Confirmed in Fire

Coptic Egyptian icon of Pentecost. squarespace.com

Re-post from 2013

On the Feast of Pentecost, I thought I would offer a simple reflection on the Sacrament of Confirmation.

Do you know when you were Confirmed? If not, contact the parish where you were Confirmed and they will tell you. It’s a revered practice in our tradition to honor the anniversary of sacramental celebrations — baptism, holy communion, marriage, holy orders.

Today’s Solemn Feast concludes the Easter season and is, in real sense, the memorial feast of your Confirmation. Catechism #1302:

It is evident from its celebration that the effect of the sacrament of Confirmation is the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost.

Confirmation is a sacrament of Pentecost, as the whole mystery that unfolded Pentecost morning in Jerusalem mystically irrupts (not erupts) in your body and soul through the conferral of Sacred Chrism on your forehead. Chrism is sacramental oil, and in the Eastern Churches it is revered with a piety akin to that connected with the Eucharistic presence. Once in my Dad’s Orthodox parish some Chrism was spilled on the ground and the priest bowed down to the ground to worship Christ present there as the Deacon cleaned it up with sacred linens. I was in awe!

I attended a Confirmation eight years ago, and the Archbishop gave a really dynamic extemporaneous homily offered to about 70 teen confirmandi. I later that night jotted down as much as i could recall from memory. Here’s a portion of what I wrote:

If God gave to your eyes right now the ability to see the spiritual world, you would see this church enveloped in wind and flame. Why? Well, at this very moment the Holy Spirit is eagerly awaiting for you to receive Him, to ignite the kindling wood of your faith. Only through you can He set the world on fire!

You all have faith, right? [he walked over to individuals and asked four or five this question, much to their chagrin!] If not, tell me now. This isn’t magic. Like all the Sacraments, this is a Sacrament of faith. You gotta have faith! Faith means you believe in a talking God, a God who reveals Himself and wants to talk with you, personally, individually. Whenever you pick the Bible up to read with faith, it’s alive! He’ll talk to you in those words.

And faith means God has something to say that requires action. You gotta do your faith. Get out there and show you believe, show what belief looks like in real life. In fact, I believe that our faith only grows when we do. When you step out in faith and talk about Jesus. When you step out in faith and forgive an offense. When you step put in faith and put yourself second and others first. When you step out in faith and don’t get drunk, tell dirty jokes, sleep with that boy, take those drugs. Step out in faith when you make time to pray every day, even when it’s really hard to pray and really easy to do something else.

And faith means we cling to God when things go south. We trust Him absolutely, in the best and the darkest of times, to be with us. Faith really means something when it’s all we have, when all our props and crutches fail. We have to have a tough faith in a world of doubt and unbelief! Am I wrong?

And let me just say, anyone who says faith is a crutch doesn’t know what faith is. A crutch to do what? Deny yourself, pick up your cross and do good in the face of every temptation to not do good? If I’m going to choose a crutch, that’s not the one I would choose!

Those cowardly disciples came out of that Upper Room on Pentecost, Spirit-filled and hearts burning, filled with trust. Filled with fearless courage, joy and enthusiasm. They ran out into the streets of Jerusalem like madmen! They ran out to tell some crazy news to the same people who had shouted only weeks before: Crucify him! Crucify him! There they were telling these Passover pilgrims, to their faces: this Jesus you crucified is now King of kings and the highest Lord of all creation. What?

Jesus thrust his disciples out into a place of dissonance and confusion so they could bring out into the world the Spirit’s harmony. Jesus sent them out as a demolition crew tearing down the tower of Babel by speaking in all tongues the faith of Jesus. This is all coming to you in a few minutes when you get Confirmed. Are you ready? You’re squirming now, aren’t you? How do I get out of here?

You see, Jesus is not leaving you orphans, not leaving you to face this all alone. He’s sending His Spirit to fire you up, give you courage, firmness in your faith — Con-firm-ation, right? Be ready tonight to break open those church doors when this Mass is over. Get ready to rush out into the world to shout, by your words and actions, the word of the Cross and tell everyone you meet by the way you speak and act: Christ is the meaning and measure of life! He’s the best Way to be human!

Jesus shows us what it means to be human. You don’t abuse the gift of sexuality, you don’t lie or cheat or steal and kill. You enjoy life in moderation, stay free of addictions, live lives of sacrifice to make others’ lives better. People will accuse you of being drunk, of having lost your mind, but you’ll know that you haven’t lost your mind. No! You’ve gained the mind of Jesus! You want to know who you are? Look at Him! Jesus is our looking glass: He reflects back to us what we’re supposed to look like, who we’re supposed to be. And when we look at Him, all those other facsimiles out there look dark, distorted, shattered and plain old crazy.

Confirmation is conformation of the mind and heart to Jesus. Not just thinking like Jesus, but letting Jesus think his thoughts in you. That’s prayer! You need to allow Him in to think with you about things. He’s a friend. You see, He’s alive! And that’s the Holy Spirit’s entire mission statement: opening YOUR minds to Jesus’ mind. Pray every day.

As Pope John Paul so often said to us, do not be afraid to be different, to put out into the deep, to be a sign of contradiction, to surprise your peers and parents with a new way of thinking. Revolutionary. It may cause an uncomfortable stir now and again, an uproar, laughter or snickering, but that’s the stuff saints and martyrs are made of. That’s the stuff your own patron saint was made of. That’s the stuff God wants YOU to be made of. Are you ready for the challenge? I can’t hear you! Are you ready….?

Come Holy Spirit:

Bloom where you are planted

tolovehonorandvacuum.com

Re-post 2014

I love this Latin quote from St. Benedict of Nursia:

Age quod agis, “do what you are doing.”

Very much like this Zen koan on mindfulness:

When you eat, eat; when you walk, walk.

Or like my grandmother:

Tommy, slow down. Don’t bolt. Enjoy your food. Don’t you know a lotta love went into it?

An accomplished theology professor I know recounted during a retreat I attended a conversation his wife once had with her best friend. He gave permission for me to share it. His wife’s friend said, “Boy your husband is away from home a lot giving talks for work.” His wife replied, “Yes, and even when he’s home, he’s away.”

He said,

This really hit me hard. It cut to the heart. When I told her I was hurt by it, she said that while she believes I love my family, I needed to be more present to the children and to her. She pointed out that at dinner each evening when I’m home I seem preoccupied; when we go on vacations I always have to slip away to do “something quick” for work, or to read, write, take a call; when she and I go out on a rare date, all I want to talk about is work. She said she felt it was like I had another wife who consumed far more of my attention and affection than she ever could.

I knew she was absolutely right, but I felt angry and thought to myself, “I work hard for you all. Do you think I do this for me?” Later when I was laying in bed staring at the ceiling, I realized that much of my work really is, in a sense, for me. I really find work much easier to get lost in. Books don’t talk back. And somehow it seems easier to find God in thinking than in doing domestic things. I was working for my family, yes. But I was also using work to avoid challenges family life presents, like the tedium or the constant discipline that’s required. And in all this there’s a touch of avoiding my own inadequacies as a father.

After I calmed down, I turned to her and we spoke that night at length. I realized how far away I had drifted from her and the kids. We cried together. I told her I felt inadequate to the task of being a dad, and that I was too proud to admit it and ask for help. She said, “We don’t need a perfect daddy. Just one who’s there with us. That’s what the kids want. They love you so much and want you around.”

I prayed before falling asleep and asked God for the grace to realign my priorities and face my shortcomings, to find Him in my family. And to abandon my work addiction. That confrontation totally shook me awake.

After recounting this conversation in my journal, I had a storm of disparate insights flood in:

It’s so tempting in the spiritual quest for God to carefully construct a shrine of our own making, full of idols carved in the image of our own preferences and biases, in which we agree to meet God on our terms. It’s safe religion, or, if you like, it’s being “spiritual but not religious.” “Spiritual but not religious” has always meant to me religion under my control, religion with all options left on the table, religion that is an extension of my self-projecting autonomy.  And religion embeds me in a history, a tradition, a people, whereas spiritual frees me from the shackles of such things. Spiritual=me, religion=others; or spiritual=pristine, religion=compromised; or spiritual=immediate access to God, religion=mediated access to God. Spiritual insulates ideals from reality, subjectivity from objectivity. Religion intertwines fallible and infallible, pure and sullied, perfect and imperfect, ideal and real, commandments and freedom, whole and partial, holy and sinful, God and all those hypocrites.

Religio, the root of the word religion, means to “bind together.” That’s so exact, as religion binds us to God and one another and the whole of reality. And that’s a messy bundle!

Religion, as I’m describing it here, feels just like the Incarnation which prohibits access to God except through fellow humans, with their seemingly insuperable baggage. And in Christ God sweeps up into Himself all these dire contrasts and nails them to the Cross, reconciling everything by way of His divine-human Bloodshed. In fact, the Meal that grants us supreme access to divinity is served up by the brutal malice and failures of humanity: Take, eat, drink…Body which will be broken, Blood which will be shed. That’s spiritual religion, terribly inconvenient yet unquestionably revealed to us by a God of astonishing surprises.

In choosing to build comfy shrines and constructing agreeable idols, we refuse to meet God in the shrine of His making: the real world. God’s is quite an unruly shrine (Psalm 84:3!) populated not with safely constructed-and-controlled idols, but with living, breathing, annoying, delightful, demanding icons, also known as neighbors — those He has made in His (very uncontrollable and terribly free) image and likeness.

Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen reinforces this crucial point:

There can be so much escapism in our striving for a ‘spiritual life.’ We often flee from the concrete, apparently banal reality that is filled with God’s presence in search of an artificial existence that corresponds with our own ideas of piety and holiness, but where God is not present. As long as we want to decide for ourselves where we will find God, we need not fear that we shall meet him! We will meet only ourselves, a touched-up version of ourselves. Genuine spirituality begins when we are prepared to die. Could there be a quicker way to die than to let God form our lives from moment to moment and continually to consent to his action?

And then there’s the Italian theologian, Carlo Carretto, who carried in himself this painful “spiritual and religious” tension — between the institutional church and the “pure” Gospel — and found in this awful tension the very source of all true greatness. And that is the greatness of who God Himself is: love.

The Church has the power to make me holy but it is made up, from the first to the last, only of sinners. And what sinners! It has the omnipotent and invincible power to renew the Miracle of the Eucharist, but is made up of men who are stumbling in the dark, who fight every day against the temptation of losing their faith. It brings a message of pure transparency to God but it is incarnated in slime, such is the substance of the world. It speaks of the sweetness of its Master, of its non-violence, but there was a time in history when it sent out its armies to disembowel the infidels and torture the heretics. It proclaims the message of evangelical poverty, and yet it does nothing but look for money and alliances with the powerful.

Those who dream of something different from this are wasting their time and have to rethink it all. And this proves that they do not understand humanity. Because this is humanity, made visible by the Church, with all its flaws and its invincible courage, with the Faith that Christ has given it and with the love that Christ showers on it.

When I was young, I did not understand why Jesus chose Peter as his successor, the first Pope, even though he abandoned Him. Now I am no longer surprised and I understand that by founding his church on the tomb of a traitor, He was warning each of us to remain humble, by making us aware of our fragility.

How much I must criticize you, my church,
and yet how much I love you!
You have made me suffer more than anyone
and yet I owe more to you than to anyone.
I should like to see you destroyed
and yet I need your presence.
You have given me much scandal
and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.
Never in this world have I seen anything
more compromised, more false,
yet never have I touched anything
more pure, more generous or more beautiful.
Countless times
I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face
– and yet, every night,
I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms!
No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you,
even if not completely.
Then too–where would I go? To build another church?
But I could not build one without the same defects,
for they are my defects.
And again, if I were to build another church,
it would be my church, not Christ’s church.
No, I am old enough, I know better.

Falling Fire

Pentecost is near. The Spirit is readying Paradise to empty its contents into the whole of creation; to mine the limitless Treasury burning in the risen Body of Jesus and expend Christ’s entirety (pleroma) on a humble group of Jews hidden in a locked room of Jerusalem. How marvelous that God always chooses to spend His riches on the poor and to be magnified in the lowly.

Two Pentecostal gifts for you today. First, there’s a powerful international initiative of prayer for the Spirit to come afresh on the Church with power on the eve of Pentecost. NOLA residents are invited especially to join in a marvelous prayer Vigil the eve of Pentecost at Divine Mercy Parish in Kenner, LA. Saturday evening from 9:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. Over 300 groups around the world have registered to host their own Vigil events on May 14, as well as over 250 people registered so far for the event in Kenner. See this video by Fr. Dave Pivonka, TOR, whose hyperbole is turned to good effect:

Second, 11th century Byzantine saint, St Symeon the New Theologian, who is revered in the Eastern Church for his teaching on the Spirit, wrote a lovely prayer to the Spirit and a poetic reflection on the effects of His coming. The last lines, as Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky once said, should make all theologians exercise great reserve in claiming the title “theologian” or speaking of the mysteries of faith too easily. Fr Tom Hopko said that the world-class Orthodox liturgical theologian, Fr Alexander Schmemann, would quietly go into the chapel after teaching — usually late at night — and pray to be made worthy to speak of such mysteries. May all of us retain that sense of awe when we speak of God, and pray that we might experience for ourselves the mysteries we think and speak on. Come Holy Spirit!

St. Symeon:

Come true light
Come eternal life
Come hidden mystery
Come nameless treasure.
Come ineffable deed
Come inconceivable person
Come endless bliss
Come un-setting sun
Come untarnishing crown
Come purple of our great King and God
Come crystal belt studded with gems
Come unapproachable sandal
Come royal purple and right hand of the King
Come you whom my poor soul has longed for, and longs for still
I give you thanks that you have become one single spirit with me.

God heard my cries
And from unimaginable heights he stooped down
And looked upon me.
Once more he had pity on me and allowed me to see
The One who was invisible to all,
A much as human kind can bear.
Seeing him I was astounded,
Me who was locked up in my tiny house of bone,
All surrounded by darkness…
I saw him in the midst of my tiny house,
So quickly had he entered in, complete,
Uniting himself to me inexpressibly
Joining himself to me inexpressibly
Suffusing himself in me unconfusedly,
Just as fire can permeate iron,
Or light shine through crystal.
So it was he made me become like fire itself;
Revealing himself to me as Light.

What point is there in trying to explain all of this to you,
Or trying to make you understand it all?
If you yourself have not felt it by personal experience,
You will be unable to know it.

If you have not discerned that the eye of your mind has been opened,
And that it has seen the light;
If you have not perceived the sweetness of the Godhead;
If you have not been personally enlightened by the Holy Spirit;
If you have not sensed that your heart has been cleansed
And has shone with luminous reflections;
If, contrary to all expectation, you have not discovered the Christ within yourself;
If you have not been stupefied, at your vision of the divine beauty;
Then tell me – how is it that you dare to make any statement at all about God?

Peace of mind

Fr. Tom Hopko. pravoslavie.ru

I have been enjoying reading Notre Dame University theologian Dr. Laurence Cunningham’s recently published journal, Things Seen and Unseen. There’s an incident he recounts that I found to be particularly insightful. He says,

Once on a plane, when someone found out about my occupation, a pamphlet was whipped out with the opening gambit: “If you accept Jesus as your personal savior you will have peace of mind.” To which I responded frostily: “If I wanted peace of mind I would take Prozac.” I then went back to my reading after adding that faith should not be mistaken for therapy. Religious faith should serve, at the same time, to upset and give hope.

Even though that would not have been my style of responding, he makes an killer point. Funny that just yesterday I heard a speaker on our local Catholic radio say something life: “Trust God and everything’s gonna work out alright.” Well, it depends on what you mean by that. The speaker continued by saying, “No matter what happens, God’s gonna turn it in your favor if you trust Him.” Again, it depends on what you mean by that. Cunningham’s point is especially appropriate for so many American believers who are tempted by the seductive appeal of what has been called “therapeutic Deism.” This is the idea that God — who is really an unimposing, doting and distant grandpa who respects our autonomy and right to self-determine — only matters inasmuch as He makes me to feel good about myself, contributes to my personal happiness and promises that I’ll go to an Orbit heaven, “no matter what.”

Therapeutic Deism avoids placing faith into direct contact with the most brutal realities of life, just as it avoids internalizing the biblical idea of a God who, in the words of Pope Benedict, turns against himself, “his love against his justice” in the face of the monstrous evil of men and angels. Thus therapeutic Deism eviscerates the Cross of its meaning. Such a theology, as H. Richard Niebuhr famously said, leaves us with “a God without wrath who brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” For therapeutic Deists, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who is a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29), becomes a lackey of humanity who is happy to light our cigarette when we need a smoke to relax. Or, to quote St. John of the Cross, they are “extremely anxious that God remove their faults, imperfections and trials, but their motive is personal peace rather than God.”

Last November I was listening to a talk by Fr. Tom Hopko and he, as ever, made me laugh. His points were very similar to Cunningham’s, graced with his usual “unhinged” personal style. As I listened, I summarized it as best I could.

He recounted an encounter he’d had with one of his Orthodox parishioners. She said to him, “Father, I try to be a good person and say my prayers. So why do all these bad things keep happening to me?” He replied, “Well, let me ask you, what do the Gospels say good people who pray should expect in this life?” “Good things,” she replied. Father responded, “Yes, exactly.” After a pause, he continued, “and what exactly are those good things according to Jesus?” The woman didn’t dare answer because, he said, she probably sensed he was setting her up.

Fr. Tom continued,

Well, I told her Jesus tells us very clearly that good people who pray the way He told us to should expect to know what joy is in being poor, meek, hungry, thirsty, mourning and peacemakers in war-zones; in being hated and reviled and persecuted while going out like lambs among wolves. Christ promises we will be cross-carrying, persecuted, insulted, hated but merciful and enemy-loving, demon-beset disciples. Christians bring about God’s kingdom through absolute trust in a conquering King whose body was broken and blood spilled. Christians are ready to place their minds in hell itself and not despair. And to bring divine love there.

The psalm says that God lifts the poor from the dung heap [Psalm 113:7; 1 Sam. 2:8], but in Jesus God was crucified on a graveyard of skulls. Being Orthodox means learning to love with the very love of God in Christ, and not just loving nice people, but the inhabitants of a totally loveless and devastated world. For Jesus, according to His Beatitudes, these are the ones who are REALLY, exceedingly glad! They’re the most joyful of people on the planet because they share the lot of a God who was crucified and raised from the dead out of love for humanity. The lot of a deathless God who dies, an impassible God who suffers, a peaceful God who gets torn to pieces. That’s the paradoxy of orthodoxy that faith sinks us into.

So when you pray and try to be good, get ready! The whole thing’s an epic drama. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your very last breath. St. Anthony of Egypt said it. He said, “A truly wise person knows the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, true and false and clings fiercely to what is good, true, and beautiful, but fully expects to be tested, to be tried, and to be tempted till his very last breath.” He said that without being tempted and tried, no one can enter God’s Kingdom—without temptation, no salvation. The whole life of a man on earth is a trial, according to Scripture. Job said it. So we are being tried every moment, we should expect it. We should never expect the trial to go away. We don’t ask God to take our crosses away. We ask for the power to carry them. We ask to interlock arms with Jesus as we carry it. Although it’s true to say God doesn’t tempt anybody, in the providence of God we are tested all the time so that our salvation can be ours; we can OWN it as our own and be co-victorious by the victory of Christ.

The Spirit that fell on Jesus at His baptism in the Jordan as the Father said, “You’re my well-beloved Son,” drove Jesus straight out into the wilderness to be tempted by the Temptor. To do combat! Well, the same Spirit fell on us at our baptism, so why should it be different for us? St. Paul tells us in Romans [8:14-17]: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” — Wow, that’s awesome!  I love that! But Paul then says more: “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

So we Christians have joy to offer the world, yes. But Christian joy isn’t happy slappy joy. It’s the joy that comes when we can look into the darkest and worst parts of reality straight on, with no rose colored glasses; into the blackest dungeons and coldest hells and see God right there, dwelling in the tombs and raising Christ again and again and again in us, His Body…

So I told her, that’s why when you pray things seem to still be tough. But if you trust in God through all of this, you’ll share in the greatest human aspiration imaginable: divinization. Participation in God Hismelf. We can rework St. Athanasius’ words, “God became man so that man might become God” into, “God became the rottenest parts of human existence so that men and women, living in those rottenest parts, might become God.” THAT’S the promise…

caravaggio.org

I’m not a Christian singer

mccourtesy.com

I was sitting in McDonald’s the other day waiting for my car to be repaired, trying to write up some end-of-the-academic-year reports amid the noises that tend to populate a McDonald’s. Right above me was a TV that was blaring daytime talk shows. I mustered all of the skills of attentiveness that I have acquired over the years studying and writing amidst screaming children running wild in the house.I was successful until this one interview caught my attention.

I don’t know the name of the TV show, but the host was interviewing a rap artist about his lyrics. When I heard the beginning of the discussion, I stopped my work and started typing what I heard. Evidently his lyrics are free from the usual fare of profanity and sexually explicit content, which makes him unique among pop rap artists. Although he said he talks in his music about real-life struggles, and especially the hard realities of inner city life, he refuses to glorify sex, drugs and violence. The man interviewing him finally asked him, “So, are you a Christian artist?” He said, “It depends on what you mean by that.” He went on to say that there’s a real danger in putting himself in that genre of music, because he would immediately get stereotyped and holed-up in the “religion” box. He said something like this,

If I come into a studio to record and sing a song about life on the streets of Chicago — and that means tellin’ my stories about broken relationships or poverty or despair or about just tryin’ to make a livin’ — and then in the middle of my song happen mention Jesus, they’re gonna to say to me: ‘Yo man, what’s up? You a Gospel singer?’ I say, no man. But what that basically means is, ‘You ain’t a serious rapper cuz if you Christian you have to be all nice and sweet and syrupy about everything. They right away think you ain’t gonna be real and down low with the rest of us. Pie in the sky kinda deal. If you religious, they say, you can’t tell it like it is.’

But that’s not true, man, you know what I mean? Just cuz God comes into the picture doesn’t mean now you unreal, can’t face the dirt on the streets. But that’s the way they see it in the industry. So look, I can say I’m a Christian man who raps, but I can’t say I’m a Christian rapper. Then it’s all over for my career. I’ll get pigeonholed. See, religion’s been put inside this box and you’re either in or out. You can’t be both. You got Christian music and you got secular music. Oil and water. But I don’t like the box, so I just ignore it and sing about life. And God’s just, like, already out there in real life, so I ain’t tryin’ to drag people where they ain’t already livin’. I’m just showin’ what I can see. It’s the same world they see, except faith lets me see God’s right there in the middle of everything. And I want to show it’s a much better world when He’s around, you know?

His brilliant insight reveals very well the depth of impact a radically privatized faith has on how that faith is expressed in public. Every day we move closer toward what Richard Neuhaus called the “naked public square,” where religion is stripped from public life either by being domesticated and contained or by being altogether excluded.

It seems to me that artists, like this rap singer, are particularly well positioned to challenge and help us rethink the hegemony of this aggressively atheistic paradigm by reintroducing a vision of faith that does not threaten to abolish or overwhelm real life, but rather embraces it, builds on it, beautifies it, purifies it and perfects in it all that is good, true and beautiful.

As Pope Benedict XVI said so eloquently:

Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.

As I am writing here of pop culture and faith, I have no option but to mention Twenty One Pilots. I believe they transgress the artificial barriers between faith and life, revealing in their music the infinite ways in which faith and life shade into one another. Their music leaves you more honest, more hopeful and more human precisely because they see so clearly that Christ is what it means to be fully human, God’s way. Like the rapper, I would say Twenty One Pilots is not a “Christian band,” but are musicians whose creativity emerges out of a rich Christian imagination. To that point, I mentioned to someone the other day that they epitomize Paul’s (slightly reworked) injunction:

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, sing about these things (Phil. 4:8).

By the way, I found out yesterday they are coming to New Orleans in March. I am beyond manic about it.

Back to my point. They are particularly masterful at giving clear voice to the existential “feel” of living in a post-Christian culture that is no longer sustained by a Christian architecture. Ours is a deracinated culture, uprooted from faith and so rife with anxiety. Our world has lost its sacraments, repealed its laws, silenced its scriptures, and rendered opaque the stained glass windows that once let in the light of eternity, leaving us stumbling about in the dark. Twenty One Pilots articulates, with such grit, the tremors of Doubt that shake our cultural landscape, especially among the young. Yet — their gift! — they teach us how to pray right out of the heart of this world:

The Hometown in my hometown

Another feast from Fr. Jim Schmitmeyer’s pulpit. This poet-pastor priest “gets” it. I am grateful to him again for letting me post his homily here.

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Fourth Sunday of Easter (50th Wedding Anniversary)

A couple of years ago, Eric Church hit the country charts with a song called, “My Hometown.” Here are the opening lines:

I see Main Street and the high school lit up on Friday night.
Down there it’s another touchdown.
Man, this year’s team is stout.
I can hear them going crazy

You can have my grandma’s locket,
The knife out of my grandpa’s pocket.
My state champion jacket.
Every picture, every broken dream…
Yeah, everything. You can have everything.
But give me back my hometown.

You might recognize those words but even if you don’t, you’ll recognize the fact that personal ties to one’s place is nothing new. In fact, it’s as old as the Bible itself.

In the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 17, St. Luke reminds us that God determines the boundaries of nations and assigns the places where people live out their lives.

Did you catch that? This means that places like your hometown occupy a place in God’s plan for you. Yes, the community where you live, the house you call home, the team you cheer on Friday…these entities form a part of God’s plan insofar as they form the context in which we come to discover His Truth and experience His Love.

You can have my grandma’s locket, sings Eric Church, the knife out of my grandpa’s pocket.

my state champion jacket…but don’t take my hometown!

It doesn’t matter if our hometown is called Versailles, Coldwater, St. Henry or Greenville, we know that the place where we live influences what we believe

and how deeply believe it. This is especially true in matters of religion. If you come a strong family, a strong community and a strong parish, chances are that you will have a strong faith.

Every picture, every broken dream…Yeah, everything. You can have everything. But give me back my hometown.

Rural folks know, in a deeper way than other folks, that the places where we live, influence how we live. And we’re not alone in singing this song. In fact, there’s a new movement in spirituality called “theology of place.”  It emphasize how God shapes His people and His Church through the places where they live which includes the woods where men hunt, the rivers where teenagers swim, the neighborhoods, the farms and businesses, the county roads, main streets and water towers.

Some writers in this school go further and identify “thin places,” unique locations where the walls of this world become very  thin, so thin that we find ourselves stepping out of this place and into another place, from this country into God’s country, where we sense the presence of angels and saints, the timeless realm where the Christ himself dwells in the fullness of power and glory.

According to these writers, the more we love and cherish the place where we live, the more easily we’ll recognize the “thin places” within it.

I agree.

Consider this area of Ohio, for instance. This time of year is packed with some special occasions and events: Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, graduations and family reunions. For my own family, today’s Mass includes a blessing for my own brother and sister-in-law’s on the occasion of their 50th Wedding Anniversary. These are wonderful events when God’s love falls like springtime rain, turning ordinary places—the fields we plant, the lakes we fish, the the factories where we work, the churches where we worship—into potential “thin places.” This is especially true of the churches where we worship the living God, where the walls between heaven and earth become very thin, indeed.

This place, called St. Denis Church, where children are baptized in water and the Holy Spirit. This place of First Communions and Confirmations. Wedding Pictures, Advent wreaths and Nativity Scenes. Choirs singing “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” The sound of rosary beads clanking against the back of a wooden pew.

This thin place, where tears of sorrow have washed our faces at funeral Masses; where tears of relief moisten our eyes at the sound of the words, I absolve you of your sins in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

This thin place where we remember sacred vows which shape our hearts into the shape of the Cross: I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.

This place where the Son of God, himself, breaks through the walls of time and speaks sacred promises of his own: Take this, all of you, and eat of it,   for this is my Body which is given for you…my Blood which is poured out of you;”   I am the Good shepherd…I lay down my life for you!    I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, and behold, I make all things new!

Sacred words. Sacred promises. Spoken in a sacred place. Gifts from God to sanctify and strengthen us, guiding us from this place we call home to the true home which we seek; the place Christ has prepared for us in the House of His Father, where all longing is fulfilled and all love made complete. That place called Heaven, our true hometown. Our one-and-only hometown.

A Kingdom of Big Things

Two gems today. First, honoring Moms. Happy Mother’s Day to all Moms out there! Second, a superior homily for the Feast.

#1. MOMS:

Read these three papal quotes, then watch the heart rending commercial.

Bl. Paul VI: “Every mother is like Moses. She does not enter the promised land. She prepares a world she will not see.”

St. John Paul II: “Human parenthood is something shared by both the man and the woman. Even if the woman, out of love for her husband, says: ‘I have given you a child’, her words also mean: ‘This is our child’. Although both of them together are parents of their child, the woman’s motherhood constitutes a special ‘part’ in this shared parenthood, and the most demanding part. Parenthood – even though it belongs to both – is realised much more fully in the woman, especially in the prenatal period. It is the woman who ‘pays’ directly for this shared generation, which literally absorbs the energies of her body and soul. It is therefore necessary that the man be fully aware that in their shared programme of parenthood he owes a special debt to the woman.”

Pope Francis: “Like happiness, holiness is always tied to little gestures. These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work. Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work. Mothers always know how to show tenderness, devotion and moral strength, even in the moments of greatest difficulty.”

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#2. HOMILY

This homily is by a priest in Texas. It’s for today’s Seventh Sunday of Easter/Solemnity of the Ascension (respecting differences of Feast dates among dioceses). I was very honored that he used some of my work in his homily. He offers a theology of the “here and now” and it really caught my heart. I am grateful to him for granting me permission to post it here today.

The Seventh Sunday of Easter
or
The Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

Fr. Jim Schmitmeyer
St. Hyacinth Church, Amarillo, Texas
Immaculate Conception Church, Vega, Texas

[Author’s note: The theme of this homily and some of its phraseology were inspired by The God of Big Things by Dr. Tom Neal published on-line at The Word on Fire, April 26, 2016]

When Jesus closed the door on the carpenter shop and hit the road heading north out of Nazareth, it didn’t take him long to reach the Sea of Galilee. As soon he got there, he drew a line in the sand and dared others to follow him with lines like, “Sell what you have and come follow me; If you want to save your life, give it away; Let the dead bury the dead; Pick up your cross every day and follow in my steps.”

Again and again, Christ challenged people to leave their way of life behind and, in doing so, He filled their minds with big dreams, dreams of the Kingdom of God where the hungry are fed, the sick recover, the wounded are bandaged, prisoners are released, tears are wiped away and death itself turns out to be nothing more than a bad dream.

Come, follow me and you’ll see big things. And you’ll do big things. Because God is my Father and my Father is the God of Big Things.”

Yes, Christ proclaimed a Kingdom of Big Things. A Kingdom of Hope, Adventure, Excitement and Risks; last-minute rescues and doubled-dares to drop your sin and grab the rope of redemption. A Kingdom of open space and open hearts and open arms…and don’t you love this part of the Gospel? This part of our religion?

I’m talking about rush that flows in the blood of every young man who heads off to join the Special Forces, not of the Army, but the priesthood. To give his all, to give his best to serve the Church and somehow help save this sinking country of ours.

I’m talking about the Call to Discipleship issued to each of us to break out and break free and follow the Lord with nothing holding us back.

I’m talking about the song in the heart of every young woman who turns her back on the bling and glamour of a narcissistic society  to take the veil and live out the Gospel in a convent in a slum, in a school, in a hospital; to live in sisterhood and solidarity in a country that’s dirt poor; in a country at war. A young woman such as this, who follows Christ to such a place, puts the haranguing of Hollywood celebrities to shame!

Don’t you love this part of the Gospel that motivates people to reach for the sky and dream the Big Dreams of God? But, keep in mind, this is but one part of the Call to Discipleship. As exciting as it is to hear the call of the Lord: “Come, follow me,” there remains another phase in the Call to Discipleship that completes the first and it sounds like this: Stay here. Remain where you are. Close the door and stay close to home. We hit this speed bump in today’s gospel passage when we hear Jesus say:

[For the Seventh Sunday of Easter: “Father, they are your gift to me. I wish that where I am they also may be with me.”]

[For the Solemnity of the Ascension: “Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.]

With these words, Jesus tells his followers to brace themselves for his departure. Where he is going, they cannot follow. For the time being, they must remain where they are.]

There comes a time when, Come, follow me turns into, Remain where you are.

No doubt, many saints have sailed the seas and discovered lands and continents;  learned indigenous languages and blazed trails through the jungles and swamps; built missions in place like Texas and California and hospitals in cities like Calcutta and Manila. But what about disciples of Christ who stay at home and remain quietly faithful in their little corner of the world in places like Amarillo and towns like Vega, Texas? Folks who live in houses with garages full of bicycles and a high-mileage vehicle in the driveway?

What about those follow Christ, not by heading down the road, but by putting down roots? People who stay in one place long enough to allow their faith and commitment to soak deep into the soil of the place where they live in order to sanctify it with stability and reliability? With a one-of-a- kind, tough-it-out-through-thick-and-thin kind of responsibility?

Do you ever consider how important it is to God’s plan that someone—someone like you—do your utmost to live out your Catholic faith in a society like ours A society affected with cultural A.D.D? Where commitments last only as long as fleeting emotion hold out? Where the purpose and meaning of life is reduced to getting everything you what you want as soon as you want it? Where the concept of good and evil is readily applied to animal rights but has nothing to do with college kids hooking up?

How hungry is our world for stability and commitments! For the sound of a family—your family—singing Happy Birthday off-pitch! How hungry is the world to catch the glint of light form a rosary in the calloused hand of a husband praying for his wife; in the chaffed hand of a wife praying for her husband! How desperate the world that longs to overhear the conversation between a father and son tearing down the engine of a truck in the shop the house!

How is that hunger, but how magnificent our God, who does big things in small places. Places as small as your kitchen, your child’s bedroom; places as plain as the local school cafeteria and as ordinary as a meeting room in your parish church.

Keep in mind that Christ lived most of His life within 100 miles of a town of around 500 people.  Yet, His small life in a small place redeemed humanity and all of history.

And so it is that, for many of us: Come, follow me eventually turns into Stay where you are.

Stay. Remain. Hold firm. Sanctify.

Sanctify, by your love and your faith, the place where you live, the family you (and sometimes scream at), the house that you clean, the place where you work, the bedroom where you pray.

“Stay steady and stay strong,” says the Lord. “And help me save the world-at-large… by helping you save the world where you live.”