Bread and Concrete: (Ministry and Liturgy Magazine, October 2015)

Bread and Concrete: Where Liturgy and Ministry Meet, Part 8 from Liturgy and Ministry Magazine, October 2015

The Word seeks a home among us

“She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,

because there was no room for them in the inn.” Luke 2

  For over twenty years I carried a small red lectionary around with me. The former translation of the scriptures for Mass from 1970 shaped me as a young priest and preacher. The hardbound book with tattered pages rested on the floor against the chair in my room in which I prayed in the mornings. I carried the book under my arm to parish meetings, to prayer services and even to some gravesites as if the red book was an accessory, part of my clerical uniform. The binding of the book broke under the pressure of years.

The cover is now darkened from the grease of my hand carrying the book in the same way to all those events. The book sits now on a bookshelf in my room only because the translation of the scriptures has changed in the Roman Rite as well as the placement of some of the texts.

No one book can replace for this lectionary. The new books are bulky, separating the Sunday scriptures from the weekday texts. Multiple books are needed now for Mass or personal prayer. The once handy, simple lectionary is no longer a convenient source of psalms or reading the gospels for an entire liturgical season.

What I miss most about my old and frayed book is that I became acquainted with the phrases, responses and translations of the Word of God. These words as they were written became a daily friend and a source of inspiration. In over twenty years of carrying the same book from place to place I learned that my life was embedded between the pages. My instincts in ministry found their roots among the consoling stories of Jesus on earth and his followers telling the tales long after he left our world.

The book is filled with more than scripture passages. I miss the pieces of folded paper with pen scratches of prayer tucked between the pages. If I open the old book now, the smell of aging paper and dust is a memory of years past. Some of the pink message forms with addresses of parishioners from other parishes where I served are folded up deep within the book. Some of those addresses led me to home visits because a parishioner’s loved one was dying. I also jotted down some homily ideas on scraps of paper. There are prayer cards from funeral homes of people whom I buried many years in the past and people who died too young. Phone numbers of grieving relatives and even simple reminders about plans for a wedding are still there. I am reminded that some of the weddings took place with sad or unfortunate circumstances and many of the funerals happened way too soon. These scraps of paper tell the stories of my ministry and the people whom I have encountered all these years. The ink scratches remind me of how the Word of God has shaped my pastoral life and consoled me along the way.

As I look through the dusty book now, I hold on to the memories and I pray for the people whose vows I witnessed. I pray for the souls of the bodies I buried. I recall the places and parishes where I preached the Word and how the Spirit inspired me among complicated family relationships and fragile moments of grief. The pink messages, the death cards and the scraps of lined paper all tell the stories of how I have lived God’s Word in my priesthood and how I invested my life in the liturgy of the people.

These memories teach me even more that God is trying desperately to make a home among us. Even though the old book remains shelved, the Word of God is still active and alive. I now hold years of reciting texts, memorizing responses and preaching homilies as rich treasure within me as I now minister among people in poverty. These are the memories that I bring to the Liturgy of the Word, when the richness of mercy and consolation are proclaimed anew at Mass.

God’s Word is not from the past but speaks today in ways I least expect. Ministering among people on the margins of society, I observe God becoming flesh among us in most unlikely ways. God’s word speaks through the morning hangover of an addict who confesses to me, the loss of a child that a disillusioned mother tells me about and the horrific affects of disease and the quiet of loneliness uttered to me by a stranger. I see this at every Mass as I sit down to listen to the Word of God that resonates among people who understand what suffering is all about. I reflect on the eternal presence of God in the Liturgy of the Word by first listening in prayer as I wake up to begin the day.

In my silent morning hours of prayer, I long for words that will set people free. In the daylight hours, so many vile and obnoxious words are bantered about our neighborhood. I overhear public cursing and angry threats from addicts and dealers on our sidewalks, words that pierce the heart. Our staff is steeped in words that weave stories of abuse, addiction, rage and hatred. These words and public stories hurt us all worse than sticks and stones and destroy us as surely as bullets and knives.

So many people wait in various lines in our neighborhood for food or a shower, for clothes or to replace an identification card. People wait for gentle words that will satisfy their needs such as, “Yes, I can help you.” However, most likely they will hear, “No, I am sorry we do not have the resources for that,” or “We are not hiring today.” As I write this paragraph well before dawn, someone is yelling words of fear and accusation outside my window, “You fuckin’ idiot!” People wait in line here for words that will ease their fright, comfort their loneliness and shorten their pain.

I struggle to give all of these hurtful and sorrowful words to God in my morning silence. However, I cannot carry them in the stress in my shoulders or in the fear of my voice or in the red lectionary under my arm or in the sadness I feel around my heart. I rely on the Liturgy of the Word just like everyone else so to hear the fulfilling words of hope among us. I wait with all who wait in private silence for an antidote of healing and consoling words from the public liturgy itself.

After years of ministering among marginalized people, I realize more than ever that we are all searching for home in so many different and unique ways. I am not speaking just about getting housing in a single-room occupancy hotel or finding shelter tonight. I am not referring to earning enough money to build an expensive home near the ocean or a new loft in a newly gentrified area of an urban center. I am referring to the journey for every human being to find a real and unique place in life, to discover the gift of life here on earth and to live all life from that gift. People are ultimately trying to make sense out of their suffering. We all strive to find the healing we need. We all long to make sense out of the corrosive names we were called when we were young. As adults, we all need to be healed of the mockery so many of us endured as children, and of the fears that caused us to mock others as well. My experiences show me that no matter how our lives have turned out, we all long to be in communion with other people.

The Word-made-flesh was first housed on the outskirts of town. In the dark night, Jesus was born on earth seeking housing. This image of Christ our Savior is not lost on our parish community. Christmas night is the hope for every night. We struggle to believe that Christ is still searching among people living on the margins to find home, to be born in the heartache and suffering of every one of us. Every Christmas Eve my heart is heavy for people searching for housing, not just the people who are sleeping at our doors. Christmas night is about the refugee, those scattered by war and violence. The night speaks to children surviving divorce, and for a young mother who lost her husband in an accident. The night is for parents who betray their children, and for children who cannot live with their parents. The night is for the safety of foster children and for the addict who has broken up the family unit. I pray for all who need to find their way in life and how we turn so many people away because we cannot make room for them in our lives.

Every day as I hear the scriptures at Eucharist, my heart aches for people who search for such meaning and comfort. We displace people from discovering their homes in Christ Jesus when we name them “sinners” or “unworthy” or “not suitable to be worshipping with us in public”. I know I am part sinner and part believer in welcoming people to discover their true homes in the Word of God. The healing words in the scriptures that echo in our chapel offer love in the poverty of every person here.

The Word of God finds a home in our midst because most people in our parish community do not have enough money to hide their suffering. People in our pews need God in raw and obvious ways. People stink, they hear voices and even many of our volunteers are struggling to get past a divorce or job loss or the death of a spouse. People in our pews cannot hide their own poverty, the place where God is trying to abide among us.

I never want to glamorize poverty in any way. However, poverty shows us where to put our priorities in order to find healing and hope. People in our parish community cannot hide suffering behind pretense, material possessions or advanced college degrees, and even those among us who are materially comfortable and who have received great formal education recognize our shared humanity and shared poverty in our need for God. I believe now in the message of Jesus who tried to show his disciples that the handling of serpents, healing the sick and preaching the goods news were tasks that will only be received and honored among people who do not cling to earthly possessions or prideful ways.

I remember my own journey to the Word of God as a young priest. I was working in Chicago at the Office for Divine Worship and ministering at Saint Clement Parish in Lincoln Park. At that time, I was not living and working among people in poverty; in fact all of my life was far from it. It was a time, however, where I was confronted with many aspects of my own poverty.

I struggled to find a voice in the Church and a place to really use my gifts and talents. I felt I was always on the outside of my religious community and outside of the mainstream of what was expected of me as a priest. I was searching for home. I was waiting for God to show me the direction. I wanted to be part of the plan. I wanted in the worst way to cooperate with grace and not to fight against it.

One Sunday morning I was presiding at Eucharist in the worship space in the basement of the Church. I had my arms raised up during the Eucharist Prayer and I remember being emotionally stirred by the gospel that day. During that moment, I felt deep within my being that God would be with me through the Word. While I was speaking words of the Eucharist, God was speaking to me and practically knocking me over with the fact that my life must continue to be centered on the gospels. I felt that my entry into the covenant and meaning of the Eucharist would come through the Word of God. I wanted to weep. I wanted to stop Mass and just take in this sacred moment of grace for me. I finally felt a greater ease, a new doorway into the ministry of my priesthood, the life that was before me. I felt for that brief moment that I had found housing and purpose from the Gospel.

This insight has formed my ministry in the Word of God. The healing that I experienced so many years ago is at the heart of my invitation for others to find shelter today in the Word. I realize that these sacred texts still do not keep people dry in the Portland rain or provide a place to sleep. They do not provide a comfortable space for people to be creative or a table around which to invite others to dine with them. The Word of God does provide for us a moment of emotional stability. The Word among us does offer the spiritual and emotional safety people need so to discover their dignity and worth, their place among others at the holy table of the Word of God.

Several years ago I met a college professor who heard about our parish community. Even though he lives about an hour away from our downtown parish, he wanted to visit and find out how we are serving people in poverty. I had the privilege of having an extended conversation about his life and the reasons for his journey to pray with us.

Reggie teaches young adults who are struggling to survive in school. Some of his students are struggling to learn English, others are addicts who cannot concentrate on studies and who are not ready to be clean and sober. Multiple issues of abuse and even domestic violence keep young people from the emotional stability they desperately need so they can learn in a school setting. Reggie shared the stories of his students with me and asked my advice about dealing with people who face such poverty and insecurity.

Reggie then began telling me the real reason for his journey here. He is a professed atheist and he was discovering that God is being housed in the lives and hearts of his young people who are struggling to learn and to survive. He initially came to see me in order to make sense out of this insight. He did not want to admit that he himself might be finding God or that God could possibly be leading him from the storytelling of his young people.

Reggie and I have regular conversations now. He drives up to see me and to share coffee or a meal and to tell me stories of his life and students and also to come to Mass. He admitted to me that he suffers from debilitating depression. He told me that when he comes to Mass and he hears the Word of God proclaimed here that for just a moment, there is a flash of healing within him. He tells me that when the scriptures are read out loud in this place of honesty and poverty, he feels a refreshing glimpse of love deep within his life that he has never received from any medication or psychiatrist. Reggie tells me that love is here when the scriptures meet people in need.

Reggie’s story goes beyond the confines of any bound book. I see in his eyes the communion we all seek in God. He hints to me that he desires faith. He has not come to admit his faith and perhaps he never will, at least in a way that is familiar in our Catholic tradition, but his experience teaches me what the Word of God is doing not only in our small parish community but also in the world. The Sprit of God is continuing the mission of love and healing. The words of life are being spread like seed in the lives of people who are lonely, depressed, addicted and who are burdened by words of hatred and violence. Housing for the heart is possible not only for people who proclaim the Word, but also for people in need of healing.

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