Saturday, August 15, 2009

Cooperating in a Miracle

Hudson from Midtown Manhattan with Javits Conv...Image via Wikipedia

In today's Wall Street Journal, Father Jonathan Morris, LC, provides a poignant piece on his past week. He has been ministering to the family of the pilot involved in last week's mid-air crash over the Hudson River. A selection:

Capt. Clarke's loved ones—and all the families, for that matter—are cooperating in a miracle. In my opinion, they are giving evidence to the Judeo-Christian belief about how God responds to humankind's suffering. We believe that God's response to our pain is a promise that he will bring forth a greater good out of every instance of evil and suffering in this world, if we let him. These families are bringing into the world and into our lives love and blessings that would never have been there had this tragedy not occurred.

Capt. Clarke believed in just such a promise of God's enduring love. In fact, he believed it so much that just recently he decided to come back to his Catholic faith through the sacrament of confirmation. He described this adult decision in a "letter to God" that his fiancée shared with me.

To find out what he wrote, as well as the responses of all the families involved to this tragedy, go take a read.
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Friday, August 14, 2009

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Cycle B

1 Kings 19:4-8
Ephesians 4:30 - 5:2
John 6:41-51

Walking through the airport the other day, my eye was caught by a photograph on the front page of the Washington Post. The image depicted a woman lying down – the expression upon her face was a study in desolation. Her gaze stopped me in my tracks and I was compelled to read the story – I wanted to understand what could cause such a look of despair. The headline was, “For Many Americans, Nowhere to Go but Down.” This is what I learned:

Scott Nichols sinks into the couch, foot jiggling, his gaze traveling from his wife to the television to the darkness outside, broken now and then by the distant glow of passing headlights.

Then, the 39-year-old husband and father of two thinks of the words he doesn't want to say, what for him, is the option he has hoped to avoid since being laid off nine months earlier.

They already took free food from a church pantry, cardboard boxes filled with Corn Flakes and bologna and saltines, his wife, Kelly, walking in, head down, while he stayed in the car, ashen. They pawned his wedding ring, sold part of her Silver Eagle coin collection and had help from the Salvation Army paying their electric bill.

Now another cliff approaches: the loss of the home they rent.

"Looks like we'll have to go to your mom's," Scott Nichols says to his wife, Kelly.

Moving to her mother's would mean returning to the rundown industrial town where they grew up, a place that makes him feel dirty, inside and out. They would sleep in her basement jammed with forgotten furniture, a few steps from a pair of cat litter boxes and below three narrow windows blocked by insulation.

I could not help thinking what must be going through Scott and Kelly’s hearts and minds, and how close it must be to the sentiments expressed by Elijah when he exclaimed: “This is enough, O LORD!”

The original audience for today’s First Reading was in exile. Most had been evicted by the Babylonians, and those that remained were surrounded by pagan worship. Remember that for the Jewish People, The granting of the Promised Land was central to their understanding of God’s commitment to the people of Israel. The community was struggling to answer the question, “What went wrong?” The editor of the Book of Kings was attempting to answer that very question. Therefore, we read a history that attempts to understand – if not fully explain – why God’s Chosen people had lost the land given to them by God. The editor clearly lays that blame at the infidelity of the People to the Covenant. The pagan worship that infiltrated their land caused them to turn away from worship of the one True God.

The current economic crisis has created massive job loss, and today, many people face an exile of sorts – one of foreclosure and eviction – brought about by the economic crisis that has swept across this country. The economic successes of the past several decades created an ill-placed confidence, an “irrational exuberance.” When many in our country began to presume what tomorrow would bring, instead of simply giving thanks for the bounty of the present day, their subsequent actions came awfully close to desiring to become like gods. Instead of only spending their earnings, many made purchases – financed with debt - based upon what they hoped to earn in the future.

Therefore, an idolatry of a different sorts infiltrated society; this time the calf was made of plastic, rather than gold. Decisions were made economically and politically in order to feed the ‘plastic calf’. Inevitably, when the bubble burst, and the collapse took place, everyone felt the blow. People who saved their entire lives in order to prepare for a comfortable retirement saw their savings evaporate. College graduates – who had invested years of their lives studying, were unable to find employment. Middle class families – like the Nichols family – sit at kitchen tables and struggle to explain why they must leave the only home their children have ever known to live in a basement. Each in their own way, the refrain repeats: “This is enough, O LORD.”

But there is hope. If Scripture has anything to say, it is that God is with us, and will continue to nourish us as we journey through this period of exile. By turning to a more thankful way of life – one that appreciates “Our daily bread” – the Covenant is restored and we step back from the presumption to “be like gods” (Genesis 3:5). A credit card purchase of the newest game for the Wii does not happen. Instead, the old dusty board games are pulled out of a closet and placed on the kitchen table. An exotic trip to a Caribbean beach – financed with a draw on a home equity line is replaced with a tent pitched in the backyard, under a starry sky. Simplicity descends – one that protects that which is truly valuable and discards that which is unnecessary. God has – and always will – provide what is truly needed along the path of life. The challenge we each face is to “[g]et up and eat, else the journey will be too long” (v. 7).

That does not mean that it won’t be painful, or even a bit scary along the way. And that’s OK. Fear is a natural reaction to a difficult challenge. Thomas Aquinas once observed that “fear is the beginning of courage.” But God tells us to move beyond the threshold of fear and live life with courage – courage, after all, I was once told, "is the virtue of living beyond our comfort." I have not done an exact count, but the phrase “Do not be afraid!” appears in scripture over 200 times. It is clearly a message God wanted us to get!

“The fear of any failure is rooted in the fear of death.” It is mixed up with emotions of abandonment and isolation.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that he is the Bread of Life. We are a resurrection people. Through the power of the paschal mystery, Death – in any form – has no power over us. “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you” “Get up and eat” “the living bread that came down from heaven.” “Get up and eat.” and “make disciples of all nations.”

If we live the paschal mystery, if we allow the valleys and depressions of our lives to become opportunities to hope in God and demonstrate God’s love, we then are beacons of hope for the world. We allow courage to be our reaction to fear, confident that nothing can ultimately separate us from life. There is nothing that is truly “life threatening!” The only thing that threatens our lives is our choice not to believe and live that Truth.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

What a blessing!

So we have reached the mid-way point in the Beginnings Plus Institute here in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It has been such a grace-filled week; God is busy within the community gathered and I have been so blessed to be a part of it! I apologize for not posting sooner, but there simply has not been time. Between revising my reflection for this morning's Celebration of the Word, and putting the finishing touches on my presentation on Evangelization the evening before, I have just barely had time to slip in a few winks.

However, there is a sense of getting over the hump this evening. Tomorrow I am on tap for a brief overview of the period of Purification and Enlightenment, and then my 'official' duties are over! So, I have had some time this evening to look back and put into words some of the wonderful things that have been happening.

This particular institute has a focus on the initiation of children within the context of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. In order to demostrate some of the ways this can be done, a group of local children are invited to take part in part of the institute to model how catechist teams could celebrate the Rites in their own parish. At several points over the past few days, these children (aged eight to 15) were asked to contribute in front of the group. Speaking up in front of a group of over eighty adults is pretty intimidating for a child to begin with; when the subject matter is about something as personal as your faith, that is something else! But children have an honesty from which we can all learn, don't they? Some examples:

On the topic of forgiveness:

Why is forgiveness important?

"Because we all need second chances."
What does Jesus mean when he tells Peter that he must forgive "not seven times but seventy-seven times"?

"That we have to forgive each other all the time."

"To always forgive"
What does that tell us about God?

"That no matter what, God will always forgive you?"
Later that evening, we celebrated an adapted Rite of Acceptance into the Order of the Catechmenate. It was a powerful liturgy, and each of the children again spoke up, asking the Church to strengthen them with knowledge, support, courage, and love. As part of the ritual, they were surrounded by the community, asked to embrace the processional cross as a sign of their embracing the Cross of Christ, and to touch the Book of the Gospels signifying their reception of the Word of God.

Right out of the gate, when asked about what it felt like to touch the book, a young girl, about ten years old said,

"When I touched the book, I felt like I was touching God."
It was a goosebump moment for me. There was Truth in what she said!

"When surrounded by the assembly at the beginning of the rite, I felt loved by God." Asked to expand on that a bit, she said "I felt like God was in my heart."

"When I touched the cross I felt the Holy Spirit come into my heart."

Although these words may sound trite or cliche when spoken by an adult (again, I emphasize may), from the mouth of a child, they take on a new profundity and clarity! It is always important to remember that children have something to teach us.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

And I'm off...

... to begin the "working" phase of my internship with the North American Forum on the Catechumenate. Last year, I spent a wonderful four days observing an awesome team contuct a "Beginnings Plus" institute here in my home diocese of Richmond. This year, they are putting me to work. I will present one component each day and assist as needed.

I am typing this as I wait to board my flight to Grand Rapids, MI via Chicago-O'Hare. All flights appear to be on time, which means I will arrive just in time to attend the first Team meeting, look over the facility, enjoy a meal with a new group of friends and 'co-workers in the vineyard,' and then head back to the hotel to look over my notes and crash!

Anyone who has attended one of these institutes will tell you that there is a good blend on classroom time and reflection time. It has the feel of a retreat more than a workshop. However, things are a little different behind the scenes. Isn't that tre of so much of life? We can put up a great facade that all is under control, but just under the surface, things are not so good. We are always challenged to "take off the masks" and allow our ture selves - warts and all - to shine through. God made and loves us just as we are. We forget that at our own peril. The masks are always uglier!

Please pray for all those travelling today in order to be together for the rest of the week up in Grand Rapids. God will be hard at work, to be sure; let's hope that we all have our eyes and ears open! Pray especially for Katie and the kids, who will be greatly missed, but not far from heart or mind.