Easter VII (Acts 16:16-40) 05/12/2013
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A couple of months ago I decided to dedicate some time to a hobby that has long interested me, and that hobby is the research of my family history. At first thought there was the anticipation of finding recognizable names from the past: colonial patriots, founding mothers and fathers of this country, and other people that streets and schools and parks are named after. However, once the real work of the research was underway I soon discovered that most of my time was spent sorting through old handwritten documents, visiting the town clerks office, and wandering through old cemeteries. I think the slow and methodical process of sifting through old records was the cause of my previous departures from this hobby in times past, but this time around something very different happened to me. I discovered that mixed in with all the hard, cold facts and figures of those old handwritten documents are the many, many fascinating stories of my family. Family research also provides the opportunity to discover information that has long since been hidden away; sometimes quite accidentally and sometimes quite on purpose. The more information I found, the more questions I had, so I gathered up all my information and set out to talk with as many family members as I thought would have even the slightest memory of the family stories of our past. Interestingly, those conversations began to shape a new understanding of the past and, remarkably, a new vision of how the past guides and informs our future. Thomas Merton, a 20th century monk and spiritual guide, once spoke of how memories must be more than simply facts from the past. Merton wrote, “Memory is not fully itself when it reaches only into the past. A memory that is not alive to the present does not ‘remember’ the here and now, does not ‘remember’ its true identity, is not memory at all. [One] who remembers nothing but facts and past events, and is never brought back into the present, is a victim of amnesia.”[i] Thomas Merton’s insight helps us to realize that memory becomes something far greater when we allow ourselves to move from the idea of simply recalling facts to the living process of remembering and sharing the sacred stories of our lives. Continue reading
Second Sunday of Easter (John 20:19-31) 04/07/2013
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Several years ago, as a member of the US Navy Reserve, I had the opportunity to participate in a multi-national naval exercise in the waters just south of Ireland. As we prepared for the exercise I learned that I was assigned to be an observer on a German U-boat, a submarine 150 ft. in length with a crew of about 20 people; an up-close and personal experience for sure. The participants of the exercise gathered on the coast of France to discuss the details of the coming week at sea, and after the meeting I met the Captain of the German submarine. He greeted me in perfect English and after a brief introduction he asked me where I had learned to speak German. I told him that, unfortunately, I did not speak German. He was quite surprised at my answer and said, “Do you realize that you will be at sea for more than a week in a German submarine…and you do not speak German?” I assured him that I did realize this was about to happen and that I really did not speak German…I could say “hello,” “goodbye” and “thank you.” “Why would the US Navy send an officer aboard a German submarine who cannot speak German?” he replied. “Because we’re Americans and sometimes we do crazy things,” I answered. He laughed, and did not believe a word of what I said. We arrived at the submarine and he introduced me to the crew, telling them that I did not speak German, but that they should be careful because he did not believe me and I might be secretly collecting information. Several times throughout the first few days the Captain tried to trick me by giving directions or telling funny jokes in German, all to his great disappointment. He struggled to believe the truth of the story that was before him. Continue reading
Easter Sunday (John 20:1-18) 03/31/2013
When I first arrived at St. John’s a few years ago, one of the first groups I had an opportunity to closely work with was the Outreach Committee. At that time, the Outreach Committee was in the midst of re-imagining their mission to the community, re-imaging how to best serve others during challenging economic times, challenging times for everyone. The faithful and insightful people of that group developed some truly creative ideas that combined financial contributions and hands-on opportunities for St. John’s parishioners, allowing the people of our community to reach out and help others in many and varied ways. The foundational idea for this new approach was to become more involved with the people of our community in very personal ways, hoping to develop relationships rather than simply providing financial assistance. This idea is rooted in the belief that interactions between people in the service of others create relationships that are mutually transformational in nature; transformational for the giver and transformational for the receiver. The Outreach Committee, committed to service in the community, changed their name to Community Service in an effort to emphasize this new approach, and the next evolution of their mission was realized this past fall as we committed to some very specific relationships, including our participation in building housing through Habitat for Humanity and tutoring young students at Covenant Prep School in Hartford. These organizations change lives and our participation places us in the midst of ministry that is focused on the redemption and restoration of God’s children and the faithful care of the Body of Christ. This is the Easter story; the story of Christ, through whose death and resurrection, we all find redemption and restoration to the fullness of God’s intentions for us, through God’s grace and love. Continue reading
Experiencing Jesus by Gerald O’Collins, SJ; Chapter 6 – “In your will is our peace”
As we continue our prayers and reflections through Lent, listening to the Scripture readings of Lent and selected works of our own choosing, we become aware of the very human struggle between the desires of this world and the desire to incline our hearts toward God. O’Collins’ sixth chapter reflects on this struggle, describing our personal choice of freedom: “We were born to be free. We were baptized into freedom. Yet freedom is never an assured possession. We still experience so much slavery in our lives. Sin, evil, and many false standards can enslave us. We put ourselves back into bondage and return to the house of slavery.” (p. 67) We return to slavery because the temptations that surround the “house of slavery” seem so appealing, much as the regular rations given to the slaves of Egypt seemed better than the manna of the wilderness to the Ancient Israelites – “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3) These temptations are part of our misunderstanding that the food of this world leads to anxiety for the next thing, whether that next thing be more of the same or something bigger and better. The nourishment of God leads to peace and a faithful presence, and this is the lesson of O’Collins’ chapter “In your will is our peace.”
To turn toward the peace of God requires us to summon the courage to break with the traditions of the many voices of our culture. O’Collins mentions a few revolutionary moments in history and comments that we too must usher in our own revolution if we are to break free. “Jesus looks for that kind of revolution; he invites us to live the truth that it is God who stands at the center and not ourselves…God’s rule over our lives is never at our expense but only for our real happiness. God wants us to enjoy full and lasting peace as our whole being unfolds in its deliverance from sin and evil.” (p. 69) A very good friend of mine gave me the gift of a small plaque with the following words: “PEACE: it does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart (author unknown).” This is the peace and presence of God – not to be apart from the world, but to be in the world and to know God’s presence in one’s life. This is true freedom and a peaceful presence that creates the revolution of Christ’s work and witness in the world.
Experiencing Jesus by Gerald O’Collins, SJ; Chapter 5 – “Loving, praying, and forgiving”
We are approximately halfway through our journey of this holy season of Lent. This season calls us to prayer and reflection, a time for us to hear God among us and discover where it is that God is calling us. In the midst of this quiet time of prayer and reflection Gerald O’Collins provides us a chapter that is focused on “action.” I am a fan of all types of communications and social media is only one of the forms that invite us to speak and listen with others, but social media is one way that we have an opportunity to communicate with those who are beyond arm’s length. I was very happy to see that a favorite musician of mine, Harry Connick, Jr., has joined the bite-sized verse world of Twitter. I bring this up because Harry “tweeted” a short thought the other day that stands closely with O’Collins chapter of active discipleship: “March 4th…the only day of the year that means ‘go forward’…so let’s do it.” (You can follow Harry also: @HarryConnickJR).
O’Collins provides a thoughtful overview of God’s abundant love and forgiveness and how prayer pulls everything together. All three of these elements of our relationship with God and others is important, but I would like to reflect especially on the thought of “active” love. The chapter begins, “Many Christians and others have found it attractive to take approval as the primary aspect of love. To love people is, in a most radical way, to approve of, joyfully wonder at, and assent to their existence. The lover rejoices over the object of his or her love and in effect says: ‘It is beautiful that you exist, that you are there in the world’…Unquestionably one can appeal to the Bible in support of this kind of love…Nevertheless, the New Testament relentlessly preaches love as active rather than simply approving. To love is to be engaged selflessly for the good of others and work for their welfare and real happiness.” (pp. 54-55) O’Collins points to the heart of Christian discipleship, the deep well of love that fuels the passion for and the commitment to service in the world…not for the good of the one performing the service, but for the good of God’s created world. The Christian disciple, the one that is connected to the vine, finds love from the fruit of the vine, the real fruit that gives love and life. A life lived in this manner is not always easy, which is why O’Collins rightfully places this conversation within a chapter describing the three elements of discipleship: love, prayer and forgiveness. Finally, O’Collins quotes an insightful statement from G.K. Chesterton: “Christianity hasn’t been tried and found wanting. It has been found hard and not tried.” (p. 59) During this season of Lent, in prayer and reflection, we ask God for the grace to commit ourselves and persevere in the midst of all the joys and challenges that we will face in our daily lives…and then, move forward in love because yesterday was March 4th!
Experiencing Jesus by Gerald O’Collins, SJ; Chapter 4 – “You leave Jesus out of this!”
The holy season of Lent is a time of prayer and reflection; a time of thoughtful preparation for the events of Holy Week, the events of the Passion of Jesus Christ. If we are to enter in to the mystery and grace of Easter morning, the time of preparation during Lent is a time for us to meet Jesus in an intimate and deeply personal way. However, in the rush of daily life, we can be tempted to simply move through the busyness and leave the prayerful reflections of Jesus behind…this is what Gerald O’Collins is pointing toward in his chapter titled, “You leave Jesus out of this!” Leaving Jesus out of our lives, in some ways, simplifies things…we don’t need to hear the challenging lessons of the Gospel and we don’t need to face the brokenness of our lives, but in this “simplified” approach we are impoverished from the grace and love of Christ, a healing balm much needed in this world of ours. Welcoming Jesus in to our lives is something that may feel overwhelming and complicated at times; admittedly, the images, descriptions, and teachings of Jesus cannot be represented in some simple linear fashion. But we should not expect one image, one lesson, or one thought from the self-revelation of God through his Incarnate Word – there is much to say, much to learn, much to discover as we welcome God in to our lives.
O’Collins includes a wonderful story that highlights his thought that our discovery of God leads to some insightful discoveries of self:
“Some years ago a deacon, who belongs to an Eastern rather than to the Western, Latin rite, was taking a course with me on Christ’s being and doing. Instead of writing a paper, he chose to paint an icon and present it to the class. When he unveiled the icon, stood alongside it and began to speak, my eyes flicked from him to the face of Christ he had depicted. ‘That’s also Joe’s face shining forth from the icon,’ I thought. The face of the artist blended intricately with that of Christ. Far from being surprised at this story, we should expect our efforts to parallel what deacon Joseph did. Searching for Jesus means searching for ourselves. Truly finding him, or rather being found by him, means finding our true selves. Strangers to him, we remain strangers to ourselves.” (p.47)
“For God alone my soul in silence waits; from him comes my salvation.” Psalm 62:1
The Christmas holidays had just ended, the New Year was past, and we all survived the end of the last Mayan epoch to live another day. As I made my way to my Spiritual Director’s office in late January and considered what we might discuss to guide and nurture my spiritual well-being, I became very aware of just how disconnected I felt with the deeply internal presence of God that dwells within all of us. The outcome of my spiritual direction meeting revealed my intuitions were true, and my Spiritual Director gave me some “homework:” spend some quiet time in the presence of God; some quiet prayerful time that allows your spirit to connect with the deepest feelings of your heart, the very presence of the Holy. I have been practicing silent meditation and prayer for years, in fact, during March I am scheduled to participate in a silent retreat at a monastery in New York. But some of the best lessons we learn are simply the rediscovery of what we thought we already knew…and continuously try to practice. Excuses always seem to be endless, but I felt the busyness of the Advent and Christmas holidays and the subsequent celebration of the New Year pulled me away from my silent practice of prayer. Much as the practice of following a good diet or regular exercise can slip away, the practice of quiet and intentional prayer can slowly take a back seat to other seemingly more important matters.
Yesterday was my first day of volunteering as a tutor at a local school. I was assigned to help a wonderful young man with his math homework. This eager young man appeared to know his math quite well, but he was in a rush to finish his work. I found my challenge was more focused on getting him to slow down and thoughtfully apply his knowledge rather than concentrate on helping him learn new concepts. I saw a lot of myself in his eager desire to accomplish what was set before him. My hour with him was wonderful: I hope I was helpful to him, and I know that my experience was uplifting and nourishing to my personal “homework” of spiritual presence. As these winter days slowly make their way toward spring, the vision of the careful work of a spider working out her web continues to come to my mind. The web, while delicate and intricate in its composition, is strong enough to hold its own against the buffeting forces of nature. The delicate and silent work of prayer nourishes our souls as we face the buffeting challenges of this world. As we move through these days of March toward the glorious day of Easter, I pray that we can do more than simply “count our blessings.” I hope we can make the time to quietly sit in the presence of God and intentionally “consider our blessings” and discover that our souls are truly nourished by the deep and abiding presence of the Holy.