Ministry and Liturgy Magazine: December 2015 (Last monthly column)

(This is my last monthly column, “Bridge Work,” in Ministry and Liturgy Magazine. I am so grateful for Ada Simpson and Donna Cole for these past ten years.)

On the other side of surrender

I listen to many heartbreaking stories of people who have been sexually abused as children. Most people never heal from their early days of profound hurt. I hear from both men and women that every aspect of their adult lives needs to be negotiated and reexamined in view of the tragedies and crimes that were committed upon them in their youth.

I recently sat with a woman who was given up for adoption because her parents abused her physically and emotionally. She told me that her only child was so disruptive that she seriously wanted to give him away. She pondered abandoning her child as she herself had been abandoned. She reached out to doctors and to me for words of comfort and relief.

Adult women and men, who have experienced betrayal of trust as children, struggle to surrender to life in every matter of relationship, education, work and creativity. To give over oneself to anything in life is not easy when there is little reason to know for sure if that surrender is in a person’s best interest.

This is certainly the case when a person who has been abused in any way tries to pray. I listened recently to a man who has struggled with his sexuality for many years. He cannot trust people to love him because of the negative stereotypes within him that tell him that real love is simply not possible. He finds this obstacle in his life of prayer as well. He is never sure that God will forgive him. He finds it difficult to be generous when the threat of condemnation is always within his heart. He finds surrendering to God nearly impossible because he does not know if love is on the other side of the surrender. He does not know if he will be held in the arms of Jesus’ mercy or the piercing judgment of a vengeful Father. Being vulnerable to rest in God’s love is a lifelong reality for so many people.

I recently spoke with a woman who has struggled with her weight all of her life. Her struggles go back to being abused. She told me that she had just recently joined a gym. She explained that surrendering her body to a male trainer triggered her abuse trauma again. Just the simple act of allowing a man to show her how to exercise opened up for her much emotional pain.

I tell these stories as I pray again with the gospels for the Lenten season. This woman caught in adultery is now being blamed for her life, her sexual sin and her place within the community. There is no account of the man with whom she was involved. She is taken publicly to a circle of condemnation. Jesus ponders the situation and kneels down to write or play in the sand. I cannot help but think he wants to wipe away sin, abusive relationships and our judgments of people from not only the woman but from each one of us as well.

I cannot image how this woman in the circle of judgment could ever surrender to God when all of these men represent religion. I cannot imagine her pain as she stepped into the trap of piercing criticism and ignorant blame. Jesus saves her, he runs after the condemning attitudes of his counterparts. He wants liberation not only for her but also for the men in the circle, as well as for people in every generation. Jesus crouches down and thinks about his role and the beauty of his own surrender to the will of the Father.

The Lenten liturgies challenge us to surrender every aspect of our lives to God. We are called to let go of sin, doubt, shame and the pieces of our past that cast a shadow over our relationships, even with God. This prayerful surrender is not easy for many people. To give away the burdens of pain that weigh us down is never easy no matter who we are or what our childhood patterns have been.

Lent is not just a time to give up candy or not to swear in public, but a radical change in the patterns that hold us down and keep us from love. This surrender is to connect our human stories, even profound abuse and neglect, with the redemptive story and ultimate surrender of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.

We enter the desert during Lent. We walk with the older brother and the prodigal, younger son. We climb up a mountain to witness Jesus’ transfiguration and we wait for God to be patient with us like the fig tree. We all will eventually bear fruit. We all want to live and heal our past hurts on the other side of our surrender.

As liturgists and musicians, we cannot take this Lenten season for granted or think that we just need to get through it. We should bend down with the woman and look over Jesus’ shoulder as he writes in the sand. We must remember that people need these intense days of witness so that surrendering to God will ultimately bring the love of Christ that will set us all free.


Bread and Concrete: Ministry and Liturgy Magazine, December 2015

(This is the tenth and last in the series, Bread and Concrete: Where Liturgy and Ministry Meet. I hope you have enjoyed this year-long series in Ministry and Liturgy Magazine. I want to thank Ada Simpson for publishing this work)

The really big book: The Book of the Gospels

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” Col 3

  The large red and gold gospel book sits straight up on the altar before Mass. When people enter our small chapel the lights are dim. A single light shines down above the altar highlighting the place and purpose of the book. The connection to the holy gospel and the altar of sacrifice is obvious in the simple white light. As the Mass time approaches and the full lights are turned on the upright gospel book becomes a centerpiece of the liturgy.

As the gospel acclamation is sung in our simple space, I normally gasp for air. I become anxious about my role to proclaim the gospel. In my heart, I commend the needs of our community to God as we seek to be in communion with the passion, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. This moment for me is a time to let go of my ego, my own misfortunes and sin as a preacher. I simply ask for the grace to read from the large red book that is the center of our spiritual lives. In this moment I find the deep connections that people long for, even though I may not be able to articulate them on my lips. During this time of drawing our attention to the book, I walk to the altar both with deep hesitation and the compelling belief that my ministry as a preacher is given to me in the absolute poverty of our community.

As I reverence the altar with a bow, I slowly lift up the gospel book with profound love and the inner prayer of my soul so that the community may view this ancient gift. This gesture is not lost on me realizing that later in the same hour I will be standing in that same position holding a simple cup of wine that will become the Blood of Christ. I will hold up before the assembly the small plate of bread that will become the Body of Christ. So in this moment, the written words bound in the red and gold book will become the Word of Christ when I open the pages and proclaim in my voice the stories of salvation in the dying and rising of Christ Jesus.

I approach the small, blond wooden ambo unselfconscious of my actions. If I actually thought for a moment of this immense responsibility, I would not be able to speak or act. I would not be able to have the strength to even put the book down on the stand and open the pages of the ancient text for the designated Sunday. Instead, I commend my voice and actions to God and simply process in love feeling intensely that I need to hear the stories that will also set me free. I need in the worst way to feel part of the mission of the Word that will penetrate the hardness of all of our hearts.

I slowly lower the big book to the ambo under the light that shines now on this place of Christ’s revelation. I adjust the microphone to fit my height and place there even though I know my own voice is what carries the true message. My body has known this routine, this procedure for more than thirty years. My body holds the memory of what to do and my actions become second nature. I do not have to think about how to set up the physical space to ready myself to proclaim the Word. My eyes rest on the congregation. I pause to see every person assembled. I try to fill in the silence after the sung gospel acclamation with purpose. My silence seems to draw people’s attention to the book under this new light. My heart is ready when they are to hear our place again in the grand story.

I clear my throat. Sometimes my voice seems to be an unworthy place for such a story to be told. Sometimes sinus infections and colds cloud the proclamation. Sometimes my voice seems dehydrated from not taking proper care of myself. Sometimes people can hear the fear in my voice when I am not prepared to be standing under the spotlight. I know that my voice will have to do because this is the human instrument that the community has in order to receive the grace in the hidden, written words of love. My voice is the instrument that can potentially bear the grace that can set people free. My voice becomes like the wings of eagles taking the words to peoples’ ears and hearts where people may be transformed from doubt or sin or anxiousness. My voice finds the way beyond the fragility of my own body so that people may find the Word’s fulfillment in their hearing.

I concentrate on the written story by using my left hand to follow each sentence of the page, to keep my place in the text. My eyes straddle the text and the concentration of people’s eyes looking into my direction. My fingers caress the smooth page so that I may remember my duty with meaning and purpose. My entire body remembers my place there, my ministry to bring good news to believers. I desperately want to feel my place at the pulpit at every Eucharist so that I will always remember the meaning of my vocation as a preacher.

After I read the gospel, I lift up the big, red book and proclaim again to the assembly what they have just heard, “The Gospel of the Lord.” Before I set the book down again on the ambo, I kiss the pages with not only my lips but also my intentions for this community wrapped in poverty, illness and disease. The words becoming flesh are holy and alive. I remember the kiss of the altar at the beginning of Mass. My lips will speak the praise of God as I preach the connection of our earthly lives to the promise of new life that has just come out of my mouth. I grasp the book for dear life. I hold on and I dare not let go. I put down the book rather relieved; the grace is released from the cage of the pages one more time. Now it is up to God to do the work and my role, as preacher is to point us all into that direction.

I walk down two steps of the dark wooden sanctuary to the grey concrete floor where the people have been standing attentively listening to the story of Jesus. I am now on their level with the purpose of opening up the scriptures so they may deepen their faith and that God may heal their wounds. I am grateful we are now all on the same level, the place of common grace.

I usually begin the homily standing in the center aisle of the congregation. I pause, glance down to the concrete floor. I then look into peoples’ eyes. This silence draws people together. This simple mechanism of allowing the space for people to hear has become quite effective. I sense my deep responsibility on the concrete floor because we are all together. There is no turning back; I have to bring the good news to them in ways in which they will connect. This means I always need to be on the same ground as they are, acknowledging my poverty, being in need of God, love and communion.

People come to Mass in order to listen to these holy words of God. They arrive having listened to other words from other books. College students enter our community learning from books of the business world or the private matters of psychology. They sit in our pews as scientists or engineers or students who want to make a difference by reading volumes of American literature or volumes about global injustice. They want to find their true voices and their authentic gifts here among people praying in poverty.

Some people pray here after paging through magazines of pornography. The text message archives of Saturday night tell certain stories of infidelity and longing. Other people sort through the pages of files from tax attorneys and divorce lawyers. Volumes of paperwork become a daily source of making a living or applying for an identification card for someone who is homeless. Many words and books, papers and files that fill our lives during the course of the week. We try to make sense out of the Word of God on Sunday morning.

Other people have been reading the “Big Book” from Alcoholics Anonymous during the week. They have been trying to absorb the message to admit a higher power greater than them selves. They struggle to live beyond the blindness of denial. They try to do the deeds of recovery, the actions required to live one sober day at a time. They long for a way out of the lies that have brought them to this point. People want to make sense out of their patterns of suffering and their addicted pasts. They gather here in our chapel on Sunday searching for new words and insights, hopes and inspirations from a book that is even bigger than the “Big Book” from AA.

On Wednesday evenings, a group of women gather to ponder the message of the “Big Book.” They gather from wealthy suburbs and from the women’s shelter a block away. Some of the women gather because they are trying to remain Catholic on their road to sobriety while others are hardly aware that the community that maintains the space and welcomes them in is one of faith and service. I do not know firsthand what happens in this meeting for women only. However, I am aware of the horrific physical, emotional and sexual abuse so many women have been through to get to this point of recovery. These women model in secret for me how to turn from words of putdowns, torture, prostitution and abuse to finding new words of holiness in a circle of shared stories and not drinking alcohol. I bring these women to mind when I read the words of hope for us all on Sunday mornings.

We are all formed and challenged by the gospel book that has floated in procession from the altar to the ambo. I begin the homily sorting through the words that people have spoken to me during the week and the call to find our purpose in Christ Jesus. As I take a deep breath, I begin to preach.

I believe now more than ever that gospel stories become communion. The stories are the real presence of Christ Jesus when vocalized, proclaimed, listened to and taken to heart. These stories shed a new light on our own life stories. Our stories connect in the common story of Christ’s resurrection. Communion becomes a life of sharing, of unity and of common hope. Communion is unity with the Risen Savior and our home in the Kingdom of God. This unity begins by how we love and support all who are lost, forgotten and marginalized and being vulnerable enough to share our own life stories.

Most people are looking for a different way to interpret their life journey. My years of experience teach me that many people do not like themselves. They hold within them the uncertainty of their commitments and guilt about past actions or roads not taken. If the Roman Catholic Church could do only one thing in our lives, I pray to God that we could heal the reasons why so many people hate themselves. This would be real evangelization; this would be real faith and freedom for people no matter where they live in our society. This uncertainty opens us to the reality that grace is now, and available today to change our lives and the paths we take in the future. This is a key in my ministry as a preacher. My experiences among people in poverty teach me that Jesus writes secretly in the sand for us all, forgiving past accusations, and he calls us beyond our lives of sin and doubt.

Preaching connects people’s stories to the miracles of Jesus’ healing and the call to faithful discipleship. Preaching in the aisles of our community is simply an invitation to such a life of love. However, I cannot change people or heal their abuse or give them a new fidelity in relationships. I cannot provide housing for people living outside when I preach. I cannot redirect their negative self-talk about their drug abuse. I cannot move them from their infidelity in marriage and I cannot teach them to pray. I can only offer the invitation that God is working in ways we least expect.

On our concrete floor, I learn a deeper spirituality of preaching. Preaching among people in poverty must convey honesty and integrity. There is no pretending or pious language that will satisfy the soul of an addict or unburden the life of someone surviving generational poverty. I must know people’s stories and struggles and I must receive the love God has for me. My words as a preacher will be flimsy, empty and worthless without this communion of people and love.

All of my advanced degrees, studies and poring through theological textbooks mean nothing if I do not find my words from the Gospel book and the real life texts of people’s concerns. My life here as a preacher must convey that I, too, find my true life deep among the pages of scriptures and that I am willing to change my old ways.

The words that I use come from the heart-wrenching stories of people that touch my life. They teach me to turn to God because I do not know where else to go with their pain. The tragedies of sin, loss, failure and disease increase my silent fidelity so that my words will not be fake or trite when I preach in the center aisle.

I preach to give voice to hidden experiences that people think set them apart in failure or condemnation. My teachers here show me the dark and hidden life of how depression changes people’s perspectives on every aspect of life. These teachers show me what it means to go from doctor to doctor trying to discover a balance of medications that will give some stability to daily life. I hear the struggles of patients when so many healthcare professionals do not have the answers that will heal their conditions either.

I preach to offer such communion when we continue to judge people and set people apart. People with mental and physical disabilities are still blamed for their diseases by so many other people even after so many generations have past since the time of Jesus. People even in our generation are looking for a place to belong and to be relieved of negative judgments and bullying. So often people gather in our pews because the words they experience in daily life keep them from faith, from relying on the fact that the Word of God is flesh for them. So many people who experience abuse believe the abuse is their fault. The same is true for people living with depression or other forms of mental illness. They absorb into their weakened bodies and exhausted minds the blame others put on them. Affirmation, forgiveness and new life are really possible for all people today, for all who listen to the words from the really big book on the ambo.

People come to our parish community searching for physical safety during the week in our hospitality center. This physical safety is very important. People want to belong, to get food and clothing, haircuts and shoes. However, what I realize as I stand on the concrete floor in our worship space is that people are sitting in front of me also searching for emotional safety. People want to be safe for an hour, to pray, to think and to be together. This counters their lives on the violent streets, in shelters or other violent places of bad marriages or being diagnosed with long-term disease. The words from the really big book also convey a place of emotional safety as they are proclaimed during the Eucharist.

One of the more important aspects of preaching among people in poverty is that I too, must rely on the Holy Spirit. I preach in church as other people live daily life, trying to find daily bread, shelter and friends. I seldom know the words that I will use to connect the experience of people in front of me with the words of scripture. I rely on the working of the Spirit as I see people’s expressions and look in to their eyes even at a distance. I am given what I need.

This is certainly not how I was taught to preach from reading many books and articles. This preparation for preaching the Word of God was not how I was taught from the professors of homiletics who lectured me in the classroom. However, here on the concrete floor of our worship space where people pray in raw need, a new reliance on God floods my soul. My words are given to me as I experience the profound reliance on faith from people sitting in the pews. This moment of insight changes my life as a preacher and shows me how to rely more profoundly on God’s grace that floods our chapel after the gospel proclamation.

My homily preparation comes from sitting quietly with the stories from the gospel book as well as listening to the stories of people who struggle to find what they need in life. This is where communion occurs, where insight finds a home in the center aisle and where the scriptures become sacred and forgiving, where the Holy Spirit stirs up consolation and hope for people.

I am keenly aware that the Word of God is pure nourishment and absolute miracle. There are days when I grow weary about any new form of evangelization or reform of the liturgy itself. I admit that new forms sometimes get in the way of grace. We sometimes think as Church leaders that new forms will do the work that we do not want to do for other people. The Word of God from this big book stands on its own. I do not have to push it or pull it or soften it or counter it to make grace appear. This grace from the Word revitalizes no matter what I do or the ministry we offer as a Church.

I remember Holy Thursday morning a few years ago. I was reflecting with a friend that all seemed lost on that particular day. A young man from our community called and was totally trashed from drugs again. His youthful body cannot hold up to drugs, booze, sex addiction and AIDS. Under all the addictions, he wants God more than anything. I keep his desire within in my own heart. He needs something even greater than the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.

I wish leaders of the Church could know this addicted man because they would realize that the gospels work in their own time. Our leaders would be a lot more patient with forms and formulas of evangelization or liturgy or religious education or the future of priesthood if they knew more people like him. They would come to know that the really big book, the ancient gospels, take time and patience, that reform is not always easy or instant or clean and tidy.

On that Holy Thursday my friend was crawling out of his skin. However, he teaches the rest of us in parishes all over the country that we really need God to emerge from the depths of the Word, not just once but over and over again in our lives. I really need communion and consolation from the Word and so does my sick friend. On some Holy Thursdays, I know deep within my spirit that all the tools I need to evangelize the lost come from my friendship with people who are completed loaded and even fear dying during the Triduum. The rest of us will be on our knees in prayer during the night on Holy Thursday and into morning daylight.



Last issue of Ministry and Liturgy Magazine, December 2015

After 42 years of publication, Ministry and Liturgy Magazine has come to an end. I am deeply honored to have been part of this pastoral publication for eleven years. The cover of the last issue is an image of the crucifixion that I painted a few months ago. So in this last issue, I have two articles and the cover image. I will post the articles in a few days. I want to thank Ada Simpson and Donna Cole for publishing my articles and affirming my years of ministry.

Last cover of Ministry and Liturgy magazine, Dec 2015

Last cover of Ministry and Liturgy magazine, Dec 2015

Here is the photo of my painting that I submitted:

"Crucifixion" by Ronald Raab, CSC 2015

“Crucifixion” by Ronald Raab, CSC 2015

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

(Bread and Concrete: Where Liturgy and Ministry Meet, Part 9)

Unlikely voices

“The Lord God has given me a well-trained tongue,

that I may know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.” Isaiah 50

 Our lectors proclaim the Word of God with intention and beauty. The physical voices of our parishioners vary as much as their personalities. A voice of a young woman who recently was baptized is soft and rather insecure as she finds her home in our parish. The voice of a seasoned lector is raspy and gravely because of years of smoking and drinking alcohol. A voice of a middle-aged man seems shaky and uncertain stemming from his recent years of sobriety and still questioning faith. Most voices are strong, clear and demand attention from every person in the assembly. A recent college graduate reads from a voice that reflects her professional vocal training. An elderly man reads with the compassion found in years of contemplative prayer working through his divorce from his early adult life.

People in our assembly need to trust the voice they hear proclaiming the scriptures. The voices that bring these texts to life necessitate reassurance and gentleness. The voices need be authentic if the scriptures are going to be a sign of the Kingdom of God. These often-fragile voices that proclaim the scriptures in the ambo are an antidote to the many voices that have stripped people of their dignity in the past. These voices heal the profane voices that demean or offend. These voices can help counter the whistles of degradation many women experience on the streets. These voices must balance the voice that yells and screams at them from an abusive spouse. These voices of integrity mend the memories when a voice of a husband says he is leaving the family. These voices need to offer solace when memories of the voices of loved ones who have died rise up in sorrow.

I also notice that our lectors are challenged to trust their own voice, their place in the ministry of the Church. Our lectors are formed with a sense of ownership and awareness as they enter the sanctuary. I tell them that they need to own their stance, their place on the wooden sanctuary. They are reminded to find their true human voice as they open their mouths and allow the Word of God to flow through them. They are called to trust their life experience and be open to the way God is forming them for the future.

I listen attentively to the readings from scripture when I preside at Mass. However, sometimes I am distracted because of the person reading those sacred words. My mind goes to the life stories I hear from our lectors and from the people who long to hear the healing words. These life stories and patterns of behavior are the place where God speaks to our community. The mending of broken lives or the long-term beauty of a life of recovery comes into focus in the face of the lector. The Word of God is alive in the person who proclaims the sacred Hebrew texts or the letters to ancient communities.

An older parishioner wearing jeans approaches the ambo with profound gentleness. Her oversized shirts and sandals disguise her beauty, the place in her heart where she confronts the Word of God on a daily basis. She proclaims the sacred texts in our parish community because she grapples with the horrific words that were yelled at her as a young girl. She did more than trip over some bad words spoken again and again by her parents. She became spiritually maimed by the abuse. The verbal abuse was like nails within her heart. The fierce pounding of verbal abuse caused her to disassociate from the world around her. She then began to hear voices that saved her and protected her even when her body was covered with feces and urine while she was locked up in a closet. The sound of these inner voices actually protected her in her youth and she has spent the many years of her adult life trying to learn a new language of love and forgiveness.

She now proclaims the Word with great love because she has finally realized in her long recovery from bad words that she does not have to heal herself. This is an insight that has changed my own life profoundly. Since she has been able to be in our worshipping assembly and to take the time she needs to heal, she comes to the holy realization that God is working in and through her. I cannot express how her insight has touched me and how beautiful I see her life now that she can use words to describe her healing as she begins to shatter the tortuous words of abuse in her life.

When she approaches the altar of the Word, she is a miracle in blue jeans, a sacred text in flannel and a hope to us who listen now that ancient texts come alive. I believe in the words of God that the race to holiness is long and the path arduous. Nothing is more important than the power of Christ Jesus working in and through us.

I watch as the words she speaks to our congregation scatter about the chapel. I pray that some of them will land on the heart of a young woman whose two children were just taken from her. She has battled the disease of addiction and at the present she is not winning the war. Her children’s lives are empty and confused. The children feel abandoned and they carry the same anger that she feels in her life. This rage is being birthed in a new generation of her children.

The Liturgy of the Word is alive in the dialogue of lectors proclaiming ancient writings and people listening even with one deaf ear. The Holy Spirit is here now, today in the voices of people who proclaim the scriptures with wounded hearts and scratchy voices. The Word works through these barriers and opens up the possibilities that all the words that weigh people down can be lifted up, released and even transformed. The Word of God is proclaimed in the liturgy not as a task or a rubric. The holy and ancient stories are revealed again because people today need God. They need to heal the scars of the past where words set off terror, frustration and fear in their lives. God’s words have the potential to change lives, reorient priorities and open up relationships.

The Liturgy of the Word can never be diminished or taken for granted. This powerful tool for conversion is really invisible to our comprehension. We can never fully know the amazing and grace-filled ways God is speaking to people. We must stand in awe hearing the miracle of faith-filled voices proclaim the Word and keep our attention on the miracles that we hope will set people free. In the Word, we know that God is in charge of converting hardened hearts among us all in every worshipping community.

I beg God and often scream out in my prayer to change the horrific situations that people face every day. Poverty of Spirit makes a home in every heart. I want the lost to hear the Shepherd’s voice. I want this more than anything in my priesthood. This poverty is not confined to one small community in Portland. The Liturgy of the Word becomes a vital instrument for faith and salvation especially when we become aware of the dire needs of our assembly. No matter how we want to bring the message of Christ alive in our assemblies, God is speaking volumes to people well beyond our illusion of control. I ponder at every Eucharist the miracles of healing for those who hear the Word. At least I want God to know and understand from my own complaining and screaming that the Holy Spirit better get to work. All of our efforts to evangelize in our Church today must be rooted in the Word and understood by every believer that we are not in control of God’s mercy or in control of how people will interpret the love that is given them.

Some years ago at a Saturday morning retreat for Lectors, I asked the members of the group to name their experiences reading the Word of God in our parish community. The first person to speak was Sean. In a soft, shaky voice he told us that he had been a lector since being received into the Church at the Easter Vigil. I noticed beneath his voice that seemed uncertain, a depth and richness was evident. He told us that every night he reads the scriptures by candlelight in his tent in the woods. Sean has been homeless for many years, suffering from anxiety and depression since losing his parents. He has not been able to hold down a job or to keep an apartment.

He told us that he wanted to be a lector because when he reads Psalm 91, God promises to keep harm from his tent. With a pause and a deep breath, he told us that he hoped by reading the scriptures at Mass that God would keep harm from everyone’s tents. We received the love he intended for us. We all sat there in grateful silence, unable to respond to such a gift from a loving and caring man and a faith-filled lector in our parish community.

In that same session, a woman in our community began by telling us how angry she used to be about the diminished acceptance of women among many parish communities. She told us that when she comes here to stand up and read the scriptures that her concerns about herself simply melt away. She is now so aware that people come to Mass needing clean underwear and socks. People are alone and addicted. People are so ill that they run around our neighborhood half naked in the cold rain because they are unable to care for themselves. When she lectors now, she reads from the desire of real communion, the moment when women and men, rich and poor may hear and be one within our Church institution.

The next gentleman spoke about being a gay man in the Church. He continued the woman’s insights about being here among people surviving poverty and worshipping among the marginalized. His life is not burdened by debt. He is housed and employed and people respect his talents and his many advanced degrees. When he stands up to proceed to the ambo, he is filled with gratitude to be able to proclaim the healing Word of God in a setting that so needs a new understanding of life. The Word of God is a place to bear the loneliness of so many people no matter how much money we possess.

Another woman who suffers from mental illness and lectors at our daily Mass told us that when she stands at the ambo to proclaim the Word in our assembly, she remembers the people of the past. She feels the long line of believers who have read the scriptures and told the stories of Christ since the beginning. She feels propped up from the grace that has made people strong in their unbelief. She wants so desperately to be a person worthy enough to keep the lineage going. She wants to be out front only from the whispers of past believers who help her pronounce the names of ancient cities and places. She holds the book knowing that it has been passed down to her, in this place and time, in her heart and soul. The lectionary holds for her the healing she hopes for in her life and the message of freedom that she wants the assembly to understand.

Another lector spoke of how nervous she feels while reading at Mass. Even though she speaks to groups in her workplace, she still finds her breath shallow while holding on to the ambo. She is nervous because she is so aware of how much people need God here. She does not want to filter the grace given or be in the way of God trying to reveal love among us here. She hopes that she will settle into being a lector since she herself was received into the Church recently. She also knows that she speaks from her alcoholism. She reads so that others who cling to God an hour at a time might find in her presence and in her voice a kindred spirit. She reads with profound clarity and intention, grasping the saving stories that will set us free and keep us from harm.

Lectors remind us that the Word of God is here among us, being spoken by unexpected voices and heard among believers who need healing. These voices help us build community from the ministry of the sanctuary and the lives of prayer from people who are searching desperately for a new voice of love.




Ministry and Liturgy Magazine: October 2015

My monthly column called “Bridgework”. This column for October is titled, “Camouflage Christmas”

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Camouflage Christmas

We celebrated five Masses on Christmas Eve in my first year at Sacred Heart Church (Tri-Community) in Colorado Springs. I remember well that my heart carried much grief that first Christmas after leaving downtown Portland where I was part of a community that cared for people living on the streets and who suffer from mental illness and long-term addictions. I left behind something very familiar where I witnessed every day the miracles of hope being born in such poverty.

I welcomed parishioners and visitors into the simple stucco church of Sacred Heart that night. I extended my hand in welcome and I am sure people felt in my handshake the shivering grief of loss that night. The crowds at each Mass seemed overwhelming to me because I was visualizing the contrast of a small group of folks gathering in the urban chapel in Portland. I was not sure why people came to our church on Christmas Eve, what they were expecting from God and me. I was not sure of how to speak about such a mystery to families. I was at a loss to make God real for people who gather one night a year with profound cultural expectations about Christmas.

Just before the third Mass of the evening at Sacred Heart, I took my post at the door. I noticed an older gentleman walk up the steps of the entrance. His wife wearing an oversized wool coat was slow to take the stairs and remained tightly next to her husband’s side. I extended my hand to him and he politely received my greeting. I welcomed his wife but she did not respond. The husband quickly took her hand and led her into the church.

I stared at the couple and I realized that the woman wrapped in wool was suffering from some form of dementia. The husband’s quick gesture to take her hand was his way of not only keeping her safe but also his way of keeping her illness a secret or at bay for at least one more Christmas Eve. I felt my heart open as I realized that these people coming to Eucharist on Christmas Eve are no different from any community. We are all suffering on such a silent night with deep expectations that life, family and even our bodies are to be perfect given society’s expectations about what Christmas means.

On that Christmas Eve in my new role as pastor, I realized that suffering on Christmas Eve is so often camouflaged. Family relationships are tender and hidden behind the exhausted faces of parents. The loss of family life for the elderly is so veiled behind the quiet presence of grandparents in the second pew. On Christmas Eve, young parents cover their anger about the fact that their marriage may not survive another year.

As I ponder the gospels of the Christmas season, I am aware again that Jesus is born in camouflage among people who did not have room for him. Among the animals during the nighttime, the Savior brought hope. Jesus still runs after the lost, the forsaken and hope abounds when we finally become aware that God is among us for real. Even when we try to hide our human needs, God breaks through our lonely hearts. Christmas is for those who believe that they cannot make it through one more night in pain.

The shepherds got word that God was born in the camouflage of straw and darkness. Even Kings followed a star to find their way through the darkness where another King was born among people in poverty. Our Savior still makes his home among those bundled in wool to protect themselves from the cold and the exposure of their disease. Jesus even strips us of our grief when we finally trust again that we cannot control the past or fix people in the present.

Mary the Mother of God models for us a life of fidelity and it is at Christmas that we all wish we could make our home in the mercy of her Son. Mary helps us all become aware that love abounds in the limitless mercy of God. I want Mary to hold the hands of those whose bodies are growing weaker and whose lives are shattered by disbelief that God could be born in their pain.

On Christmas Eve, my desire is for all ministers of the Eucharist to know that God’s mercy is revealed among the lost, the lonely and weak. There is no hiding from the God who desires to be among the fray. Our ministries must help people find their way up stairs of our churches and into the rituals that will expose love among them.

On Christmas Eve, the Mass is more that gold cups, elaborate decorations and perfect music. On this night we help unveil the mystery that is often camouflaged among the poinsettias and artificial trees. Our ministry especially on Christmas Eve is not a performance of perfection, but a rich and deep belief that God is being revealed among the quiet desperation of people who struggle to make it up the stairs of our churches.

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.

Ministry and Liturgy Magazine: “Advent: unplanned presence”

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(From the September, 2015 issue of Ministry and Liturgy Magazine, my monthly column, “Bridge Work”)

Advent: unplanned presence

I have moved ten times in over thirty-two years as a priest, crisscrossing the country from place to place. Each transition brings me great grief about leaving behind significant relationships and opportunities for ministry. After letting go of one ministry in a certain geographical area, I usually wake up one day in the next place and realize the people and situations that eluded my focus in the past few years. I regret not paying more attention in the moment, in the place of ministry and among the people with whom I pray and work.

With every new assignment, I learn to carry fewer possessions. Even though my relationships continuously change and I want to cling to my “stuff”, I let go of what weighs me down. I focus more clearly on what I possess within my own heart, my own relationship with God. I learn to trust more in times of transition even though my first reaction is usually fear.

I usually do not put all the pieces of opportunities and friendships together until I have actually left a ministry setting. Hindsight teaches me real love for people when I finally pull up stakes. Transitions are never easy.

However, starting again always brings unplanned grace. Unpacking my bags and opening my heart in a new parish takes time, patience and my full attention. I usually spend the first few months living in fear and wondering whether or not my gifts and talents will be wanted or accepted among the next group of people. My planned fears have always melted away into moments of unplanned grace in each encounter and relationship in ministry.

I reflect again on these transitions as we begin our new liturgical year in Advent. As I ponder the first birth of Christ, I realize that Mary’s pregnancy was unplanned. Mary’s unexpected pregnancy brought great fear and even threatened the future of Mary and Joseph’ plans for marriage. The presence of Christ even in the womb threatened people, caused them to adjust to a new way of thinking, and ultimately called everyone involved to trust more deeply into the call God had for each one of them. This unplanned presence of Christ was made flesh when Jesus was born on the margins of a village in a animals’ shelter in the nighttime.

From these Advent gospels, we are now called to prepare ourselves for the unexpected second coming of Christ. In this ultimate transition, people will die of fright in the anticipation of what is coming into the world. The powers of heaven will be shaken. We are to wake up and not let our hearts become drowsy from the anxieties of earthly life and in our daily routines. This unexpected presence of Christ will catch us in our complacency and uproot us from our most intimate relationships, our most valued of all possessions.

John the Baptist cries out in full trust in behalf of the Kingdom of God. He shreds our notions that we are to cling to anything on earth. He yanks us out of our daily illusions and shakes us from our notions that we are to rely only on ourselves. John challenges us to live our lives ready for the ultimate transition of Christ’s second coming.

In these Advent days, we are challenged as ministers to cultivate a new desire for God within our assemblies. This challenge becomes more countercultural during these months when we naturally turn to our human families in love. We often believe that these relationships are all that we need. We also cling tightly to our possessions for ultimate satisfaction.

However, this is the time of year that we must articulate even more the presence of Christ in people who fear their families of origin, or people who have not been accepted by them, or even abused by those they love. We are to wake people up to those who wait at our country’s border for housing, employment, and safety. We are to open people’s eyes to our own children who walk the streets at night searching for drugs, waiting for acceptance as they sell their bodies. We are to wait with people who sit at the bedsides of their family members who are ill and afraid of the nighttime.

We are to crouch down and care for our neighbors who sleep on our sidewalks or in the doorways of our churches. We are to befriend and listen to our teenagers with blue hair and with their new piercings. We desperately need to wake people up, to remind them that we are always in transition. We need let go of our beliefs that life should always be secure and lived according to our own plans. We need to call people back to an ultimate trust in God and to loosen their grasp on their own riches and their stockpiled reliance on human ways.

Advent challenges us to always live in transition. However, these transitions help us open our eyes to the ways Christ is revealing hope, love and salvation among us. These transitions also help us to really see people who are different from ourselves. We celebrate Advent by reflecting on our ultimate transition from our earthly cares into our reliance on Christ’s real presence leading us into the Kingdom of God.

Ministry and Liturgy Magazine: August 2015

Ministry and Liturgy Magazine: August 2015

Ministry and Liturgy Magazine: August 2015

(This is my regular column, “Bridgework” for August, 2015 in Ministry and Liturgy Magazine)

In the name of death

In my first year as pastor in my present assignment, our parish community celebrated fifty funerals. I remember one funeral where only four people were present and yet the power of our ritual spoke so beautifully even among the empty pews. At another funeral, the sister of the deceased came to the parish carrying the cremated remains of her brother in a cardboard box. I slid my key along the masking tape of the box thinking that there was a container inside holding the ashes. I pried open the cardboard box and discovered the ashes were contained in a clear plastic bag.

At one rather large funeral, a son told the story of his father’s hands tucking him in bed as a child. As an adult, the son held his father’s hand while he was on his deathbed. The years in between the son’s childhood and the father’s death were cold and distant. The unnamed emotions between the child and the father seemed to hover over the congregation that day.

I also celebrated a funeral of a man who shot himself in his home. For many decades he faced the emotional patterns of highs and lows. He tried desperately to hide this pattern from the public. However, the emotional tide of depression overcame him and finally took his life.

People jammed into the church to honor him. Nearly another two hundred people waited outside. I tried my best to name the issues, the darkness he faced and our hope in Christ Jesus for all of us who remain. I kept coming back to the phrase in my own mind that there is no depression in the face of Jesus. The depression was not his fault. The suicide was not his fault. We cannot blame anyone who has a disease that sweeps us off the earth. Staring now into the face of Jesus, there is no depression for this man who left behind his mother, wife and children.

These human stories help form our faith. Each of these funeral liturgies teaches me that this grand mystery of death cannot be denied. Death is real and we must celebrate each person’s death with honesty and integrity. We must have the courage to tell the truth at funerals and share the honest stories at wake services. Death is not hidden among the flower arrangements nor can we pretend it does not exist by ignoring the details of the story so not to embarrass the living.

As so many families drift away from the rituals of the Church, the name “death” is also getting a facelift. People prefer to ignore the name of death altogether. “A celebration of life” has replaced the funeral. Funeral homes have removed the name, “chapel” from their signage. These interior spaces are just called “gathering” rooms. So many families just do not want anything that names the reality of death or the traditional rituals that surround the end of life.

The Solemnity of All Saints and The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed or All Souls becomes an opportunity to help form our parish communities to face death. As Christians, we believe that death leads us to the face of God. We are called to acknowledge the truth of death because it leads to our eternal home. Those who believed in God on earth now teach us how to live in our passing world in faith and even joy. Our saints of the past are key to helping people in our communities tell the truth about death. These liturgies help us all believe that our loved ones are still in communion with us even in eternal life.

As parish leaders and liturgists, we are challenged to bring the reality of death back into the experience of our worshipping communities. We can welcome our parishioners to parish funerals, using our Facebook page, websites or other forms of social media and invite families to pray for the deceased during family dinners and other times of prayer. We are called to welcome families of the deceased even if they do not belong to the parish. We need to break down the notion that funerals are private events in our churches.

Isolating the community from our celebrations of death is never healthy for our children and families. Celebrating a funeral is an opportunity to involve our children in creating notes or cards of sympathy for bereaved families. Prayer becomes the opportunity for each member of the parish to connect with the reality of death. If we do not bring our communities into the reality of death, our denial becomes more devastating to families and communities than death itself.

The beauty of all fifty funerals we celebrated in my first year at the parish is that each human story of death teaches me how to live. I surrender each day to the reality of life instead of focusing on how I think life should be. Death helps me believe that grace guides each human life here on earth and I am filled with gratitude. The real name of death lives in our lives as believers in the passion, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.




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

(This is the sixth in the ten-part series of Bread and Concrete: Where Liturgy and Ministry Meet from Ministry and Liturgy Magazine, August 2015)

Voicing the silent prayer of sojourners

“Truly, I have set my soul in tranquility and silence.” Ps 131

 One of the greatest obstacles for our evangelizing efforts in our Church today is to break through the sound clutter of people’s lives. Silence is becoming a lost art. A woman who works among marginalized youth and at-risk teens recently told me that one of her greatest fears for our younger generation is “madness.” She explained that so many young people have no experience of silence. Their lives are lived outside of themselves, not relying on conscience or inner reflection. Their time is taken by technology and their days are completely programmed by parents and teachers impatient about making sure they have all the skills to get to college. She explained that conscience is waning in many of our teenagers. For many, their inner ability to make decisions is being lost and happiness is eluding many teens today. Silence within the liturgy today might very well become the most beautiful and artful evangelizing tool we possess for outreach to people’s suffering, loss and insecurities. Silence is a holy and ancient gift of evangelization and worship, of personal prayer and satisfaction for us in our generation.

I also realize that people whom the Church is trying to reach also feel they have no voice in society and within the Church. Our efforts to reach so many people in our desires for people to know God are somehow lost on many people. We need to recapture the gift of silence but first we need to listen to people with acute awareness and love.

I continue the liturgy by inviting the assembly to pray before reading the Collect. Silence follows. Within those few sacred moments of silence, we are all called to offer our lives once again to God. We are to ready our newly absolved souls to again stand together in prayer and to eat together. Most people do not realize that when I invite people into prayer and become silent – that God is initiating prayer within their silent yearning. The words I speak in the Collect are to be on their behalf, from their broken lives and sincere circumstances. The written words are spoken to break through the silence and to literally collect the prayers of the people and offer them to God.

I pay close attention to this holy exchange of silence and words. These are the moments we live out in the liturgy when Jesus immersed himself in silent prayer to the Father’s will and then entered into people’s suffering fully, lovingly and without judgment. I do not take this dialogue for granted within the liturgy, especially with people who suffer severe depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness.

People need time to absorb and comprehend spoken words, sacred gestures and holy actions. I have learned in my time at the parish that I need to preside in a gentle and holy pace; a holy rhythm of silence, speaking, gestures, and actions within the liturgy itself. People with emotional disabilities often become agitated when the pace of our common prayer is impulsive, quick or inconsistent. This has taken time for me to understand as people react to my calming voice in prayer and the pace that I set as a celebrant and homilist.

These initial moments of silence also signify to people that what we are about to enter into as a community is important. From our common silence we need to listen together to words that form us into becoming a better community, a people of love and understanding. Silence also gives people time to make a transition from the stressful, hectic week and challenges of daily life into Sunday prayer.

Most people do not have adequate moments of silence within their lives to encounter their own suffering or stirrings of God’s actions within their lives. Many people feel robbed of reflective moments living lives that are chaotic, challenging and sometimes even brutal just in order to survive another day. So many people do not want to face the reality of their decisions, their relationships, their job loss or ill health, so they will flee silence altogether. This silence in the Mass speaks to the silence that people are missing all during the week. Silence can be a refreshing moment of integrity and anticipation of what is to come within the liturgy. These moments prepare the heart for love.

I hear this dialogue of silence and response when an autistic child throws a tantrum and his mother stands by. When the child stops and lies quietly on the floor, there is sacred moment of silence, a quiet, before the mother speaks tender words of consolation.

I hear this dialogue again at the breakfast table when an elderly grandfather reviews again his options for cancer treatment and his wife sits next to him holding his hand. When he breaks down in tears out of his fear of dying, his wife of so many years speaks tender and reassuring words from the familiar silence of fidelity.

This sacred dialogue happens when a young man waits for a response from his beloved a response to his question about marriage. This is the silence when a young high school student finally makes a decision about college and stands at the dinner table waiting to open her acceptance letter or email with his family. This holy engagement can also be heard in the silence of a family gathered in the intensive care unit of the hospital waiting to hear the news of grandmother’s last breath.

I try to wait in silence for people to settle into the calm. So often the silence is brittle. It cracks open so easily from a cough in the first pew or feisty child near the door. One kneeler slamming to the floor or one impatient priest may shorten the feeling of grace in our common silence. The pause for prayer is a holy moment. We all come to realize that God has already given us the grace to be present at the Eucharist. Prayer comes from God’s initiative toward his people.

As I lift my arms in prayer to read the collect, I feel the vulnerability of this gesture. This is the first moment of facing the congregation in a ritual of dialogue and prayer with the assembly and God. I feel the responsibility of standing at the chair, the place were Christ has promised us he would also be. I understand this assurance especially on days when I am most distracted by my own life or tormented by the circumstances of the people in front of me. In this moment I become more than a role, I am the caretaker of people’s prayer, the intercessor for people who live in pain, doubt and suffering. This is not just my job on Sundays or at noon on weekdays; this is my vocation to intercede for people who wait for life to change.

I lift my arms and feel my chest open up. The angst I feel in my body settles around my heart and my sternum opens as my arms extend beyond my torso. I am also very conscious that my palms are lifted up. I do so because I do not want to cling to anything that will keep people’s prayer from being received by God. My open hands are signs to me that I am also ready for change, ready to be molded by the fire of prayer and compelled into a new fidelity of living the gospel among people in poverty. My hands extend beyond my heart in gratitude.

I realize praying the collect out loud that our silence is bundled together in the written text of the liturgy. The words act as a holy offering to God. We all stand with Christ Jesus offering our human poverty back to the Father. This is our posture of prayer within the entire liturgy. We bundle our silence like the wheat at the harvest. Our offering begins in our grateful souls and from people desiring healing, forgiveness and new life.

People respond aloud with an “Amen”. This accolade is the recognition that their prayer is part of the offering; the Father will hear that what was silently shared. This response is our assertion that God receives the offering of loneliness, sinfulness and questions about the future. This response comes in strength and healing grace for every person in the assembly.

I sit down with the quiet assurance that we are all ready to hear the sacred Word of God. I feel relief that our family story will be told one more time. Our community will become closer as the passages of Scripture from our common story are proclaimed to us. We sit together now with a deeper attentiveness, waiting for God to break through the patterns of our daily lives. We long to become a home for the Word of God.



Ministry and Liturgy Magazine: May 2015

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(This is from my regular column, “Bridge Work” from the May issue of Ministry and Liturgy Magazine, May 2015)

Unlocking mercy

Last year I was called to the hospital to anoint a woman dying of cancer. The chaplain informed me over the phone while I was still in my office that the patient was also a prisoner. He explained that an officer would be at her side and that my presence was already approved to pray with her.

When I arrived at the door of her hospital room, I knocked lightly. I entered and the woman was in bed near the door. A heavy-set officer sat on the other side of her bed, just a couple of feet away. I bent down at her bedside and she immediately began speaking about her faith. She told me how much she believed in God and she prayed for her many children and grandchildren. Her eyes sparkled from the depths of her profound faith embracing her cancer. Her skin seemed thin, her arms and hands revealing her many tattoos.

As I bent down and slowly opened the container of oil, my eyes caught the handcuffs dangling from the officer’s belt. The more I tried to focus on the intimacy of the moment and the profound outreach to her ailing body, I could not help but have one eye on the handcuffs that were reminding her of the earthly ties that still bound her. The more I spoke with her and prayed with her, the more I felt that she was one of the most spiritually free people I had met in a long while.

This image of the handcuffs and the anointing remains with me. We all seek the freedom of God’s love for us and yet we are all bound on earth by our past decisions, our human choices and our lives that have not turned out as we had planned. This is the place where Jesus is, for he runs toward our pain and our lack of freedom. Jesus will unlock the chains of our pain and our earthly sin.

As I reflect on the gospels beginning from the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary time, I know within my heart, this bedside is the place of the Shepherd’s care. These are the people whom Jesus longs to hold, to heal and to forgive. This is the bedside of liberation and love. This is the bedside of mercy. As my years of experience creep up on me, I surrender to such mercy because I do not have any other answers that will set people free.

We all must be spiritually free in our ministry within the Church to offer the Good Shepherd’s mercy. Sometimes I notice a competition among our local parishes. I notice this rivalry within one parish to become more “catholic” than the liturgists in the next parish. One parish may more strictly follow the laws of Church teaching and adhere to the rubrics of liturgical rituals more rigorously than the people in other parishes, although in truth there is no perfect scorecard. I witness in many parishes God’s mercy being offered only after people start living the truth of Church teaching. I hear often from ministers that people need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps so they may fit into the truth of Christ’s presence within the Church. I fear that God’s mercy is melting into the notion that we must first save ourselves. This temptation handcuffs God’s love for God’s beloved in our world.

We do not dispense God’s mercy nor does it come from our power and control. God’s mercy reveals itself from people who are marginalized, broken, lonely, addicted and in pain. These are the people who will define for us what freedom is and how we are to find the Shepherd who runs after the lost and holds tightly the lives of the sinful. I know through my many years of listening to people on the margins of society, that I have no power over God’s love when I open the container of sacred oil or sit in the quiet, sacred room where we offer confessions. I simply gaze on the fact of the human handcuffs of sin and the divine liberation of love for all people, in all times and seasons.

These gospels lead us to the altar of God. We hear within this entire set of Sunday gospels the miracle of the loaves and fishes. There is more than enough of Jesus’ presence to go around. We do not have stifle or restrict the real presence of Jesus. Christ Jesus is the truth we seek, the liberating love that opens our lives to the Kingdom here on earth.

Jesus says to us that we should stop murmuring over who is entitled to the love God has for people. God will do the drawing near; God will open our hearts to make a home here on earth. I believe in the freedom that our ancestors found in faith. This is the freedom that I take from the altar to the bedsides of people who wait for miraculous healings and for God to unlock the cuffs of their sin and past mistakes. From altar table to bedside is the home of true mercy, the place of freedom for all God’s beloved.