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, March 29, 2009

White Swans in a Green Field (homily)

March 29, 2009
Fifth Sunday of Lent
John 11:1-45

A friend of mine died last month and I had the honor of doing her memorial service, at a bar in Brownsville. I stood by the bar and talked about her life and what she hoped for, trying to project my voice as best I could.

I didn’t raise her from the dead, the way Jesus raises Lazarus in the gospel today. Jesus didn’t raise her from the dead. Not yet. But the honor of her memorial has stayed with me, and the loyalty of her friends, and just the quiet beauty of that moment.

And on the way back from Brownsville, in a field of winter wheat, I saw a whole flock of swans. White swans. Hundreds of them. Nibbling on the green shoots. And it was so beautiful and so striking I actually said aloud, as I was driving, “OK, Lord.” OK. Because it was obvious to me for a moment that even in sadness there is meaning and even in sadness there is life and the thread of hope. I can’t explain it exactly. I can’t translate out what the moment means. But it was a moment and it’s stayed with me and it’s helped me.

*

I’ve been reading a little Teilhard de Chardin over my spring break, the great twentieth century Jesuit paleontologist and theologian, and he talks about how the language of Christianity has to change. It’s become outdated, he thinks, given our new understanding of nature and of the quantum universe. “In fact,” he says, “the best non-believers I know would feel that they were falling short of their moral ideal if they went through the gesture of conversion.” I know non-believers like this, too. I work with them and teach them all the time. Any mention of God, any mention of Jesus, any use of the traditional language of the Church, of the Resurrection and the Life, would just scare them away. As Chardin puts it, “by dint of repeating and developing in the abstract the expression of our dogmas, we are well on the way to losing ourselves in the clouds.” We have to change. “Christ must be born again in a world that has become too different from that in which he lived.”

I know that Lazarus was raised from the dead. I know there were swans in that field. But how can I share that knowledge with people who run from the very mention of the word God? The reality of Christ is unchanging. Christ is completely and absolutely true. But how can we get beyond the limits of the language of the past and the limits of our own language to the energy that endures and the spirit and the truth, the life that runs through our DNA, through all the physical universe, and transcends it?

*

It was also my honor to accompany my friend in the last few months of her life, as she died. She asked me to be there. She conferred on me that honor. So I came and saw her several times a week in the Mennonite home, reading her the Psalms or talking with her, as long as she could talk. It was my first experience with this and what surprised me was how much energy it gave me, how much grace. I looked forward to seeing her.

The night she died her family left me a message at my office on campus, but the next day I left to see her from home. So I didn’t know. I walked down the hall and went into her room. And there was her bed, neatly made up with a quilt. A Bible on the pillow. And for a moment what I felt, oddly, was disappointment. Just disappointment that I couldn’t see her that day and spend time with her.

This is what I mean. This is what I know. How to explain it?

*

Please understand. I’m not saying don’t believe. I’m saying: believe everything.
I’m not saying there aren’t any miracles anymore. I’m saying there are miracles everywhere.

*

Jean Vanier talks about all this, too. Vanier is the contemporary Catholic layman who founded L’Arche, the Ark, a program that creates communities in which people live and work with the developmentally disabled, not just helping them but being helped. “People who are powerless and vulnerable,” he says, “attract what is most beautiful and most luminous in those who are stronger.”

And in another essay Vanier explores the same issue that Chardin is exploring, the same question that I’m trying to ask:

"I can really understand atheists [he says]. I can really understand people who proclaim that they do not believe in God because what they are saying is that they do not believe in false gods. They do not believe in a romantic God that just blesses human beings by making them rich. They do not believe in a God who is going to punish them. Some atheists, who refuse to believe in these false gods, have a deep sense of the human heart and a deep sense of human reality."

Whenever we read the Bible we have the challenge of embracing the God of mystery and complexity or of falling back on some convenient image that will either be easy to reject or that will give us some easy comfort. What does it mean to us now that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead? What did John want us to believe?

I’m really sure that he didn’t want us to believe that Jesus was a superhero or a magician. He could have been, of course. He could have been anything. But what would that mean? What difference would that make? I’m really sure that John didn’t want us to walk around thinking that nothing will ever hurt us and that we don’t have to do the hard and joyous work of living everyday as fully and honestly as we can.

I think he was talking about our tombs. I think he was calling us to free ourselves from what binds us--from all our false notions, all our easy answers--and to break out of the tombs of our lack of imagination, our lack of subtlety, our lack of spontaneity and trust and hope. “Those who do not believe in God,” Vanier says, “have not met the true God, and the true God I believe deeply has been revealed to us by Jesus, who comes to undermine all the fortresses built on fear. Jesus comes to touch our hearts in the deepest cravings of our being.”

What is it we crave? What is it we fear?

*

Or a final image.

Deacons are not allowed to do the anointing of the sick, but once with my friend I did something kind of similar. I bought some essential oil from a health food store, some concentrated scent of rose, and put a little on her hands. It was very strong. It filled the room. In fact, at first I thought I’d made a mistake, I thought I’d never get it off my own hands and my clothes. But then, back at OSU, as I answered my emails and taught my classes, I realized what the gift was. That she was with me. I was carrying her with me.

And the white swans in the green field. And the friends at the bar. And spring. Just spring, and the birds coming back, and the daffodils and the tulips.

This is what I mean.

Who says there aren’t any burning bushes anymore? Who says?

Who says we don’t rise from the dead?

Friday, March 13, 2009

183 Questions (homily)

183 Questions
March 13, 2009

Like Joseph and his brothers, we are entering into lean times. Into a kind of famine. When the other night Manolete gathered together everyone who is worried about the economic crisis, I could really feel the anxiety in the room.

And it would be nice in times like this to have someone like Joseph to figure things out, someone clever. You can see why the ancient Jews would have loved this story, deep into the Exile, because Joseph triumphs in the end, with his brain. He’s a problem-solver and a manager, kind of like Warren Buffett and Barak Obama rolled into one.

But I think there’s something deeper here, in the scriptures and in our lives. I think that maybe the famine is the point. I think that maybe the economic crisis is giving us an opportunity to fast in a way that we should have been fasting all along. I think it’s only when our defenses our down that God can get in, only when we are emptied out that we can be filled, with the right things and the good things. I think there’s a mystery here and there’s always a mystery here, not something we can solve or control.

Did you know that Jesus is asked something like 183 questions in the Gospels, directly or indirectly? And do you know how many he answers? 3.

I get this statistic from the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr and I just love it. I think it’s fantastic, and I love, too, what Rohr says about it, how he follows it up: “Jesus’s idea of church [Rohr says] is not about giving people answers but, in fact, leading them into threshold and dark spaces, where they will long and yearn for God, for wisdom and for their own souls. This is itself--and always has been--the only answer.”

As Christians we are people of joy and people of hope, whatever happens, because at our best our lives are grounded in faith. We can feel the grace of the Lord always flowing into us.

But first we have to get to this point, we have to arrive at this place, and that means giving up and letting go, and I think that most of us can’t do that on our own, we can’t choose that, we have to have life flatten us and stymie us and show us again and again that at least on this superficial, material level, none of us matter or stay on top for very long. Then we can cry out. Then we can yearn. Then: the joy.

A second quote I’ve been thinking of, a second passage. It helps me grapple with the other question here, which is what can I do for others in this crisis? As a deacon, as a person? Problem-solve, yes. Bring all our resources to bear. Coordinate things. And some of us have that charism, to use Father Mike’s terms, from the parish mission, the charism of administration and of helping. But there are other charisms, too, and in this quote from the Catholic writer Henri Nouwen, we are called to one of them. To just listening. To just being there.

‘When we honestly ask which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, makes it clear that whatever happens in the external word, being present to each other is what really matters.”

Jesus only answers three questions because this is the kind of friend he is, the kind who listens, who tolerates not knowing and wants us to be able to tolerate it, too, wants to get us there, to that place, who wants us to know that presence is what really matters, none of this other stuff, that the internal world matters far more than the external. And he’s calling us to be this kind of friend now, to each other, whatever else we do, whatever happens over the next few years. We have to turn and face it. We have to turn and face each other.

And we have to believe, and we do. Jesus is listening. He is being silent with us. He is staying with us in our hour of grief. He isn’t giving us solutions but something far greater, his gentle and his tender hand.