Sunday, May 31, 2009

Joy multiplies when it is shared among friends...

... but grief diminishes with every division. That is life. - R. A. Salvatore Exile.

Although today is celebrated within the Church as the Feast of Pentecost, it has a different significance for me personally. May 31, 1992 is the day that I lost a close friend. I try to take time on the anniversary of his death to reflect upon all the opportunities and gifts I have had in the intervening years.

I hug my children a little closer on this day and remember that life is an awesome gift from God. The best way we can show our gratitude is to live each day to the fullest!

From: Here I Am, Lord: Spiritual Autobiography and
Reflections on the Permanent Diaconate

Tears in Heaven
I was wrapping up my senior year of high school. In less than a month, I would graduate. I was in the home stretch of an important chapter in my life. But the Author had a few plot twists in store that I did not anticipate. It was May 31, 1992; a rainy Sunday morning. I woke up - actually, I was woken up. My mom knocked on my door, announcing that the ringing telephone was for me. As I rubbed my eyes and cleared my throat, I tried to figure out who it could be. After all, my friends were no doubt asleep also!

The voice on the other end of the line was an acquaintance from high school. We were in a few classes together, but certainly not close enough that he would simply call me on a Sunday morning to chat. He did not give me much time to try to guess at his reason for calling.

“Mike Gill’s dead. He was at a party, and slept over instead of driving home. Somehow the house caught on fire and he didn’t get out.” That is all I remember of that call. Although on a superficial level I did not believe him, I guess I knew deep down that it was true. Folks don’t make stuff like that up.

Mike was a good friend of mine. We were in a lot of the same classes, and participated in several extracurricular activities together. He was a genuinely nice guy, sincere and kind. He was the kind of person who would never simply walk by a homeless person. On several occasions I saw him stop to chat. He would take the time to get to know anyone. As I look back on his life, I can see now how, even at eighteen years old, he was a wonderful model of Christian love. He never preached with words; his life was Gospel enough.

But now he was dead. Or, so I had been told. I quickly jumped in and out of the shower, got dressed for church, and told my parents I would meet them there. I said I needed to “check on something.” I never even got to see the house. I didn’t need to. The flashing lights of the police car blocking the road confirmed my fears. I knew the officer, and asked him if it was true that Mike had died. He told me it was. I got back in my car, and drove to the church.

I did not immediately go into the main sanctuary. I went instead into the chapel. It was the original church building. The parish outgrew it years ago, but it was still used for daily Mass and reservation of the Blessed Sacrament. It was the building I used to go to for the early morning Mass with my dad. It was the place where I first experienced the Sacred Liturgy. It was where I received my First Holy Communion. It had been beautifully restored to its original grandeur when the newer sanctuary was constructed, yet still echoed with the sacred silence I remembered from my childhood. I knelt down in a pew to pray.

I recall that I did not cry. I wanted to, but the tears did not come. I prayed that God be with me and my friends; I may even have prayed for this to be some sort of elaborate joke. I cannot remember the words, but the emotions remain vivid: confusion, sorrow, and even a little fear. I did not sit with my family. When I walked into the main sanctuary, I saw some red-eyed classmates. We hugged and sat together in the back. At the end of mass, Father Lasch stepped up to the ambo. He announced that although it had not been officially confirmed, it appeared that a young parishioner had died tragically in a fire the night before. He asked everyone to pray, and indicated that friends would be gathering at a nearby home.

I drove over to the house in the pouring rain. I remember that spring rain vividly. Although it was as if all of heaven and earth was crying, I still wasn’t. I spent the entire day at the house. It was somber. Circles of teenagers sitting on the floor in stunned silence. I will always remember the first face I saw when I walked in the door. It was Amy, Mike’s prom date. The look of total horror and sorrow on her always smiling face will forever be etched in my mind. The prom was scheduled for that coming Friday. But that day it was the farthest thing from everyone’s mind.

That evening there was a memorial service. Afterwards, we decided to gather at a McDonald’s. No one wanted to go home. No one wanted to be alone. I don’t know if it was out of fear that someone else would be lost, or if we just didn’t think that our families could provide the comfort we were receiving from our friends. Either way, amidst the milkshakes and fries, Christ’s comforting presence was at every table. A few of Mike’s closest friends, especially the ones who had been present at the fire, were in no shape to drive; I offered to chauffer.

That night, when I finally got home, I could not sleep. I still couldn’t cry. I don’t know what bothered me more: his death, or the fact that I couldn’t cry about it. I tossed and turned. I didn’t know what to do. Then I remember hearing a voice, clear as day,

“Joe, you need to do what I would do.” It was Mike. That was all I needed to hear. Mike would be the comforter. He would be the shoulder to cry on. He would be helping others to get through this difficult time. Now I had a mission. I finally fell asleep.

I woke up the next day, got dressed, and headed to church. I felt called to start my day with daily Mass. The chapel was empty when I walked in. I knelt down in the first row of pews, looked up at the tabernacle, and lost it. I cried like a baby. I sobbed. It was a release unlike any I
had ever felt. Father Lasch came in, getting things set up for the Mass. He walked over and placed his hand on my shoulder. That didn’t help matters. I wept even more. I finally gathered myself together just in time for the Mass to begin.

At the end of the liturgy, I knelt down again. The waterfall continued. A woman approached me, and placed her hand on my shoulder. To this day, although I do not know who she was, I remember her comforting words:

“Son, I do not know what is troubling you, but I will pray that you find peace.” At that moment, a sense of comfort and peace came over me. It was that same feeling I had when Mrs. Jablecki found me in that parking lot the day that Sunday School was cancelled. I was not alone.

I headed off to school, and for the next four days, I did all I could to minister to others. I was a shoulder to cry on, a friendly ear. I laughed and cried and shared stories about the good times with Mike. At the wake, I remember sitting next to Will, the boy whose house had burned to the ground. He had thrown the party while his parents were away. He and his family had lost everything that they owned. I sat there with my arm around him for so long, that it fell asleep. At one point, the associate pastor, Father Mike, approached me and commented on what I was doing. I told him that it was what I was called to do. We buried Mike on Thursday. The church was standing room only. I served as a Eucharistic Minister.

The day after the funeral, I went to my senior prom. There was a lot of debate about whether or not it was appropriate to have the event at all. In the end, we decided that we needed to be together, and that Mike would want us to celebrate his life, not to mourn it. There was nothing somber about that night! It was a much needed emotional release. That weekend, as was tradition, we headed off to the beach. I remember lying in the sand, basking in the sun, thinking what a difference a week makes. It was so peaceful. In the past seven days I had experienced shock, sorrow, anger, confusion, fear, compassion, joy and now peace.

As I look back on that time, I am not so sure that it was Mike I heard that night that I could not sleep. His compassion and caring nature often made him easy to mistake for Jesus. The more I reflect, the more I realize that it was Christ himself who was telling me that I needed to “do what he would do.” It would not be the last time I hear that call.

JOHN GIVOT/ The Oregonian
Braden Grawrock, 17, (left) comforts fellow Aloha High School student Garret Wilson, 15, (right) at a memorial for their friend, Ross Barfuss. About 60 students joined Monday to share stories about the junior and write notes to his family. Barfuss was at Gleneden Beach off the Oregon coast Saturday with his brother, Lance, and Wilson, when they spotted 11-year-old River Jenison, struggling in the water. Jenison washed ashore and he later died at a hospital. Barfuss went into the water to help the boy and has not been seen since.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Feast of the Ascension of the Lord- Cycle B

Acts 1:1-11
Eph 4:1-7, 11-13
Mark 16:15-20

I recently watched an episode of a program entitled “Life After People.”

It is a documentary that explores what would happen to the world if human beings suddenly vanished from the face of the earth. During the program, a timeline progresses and the absence of human intervention in the world has both subtle and blatant consequences: within a few hours, most of the world returns to a state of darkness as multiple power plants fail due to lack of maintenance. After a few days, animals both domesticated and wild begin to venture into new habitats and develop new modes of survival. Within just a few short centuries, the New York skyline (and skyscrapers around the world) will collapse and be reduced to piles of rubble, Washington DC will be entirely under water, and Miami Beach will resemble a jungle. After watching the series, I have discerned two ubiquitous themes: 1) the great accomplishments of mankind require constant human presence in order to exist, and 2) powerful natural forces are always at work undermining that creation.

On this Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, we as a Church contemplate “Life After Jesus.” We have an opportunity today to reflect upon the impact that Christ has on the world by meditating on His departure. Just as I did while watching the History Channel documentary, I have come to identify two universal themes: 1) God’s love cannot be contained, and is intended to embrace all of creation and 2) the Church is expected to play an active role in that task. What that role is, and how we are to go about accomplishing it, is at the center of today’s readings.

They provide us with bookends of sorts. We start with the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, and we conclude with the ending of the Gospel according to Mark. However, the message is the same - Christ commands us to continue his work here on earth. His disciples ask, “are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom?” His reply plops the responsibility right in their laps: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the Earth.” Mark tells us that he instructs his followers to “proclaim the gospel to every creature.”

Sandwiched in between these texts, Saint Paul provides some important insight into how we are to go about this work. “to live in a manner worthy of the calling” with “humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love.” This calling is through “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”

And there’s the rub. Baptism. Not ordination, not consecration, not installation. Baptism. The word appears in all three readings today. Sure, God provides ministers to the Church – their names are on the cover of the bulletin. They have letters after their names and diplomas on the wall. But Paul tells us today, that they play a supporting role. “to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

We - the entire community of believers - are the Body of Christ still present in the world called to maintain His creation and continue the work he started. Today’s celebration – a rite performed under the direction of the Church “in the absence of a priest” is proof that the work of the People of God is not the exclusive domain of the ordained or even professional lay ministers.

If our faith is to be authentic, our worship life – what we do here – must reflect our daily life – what we do out there. If we truly believe the words of Saints Mark, Luke and Paul, today, we must live them once we leave this building – in large ways and in small.

So what does that look like? How does one go about “proclaiming the gospel to every creature” “to the ends of the earth?” Many have interpreted that as requiring the rental of billboard space, or even the wearing out of shoes going door to door. I prefer to look at it in a slightly different way. A good friend of mine who is a liturgical musician and speaker, challenges us to answer the question, “What is the ‘world’ to which I have been called to proclaim the gospel?” Perhaps it is a classroom where you attend school. Or maybe it is an office building. Or perhaps the grocery store and pick-up line at preschool. We often find ourselves describing our relationships with loved ones using words such as “He/she/they mean(s) the world to me. In the light of today’s scripture, that expression takes on an entirely different significance.

In your daily life, where are the “ends of the earth” where God may be challenging you to reach out and be His presence? How are we challenged to spread the Good News that God made us to love him and to be loved by him? Quite often, we know what the answer is, we know what we are supposed to do, but have a tough time taking that first step. We must emerge from our comfort zone and act in a loving way towards someone with whom that response does not come naturally. It could be a perfect stranger, or maybe someone who has acted in a hurtful manner towards us.

In today’s scripture, the phrase “ends of the earth” was intended to be symbolic of Rome. The distance envisioned was vast. When we enter into relationship – or reconcile with someone else, we embark on a journey. Step by step we come closer together. Spreading the Gospel is not about talking at another person. It isn’t even about engaging in a lively debate. It is about entering into friendship. Spreading the gospel in this manner shows the other person what it means to have a God who loves us.

Proclaiming the Word of God is risky – and always has been. The bible is a collection of stories about people who have spoken in the Name of God. They do not get tickertape parades.

It is inevitable that as we depart from this space, we will be confronted with opportunities to take a risk and be the living presence of God in the life of another person. Equally inevitable is the apprehension we will feel, since this typically requires us to move out of our comfort zone. But that is exactly what we are called to do; we must move through the facade of fear into the Kingdom of Courage. In college, my campus minister, the late Msgr. Charles Kelly once observed that “courage is the virtue of living beyond our comfort. It is the reaction to fear of those who choose to believe that nothing can separate them (if they live the Truth in love) ultimately from life. There is nothing “life threatening” The only thing that threatens our lives is our choice not to believe and live it.” In the same reflection, he noted that “the fear of any failure is rooted in the fear of death.”

This Easter season, we are reminded that we are a Resurrection People. Death has no power over us! We live a “Life After Jesus,” one where we are called to continue his redeeming work here on Earth.

I will leave you with the story of a miracle of sorts. I am sure you are all familiar with the miraculous story of US Airways Flight 1549. After having its engines disabled by a midair collision with a flock of birds, the pilot glided the plane in for a perfect landing in the middle of the Hudson River. Not only did everyone survive, but there were no serious injuries. Well, this week in the news, I heard of a related story which is perhaps more miraculous. Those passengers got their luggage back! Professionally cleaned and restored, the survivors of that graced flight were reunited with the small tokens of daily life – a favorite pair of jeans, a newly purchased pair of boots a set of car keys. One woman received back the book she had been reading. Albeit a little water logged, it was none the worse for wear. Still stuck in its pages was the hotel envelope she used as a bookmark. Printed on it were the words, “Sure, life can be messy…. But that’s why I’m here.”

We may live a ‘Life after Jesus,” but as we will celebrate next week, he has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit to strengthen and guide us as we continue the messy work of maintaining the world he has left behind. However, today we remember that the Spirit works through us. We are not passive observers “looking up at the sky.” Each and every one of us is called to be the loving presence of God throughout our worlds to the ends of the earth!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I'll do my best...

Young people in particular, I appeal to you: bear witness to your faith through the digital world! Employ these new technologies to make the Gospel known, so that the Good News of God’s infinite love for all people, will resound in new ways across our increasingly technological world!

--Pope Benedict XVI, In his May 20 General Audience, introducing this Sunday's World Day for Social Communications

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Baggage Claim

I came across this story in the morning news. Now that the camera lights have faded, and the adrenaline has worn off, It would be interesting to talk with some of these folks about how that day on the Hudson has impacted their lives. Just a small slice of the afterstory surrounding a big event...

The reunions have been occurring, one by one, for the last couple of weeks. The doorbell rings and an unfamiliar face presents boxes filled with personal belongings. Many of them are ruined, but all are carefully wrapped in tissue paper and snuggled in sheets of fabric softener, as though their owners had died.

But their owners, the 150 passengers who rode US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River four months ago, are, of course, very much alive, and for each of them, it seems, there has been at least one item that matters far beyond its material value and is worth the unsettling memories its return arouses.

Lori Lightner’s strongest attachment was to her favorite pair of jeans. For Tracey Wolsko, it was the Our Lady of Lourdes medallion her husband had bought for her at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Carl Bazarian was happiest about recovering a set of car keys with the remote button to unlock the doors.

On the afternoon of Jan. 15, those items were packed in duffel bags or stuffed in purses and briefcases that were crammed in overhead bins or wedged under seats. Now, they are coming back.

“The smell was a little overpowering; imagine 100 dryer sheets all at once,” Ms. Wolsko said, describing her first sensation upon opening a box of clothes that FedEx delivered on May 4. “But a lot of care and attention went into the packaging of it. It made a very emotional experience as positive as it could have been.”

Flight 1549, which was bound for Charlotte, N.C., is remembered as a cause for celebration because all the passengers and crew members survived after the plane’s pilot, Chesley B. Sullenberger III, expertly guided the crippled Airbus A320 into the river. Yet the respectful formality in giving back items that the passengers had to leave on the plane is standard practice for Douglass Personal Effects Administrators, the company in El Segundo, Calif., that is managing the returns. When the company returns belongings, it is often to relatives of someone who has been killed in a crash.

I am sure that for those who cleaned and packed these items, it was refreshing to know that the person who last touched them will handle them again! You can find the rest of the story here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Deus caritas est

God is patient, God is kind. He is not jealous, (God) is not pompous, He is not inflated,
He is not rude, He does not seek His own interests,
He is not quick-tempered, He does not brood over injury,
He does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

God never fails. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing;
if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing.
For we know partially and we prophesy partially,
but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child;
when I became a man, I put aside childish things.
At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face.
At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.

So faith, hope, God remain, these three; but the greatest of these is God.