today is that the clergy are to be understood as better than the laity. No. The laity and the clergy are exactly equal in the eyes of God--they are simply called to different tasks--and it’s terribly important to get that straight. It sheds light, for example, on the question of women’s ordination. I’m not taking a stand on that question. I would never do that here. I’m simply pointing out that the Church isn’t saying that women are inferior if they must remain laypeople--that’s not the issue--because to be a layperson is to be given a great and holy task. As Pope John Paul wrote in his pastoral letter on the laity:

The unity of life of the lay faithful is of greatest importance: indeed, they must be sanctified in everyday professional and social life. To respond to their vocation, they must see their daily activities as an occasion to join themselves to God.

Federico and I were talking about this the other day, and he was very eloquent, too. To be a Christian in the world, he said, doesn’t mean that we have to have the right positions on certain issues and that we have to have these positions publicly, so everyone can see us. It doesn’t mean volunteering at church and being at church all the time--though again, volunteering is a good thing. To be a Christian in the world means to be a Christian, in the world: just to be, and to be who we are, in our own station in life, whatever that is, and to be this with honesty and purpose and skill, whether we ever utter a pious word in the presence of anyone else, whether we ever say the right things and have all the right ideas about all the right doctrines.

Part of this is just being ethical. A high percentage of employees pocket staplers or hide faxes or fudge numbers or make passes, and we just have to stop doing those things.

But it’s more than that, too. To be a Christian in the world means to do our work with all our attention and all our ability. If we’re building a table, we need to build it well. That’s the will of God. If we’re writing a paragraph, we need to make it coherent and clear. That’s the will of God. Our second reading today is the beautiful reading from Philippians about not worrying, but I’m thinking, too, of the very next passage:

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing; whatever is lovely , if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Think of these things because Christ is present in these things. Christ is present in what is honorable. Christ is present in what is excellent. So be honorable. Be excellent.

And it’s just amazingly freeing to be told this, to be told: you’re OK, you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. Notice how excited the people are today by John’s answer to their questions, so excited they think John might even be the savior himself. I think they just feel free. I think they’re just thrilled not to feel the guilt and the burden so many of us feel, that we’re failures because we haven’t quit our jobs and flown to India and cured AIDS.

Charity is essential, of course. We are to give away our cloaks--but notice, only if we have two. We are to give away our food, but only if we have enough. Everything is conditional, and the condition, the if, is our lives. We are to perform the corporeal acts of mercy that come our way, in our day to day rounds. I think of a family I know who took in a homeless teenager. They had an extra room. I think of a professor who has coordinated the effort to send textbooks to Zimbabwe. That’s where he does his research.

But if there’s freedom here, if there’s joy, there’s also a very challenging call to humility. There’s a flip side. We have to be satisfied with our wages. We have to stop being greedy for recognition and distinction and praise. We have to be like John the Baptist and recognize, really recognize, that we are not the savior ourselves--not the center of attention, not the king of the world. It’s not just that we have to be who we are, we have to know who we are, that we are sinners, fragile, lonely people who feel frightened and overwhelmed sometimes and who can never do it all.

There’s a wonderful passage about this by Bishop Oscar Romero that I know I’ve shared before but that I want to share again, because it’s given me so much solace:

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs.

And this isn’t easy. It’s not easy at all: to give up our delusions of grandeur, to give up our desire for power. And the life we are left with isn’t easy either. It’s even harder in a way, because it isn’t glamorous, it isn’t newsworthy. To bite our tongues. To dot the I’s. To look away from temptation.

I guess that’s the narrow path that Jesus talks about. It’s the path of the everyday. I guess that’s what we are all called to: to live the lives we have been given, here and now, with hope and joy and integrity.

Monday, December 04, 2006

A Day I Had Last Week (homily)

First Sunday of Advent
Luke 21:25-36 and Psalm 25

Let me tell you about a day I had last week.

I woke up feeling really good. Peaceful. Even joyous. My Thanksgiving excesses had finally cleared my body and my mind was sharp and everything was fine.

Then, the rest of the day, I gave it all away. I squandered it.

I had a series of meetings scheduled and in every one of them people were anxious and angry and upset and in every one of them I let that negative energy suck me in and drag me down. It was like being exposed to radiation, except it wasn’t the other person’s fault. It was mine. No one can steal your peace, a friend of mine says. Well, yes they can, if you let them.

And then I went back to my office and read a couple of emails that made me angry, too, and tense, and frustrated, and I fumed about them for a while, and then fumed some more, becoming still more “drowsy,” in Luke’s words, with “the anxieties of daily life.”

So the day went, all the goodness ebbing out of me, until evening came and I found myself eating pizza and drinking beer with some friends. And I love pizza and I love beer. I think God made us to eat pizza and God made us to drink beer and eating pizza and drinking beer can be holy things to do. The problem is that I can’t do them anymore. Pizza is bad for me and beer is bad for me--I know this about myself--I have all kinds of experimental evidence for this--and I keep running the experiment again and again, with all the predictable results.

That night I threw away the last shreds of the joy I woke up with, and for what? For little things I could have really done without--“carousing,” as Luke puts it, becoming sleepy and fuzzy and vague, and entirely by choice. No one forced me to do it. I knew it was wrong and I did it anyway. God gave me joy and I gave it away.

And I tell you this not because I think I’m unique but because I know I’m not. And I tell you this not because I think any of it is a big deal exactly but because it isn’t, and that’s the insidious part. These little choices we make and that we don’t think are big deals add up. The cumulative effect of them slowly weighs us down until we can’t see the Lord coming in the clouds and can’t hear the voice of the Lord and can’t taste his goodness. That’s how evil works on us. It sneaks in and builds--what’s deadly about the deadly sins is that they don’t really seem that deadly--and I think the point of Advent, like the point of Lent, is to encourage us to be aware of that.

How big a fire, St. James tells us, can start from a little flame, and that’s good news really. The fundamental changes are only possible through grace. But the little changes are manageable--we can all exercise a little self discipline--and over time these little changes can make a big difference, too.

It’s not that God doesn’t exist. It’s that we’re drinking too much beer.

I mean this.

We have to keep track of our plain old garden variety sins, in other words, and we have to do this not to make ourselves miserable but to ourselves happy. The Desert Fathers didn’t go out into the desert to be miserable. They didn’t fast and pray and renounce the things they renounced out of fear or loathing but out of joy and love and the knowledge that only through fasting could they really be fed, only in God was their soul at rest. “All the paths of the Lord” the Psalmist says, “are kindness and constancy toward those who keep his covenant,” which is to say, when we keep his covenant we feel good, we feel His kindness.

We choose all the other things we choose because we’re stupid. We choose all the other things we choose because we’re easily deceived. There’s desire and then there’s mistaken desire. Our culture is defined by its excess and is defined by its consumption but I don’t see a conspicuous amount of happiness and joy as I drive around town.

The most fun I had over Thanksgiving break was sitting in the living room and reading a biography of Ulysses S. Grant that I had no need to read and that wasn’t at all useful to me but that I read simply for the pleasure of it. The house was quiet. The birds were at the feeder. Or it was playing cards with Barb’s brother and his wife, two of our favorite people. We drank coffee and played cards and the hours went quietly by.

So this Advent I ask you to think first about the things you genuinely like to do--not the parties you think you have to go to and the people you think you have to see, but the things you really want to do, yourself. Then do them. Knit. Take a walk. Listen to music.

But at the same time, just as in Lent, I ask you to think about one little thing that you know should renounce, beer or a television show or kind of gossip in your cubicle. Profanity. Cookies. Just consult the list of the Seven Deadlies--this isn’t complicated or mysterious, it’s all there, just check off the ones that apply--and then choose to renounce one of them in a very concrete, daily way.

Because this is the way to start clearing your vision, to start waking up. To make room at the inn.

What we’re waiting for isn’t a package beneath a tree. What we’re waiting for isn’t some marvelous future. This feeling that we have to keep moving, that there’s something better that we have to buy, is a sickness, Thomas Merton says, and we have to cure it:

We have to approach the whole idea of time in a new way [he says]. We are free to love. And we must get free from all imaginary claims. We live in the fullness of time. Every moment is God’s own good time, His kairos. The whole thing boils down to giving ourselves in prayer a chance to realize that we have what we seek. We don’t have to rush after it. It was there all the time, and if we give it time, it will make itself known to us.

This is what Advent is all about: getting free of imaginary claims and then waiting in hope and in faith for what we already have, for the Lord who is already present to us, who is all around us and in us in everything we do.

But first we have to stop. We have to wait. We have to give ourselves time.