Heavy Lifting

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, March 2010
– PDF version –

I often feel embarrassed standing at the altar alone on Sunday morning. I lift my arms out from my sides, hold my palms up and offer verbal prayers on behalf of the community. My body assumes this posture while everyone in the community is kneeling. I sense my feet on the ground, my hands raised up, my voice projecting and so often I feel alone.

I experience this deep loneliness because I take seriously this responsibility to offer people’s lives to God. When I feel my arms weaken and hear my voice quiver, I know that the emotional weight of people’s lives bears down on me. Every Sunday I feel this profound body workout as I lift up my heart in prayer standing at the altar of celebration and communion.

Ministering among people who suffer poverty and loss in our urban parish has formed in me a deeper understanding of celebrating Eucharist. Praying with people who have no power in our culture strips me of any assumption that being at the altar is about my own authority, talent or ego. I come to realize that the gesture of opening my arms in prayer is my real work, my daily confrontation with God and myself.

At the altar I come to grips with the fact that people suffer beyond my ability to offer solace, change or even consolation. Praying amid people suffering homelessness connects me to real human need. Here, I am united in heart and soul with people who kneel in prayer. I do not think more of myself as the only person standing.

Looking into the faces of people bent over the pews during Mass changes me. I stand at the altar on behalf of people who do not know where to turn with their pain, uncertainty and challenges of life. I feel in my bones a deep connection to people’s unanswered questions. I pray every Sunday that there will be enough grace to fill the void in every heart.

I look to the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ for solace among people starving for the basic needs of life. The disciples knew of the hunger of the crowd gathered to hear Jesus. They approached him, scratching their heads about how to feed the vast number of people. Jesus tells the disciples to give people food, taking responsibility for helping people get through their hunger. Of course the disciples complain to Jesus that only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish will not be enough. Jesus offers a blessing on the measly portions. Everyone finds satisfaction, and leftovers fill twelve baskets.

I complain weekly to Jesus that people need more than what I can offer them. In our small parish, hunger for companionship fills the chapel on Sunday. I often wonder if Jesus is listening to the parents who have just lost their lonely, gay son to suicide. I question the compassion of Christ when I hear of the gang rape of a teenager after a school dance. I want Jesus to be around for the elderly man who was beaten by his son for a measly inheritance.

Standing at the altar on Sunday, I feel the weight of all these needs on my outstretched arms. This is the heavy lifting of my ministry as a priest. I learn from the hungry disciples to bring these needs to the person of Jesus. I trust even in moments of profound hunger and need that together we will all be fed; we will all discover love and we will all find the healing we need.

As I pray at the altar on Sunday, I also view people torn apart by the judgment of other people and the condemnation of society. This need for reconciliation bears down even more on my extended arms and open hands. I realize every Sunday that my posture at the altar remains so countercultural. Here, my open hands must also be a gesture of hospitality and welcome. This goes against our human instincts to clench our fists at drug users, prostitutes, street teens or people who threaten the status quo.

In Luke’s Gospel, a woman comes uninvited to the home of a Pharisee. She arrives with an alabaster flask of ointment because she knows that Jesus is dining there. Her reputation as an outcast threatens everyone. She bends down to the feet of Jesus and weeps. She dries his feet with her long hair and kisses them. She anoints the person of Jesus, the feet of the Savior. She peels off the labels that people have placed on her as she reveals the love within her. Her action of love and tenderness becomes our moment of reconciliation.

I learn from this woman that if I am to remain at the altar with open-handed prayer, I must also wash the feet of our culture’s outcasts. I must learn even more to bridge the gaps among people who judge others. I must anoint people’s fear when unkind labels condemn them. I must kiss the feet of people abused by our society’s outpouring of hate.

My arms outstretched in prayer modeling the sign of the Crucified also tells me that I must take up my cross daily. I carry this burden when I welcome the lost sheep and embrace the homeless veteran. This heavy lifting will never end. I see in my gestures at the altar on Sunday the connection of how I live the limits of my life during the week. I discover at the altar that I am to lose my life in order to save it.

I understand now amid drug users and people suffering mental illness that standing at the altar on Sunday is not just a perfunctory rubric. This is the place of genuine love. Jesus tells me to keep my hand on the plow and never look back. So I keep my arms out from my side and my palms empty. I keep my eyes on the faces of people kneeling in the pews. I enter more deeply into my loneliness and discover again the people of God, the Body of Christ.

Pastel Breakthroughs

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, March 2010
– PDF version –

Every month a large brown cardboard box arrives in the mail in our parish office. Every member of our parish staff recognizes the return address immediately. The container is postmarked from Boston, Massachusetts and travels the miles across the country to Portland, Oregon. The box is shipped from Holy Cross Family Ministries, an apostolate owned by my religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross.

Without opening the box, we all know that the delivery contains three hundred plastic rosaries, each one enclosed in a small plastic bag with paper fold-out instructions on how to pray the rosary. The rosaries come in white, as well as pastel colors of pink, blue, and green.

Even though we are a small parish of only a hundred or so people, the large number of rosaries is a welcome sight. Every weekday morning over a hundred people come through our doors searching for the basics of life. Unfortunately, we simply do not have the resources to meet every person’s needs. Some people come enraged that they stood in line for hours only to be turned down for a bus pass to travel out of town or money for medication or resources to find shelter for their children.

Often when people are most frustrated, some of them may still select a pastel rosary from a small wicker basket placed at the office window and something happens inside them. They begin to feel connected to us anyway, even though we were not able to provide them with the item or assistance for which they stood in line.

I find in these small plastic bags many connected moments of miracles. These encounters with strangers become pastel breakthroughs that awaken my heart to the real needs of people. Not many of our guests will ever actually sit down, take out the instructions, read the small print, and learn how to pray the traditional prayers. Some of our guests are lucky to find a relatively safe place to sleep or to be able to find a quiet moment at all in the neighborhood single-room occupancy hotels. It is the message of the rosary itself that counts. Every day I learn that the Paschal Mystery comes in shades of anger, hopelessness, discouragement, frustration and uncertainty. I rely on the plastic beads to be more than mere objects, to be genuine moments of faith and hope somehow strung together.

As I ponder the Gospels for March and April, I notice a string of awakenings, breakthroughs that unlock our search for God. Jesus tells us a story of a simple fig tree, one that people have ignored because of its lack of fruit. Jesus is patient, cultivating the soil, fertilizing, waiting and believing in the natural process of growing fruit. The Lenten Gospels tell us that God is not finished with us. We cannot give up on people in poverty whom we judge, ignore or insist that they are not living up to our standards. This acceptance of other people in these Lenten days shows us that Christ’s dying and rising still produces much fruit in our human hearts.

A woman weeping in our chapel told me she just wanted a blessing for her children. I sat with her, listened to her abusive story and prayed with her for our Father’s care. I handed her a packet with the pastel beads and she pondered them as if heaven had opened. I could not help but see in her tears the woman standing in the sand accused of adultery. Her friends had given up on her, people turned their backs on her actions and others could not take responsibility for their own decisions. Her tears still teach me that women remain ravaged by rumors, finger pointing and accusations in our society and church. Jesus, bending down to write an unknown message in the sand sets her free with words that breakthrough the lies.

Our staff realizes that not everything goes according to plan. When we first received the rosaries some years ago, one staff member noticed that the rosaries themselves were being left in the lobby. However, the plastic bags were always taken. It dawned on us that some people were discarding the rosaries and using the plastic bags for drugs. Not every moment comes out perfectly as the father realized with two lost sons. In the least-predicted places and times, we can all wake up to our sin and misfortunes. We can find our true inheritance by finding our way home to God’s love. Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them and even today among people in every parish community. Even when the drug users took the rosaries for their purposes, I must believe in these unexpected moments that the faithfulness of God rests upon them as well.

Jesus threatened many people and was sentenced to death because he disturbed people’s comfort in order to welcome outcasts, sinners and strangers. I think of Jesus’ reputation when I see for myself rosaries hanging from the necks of people living in poverty in our neighborhood. I notice them at bus stops and street corners, in coffee shops and while riding the streetcar. The rosaries reassure me that we had some contact with people who need the basic message that God cares for the people living in poverty on the streets of Portland.

Some people may be disturbed that many of these rosaries are not being prayed as they were intended. However, I see them as glimpses of faith, real breakthroughs of love that unite us with people suffering homelessness, incredible addictions and various degrees of mental illnesses. Perhaps their example of wearing faith on their bodies for everyone to see is really an extension of the prophet not being accepted in his own native place, or street corner, or homeless shelter.

I remember when Bonnie camped at our doorway for two months. Because of her kleptomania I estimated that she took nearly four hundred rosaries during her stay. I am convinced that Bonnie poked her head into Jesus’ empty tomb and wanted for herself the warmth of the white garment left in the corner of the grave. She became a sign for so many people in our community that Christ is still near, that death still gives way to the breakthrough of compassion and hope for people. I wait for the day when we will all find ourselves wearing our baptismal garments witnessing to Christ breaking bonds of apathy, injustice and insincerity.

I saw a commercial on television for a local CBS affiliate that asks people on the street about the needs of Portland. One gentleman wearing layers of clothing responded by saying that Portland needs more public restroom facilities. If you notice very closely under all the layers of clothing you will see the pastel rosary beads around his neck. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Jesus revealed his resurrection among fisherman along the shore. He told Peter to remain in love and to act justly toward all people who remain lost and forgotten. When I see people wearing the rosaries all over town, I discover deep within my own heart the true presence of Christ. The rosaries and the people remind me to open my heart further, to follow more closely and believe in the pastel Easter presence of Christ our Savior.

Block Blessing

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, January 2010
– PDF version –

Icon of Christ the Healer

Last summer our parish community welcomed Archbishop John Vlazny of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon to bless and dedicate our new icon. The icon of Christ the Healer was written for our parish community that serves people living in poverty in Old Town in Portland. The writer of the icon, Rev. Jon Buffington, incorporated images unique to Portland so that many members of our community could better relate to and pray with the healing Christ offers to every person.

Christ touches a crippled man wearing a backpack sitting in front of the Burnside Bridge. This sacred gesture calms many of our people who sleep under that same bridge. Christ casts out seven demons from Mary Magdalene who holds a jar of perfumed oil. Many of our people suffering from mental health issues take refuge in her beautiful, serene appearance. Many people suffering chronic illness also come weekly to the chapel to be anointed for such unrelenting anguish. A series of roses under Christ’s feet calls to mind the City of Roses, a trademark name for Portland. That same image can be found in our Cathedral just a mile from our parish community.

After the reception of Eucharist, the Archbishop blessed the artist, and called everyone into a silent moment of heartfelt compassion for our parishioners and neighbors who live in dire poverty. The central piece of the dedication was a sung litany which washed over the assembly rousing deep prayer and passion for many people in the assembly.

I offer now this Litany of Blessing so that every community may learn in any time of year to enter more deeply into the healing message of Christ Jesus. This blessing prayer spoke to the particular needs of our parish community. Other parish communities may name their own poverty and suffering in addictions, elder abuse, divorce, or rural unemployment. Every parish community must be truthful and name their experiences in real, honest and authentic prayer.

The assembly responded in song, “Heal us, O God” to each chanted line of the litany. I felt the emotional tug of each statement settling into the hearts of the people. Each line seemed to go deeper into the truth of how we experience life every day in our parish. The bold statements opened our eyes to reality and profound trust in God. I felt a sacred hush under the chant. The prayer touched tender places of compassion and faith for all of us. We seemed humbled by our heartache and even more so by taking the risk of opening our lives to God. We listened, prayed and received the words sincerely in our hearts as we cried out in response.

We lift up our prayer in the healing touch of Christ….
We lift up our community in the healing touch of Christ…

Protect us when we cling to revenge and violence………..
Transform us when hatred overtakes our actions…….
Teach us when we jump to false conclusions…………….

Lead us when we are afraid to follow……..
Inspire us when we fear our own talents…..
Sustain us when we turn from your mercy……

Unite us when we would rather go our separate ways…..
Clarify our thoughts when our thinking becomes destructive….
Bond us together when prejudice tears us apart…..

Create life in our culture of death and destruction…….
Penetrate our stubbornness when self-hatred makes a home in us….
Discover new potential in us when we grasp power and authority…….

Soothe our hearts when illness claims our bodies…..
Rest in us when anxiety penetrates our souls……
Cleanse our consciences when sin overtakes us….

Refresh our hope when we are absorbed in doubt and guilt ….
Wash our feet when we stumble and walk away from love….
Believe is us when we no longer trust in your love….

Forgive us when we do not serve our neighbors….
Provide for us when we loose our employment…
Shelter us when become homeless…..

Recover our lives when addiction and compulsion overpowers us….
Touch us when we cannot bear our pain…..
Cry for us when we grieve those we love…

Weep for us when sorrow blankets our hearts and futures…
Anoint us when our bodies are too weak to pray….
Live in us when we are dead to ourselves….

We lift up our prayer in the healing touch of Christ….
We lift up our community in the healing touch of Christ….

After the litany, the Archbishop prayed the words of blessing for the community and the icon itself. He then sprinkled the icon and the assembly with blessed water. Archbishop Vlazny knelt lovingly on the concrete floor and dipping his thumb into the Oil of the Sick, anointed the four corners of the icon. His humble posture created in me deep concern for all the people we serve and longing for our reliance on God alone.

After the final blessing and dismissal of the Mass, we carried the icon immediately to the outside of our chapel. The entire assembly gathered on the corner of 6th Street and Burnside for the procession around our block to offer Christ to the four winds, for the needs of the entire world. This moment really captured my imagination and the awareness of our assembly. Taking this healing message literally to our neighborhood certainly was a new experience for many visitors and parishioners. Even though we pray at sites of murders as a community and even feed people outside, this was a special way of bringing the message of the Eucharist to a waiting neighborhood in need of love and tenderness.

We huddled silently on the first corner. When people gathered we sang boldly the next texts of the litany. After pausing to allow the prayer to sink into our hearts we then processed along the sidewalk to the next corner and continued the same process on each corner. We sang our truths, anguish and reliance on Christ in the midst of passersby, people pushing their belongings in shopping carts and strangers staring at the large group of us. A few patrons of the local gay bar thought we were condemning gay and lesbian people and drug dealers and several parishioners assured them we were praying for love.

We stand in our streets and offer Christ to the south…..
We pray for immigrants and refugees……
We pray for all people in third-world countries……..

We cry out for the needs of the prisoner, the veteran……
We carry on our shoulders the weight of unemployment….
We ask you to guide our homeless youth and pregnant teenagers….

We carry the cross for people who line up daily for our hospitality center…
We bring Christ to people who line up here for Brother Andre Café…..
We ask you to heal the people who do not trust this community….

We stand in our streets and offer Christ to the east…
We pray for the end of war…
We pray for reconciliation among all faiths and religions…..

We ask healing among agencies serving people experiencing poverty…
We ask healing for the elderly, the crippled and bedridden….
We lift up drug-dealers and pimps who roam our streets…..

We carry the cross to those who cannot help themselves…
We bring Christ to those who feel judged by our faith community….
We ask you to heal the divisions within our neighborhood….

We stand in our streets and offer Christ to the north……
We remember Brother Andre and the people of Canada….
We pray for our Holy Cross institutions of learning…….

We pray for people struggling with sexual identity….
We pray for adequate housing and employment….
We pray for the safety of all women in Old Town….

We pray for reconciliation among neighbors housing the poor….
We pray for all businesses in Old Town……
We long for the unity of believers and the consolation of the oppressed

We stand in our streets and offer Christ to the west….
We pray for navigators of the sea, travelers and sojourners…
We pray for our dead who have traveled to the eternal shore….

We pray for all people suffering mental illness…..
We pray for people living in the sunsets of depression and loneliness.
We pray for all the grieving and lost…..

We pray for patience for a new day of love and concern for people…
We pray for all our neighbors, benefactors and believers….
We wait in joyful hope for the coming of Christ Jesus…….

We offered back to God the healing that comes from God. We gathered as believers who know all too well the pain of life and the unanswered questions of suffering. We took our pain and our faith to the streets. We extended the healing of the Eucharist to the neighborhood and revealed our concerns in public. We blessed the block because we are confident the suffering does not have the last word among us.

After we prayed circling the block, we processed back into the chapel. The artist and some helping hands hung the icon above our Tabernacle. Everyone present burst into applause with sheer emotional release.

Sock Exchange

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, November – December 2009
– PDF version –

Preaching on Christmas Eve frustrates me. I never know how to reach the exhausted, “perfect mother” struggling to bring her newborn baby to Mass because her in-laws insist. The tired father drenched with worry over paying for the family’s gifts strains to hear the evening Gospel. The single relatives back from college often feel most alone on Christmas Eve. The aging parents grieve the loss of Christmas’ past and the recent death of their only daughter. Some people scurry into the church building at the last minute feeling their place is only on the margins of the community anyway.

Christmas evokes mostly tears of loss for me as I look behind people’s smiles and sugar-induced enthusiasm. Behind the red scarves and new neckties lies the reality of people often forcing their way into happiness and love. On Christmas Eve real life comes to the surface when we least expect. I uncovered this authentic life several years ago when I tried a different approach to preaching during the holy Eve of Christmas.

Before Mass, I wrapped three items as gifts to be opened during the homily. I carried the three gifts in a colorful shopping bag and explained I had just received these gifts and wanted to open them at Mass on Christmas Eve. I ripped open the first gift with wide-eyed enthusiasm. My childlike approach revealed a new teddy bear. I reminisced about our sacred memories as children and the holy bonds of family. I spoke softly that Christmas also conjures up memories of grief, loss and unhappiness with many people we love. The grace of Christmas heals the past and makes room for Christ to be born even in our brokenness and sadness.

The second gift revealed a bag of candy. I preached the sweetness of God’s covenant of love even in times of war and uncertainty. After I spoke about each of these first two gifts, I gave each gift to a different stranger sitting in the pews. What you receive as a gift, give as a gift.

I tore off the wrapping paper from the third gift which revealed a pair of nylon socks. The assembly laughed as my face fell and I muttered about getting such an ordinary gift. I told the assembly that the Incarnation demands a lot of work on our part. I explained that Christ was born on earth to reveal the divine and human dignity of all people. I held up the dark socks and begged them to serve people who long for such dignity. The socks called people to action to serve others who go without adequate clothing, food, shelter, purpose and relationships. Walking in the footsteps of the Crucified demands a life commitment for all believers. I handed the pair of black dress socks to a stranger, a stocky, older man sitting at the end of a crowded pew. His rugged features, deep wrinkles and sparkling eyes revealed a man who had obviously made his living working with his hands with diligence and care.

The Advent Gospels prepare us for this holy night. Our hearts cannot weary while we wait for the face of Christ. Anxieties must not catch us by surprise like a trap. Great signs and wonders will tell the story of redemption. After Mass I introduced myself to the working class, kindly man and his wife. She had suddenly begun to feel ill after everyone had left the church. The three of us sat in the pew for a few minutes until her heart felt better and she felt strong enough to leave.

Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy in waiting for the Lord. I was seeing before me a woman making crooked ways straight, waiting for Christ’s promise to be fulfilled. I saw in her eyes the readiness to see the salvation of God. Her heart was preparing to be birthed into eternal Light. I felt drawn to this couple. I knew I had given this man the socks for a reason. I could already feel in our first encounter that our relationship was only just beginning.

A few days later I received a phone call from the gentleman who received the socks. His wife was very ill and in the hospital. I raced over to the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit to find her entire family at her bedside. She looked up at me and whispered to her husband, “It’s the sock-priest.” A few days later she died in her sleep.

At her funeral, her husband walked into the church to greet me. He pulled up his pant legs and told me that he was wearing his new socks for his wife’s funeral. We hugged each other and we both wept in our newborn friendship. I heard the Prophet John’s words rattling in my heart. If you have extra socks, give them away. Stop hoarding possessions and give them freely to others. I felt deep within my soul the reason for the giving. His grief was now being aided with the parish’s presence. The socks had now become the instrument of healing. He would always remember and grieve over the Christmas his wife died. He would also remember the Christmas Eve the parish reached out to both of them.

Every Christmas and every Easter that followed, the elderly widower wore his black dress socks to Mass. After Mass he made a point of stopping me in the lobby, shaking my hand with one hand and pulling up his pant leg with the other. He greeted me with gratitude and with tears. I looked forward to those holy greetings each year, where kindness and peace embraced. The holy greeting was a reminder for me that God is still coming to earth to save us from ourselves.

I preach now on Christmas Eve with even greater sensitivity to peoples’ stories. I realize the sock exchange with a kind-hearted stranger will never be duplicated. So I strive to break through the cultural wrappings that hide the season’s love. I reach out to tired parents, the bickering relatives, the ill single man or the couple drowning in debt. Now I wait for the gift God gives me, this authentic life, in the apprehensive stranger with cold feet sitting at the end of the crowded pew.

Face Time

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, July 2008
– PDF version –

Our parish community marks time differently than most. We flip on the same light switches whether we celebrate the Sundays of Lent or the day of Christmas in our windowless urban chapel. The simple swags of liturgical color in the sanctuary are lost among the dark rain-soaked clothing worn by the homeless waiting in line outside our chapel doors. Changes of seasons pass us by since we have no gardens of white spring tulips or walkways of yellow autumn chrysanthemums.

We mark our seasons with people’s personalities. Autumn is the time fresh-faced nursing students arrive in our daily hospitality center to wash the dirty feet of our neighbors. Christmas is the time we look out for serious depression even among our daily volunteers. Summer excites us because new student interns now move beyond book learning and interact with real people living in poverty, and this dry season keeps our homeless friends from bone-cold nights.

Even members of our parish staff mark their time of employment and ministry by the number of years of Sam’s sobriety or when Joe finally got housing. The senior members remember the days when John showered weekly. He has not showered now in nearly five years. Marking the liturgical years reminds all of us of God’s investment among his marginalized people.

We also release from the pages of the Lectionary the faces that give our community hope. These summer stories of Scripture speak well across the generations to offer us both challenge and consolation. There is nothing run-of-the-mill about how the characters from the Gospels help us keep track of time, celebrating our lives of faith.

The furrow-browed Canaanite woman unleashes her worry about her daughter in her verbal battle with Jesus. Her brash and strong stance advocates to Jesus about her daughter’s health and life. Like any caring mother, she jumps over cultural barriers that even Jesus was reluctant to cross. He draws a line in the sand that reminds her that his love is out of her reach. She storms his conscience and she changes his opinion. Her daughter is healed. The cultural and spiritual walls tumble down around them.

Our parish community depends on this prophet’s gumption. Her honesty empowers us to advocate not only on behalf of those we know and love, but also those who line the outside walls of our church building waiting to be noticed. Her marginalized status empowers her voice which continues among us who serve people who are down and out. Her integrity invigorates our days when we tire of thinking life could be different.

Her love for her daughter and her love for Jesus scream out across the centuries and well beyond my proclamation of the Gospel or my preaching. I find her fire in serving those who need the essentials of life. I mark my days among strangers whose pain is transparent and lives are inconsolable. Her story empowers me to believe that those who need Jesus the most will find among us some morsels of compassion and love. I must not tire, but if I do, even leftovers of Jesus’ presence will still feed me.

Peter’s unselfconscious act of stepping out of a storm-thrown boat also speaks to our community in summer days. Jesus invites him to trust beyond the scope of common sense. His logic and his faith lock together in a single moment and he starts to sink into the raging water. Jesus is there to simply catch Peter and to ask him why he doubted.

Most of us in our parish community reach out daily from our fear to the hand of Christ. We sink into depths of uncertainty when we realize we cannot change the systems that keep people poor. We drown in their sorrow and in our own when people refuse to take their medications for schizophrenia when we know they could walk on steady ground. We lose ourselves in the storms of people’s old age, recent strokes and relapsing on drugs.

Our parish knows also from Peter’s example that we must continue to leave our safety and walk toward Christ.  People need us to not only provide toothpaste and clean socks but to be with them through storms of loneliness and self-loathing. Real people need us to accept them when they smell, and pray with them when they are soaked in grief. Peter motivates us to get out of our boats of safety so to find the real purpose of our ministry and the joy of the Lord’s presence.

The real goal of worship, no matter the time of year, is to see the face of Jesus for ourselves. These Gospels also open to us and to every parish community Jesus’ invitation to rest our weary bodies exhausted by his mission. He reminds every community that the work of faith and the church is not ultimately our worry. He confronts our controlling attitudes that we can satisfy other’s pain or doubt. The face of Jesus unveils itself when finally all Christians yield to his call to rest our exhausted spirits in his meekness, in his humble heart.

I never pray in summer without counting myself among those who search for the face of Christ. There is no vacation from our seed-throwing work among the poor and invisible. I gain strength for the journey, no matter walking among thorns or rocky places, when at last I entrust people into the net of God’s Kingdom. The personalities of the summer Gospels form us all into the Body of Christ, the face of love for all seasons.

Trinity Blest

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, May 2008
– PDF version –

I usually cringe when an engaged couple asks my advice on planning a wedding. Discussions of turquoise dresses, unity candles, and thousand dollar floral arrangements send me fleeing the church. The expectations of parents, the search for the longest church aisle, and the guest musicians often make me feel like my presence is another accessory, another “check” on the list of wedding preparations from the latest bridal magazine.

Kim and Charlie gave me a new perspective about wedding preparations. Kim explained to me that she spent a year after college graduation working among the poor. Charlie also shared his desire to live out his faith in a more challenging way. They wanted their wedding to express their deep conversion into God who changed everything about their lives. The engaged couple desired to profess their vows in our small urban chapel which welcomes people who struggle for the essentials of life. This decision drew a line in the sand about how they wanted people to view not only their wedding but their marriage. She stepped out of her family’s expectations that their ceremony be held in their home parish.

Preparing for their marriage became an act of God’s faithfulness. God so often becomes a cultural accessory at a wedding. God’s action is invited as a stamp of approval, or an inconvenient guest, hidden among the fake flowers and candelabras. Kim and Charlie’s plans stepped out of the cultural norm and into an authentic expression of faith and service.

The couple also wanted to make sure that the people present at the wedding did not feel like observers or well-dressed adornments. They asked people to bring to the ceremony white socks, bags of new underwear and clean blankets for people who come daily to our hospitality center. Their friends and family received the message that this wedding was a call to action, and that action of service comes from the covenant of God’s faithfulness.

The Eucharist remained the centerpiece of the couple’s commitment.
The crystal clarity of hospitality, the simple music, the contemplative pace, all revealed to the congregation that God is the one who brought them together, and God’s initiative would lead them beyond the church doors and into a life of fidelity and purpose.

This wedding unmasked a deeper understanding of God. It was not a ceremony that talked about God, but explored God’s real activity in Three Persons. We moved beyond the quirky images of how people often think about the Trinity, as shamrock or triangle, into a deep, profound action in people’s lives. No one left our simple worship space unaffected by deep grace or an ache for justice. The frivolous, cultural wedding accessories were replaced with breathtaking awareness of love and compassion for the poor and suffering.

Now is the time in your parish community to unveil people’s relationship with the fidelity of God. The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity summarizes the liturgical journey from Lent through the gift of Pentecost. It reminds us that the marriage of heaven and earth in Christ is truly our path to change, commitment and reliance on the Three Persons of God.

The liturgical Gospels after the Solemnity of the Trinity now open for us the profound call to base our lives in the continuing action of God’s faithfulness. The marriage covenant of the Trinity in our earthly ways shows us the path to building our commitments on rock. We first must have the courage to listen to the echoes of God in the course of real life. Kim and Charlie revealed to me that the storms of wind and rain are nothing compared to the shelter of truth and honesty.

We often think our faith comes from our own decisions. God’s initiative calls us beyond ourselves. The courage to follow Christ beyond our selfishness is also God’s gift. This marriage bond of God and His people continues to show me that love is real even in the midst of my doubt and insecurity. My fragile earthy ways can become a new identity in God’s love for me.

There are few people who have the courage to risk everything to hear God’s call. To be a laborer in the harvest means we let go of the stifling images we have of God, ourselves and people in need. God is in relationship with us. We in turn keep the heavenly marriage vows alive by entering into profound relationship with the marginalized, the anxious and the doubtful right here on earth. God calls us each by name, beyond the labels of our sickness, past our notions of sin and our own self-reliance.

God’s initiative in our lives is not a pious accessory but takes place deep within our human fear. This marriage promise from God gives light to our human ways. When fear keeps our hearts concealed and in the dark, authentic faith counts us more valuable than the sparrows.

Kim and Charlie’s vows expressed their desire to build their marriage on rock. They replied to the question of Jesus, “Who do you say I am?” They showed the rest of us that God’s call does not come in one occasion. The call of God satisfies us in all stages of life, in all sorrows, in good times and in bad.

I received the vows of Charlie and Kim in the midst of people they loved. My heart was glad as I heard their words of commitment to follow God forever. Words which I now understand bind their earthly desires to heaven’s promises. These words were more than fancy frills from a ritual book but the deep passionate response of a couple who understood their love flows from God.
I believe we must dig deeper into our human experience to sift out the love of God from our fear. Kim and Charlie’s lifetime commitment teaches me that the Trinity is still surprising us, continuing to teach us that love from heaven changes everything on earth. Blest be God, forever.