This is part of a talk I gave today, Tuesday July 10, 2018 at 3:00pm. “Broken But Not Divided: Connecting Prayer and Service” at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians at the 41st Convention in Baltimore. This talk is sponsored by World Library Publications, Chicago, IL
Tuesday July 10, 2018
Opening: Sung litany
Save Us, Send Us. “Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” Page 131.
My Dear Followers of Jesus,
Thank you so much for inviting me back to NPM. Thank you so much for your ministry, your time and talent in the work of the Church. I am deeply humbled standing among all of you who pray and who share your gifts within the Church. Connecting prayer and service, Eucharist and justice is the foundation of our faith. Yet, this connection intimidates many parishes and worshipping assemblies since we must learn how to share God’s love with people who are different from ourselves, people who most need compassion in our cities and neighborhoods.
We may find it easier to gaze upon the Real Presence of Jesus in elements of bread and wine on the altar than to look our brothers and sisters in the eyes who face life situations that challenge us beyond imagining. We make these spiritual and vital connections only when we learn to face Jesus, the truth of our own lives, and real tumult of our people.
My priesthood calls me to the margins of society and the Church. These margins have converted my heart and opened my eyes. My conversion has emerged from penetrating the Eucharistic liturgy with heart-felt prayer and from bending down to hear the whispers of the gospel to the poor. I want to speak today about our relationship with God and how it bears fruit for people living in poverty or addiction or spiritual malnourishment.
A couple of summers ago, I was standing at the door of our church ready to preside at the last Mass. As the processional hymn began, a woman yanked on my chasuble and whispered to me that her daughter needed a shower so she could begin her first day at school the next morning. I was caught in the threshold of her need and stepping into the Mass. It is this threshold where our communities experience the tension of Eucharist and service, the space between the Mass and justice, the place of God’s love and living that love for real people. This threshold is challenging and yet filled with trust and grace.
I finally realize from my own prayer that God loves me and is invested in real people’s lives. This authentic ground of prayer and service is love. There is no other place to rest other than in the heart of Jesus. The Father calls us to live that love generously beyond the altar of sacrifice. The story of God is the story of people. We are not separate from the Divine. I will share some thoughts on five facets of finding Jesus in the Eucharist and learning to connect love in our world and daily life.
Every week we ready our children, we push a parent in a wheelchair, we clear our throats to prepare for choir, and we journey to our churches for common prayer. The walls in which we gather house not only our worship but our churches contain our memories. My friends, when we gather to proclaim, to sing, to hold in our hands the Real Presence, we remember. These common memories shatter our loneliness, open new possibilities of justice and rattle the status quo. These memories are imbedded in our songs, our bodies and in every life that seeks God. These are the most radical and the most far-reaching moments of our human lives, being together at Eucharist.
For we remember the night before Jesus died as he gathered his disciples and held bread in his hands and offered it to each hungry follower. This action of Jesus has changed the world. He did the same with his cup of wine, sharing with tenderness. When we imitate these gestures, our lives speak to the Church and to the world that we partake and we ourselves are broken open. We become his message in a world that needs mercy, compassion and healing. We say “yes” to everything Jesus stood for, even the ways his life toppled the status quo and those with unyielding power and authority and brought mercy to the outcast. We act on his behalf because he promised to be with us always.
As musicians, we stand anew in our churches each Sunday and hold within our voices and talents the memory that has held the Church together for thousands of years. We remember those who have sung, played, proclaimed and preached years before us. This action unites us not only to people’s faith but also to the aches and heartaches of our ancestors, to the injustice and prejudice, the racism and personal hungers of all believers. We hold within our memories the journeys of the migrant or refugee and the realities of people who live outside, people who resist change and those who change because hatred is thrust upon them.
This is the place where I want to be on Sundays, to find a home again within the walls of my church, the place where hope arises out of our memories, where we remember because we cannot live today without a deep understanding of Jesus. I know I am hungry for such memory and how our memory forms us today. We can all connect our faith to our ancestors who believed in Jesus and who found their way to an altar and then to the bedsides of the sick and to war-torn nations, and to broken families with hungry toddlers and to the people who most need God.
We also gather within our walls to be present, really present, to the memories people have that have scared their lives. When a woman beats her breast during the opening rites of the Mass, she may also recall the beatings she survived as a child or how her memory touches her scares from breast cancer surgery. When we gather and sing, we might be very aware of the frightened young man who hears voices within his mind and who cannot stand to worship in such outer noise. We gather to remember with a young widow who cannot bear to remember her dead husband who came home from Iraq in a body bag.
Our personal prayer centers on the memory of Jesus to fill the spaces we feel are empty, the spaces where grief grabs us, the spaces where war terrifies us, the spaces where discouragement tells us we don’t belong, that ongoing emptiness that whispers we are not good enough, that we can’t cantor or direct or represent the church in leadership because of our sexual past and present.
Memory is essential before we lift a baton or pluck strings or proclaim scriptures or distribute communion. Memory connects us with God’s fidelity, with the Holy Spirit given to us in our baptism, linking us with the holiness that does not get washed away or abandoned by our insincerities.
Memory makes us feel human again. Music, gesture, silence, ritual, incense, poetry, and community, allows us to feel our deepest humanity. We desperately need this in our worship, especially today when are so viscerally, emotionally divided. We need the flow of peace within us, to know that our divisions are not the things that really connect us, such as hatred, hunger, violence, false accusations, sexual violence, and political divisions. Memory keeps alive the hope Jesus once had for us, that life is beautiful and that love is real for all of us, his beloved.
Our sacred memory is the first step to get us to live beyond ourselves. Honest memory creates a space to get us in touch in our bones and blood in what God is doing in our lives. Music, preaching, the Mass, gets us back in touch with our deepest relationships. We need to get back to feeling like a person again when our present day numbs us, when violence and hatred has halted us in our tracks. We go to Mass to open the soul. Prayer plants us on the ground of hope where the call of Jesus from years ago breaks open anew today.
I wrote this poem for my 35th priesthood anniversary in April. I invite all of you to take some time to remember your own journey of faith and how it lives in you today. I invite you to claim God in your call to love and serve within your ministry beyond yourselves since our memory is holy ground.
My Place at the Table after Thirty-Five Years
The Real Presence of Jesus rests
In my soft hands
Not real work some would say
No work-related cuts or calluses
Lifting up the Bread of Life
The Body of Christ
Reflects back to me
The beauty of ordinariness
Dipping bread in homemade soup
Serving family recipes
Around rectory tables
To spiritually malnourished friends
Sharing fresh loaves from the oven
When their bread has become stone
Lifting up the Cup of Salvation
The Blood of Christ
Remains heavy lifting
After all these years
Of carrying within me the bruises of many
I now conceive the primacy of blood
For parishioners’ mastectomies
Mothers giving birth
The deep cuts of suicide
And the bloated fear of blood
In friends and strangers
Who died of AIDS
The Word of God
Falls from my mouth
More easily now
Since I have learned to listen more deeply
Conversing with people who need healing
From their mental illnesses
From wars and abuses that were not their fault
Or multiple addictions
Or sheer stubbornness
And now I finally admit in my silence
I am poor too
Since I am powerless to change them
From my own talents
Or to convince others that Jesus is not silent
My shoes are worn now
My shoulders slumped and my belt tight
For my possessions are many
As I walk in faith
And pace around my own infidelities
And my heartbreaks
For the step-by-step journey to love is long
Where the Word becomes flesh
Jesus remains present
In sacramental oil and song
As I mark and anoint another forehead
As a tattoo for salvation
Or a brand of fidelity
For the many who remain afraid to die
I am still surprised
By the consolations falling from
My mouth when a divorce is imminent
When a husband cannot admit infidelity
Or when a wife hides her multiple prescriptions
Or when a police officer knocks
On a parents’ door
During the nighttime
The Forgiveness of Jesus
Rests more comfortably
Within my heart
As mercy becomes a constant friend
As tender as a spring jonquil
And as hearty as an ancient oak
In my reluctant surrender to love
The years have drawn me more closely
To admit my insincerities and peccadilloes
And to see with sheer delight
Surprises that enflame
My heart with gratitude
So that there is more room
Under my skin
For both Jesus and myself to be together
Under the same roof
Of our priesthood
If we truly keep our memory alive as believers, we shall be led to realize our own poverty, our own need for God, and our own connections to a life larger than ourselves. We will live not from our own brittle egos, but from a deeper connection in the unbelievable life we have inherited from God. This life we humbly recognize as the Church, a people of becoming new from our past missed turns and fragile mistakes.
Responsorial Psalm 165, 8,9-10, 11
Response: You are my inheritance, O Lord!
The blueprint of connecting prayer and service is the action of washing feet at the Last Supper. Jesus understood the depth of where the message of Eucharist needed to land in our human condition. Jesus washed feet so that we would not just break bread without an understanding of how others need hope, salvation and healing. Dirty feet become the solid platform on which to connect love, acceptance and service.
Some years ago, a man whom I met in the parish, whose life was consumed with anger and rage, began to pray. His prayer led him to wash the feet of people living outside. After a year of washing filthy, often bloody and infected feet, he told me that he now understands why Jesus washed feet. He humbly gazed into my eyes and said, “Jesus washed feet so that he could have a better view of his disciples faces, from a posture of humbleness and tenderness.”
In today’s Church, whose feet are dirty? We know well the feet of immigrants and their children in stifling hot fields harvesting so much of our food. We understand the feet of soldiers in heavy boots that have trekked along national boarders to avoid stepping on landmines. We recognize an elderly parent who has drop-foot because from being bedridden for a decade. We feel the plight of shoeless children fleeing wars, poverty and a hopeless future. We have yet to really deal with the dirty feet and shattered lives of our abused children from the sex crimes of our clergy. Feet teach us to love when we remember how to celebrate Eucharist with our entire lives, with every aspect of our human condition.
If you want to pray with just one chapter in the sacred scriptures that illuminates these connections, then read Mark: 1. This lengthy chapter immediately places Jesus in the thick of human life after his baptism and the call of his disciples. Jesus harnesses an unclean spirit with love. In fact, it is the unclean spirit who recognizes who Jesus is, what he can do and how he can heal. Jesus in our sacraments still silences and heals those who are possessed by injustice, heartache, sexual misconduct, and violence, torture, uncertainty and deep revenge.
Jesus also enters the house of Simon and Andrew and heals Simon’s mother-in-law. Do you believe that Jesus can enter under your roof, to heal you, to set you free, to lift you up and invite you back into your life of service? Perhaps in our prayer times we could invite Jesus into our own darkness, our own hearts aching for his healing touch. Jesus reaches out far and wide. Jesus also reaches out to take our hands to lift us up on our feet.
Still within this first chapter of Mark, a leper approaches Jesus. Again, it is the powerless, the weak, the sick, and the marginalized that speaks on behalf of us about the healing nature of our Savior, about the Real Presence of Christ Jesus. This leper is one of my favorite people in the scriptures. He is one of the people whom we still want to avoid and we are still deaf to his words and blind to his circumstances and his love for Jesus. We have many leprous people in our pews. I wonder if you can see them and even call them by name?
I believe with my entire heart that we begin our spiritual journey by becoming like those who first knew Jesus. Our first spiritual goal is to become powerless. This decent into the depth of our human nature is lost to many Church leaders and to most people in our pews. This deep spiritual decent is almost impossible in our affluent society today, yet we must pursue the journey. Powerlessness is our place within the Eucharist so that we will finally come to understand that God is God and we are not.
Powerless, standing with and among people who are poor, is the only ground on which the Eucharist makes sense. This is the ground upon which we build community with humility and justice. This is ground upon which we build up the Church because when we accept our brokenness, we will know what Jesus is really offering us. Within the gospels, Jesus invites us from our isolation into deep and abiding communion. This is about our real lives and not just what happens at Mass on Sunday.
Our own powerlessness is key to opening the doors to justice and peace from the merciful presence of Jesus. The scriptures show us the way to find Jesus and to bring to him the questions of our lives and our connections to people on this planet. I want to hold the lepers request within my heart and speak it from my own lips, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”
For eleven months this past year, our worshipping community in Colorado Springs celebrated Eucharist in our windowless parish center because of the restoration of our church. On Good Friday, our tile floor provided an even ground for families to reverence the wood of the cross. One aspect of people’s reverence caught my heart that day. I noticed a few elderly mothers and father’s bringing their adult children with severe disabilities to the cross of Jesus. Where I was sitting, I could view the faces of these parents. The questions that I saw with my heart on their faces were, “Who will take care of my children when I am gone? Who will take them to Jesus after I die?”
The cross of Jesus is everywhere in our human suffering. It takes deep prayer in our lives to sort through such anguish. However, suffering is the place where Jesus lives as we have heard in the gospels. Suffering is the place for us to finally realize redemption, reconciliation and the beginning of peace.
The human ground on which we sing at Mass is drenched with our tears. We cannot judge or condemn others for weeping when they are starving for food or love. We cannot turn our backs when people cry themselves to sleep because of the color of their skin or because they are addicted to alcohol or because they want a better life for their children. We sing believing that one day Jesus shall wipe our tears and dry our cheeks. We believe that Jesus, that only his love itself, shall change us. The cross is the center of our song, the rhythm of our preaching, the unity of our choirs. The cross is liberation for every sinner and in the depths of every song.
We must find a safe place within our Sundays to rest our pain. If we do not deal with the human obstacles to hope and joy within our prayer, I fear that the questions I witnessed on the faces of our elderly will be the questions we will all ask, “Who will take us to Jesus? Who will care for our families, our children when we are gone? Will the Church last beyond us if we gloss over the real ways in which we all need God?”
Suffering cannot be swept under our welcome mats as we enter the church doors. It cannot be housed in a sacristy closet or tucked under the relic on the altar top. Suffering must be exposed if faith and sacraments are to be real, authentic and heart healing.
Suffering is a central aspect of Jesus’ presence on earth and he is waiting for us to admit we need him.
We hesitate to admit suffering because so many of us pretend we are not poor. We live out of our bloated egos and our wealth, our degreed educations and our well-planned lives. Fear is useless in worship. We fear so much because we do not want to be losers, of our homes, our futures, our wealth and our health, our reputations and the labels that give our lives meaning. We will do anything not to become like the people in the gospels who struggled with life. Yet, if we do not learn that we need God, we shall be empty in our reverence for the cross of Jesus and the resurrection of love will pass us by.
Psalm 33: 4-5,18-19,20,22
Response: Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.
At Eucharist, we hold the tension of the gospel and the rich heritage of our institutional Church. We also live the pull of how life really is and how we think life should be or could be or ought to be. This tension, theses areas of uncertainty are the places in which we learn to surrender to life and to our faith. No life is perfect and no gift given to us is without uncertainty and question.
As ministers within the Church, we surrender every day to the reality of life and to the hope that the words we sing and the sacraments we celebrate will change the world. We cannot give up proclaiming, preaching and living what God’s hope for the world can be. We are called to not only celebrate the sacraments of unity but to live what we preach well beyond the Church doors.
We know God’s love for us but sometimes we may feel impeded by the teachings of the Church. We straddle the tension of God’s fidelity and the restrictions of who can receive Eucharist and who can belong. Questions of leadership, authority and honesty within the Church raise more fear than hope on many days.
Yet, our ministry within the Church is to lift up souls and hearts to God, to sing and proclaim and to surrender to God the gifts given to us. Our voices create a home for people whose voices have been silenced by poverty, neglect, racism, abuse or ignorance. Our talents show the power of God’s healing when we ourselves feel lost and out of place. We surrender to God every day in our ministry.
In my own life, I have learned over these many years, that the most important aspect of my priesthood is my surrender to Jesus. I have had to peel away many layers of stubbornness, of feeling that I am not good enough, or articulate enough, or outgoing enough, or talented enough, or loving enough, or celibate enough, or educated enough, or worthy enough. I have had to pray through the obstacles of always comparing myself to the talents of others, their profound voices, their positions within the Church, all of which I will never possess. I have been jealous of others inner authority, their physical attractiveness and even how well they have aged.
I even had to surrender years ago to a bishop’s dislike of me. I had to listen to a canon lawyer say to me, “Well, you have two choices. We could fight this and you would win or you could pack of your belongings and leave here in the middle of the night and never come back. I suggest to you, Fr. Ron, the journey through the darkness.” These words from a canon lawyer have become a poem for me, a truth that has led me into a spiritual path of connecting Jesus into the darkest places of life, even my life.
The surrender to life, to all that happens in our lives ultimately leads us to God’s love and purpose for us if we are willing to persevere in faith. This journey is the work of our lives. I would not be standing here today had that canon lawyer not said those words to me or if I had not believed in the fidelity and ultimate gentleness of Jesus.
This surrender is one of the most important ways we connect Eucharist to justice, sacraments to real life. If we are willing to step out beyond the shells of our ego, then we can relate to people who have surrendered to job loss, ill children, a diagnose of mental illness, a miscarriage or the loss of insurance benefits. We are all poor in some way; we all simply need God. This surrender is the path toward really understanding that we are all connected to God.
Faith must cost us something, even when our reputation is at stake. Faith must be a risk toward honesty, of reaching out to others to create change, a change of attitudes and perspectives, a change that leads to our oneness of humanity. Faith without risk will not lead our young people to the altar. Faith without risk will not reinforce our voices with hope or will not show us how to proclaim the gospel or distribute the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus. Faith without risk diminishes our preaching and dilutes our teaching. Faith must connect us with compassion, love and integrity for not only our own lives but for people who pray and for people who need us to pray.
Ultimately, we must surrender to the passion, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. This is our true identity. Our true identities are greater than the shades of our skin or when we identify ourselves as rich or poor, Republican or Democrat, thin or fat, introverted or extraverted or conservative or liberal or tall or short or gay or straight. We belong to Jesus and are formed in his image. We surrender to his call, his command and his continuing grace every Sunday in the Eucharist. We surrender to God so that we will finally come to understand that God is God and we are not.
Our surrender to God creates our hearts’ identity and our hearts’ desire. Our work as ministers is to discover the rich activity of God in our lives. The only thing we will carry with us to the end of our time on earth is our connection to Jesus, our ultimate love. Everything else will fade. It is to this reality that our worship is our common surrender to the mystery and tenderness of God.
This poem of surrender to the Body of Christ, I wrote for the Episcopal ordination of Bishop Bill Wack, CSC from Pensacola, Florida on August 22, 2017. I wrote this because Bill has spent his life working among the poor and I did not want him to forget his surrender on his ordination day as a bishop.
A Letter to a Bishop on the Body of Christ
The scrupulous brush sacred crumbs from the corporal
To respect the Real Presence of our Savior on the altar
The real crumbs of the Body of Christ
Blow across the church and land
In city gutters, in prison cells
Remaining invisible– forgotten behind bars
Some crumbs land without jobs to support a discarded generation
Who never knelt beside an altar but only in dumpsters
To find sufficient food, make it through the day
Kneeling in dirty alleys for a quick-sex encounter,
A hit of drugs: what they rely upon
For real love, purpose, and daily food
Those Body of Christ crumbs are never brushed
Up to be together, encouraged, loved
They remain trashed just behind the church parking lot
The very nature of God is to move from isolation into communion. God desires to be with God’s people. God desires us to be united to him in love and to reach out to those who are isolated and alone. This action of God in our sacramental lives is a work of art. God, our creator, is still moving hearts, lives and communities. This is a work of creation, a work of art toward beauty, fulfillment and hopefulness.
We participate in this action of God each time we take a deep breath and the words of the psalms flow from our lips. We are co-creators of God in our preaching, in restoring our worship spaces, in believing that the marginalized deserve a place at the common table of the Lord.
Pope Francis recently said, “Artists are disciples of beauty.” Well, there are many disciples here today, this week, exploring the gifts, talents, and love given to us in our baptism. We are artists into which we will bring the lost sheep, the lonely grandmother, the foster child, and the adult with disabilities into communion within the worshipping community of God. The real beauty in our churches is this action of communion, of unity and love.
Art in our faith cannot be for the rich and well educated alone. After all, art in our churches is public art, given to us for the good of all. The gift of choirs, stringed instruments and stained glass all work for the good of the community, to unite the fragile into healing, to bring hope for the despairing, to bring gentleness to the exhausted farm worker. Art is a way in which we bridge isolated parts of the human condition into common work of love, of unity and hope for our world. Art expresses the human story of searching for hope, of longing for better days, and for waiting for the miracles of God. Ultimately, art is the path we walk together toward the glory of heaven.
The Church for centuries has used the arts for education and to lift up hope in people’s lives. Art, however, is also the gift given to us to unite people who have been lost by homelessness, despair, grief and separation. When we consider the talents of our people and how we express communion, we listen carefully to the voices that bring not only hymns of praise to God but to the more subtle voices that give encouragement to the single parent, hope for the grieving widow, and peace for the abused wife and child.
The work of art in our communities become the words we speak in our Prayers of the Faithful, asking God to unite the lost. We pray to run toward the lost sheep and to speak truth when injustice makes a home in world. Art is the way we speak up and out when our children are separated from parents at the boarder crossings, when our jails become group homes for the mentally ill or when storms or floods create chaos for our neighbors.
Again, the very nature of God is to unite from all that separates us. This is God’s work of art within our voices that are raised in screams for justice and peace within our isolated world.
Art within faith is a source of emotional self-stripping. Art purifies our intentions and it helps us feel all of life. Art empowers us to live as Jesus lived. Our voices, music, words and visual beauty invite us all into emotional freedom, into realizing we are one in God. Art within our churches must be real, authentic and it must become a bridge to unite despair and hopelessness into the glory of God. Art and faith work together to help us connect our human poverty to the richness of God’s presence and work in our world.
Life is beautiful and it is well beyond our control. God, the grand artist is still creating the world and the Church. Holiness, that is our search for God, is an art form as well. For we do not know how we will be formed and shaped for God’s purpose while we are on earth.
The real art of our lives goes well beyond our songs. The authentic beauty of our creation is far deeper than our hymn selections and how we arrange our sanctuaries. Our worship is true art. From our clay hearts and earthy sinfulness, we rise up in fidelity and hope for our world in beauty, music, and heart-felt praise.