Thursday, March 21, 2013

Religion That Is Not So Blind

Our icon is from Sallie Thayer.
I don't go to Catholic Mass all that much, not nearly as often as many of my Protestant friends think I do given my bromance with St. Ignatius of Loyola, so I was happy to have a surprise chance to drop in on a noon Mass one day this week with my good friend Greg and others down at St. Paul's College in DC. We arrived five minutes fashionably late and I had to grab an empty chair that was of course up front near the altar and next to one of the presiding Fathers.

I'm not Catholic, though I love and appreciate my Catholic brothers and sisters. And I know a good bit about the Mass, though I don't know the rhythms like a good Catholic. This means that when I go to Mass I have to bring my "A Game." I have to work hard to listen and watch everything so that I'm not always the last one standing or sitting. I rarely make the sign of the cross in prayers or before the Gospel reading... my goal is not to pass myself off as a Catholic, but I do hope to worship and to at least not be a distraction for others.

In this particular noon Mass I was rocking along quite well when the wonderful old, probably retired, Father who was presiding over the Mass moved to deliver his homily. I had of course already noticed his quaking voice and shaking hands, a loss of muscle control I would usually associate with my own sweet grandmother's Parkinsons Disease or other such aliments that afflict the mature among us. But he manfully strove with his body to grip the lectern and deliver the homily with a stronger voice and presence than he had previously shown us.

His text was from Daniel 3, the famous story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and their fiery trial. As he worked to bring his body under greater control and speak quite eloquently on the passage my personal empathy went through the roof with this dear old man. I know the feeling... when I am especially tired or excited I will often have to work over-time to keep my stuttering under control.

His obvious effort served to focus me on the passage and his words. And so I was unprepared for the power of the words in verse 18, "But even if God doesn't save us..." It's a familiar passage, and one I have happily preached many times myself. But caught in the furnace of age, not himself delivered from the ravages of a failing body, this old priest drove those words to the center of my soul. From the lips of the three young men so long ago, to the lips of this venerable priest, to my own often too-hard heart, the words rang as they seldom have for me. Forget the fickleness of my faith, the faith that follows on good days and coasts on the bad days! Forget my faith that only responds to the gifts of God. Forget my faith that only survives on answered prayer! O God, give me a faith that stares into the trial and carries on regardless.

Some detractors might label this kind of faith that moves regardless of immediate evidences of God as "blind faith." And certainly there are times when I could simply pantomime my religion instead of being a thinking, "seeing" person and an accountable soul. But that is not what I see happening in the story from Daniel. That is not what is happening in the life of a old priest who musters his strength to worship God and to serve his friends at the altar. It is not a blind faith, but a decisive faith. A faith that has chosen and does not have to continue choosing again and again. It is not a blind faith, but a very self-possessed faith that knows itself.

Even as I type the words I find my inner voice crying out in prayer, "Lord, help me know myself! Help me be so decisive! Help me be so self-possessed of faith and you!" And as we prayed together in Mass this week, "Lord, hear our prayer" I continue to pray, "Lord, hear my prayer!" For if I can bet on anything, it's really two sure things: 1) another trial is eventually headed my way, and 2) I can either have decided my course, or be caught unprepared for the heat.

Praying, Todd

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Loving Lent as a Grace

I did not grow up in a Christian tradition that practiced Lent but most of my adult life I have been in churches that did focus on this practice. I find that it can be a wonderful way to prepare myself for the Holiest Days of the Christian Year, those final days of Holy Week---Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. I feel like if I don't utilize Lent as a time of extra focus in my spiritual life and instead treat it just like any other time then Easter ends up feeling just like any other Sunday, with a few more people in attendance! Lent gives me a chance to really be prepared to take in more deeply the Mysteries of Holy Week.

I often struggle in my own life with guilty fellings and low self-esteem and sometimes the traditional focus of Lent on "giving something up" sets me up to feel guilt rather than to more deeply experience grace. A number of years ago I was introduced to what is for me a much healthier Lenten practice of trying to add something special to my life during Lent, something that will help me come closer to grace. This year I am fortunate to have a pastor, my fellow blogger Todd Thomas, who has prepared a wonderfully creative set of meditations utilizing the wisdom of St. Ignatius. I will be using this guide in private prayer during this Lent but I am also hoping to gather with others in the DC area who are using this guide. In fact, we have scheduled a weekly gathering time on the Thursdays of Lent to gather with Todd to share our experiences with the guide and to grow as a community together. If you are in the DC area you are welcome to join us starting next Thursday, February 21, at La Madeleine in Rockville. We will gather at 6:30 PM for food and fellowship and begin discussion at 7:00 PM. If you aren't in the area, I do hope you will check out the guide here and perhaps benefit from it.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Long, Long Marriage

Last month in December of 2012 Teresa and I celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary. It's one of the things I'm most pleased with and pleased by in my life, my marriage with this amazing woman. Glancing at other stats in my life, that one is a humdinger. My longest held job only clocks in at a about a quarter of that kind of time (5 1/2 years). I was in university studies far less, only about seven years.

A cool aspect of our wedding anniversary is that we were married on the 50th anniversary of my father's parents, Lewie & Jean Thomas, both still living in Snyder, Texas. And if you haven't already done the math in your head, this means they did indeed celebrate their 71st wedding anniversary last month.

71 years! Seventy-one years! Holy moley! Holy Longevity, Batman! That's way more astounding to me than chatting about tax rates and fiscal cliffs. Just to be honest. That is a lot of shared life. That is amazing to me. And of course, someone reading this may have grands who have been married longer... I'm not trying to win the longest-married-grands contest... but these ones are mine. They set a pace I'm scared to even try to keep up with.

Who knows if I'll even live to be in my 90's. Teresa will. She shares something with my grands that I never have: good, clean living. Me, I drink way too many sodas, eat too much sugar and exercise way less than I should. I'm also too attached to an occasional pipe, though I keep reading that my moderately imbibed port wine and cognac should be good for me.

Can I share one very personal thing that really kinda pulls my heart strings? When I call and chat with my grands, as I did on our shared anniversary, I can't help but notice that they can be a bit vague about some things. Dates and times can be a bit fuzzy with them. They don't always recall well the last conversation we shared. But you know what, they know exactly what is up with each other. It's as though their world is collapsing as the universe is expanding, but it's collapsing into one another. 

So I'm adding that to my personal definition of love. Love is when your best memory, your deepest clarity and most cherished thought is reserved for the other. At whatever point you began to share that with someone, I wish you all the best in maintaining it! Me, I'll try to make my grands proud, and if I live that long, I'll try to honor their legacy.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ezekiel's Hope and Ours

After helping to get this new blogging site off with a couple posts I have been burdened with a number of things and have not posted anything for a couple weeks. One burden has been physical—I came down with a really nasty virus that I am still not completely over and that past onto one of my children. Another burden has been helping my wife transition out of one job and into a new one that she just started this week. It is an exciting change for us but it has been a challenge to pull off in the midst of the holiday season. Finally, there has been the awful burden that we are all feeling of the Massacre of the Innocents in Newtown, CT. The combination of all these things has left my blogging silent. However, during this time I have been reading a brilliant book called Filled with the Spirit, by John Levison.  I wanted to take this blog post to share excerpts from the book’s chapter on the Prophet Ezekiel that have spoken powerfully to me as I have been living with the grief of Newtown.

The Prophet Ezekiel wrote at a time of intense grief and confusion for the people of Israel.  Of his many visions, the one that has had the most intense hold on Jewish and Christian imagination is his vision of God’s restoration of life to a valley of dry bones. Levison’s meditation on this vision is illuminating not only of the biblical text, but also of our own cause for Hope in the midst of death.

Fundamental to this vision is the overpowering reality of death that must be overcome, a horrible reality which Ezekiel captures as he describes the unthinkable. The spirit transports him, of priestly stock, to the land of the dead, to a valley where the bones lie brittle and bleached by the sun and sands of time: “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry” (37:1-2). It in the echo of this valley of death that Ezekiel gives ear to Israel’s triadic and tragic lament: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Immediately Ezekiel measures the death around him: very many bones and very dry bones. This is death to the core, to the extent that even Ezekiel—with his fertile imagination…cannot answer “Yes” to God’s question, “Son of adam, can these bones live?” (37:3). Life in such a valley of death is inconceivable even to the boundless imagination of Ezekiel.
And yet, it is in this valley of death that the spirit has deposited him, and it is in this valley, among these very many, very dry bones, that the spirit will accomplish its most astounding act of vivification. In this valley, Ezekiel discovers hope, hope that resides in the presence and the power of the spirit:
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause spirit to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put spirit in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” (37:4-6)
…These bones cannot, therefore, easily return to life. They cannot be raised as they had been, in the throes of sin and the pangs of disloyalty to God. Their dismemberment is due to disloyalty, and they cannot be brought back simply by being layered with sinews, flesh, and skin. (95-96 of Filled with the Spirit.)

The depth of Israel’s sin, and the totality of its death, could only be overcome by a direct infusion of the spirit of life. The magnitude of their fall, and ours, is such that only a deep work of the spirit could possibly bring about new life and hope. This Advent our Hope is what Ezekiel’s was, our Promise the promise given to Israel:

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the spirit: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O spirit, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the spirit came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” (37:9-10)

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Reason I Love Being a Pastor... Weddings, Big & Small!

There are a few reasons I sometimes don't love being a pastor, or at least I don't love telling people I'm a pastor... they sometimes get that dumbstruck look and start apologizing, as if I've been recording any curse words they may have used or as if I was thinking of how to use them as a sermon illustration. I do neither. Promise.

But a reason I do love being a pastor is weddings! I love the big ones and the small ones, the formal ones and the informal ones. This week I was blessed to join a young couple in mariage in a small, quiet time, standing between our Advent Wreath'ed altar and Xmas tree... they were radiant, the bride and groom! Teresa and some close friends, Jeremy and Deidra Neeley, witnessed. It was a sweet moment in time, and I am so glad for those moments.

Times like this one are special and shouldn't be taken lightly. Every wedding is beautiful and each is special, but these small ones might be my favorite. This isn't my first informal wedding with a very small group... it's always a blessing to share some thoughts on marriage and encourage love in such an immediate way without the needs of a ceremony. I am praying for their many, joyful years together!


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Loving Les Miz (and Bishop Myriel)

Victor Hugo, the creator of Bishop Myriel.
The musical production of Les Miserables is absolutely my favorite theater show. It is the only production that I have seen twice live, both times in my hometown of Chicago where it played continually for many years. From the very first moments of my first encounter with the musical I have loved it as a profound expression of Christian humanism. Despite my love affair with the musical I have never read the book by Victor Hugo—until now!! With the first movie production of the musical scheduled for release this Christmas I have decided to try and read the massive book during Advent before seeing the movie while in Chicago for the holidays.

I am only just into the book and I already love it. Unlike the musical the book begins with an extensive portrayal of the Bishop. In fact, the whole of Book One is about Monsignor Myriel, Bishop of Digne, and is entitled “An Upright Man”. Hugo paints a picture of Myriel that is deeply sympathetic, indeed nearly iconic. He locates Bishop Myriel clearly within the tumult of France in the 1800s and elevates a vision of Christian faith and charity timeless in its beauty and deep compassion. While viewers of the musical will be well aware of the Bishop’s act of grace towards Jean Valjean, the book has numerous other stories of Myriel’s witness to mercy. Here, for instance, is a section on Bishop Myriel’s ministry to a man headed to the guillotine for murder:

He [Myriel] went at once to the prison and to the [prisoner’s] cell, where he addressed him by name, took his hand and talked to him. He spent the rest of the day and the night with him, without food or sleep, praying to God for his soul and exhorting the man to have regard for himself. He repeated the greatest truths, which are the simplest. He was the man’s father, brother, friend; his bishop only to bless him...
When they came for the man next day the bishop went with him showing himself to the crowd at the side of the fettered wretch, in his purple hood and with the Episcopal cross hanging from his neck. He went with him in the tumbril and on to the scaffold. The man who had been so desolate the day before was now radiant. His soul was at peace and hoped for God. The bishop kissed him and said when the knife was about to fall: ‘Whom man kills God restores to life; whom the brothers pursue the Father redeems. Pray and believe and go onward into life. Your Father is there.’…
Since the most sublime acts are often the least understood, there were people in the town who said it was all affectation. But this was drawing-room comment. The common people, who do not look for shabbiness where none exists, were deeply moved.

With each page of the novel my love for it grows and my anticipation for the movie builds. The trailers that I have seen for it, and the initial buzz around early screenings of it, give hope that this will be a film worthy of the novel and of the stage production. I can't wait!

Greg (I've written some more on the idea of Christian Humanism and Les Miserables over at my other blog site.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Lesson of Gift Receiving

Here's the thing... I am personally scarred by past experiences with the holidays. I want to start with that being stated so that you know I am not fully healthy with the whole gift giving and receiving thing... you can blame my earliest girlfriends.

You see I was always of the opinion that if I ask someone what they want, I should probably get that for them, or at least get them a really good excuse for not getting it and something of fairly equal value. Sounds easy, right? It looks like this:  I ask you what you want + you give me an answer = you get what you want

The flip side is that if I'm asked what I want, then I should be able to rest in a fairly strong presumption of receiving what I stated to be my desire: You ask me what I want + I give you an answer = I get what I want

You see the brewing dissonance? My earliest girlfriends all got what they asked for, and I would get crap. For reals. I would say, "All I want is a cheap remote control car that I can run around the front yard until it breaks." And I'd get a sweater. No apologies. No toy. Just a sweater.

So as I grew into adulthood, especially fatherhood, I have carried an extreme burden of performance anxiety in the gift giving and receiving season. Will I have gotten them what they really want? Will they be happy with it? Will I suck soggy toast at being Dad this year?

For the most part, aside from a few minor setbacks, I have been an Xmas machine! I simply say to my boys, "Tell me what you want." And *poof* they have it on Xmas morning, or they have due notice before hand that they won't.

Sounds nice and manageable, huh? No unnecessary anxiety. Everyone knows the score. Nice and neat, no worries. But for the last Xmas season or two I've had a nagging question in the back of my mind, "Am I missing a crucial lesson, not on gift giving, but on gift receiving?"

I think I did indeed miss that one. The problem with my nice, predictable system is exactly that, it's too predictable, but most of life and it's gifts are not. There's a need for my boys to sometimes get what they didn't ask for, and to learn to deal with it, or celebrate it, whichever is most appropriate to the moment. That's a life skill that will come in handy in many situations from personal relationships to school and work.

Ingratitude is never pretty. They might miss the beauty of a gift not sought, but very much needed. And we all run the risk of missing the other person's vulnerability in giving us a gift, and therefore end up dealing some real hurt to them instead of affirming appreciation.
Be thankful for the least gift,
so shalt thou be meant to receive greater. ~ Thomas a Kempis

Receiving a gift well is a grace given back to the one bringing the first gift, it is a blessed reciprocity. To teach it, I need to first learn it and live it. Discovering that there's a lesson I want to teach my boys that I haven't taught them is the realization that I probably need to learn it first. I told ya I have some gift-health issues.