Run Forth and Pour Forth

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, September 2012
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First Sunday of Advent:
Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
 
Fourth Sunday of Advent:
Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord, your grace into our hearts, that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son was made known by the message of an Angel, may by his Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of his Resurrection. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
 

I noticed a young man running down the street recently in the pouring rain. He ran with his arms flapping widely, wearing a T-shirt and baggy pants and not wearing socks or shoes. His long wet hair hung in his eyes and he appeared filthy dirty. The youth ran in the opposite direction of people standing in line waiting for our hospitality center to open. I noticed that he was running in the wrong direction for us to help him. He had the resolve to run in the cold wearing little clothing, but I do not know where he got the help he needed. He did not run toward change or even consolation.

I realize as we begin this new liturgical year, that I am the only person standing in the opposite direction of the congregation as I pray this opening collect at Mass. Until I witnessed the young man running wildly away from our ability to help him, I never notice my posture in the sanctuary while praying the collect. I pray that my heart is focused on the coming of Christ Jesus. I want to be running toward love and consolation.  I also stand with my arms open praying even against the flow of every other person.

I minister among people who desperately run to find God in their present life situations. This is often so difficult not only in the Advent season but in any season of the year. The collect for the First Sunday of Advent implies that we all have a deep relationship with God so that we can all run toward the prize of Christ that is waiting for us. This is where so many people stumble and fall. So many people feel so unworthy of God and so judged by the church. People suffering long-term mental illness rarely discover God in their circumstances of isolation and fear. The battle-weary soldier lives only in fear after leaving the desert sands of war. The sickly grandmother aches to have her absent children near but she has not heard from them in years. Advent prayers of waiting for the birth of a savior do not comfort the mother suffering her third miscarriage. We all seem to be running in different directions, all praying to be at Christ’s side.

This collect reminds me of people who run from their past to escape their pain. Others run from their futures because they feel life will remain difficult because they have never known anything other than suffering. They also run to escape the pain and threats of today. Still others do not feel worthy of God’s love at all. People’s lives remind me that the liturgies of Advent begin a three-fold awareness of God. I must cling to this hope in Advent. We praise God for the works of the past, for Jesus born in the world. We look ahead to the end of time when we will be united again in the Kingdom in Christ second coming. We also open our hearts and minds in prayer knowing Christ is already here among us in the present. God is worshipped in our assemblies revealed in the past, in our present and in the future. The liturgical prayers, the scriptures all proclaim this three-fold presence and invitation to prayer.

I pray the collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent begging God for a message from an angel to guide all of our lives and hearts into the healing direction of love and mercy. In these Advent days, people in every parish community seem to be running without direction, without hope to sustain them in the search for love, hope and peace. The Advent season lived and prayed in every worshipping assembly invites us to orient our hearts’ desire into the enduring love that is born among us still. We all desire to be welcomed by God and one another in this season of grace.

I point my heart and life in the direction of God as John the Baptist proclaims in the scriptures during this holy season. I model my heart from the ancient prophet who called out in the wild. I am so aware that many people feel left behind even with John the Baptist’s help. I ache for the day that we will all find our place in Christ Jesus, at his holy right hand in the Kingdom of God. Finding the real direction toward love is up to all who follow the way of Christ. The love we run toward is in our righteous deeds, in serving people who have lost their way. There is so much work to be done before we take our final place at Christ’s right hand, being present with those in our midst that cannot help themselves. I pray for the resolve for all to run to meet our Christ.

Path and Purpose

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, May 2012
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15th Sunday in Ordinary Time –
O God, who show the light of your truth to those who go astray, so that they may return to the right path, give all who for the faith they profess are accounted Christians the grace to reject whatever is contrary to the name of Christ and to strive after all that does it honor. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
 
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time –
O God, who cause the minds of the faithful to unite in a single purpose, grant your people to love what you command and to desire what you promise, that, amid the uncertainties of this world, our hearts may be fixed on that place where true gladness is found. Through our Lord Iesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
 

I know the path to Christ is often convoluted and winding. The new translation of this particular prayer for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time zigzags and twists us even more along the path to Christ Jesus. I fear that aspects of this prayer may be misinterpreted. This opening prayer runs the risk of creating judgment from the assembly toward other people I who may be struggling with their place in life and within the church.

I usually cringe when I hear from someone that a person has ’’gone astray.” That phrase for me implies judgment of someone’s life, and rarely do people know the real story of any other person’s journey. The path to the Crucified means entering into personal suffering, which no other person should judge or condemn.

I learn through my years of ministry not to judge people who leave the church or who struggle with faith. In fact, I usually learn the most from people who sit in the dirnly lit last pews of any church or others who take a break from going to church until they sort out the issues of life. I learn from people who face tragedies such as a stillbirth and who fall deeply into depression and cannot commit to believing in God. I am in awe of people who struggle through a family suicide that takes them on a journey of nonbelief, even for many years. In so many cases, people judge others for the action of not participating in Christian community without realizing the pain that has settled into their hearts.

This prayer invites us to consider the correct path to Christ. The real path leads to the way of the Crucified. Suffering in life is never easy and creates paths that are treacherous and foreboding. Faith is awakened when we all invite God into our suffering. Many people cannot find their way beyond this blind curve. When suffering overtakes them, they may turn to alcohol, drugs, and destructive behavior. This is when the path really becomes steep, with unknown outcomes. I learn in our fragile community to remove the blame from my interactions. I cannot blame people in the confessional for the ways in which they deal with mental disorders or past abuse. I do not blame people in any conversation for the outcome of their lives. People need to take full responsibility for their actions; however, I do not add to their burden by blaming them for their pain. This opening prayer is a bumpy road for me.

I desire more than ever for people to find their way to Christ. This is the only path to real joy and purpose in life. The goal for every parish community is to invite people into desiring God. This is the message of the collect of the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time. I weep when people cannot desire God, who can heal them. The pain of divorce, suicide, drugs, and mental illness often ‘strips people of the basic desire for God. We cannot blame people for their suffering, but we can teach people how to pray in deeper ways. Every community must help remove the obstacles people face in order to truly desire God in their lives. God is here to heal and reconcile, no matter our suffering, no matter who we are in the world.

Every worshiping community needs to take these opening prayers to heart. We need to invite people into experiences of setting our hearts on the love God has promised for every person. We need to give action to our conviction of love. This means getting our hands dirty and learning how the issues of justice challenge us. We need to be in relationship with people who live outside, others who may never be released from prison or people who suffer severe mental illness. We need to understand the family issues of the immigrant. We need to interact with our neighbors in nursing homes and care for babies born addicted to drugs, as well as for the mothers who birthed them. We all need to fix our hearts on the place of God’s love for people, so we may all find true joy and hope in his world.

Answering the challenge of these collects takes time and faith. Every parish community needs to risk stepping beyond their gossip and judgment of people. Every parish needs to find new ways of inviting people — in every form of prayer — into a deeper hunger for God in the Eucharist. Prayer and service lead us on the exact path of Christ Jesus. Experiencing the place of true gladness within our parishes is the mission for us all.

Message in a Bottle

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, Summer 2011
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A friend traveled to Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal in Quebec, Canada last autumn. My religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross, commissioned him to journey to the site of the many healings attributed to Saint Andre Bessette, CSC. His task was to photograph the celebrations of Brother Andre’s canonization both in Montreal and in Rome. During his visit to Montreal he photographed pilgrims walking on their knees on the steep steps of the Oratory. He shot people praying in the chapels and gardens and the room where Brother Andre lived. My friend even photographed Brother Andre’s heart that is still enshrined at the Oratory.

When the photojournalist arrived back in Portland, we shared coffee, stories and the photos from his journey. As we sipped coffee at a local coffeehouse, he handed me a white paper sack and told me it was a special gift. I opened the wrinkled bag and took out a bottle of Saint Joseph’s oil from the Oratory’s gift shop. An artist’s sketch in blue, red and white of Saint Joseph carrying a white lily adorns the plastic bottle.

These words appear in several languages on the side of the 500ml container: “Brother Andre often advised those who came to him to rub themselves with some vegetable oil which had been burning in front of the statue of Saint Joseph. Even today, oil used in this manner remains a link with our tradition. It is an expression of faith. It is not the oil itself which cures, but the Lord who hears the prayers of the faithful.”

The unopened bottle of oil still sits on a bookshelf next to my bible in my bedroom. I admit I really do not know how to use it. I am not sure where this oil of devotion fits into the healing ministry of the Church today. In fact, I am deeply confused about many aspects of healing and how we carry on the tradition of Jesus reaching out to the leper, the blind man and the Canaanite woman’s daughter. I firmly believe there is a message contained in the bottle of oil. I just do not know how to get it out of the sealed bottle and into people’s lives.

Many believers question the use of such oil today within worshipping assemblies. Some people associate healing with snake oil salesman and sleight-of-hand trickery of fundamentalist preachers trying to make a living. Many liturgists frown upon such personal devotion because a bishop in the context of the Chrism Mass has not blessed this oil during Holy Week. This oil does not fit into the traditional sacramental life of the Church. This oil goes well beyond the clerical role of anointing the sick and forgiving sins within the seven sacraments of the Church. This bottle of oil used in the tradition of Brother Andre seems far removed from the sacramental, clerical and liturgical norms.

I know I am also not alone in my skepticism about physical, emotional and spiritual healing within the Church today. People are suspicious about healing because first of all we are all powerless over suffering. I have known and observed priests who refuse to pray with people individually because they are afraid to enter into the depths and uncertainty of people’s real suffering. Others are squeamish about body pain, surgeries, bloody accidents, physical abnormalities, paralysis and the fact that suffering itself is uncontrollable. Sacramental rubrics, liturgical rites and decrees from the institutional church cannot control suffering. For many clergy, if suffering cannot be controlled, the best form of healing is to avoid it all together.

I am also suspicious of healing based upon my graduate studies in our liturgical tradition and my training in pastoral and professional skills. The professional minister today is trained to avoid such attempts to heal because it does not fit into any field education requirements or competencies. In many ways the professional model of the church today has drained much of the Spirit’s presence out of any notion that healing happens with vegetable oil, scapulars, personal devotions, holy cards or prepackaged devotions of any kind.

During the lifetime of Brother Andre, the ministry of healing was a prime mission of many religious communities.  Religious communities of men and women in the past set out on horseback in the United States to found and build hospitals, orphanages, and care facilities for anyone who was lost, forgotten, ill or dying. Today the presence of priests, brothers and sisters in institutions of healing has given way to the latest technology and concerns over insurance coverage. Our church has lost much of its personal mission of healing.

I am desperate to find healing today. I simply do not know where to turn to discover answers. I stand daily amid the brutal chaos of people living with severe mental illness. Many people hear voices that tell them to kill themselves, to ignore their medications and to punish themselves. People sit in the rain around our building and cry out in the night. They lash out at passersby and refuse to speak with their counselors who are assigned to our streets.

I pray for healing for people who blame homeless people for being homeless. I want healing for every family so that our gay and lesbian children will not be abused or bullied. Hundreds of children have fled into the woods or the streets in Oregon because of domestic abuse. I lash out in the night to God that young girls are being trafficked in our suburban shopping malls or in upscale grade schools. I am not sure how much more I can take of the young mother diagnosed with breast cancer or the addict that refuses treatment or the honor student who cuts herself.

I realize I cannot control countries at war or how the institutional church treats people. If I can find my way into this bottle of oil, I may be able to focus my belief that God alone heals. I desire healing amidst the shambles of people’s stories and their regrets from the past. I am now realizing the message in the bottle is also for the cynic and the critic.

Hundreds of people came to Brother Andre every day during his ministry. I now sense his frustration about people’s lives. Andre first guided people to stay close the healing sacraments of the Church. However, so often people were not healed. They needed so much more than what he could give them. He reached for the oil that was there at the Saint Joseph statue because that is what was available to him. Brother Andre told some mothers to wash their children in dishwater and or to go to confession. He said all those things because he did not have answers to the depths of people’s suffering and anguish.

There is something in this bottle of oil that frightens me. I must come to terms with God’s healing love in the world that is more potent than my fear and more consoling than the oil from the Saint Joseph statue. God’s healing happens without our permission, rules or guidelines. God does not commit healing power only to the well educated, the immaculately dressed or the clean cut. God’s healing happens amidst the mess, chaos and confusion of everyone trying to figure out how to ease suffering, whether of others or their own.

God healed many people through Brother Andre’s intercession even though Andre was not a priest, not within the confines of the sacramental church.  The oil for so many was simply a reminder of what they already knew but had forgotten in the midst of their pain, that God alone eases suffering, forgives sin and offers new life for the body and the soul.

Someday I will have the courage to open the bottle of oil. I will take the risk of unsealing the bottle and opening my heart. I will risk that my relationship with suffering people allows God to enter and heal everyone beyond my imagining. I will take the step to pray with people upon their request. I will pour out the holy oil and believe in the miracle that Jesus’ passion leads to new life for me and for every person. Someday I will receive the message hidden in the plastic bottle on my bookcase.

Sock Exchange

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, November – December 2009
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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.