Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve

In the Ukraine, it is said, there's a legend about a woman who was too poor to decorate her Christmas tree, but shared the warmth of her home with a spider. The spider returned the gift: one night she spun her web on the tree and when morning came the tree sparkled with the sunlit web. For the people of the Ukraine the web symbolizes our connectedness, our fragility and the road we each travel toward death.

With Christmas Eve our Advent season of waiting ends and we celebrate the feast of the Lord's birth. Our weeks of Advent waiting and expectation are fulfilled in the hope which Christmas brings, hope embodied in Jesus the Son of Mary who is the Lord. There's a Hebrew word for hope, kaveh, which is also associated with a spider's web. In the web, in its connectedness, there is hope.

One of my former professors of nearly 50 years ago, Fr. Gerard Sloyan, has written: "Luke has composed a tale so profoundly religious, indeed so theological, that pedantic exegesis of its details could destroy its fragile beauty. This is a narrative of God's design…a tale of divine paradox."

Luke's is a marvelous story of how God interconnects with us, of how God's Son came to be with us in a stable, in ordinary human history, through Mary's pregnancy, bearing, and nurturing of a human child like us. Christmas is a season of birthing, of labor pains, yet a season also of people interconnecting in hope. Luke uses very descriptive words in speaking of Mary, as she and Joseph left Nazareth for Bethlehem: "great with child", "swollen inwardly". Mary set out for Judea, obedient to nature's laws, obedient to her country's laws, and especially obedient to the will of God. She was called to a birthing which may have prompted rumors of scandal among those who knew her, yet one which brought a whole series of amazing new relationships, relationships of affirmation and hope.
The census itself could be seen as an exercise in interconnectedness: "all went to be enrolled, each to his own city." Mary's life was certainly enmeshed with Joseph's, her betrothed. She was, literally, connected with her son, Jesus, who was born for us, his pilgrim followers, on the way.

The Advent and Christmas seasons lend themselves to our thinking back over all of our relationships and interconnections. Think of all the people, yourself included, who are "pregnant" with responsibilities and chores to be done so that Christmas can come about: the house-cleaning, the traveling, the parenting, the baking, and the financial worries which haunt and drive us, especially at this time. Sometimes it seems that the whole world around us, in St. Paul's words, "groans in travail" It is our very connectedness to those who mean most to us which can, especially at this time of busyness, become most vital. They, just like the spider's web, can be our hope and support in the midst of our frazzledness and fragility. 

With all the mixed feeling and emotions engendered by the Christmas season, as Christians our eyes and hearts this day turn towards the altar and the crèche in a pregnant silence, waiting…not just for the Word to become flesh again, but for flesh to become Word now, in Christ's Mass. We each want nothing less than to be born anew in God, to be in touch with the Holy. 

Contemporary poet, William Wendell, has wonderfully expressed the meaning of this sacred Christmas Eve in terms of family connectedness:

After a month of Silent Nights
and Jingle Bells
and White Christmases

When you're up to your mistletoe
with Rudophs
and Scrooges
and Frosty the Snowman

When you've realized that 
your six-year-old doesn't ask
how Santa can be in each store anymore

And you're tired of tinsel
and plastic Baby Jesuses
and wondering what to buy

It all comes to 
pajamaed feet on stair steps
and stage whispers of excitement
at some ungodly hour
that is somehow perfectly godly
because it's Christmas morning

And the trauma turns to tears
when you open the crumply wrapped box
mummified with scotch tape
and behold your very own
pot holder

And it occurs to you
that despite all the shopping
the millions do for Christmas

No one has ever been able to buy it

For it is eternally given
each to the other
and from Him
to us.    

Sunday, December 21, 2014

4th Week of Advent

He’d just finished a long teaching session in the synagogue.  She’d been sitting quietly toward the back of the room, taking in all he’d said.  She waited until most of the others had left, then, approaching him, smiling, she took his face in her hands and said, “Yeshua, blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you!” His warm hand reached up and grasped her hand cradling his cheek as he smiled and observed, “Ah, but rather blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.

At that moment his mind began to wander back to when he was a young boy, to that day when he’d talked with his mother, Miriam, as she worked in the kitchen.  The kind of quiet spontaneous conversation a boy enjoys with his mom.  He’d asked all sorts of questions: the kind that young boys often ask when important issues and things that don’t make sense come to their minds, in no particular order.  
His mother had paused as he somewhat delicately asked how he’d come to be: how he’d been born, and why Joseph was his “stepfather”.  With a far-away look in her eyes, Miriam spoke softly of the day, many years ago, when she had been a young woman, not much older than he was now.  She and Joseph had just been betrothed, which for a Jewish couple such as they, meant that she was married to him, for all practical purposes.  

True, she hadn’t gone to his house to stay as yet, but that was the next step. This particular day she’d been on her way to the well to draw water, when suddenly she felt what could only be described as a Presence: something like a dream and yet as though it was really happening.  She heard words, though not verbal, spoken to her that sounded as though they were intended for someone else.  There must’ve been a mistake! “Hail, O favored one. The Lord is with you.  She knew that she was a good Jewish girl: Anna and Jehoiakim had raised her such.  But this was language for someone “special”, someone very close to the Holy One: not for someone as ordinary as she!
Trying very hard not to seem afraid, she nevertheless could feel herself trembling.  But the Presence continued, gently but persistently, with the astounding announcement that she would soon become pregnant, immediately, in fact, and that it would be a boy, a son, and that his name would be Jeshua.
How nice,” she remembered thinking momentarily.  “Jeshua: ‘he saves’”.  A name familiar to her among her relatives.  But then, in an instant, the impact of this registered with her.  “This can’t be right,” she thought, “my betrothal hasn’t yet been consummated!”  All these images of a great son, and thrones, and never-ending kingdoms suddenly terrified her.  “How can this be, since I have no husband,” she whispered.  I’ll be stoned if they find me pregnant before Joseph and I are together.
As she related the story to Jeshua, she’d paused briefly, sitting very quietly, then continued.  The unseen Visitor had spoken about the Spirit and about the Most High’s power overshadowing her.  Even as she heard this in her heart she could feel in her body that it had already been done.  Something was different.  Something was new.

The child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”  The Visitor went on to tell her of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy, and all that she had verified when she’d visited Elizabeth some time thereafter.  Then came words which continued to ring in her ears all through the days of her pregnancy and beyond: “For with God nothing will be impossible.
She’d then told Jeshua how, in that strange and sudden moment as she continued on her way to the well that day, she began to make some sense of it despite her confusion.  From somewhere deep inside she’d summoned up the courage to articulate what she was now feeling: “I am the Lord’s handmaid; let it be to me according to your word.”  She’d heard and kept the word.  
Jeshua’s mind came back from his reverie, back to the present, back to the synagogue, back to the smiling face of the older woman in front of him.  From the expression on her face, as she looked him straight in the eyes, he knew that she understood what he’d just said: “Blessed, rather are the ones who hear God’s word and keep it.

+ + + + + + +

We draw this season of Advent, of waiting and expectation, to a close just as we began it.  As a community of hurt, we take a hard and honest look at all the suffering, discontent, frustration, pain, disappointment, and uncertainty which characterize our lives and the lives of those around us.  We acknowledge the persistent reality of all this, knowing that it will continue as long as we await Christ’s coming.
But we also wait as a community of hope and of faith.  We hope and believe because God’s word, through “the revelation of the mystery” and “through the prophetic writings”, assures us that “God... is able to strenthen you” and, as with David, assures us: “I have been with you wherever you went...”  During these four weeks of Advent the Holy One has spoken to our hearts: of comfort and rejoicing, of the power of the Spirit of God.  The Good News, the Gospel, is intrusive speech which changes us and others from within if we but allow it do so.

The Good News which has come to us proclaims that what we thought impossible, God has made possible.  We no longer have to remain a community of hurt.  We can be in the world in a new way.  
Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann, says that “...the life of faith is bracketed between the invitation to impossibility which begins things and the summons to praise which closes things...”   “Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.
If you and I are to truly glorify God by what we say and do, then we have to be ready to embrace deep displacement in our lives.  We have to be able to face and live with impossibility. We have to have the “obedience of faith”, to which Paul refers, even as Mary did, in order to trust that God will make possible, even in us, what you and I thought and think at times to be impossible.
That necessitates being open enough to reorganize and reorient our lives together around that powerful word of God which nullifies all our old assumptions and presuppositions and securities.  It calls for not only hearing the Word, but keeping it, day after day, even in the face of contradiction.  
Advent’s question is: “How can this be...?
And the answer is Christmas: God as Word become flesh; Good News that in Jesus (He who saves) all our impossibilities are now possible.

All that is left is for us to generously respond:  “Let it be done...according to your word!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

3rd Week of Advent

In this third week of Advent the Church offers us Scripture texts which indicate the joy of anticipating the coming of Jesus. The penitential purple or violet color of vestments is changed to rose color.  
Psalm 126, particularly, sets the tone for this week’s joy: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed...Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.” St. Paul exclaims: “Rejoice always...

What does it mean to rejoice?  This season of preparing for Christmas is a busy, often chaotic, time. Although we’re bombarded with carols of joy during this season, many people whom we know face staggering depths of depression.
The joy of which the Scriptures speak isn’t the same as pleasure, nor satiation, nor even the emotional heights which we call happiness.  True joy is the steady assurance that our life’s inconsistencies and puzzles will eventually be resolved: an assurance that what has already happened and is about to happen will enable you and me to sort out life’s conditions.  True joy doesn’t consist in possessing something, but rather is the delight we experience in being in harmony with God and of sharing God’s love with one another.
I think it can be safely said that our society today isn’t a joyful society.  You can figure that out simply by observing people pushing and shoving each other in the shopping malls during this season. There are a lot of bored, distracted, exhausted people wandering around the stores and streets: certainly not a good advertisement for joy.  
You and I, as a community of faith in a primarily joyless culture, are invited to participate in the almost scandalous, subversive activity of Advent joy.  We’re called to do what the society around us is unable or unwilling to do.  Genuine Christian joy undermines frantic activity.  It shakes us free from a world that keeps us constantly fatigued and joyless.  And the basis of our rejoicing is the conviction that something special has been and is being disclosed to us by God’s graciousness.  The good news of God’s Word to us is that the Promised One has come and is coming again: coming to transform us and our world from the bottom up.  “...He will do it,” says St. Paul!
Scripture speaks of this promised change in concrete terms, proclaiming that a “new heavens and a new earth” will be created; that rejoicing will prevail over sorrow and distress; that people’s need will be met; that things will endure; that people’s efforts will bear fruit, not frustration; that fear and violence will end, harmony and peace will prevail. Isaiah’s reading (61:1-4; 8-11) speaks of healing for those crushed or oppressed or despairing; of the canceling of debts; and of release for prisoners: of general amnesty for all.  A total transformation is foretold, a newness because of which all will rejoice. Such change and transformation is the work of  “the Spirit of the Lord” who initiates the process which leads to comfort, to restoration, to righteousness, to rejoicing.  It’s the Spirit who brings newness to all those places where everything is hopeless.
St. Paul is clear in his direction to the Thessalonian Christians (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24): “Do not quench the Spirit.”  Throughout the whole epistle the Holy Spirit is seen as the power which formed and continues to transform God’s people.  The Spirit has made this church community exceptional and noteworthy, in the midst of a world which is dis-spirited.  And so, Paul advises them and us not to resist or squelch the Spirit in our times of challenge and suffering.  It’s this “Force”, this resilient free power of God, the Holy Spirit, who will work an utter newness in us and in the world so closed to God’s entrance.  As in the Book of Genesis, the Spirit of the Lord blows upon chaos to make a new creation.  This Holy Spirit now comes to blow upon our hearts and to usher in a new world, a new creation in us. During Advent you and I wait each day for this transforming Spirit whom our tired, bored, joyless, and closed hearts finally won’t be able to resist. The Holy Spirit works, here and now, in us, close and personal, through a real person: Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Lord who comes.  
The question which we usually focus on in this Gospel is “Who are you?”, which the leaders of Jerusalem asked twice of John the Baptizer. They want to label John, to categorize him.  If they name him, they can dismiss him.  But John refuses to play their game.  Deeply aware that “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease”, John reminds the leaders and us that we’re asking the entirely wrong question.  The real question for them and for us is: “Who is Jesus?” Jesus is the One who has come and given everything he has for us, in love.  He is the One who, by dying, sets loose the Spirit of God on us and on the world.  He is the One who calls us, invites us, to show that same kind of giving love to one another.  In the end, he is the one who will draw us all into the completeness of God’s being, which is love.
In these last two weeks of the season of Advent the Holy Spirit enables us to reframe and reform our hopes and expectations, even the questions which nag us.  The Christ is the One among us whom we don’t yet know. He is the unseen, unknown Power which disturbs our sense of control and predictability.  He, the Powerful One, is always beyond our comprehension. This One whom we do not know is already among us through His Spirit: meeting us, inviting us to be one with Him.  He calls us, as he called John the Baptizer, to recognize Christ as the source of our true joy, to embrace him in one another through compassion, justice, love, and joy.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

2nd Week of Advent

Last week Advent was described as a time of waiting in the midst of suffering, pain, frustration and inadequacy as a community of hurt. Nevertheless, there was also the element of hope and expectation, based on the assurance given by the One who is yet "our Father", the faithful God, the Master for whom we watch, the One who will ultimately appear to decisively renew the world as we know it.

Today's Scriptures are replete with Advent promises and of affirmation that they will be kept. Isaiah promises homecoming. John the Forerunner promises One greater than himself. Peter promises that this One, "our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ", will bring "new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells."

As the continuing Christian community we gather around these promises, our certitude undiminished by delays or appearances. This is something hard for a predominantly scientific culture to accept. Science orders, quantifies, controls. It reduces promise to prediction. But the promise on which we focus during Advent speaks about the intention of the One who makes the promise, not the merely the mode. Promise, in this sense, goes beyond time and chronology: "…with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." It allows the One who promises great leeway and counts unflinchingly on the reliability of that person. At the same time, it also invites and enables the receivers of the promise to trust the promise, to grasp for no other certainty. Such an Advent promise is a kind of relationship which gives both parties freedom and asks for a kind of trust and faith not subject to verification.

John the Baptizer appears at the beginning of Mark's Gospel as the forerunner of Jesus the Messiah. He preaches a repentance and forgiveness symbolically enacted in his immersion of people in the waters of the Jordan River. Repentance (Greek, metanoía), as John presented it, is a call to turn loose the old age and all its loyalties and values, to make a radical turn away from such. And forgiveness, he proclaims, is full release from all old debts. 

The sins which bind us all arise from selling out our spirits and imaginations to lesser gods,  to idols. God's forgiveness sets us free from the whole oppressive system of indebtedness which prevents us from being truly human and which contributes to our attempt to continually control situations and people.

Proclaiming God's saving promise, John is an outsider: a nobody who emerges from the wilderness…and dresses the part! He's an outsider not only geographically, but also in that he keeps his distance from the seductive allurements, including religious ones, of the surrounding culture. Raw and abrasive, John preaches from a different vision. His appearance on the scene marks a time when old ways of living are radically called into question, even as new ways aren't yet very clear. That's what Advent is: a sort of threshold moment, an occasion for embracing uncertainty, for understanding ourselves from a new perspective, for making new decisions about our relationship with God and others.

John the Forerunner invites us out into the wilderness with him, so that we can experience the wisdom and fresh assumptions which it reveals. The rest of the dominant society, lost in merry-making and mall-milling preoccupation, resolutely resists this. It wants us well-fed, not connoisseurs of locusts and honey, not people crowding food banks to beg for necessities. It wants us well-dressed and in style: and woven camel's hair isn't "in" this season! It wants us well-housed, not in makeshift cardboard shelters and beds on the sidewalk or in the park. It wants us conformed to the old loyalties of the "haves", the 1 %.

John points beyond himself: to the One mightier than he, to the One whom he serves. It's the same One you and I are called to serve, simply on the basis of his promises. John doesn't name Jesus. Christmas is the time for naming Jesus. Advent is the time for waiting and hoping, in the power of that Spirit which Jesus promised to send us in order to lead us into all truth and life. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

1st Week of Advent

An anonymous poet has written: "I saw the sign on the highway ‘Prepare to meet thy God.’ But when I got a little closer There were no further instructions."  Advent is a season like that: one where we prepare, we wait, we discern what the “further instructions” are!

 Contrary to the dominant and prevailing view in American culture, Advent doesn’t begin with unbridled celebration or a shopping spree! Rather, Advent deals with a community of hurt, with you and me, real people who know pain, depression, inadequacy and failure, particularly at this time in our country when tensions, especially racial and ethnic tensions, are running at least as high as back in the 1960's. Such a community of hurt knows the One to Whom it speaks in prayer in its time of suffering. We call upon God, the Lord of hurt, whom we trust to bring our suffering to an end.

 Since our hope and prayer is directed to the One whose reign is never really in doubt, our community of hurt is also a community of hope. We passionately hope for the end of our troubles. Our living faith assures us that God reign will surely come. The hope which we express isn’t wishful thinking, but a concrete hope, based on the words and actions of the One we follow, every bit as real as the pain we feel. Hurt and hope go together in our lives, even though you and I don’t like to accept that reality. We’d like to think that, somehow, we can have the one (guess which?) without the other. Yet it’s precisely the reality of our present hurt which motivates us to have hope.

 Advent is meant to shatter our fantasy worlds, and to teach us to acknowledge, to speak, and to take action about our pain and the world’s; to look in hope, not to ourselves, but to Jesus. Advent asks if you and I are open enough for a newness to be given, if we’re trusting enough of the faithful God to let go of this world. Advent should lead us to reflect on Jesus‘ observation (Mark 13:2) that “Not one stone will be left here upon another…” Larry Parton, in a now-defunct little magazine called alive now!, wrote: “The one we wait for is the one who will get in our way. He is the one who will disturb us and our peace. He is the one who will stop cooing and begin to talk about things that will trouble us.” Realizing that, do we, as 1st century Christians did, still dare to pray without ceasing throughout our Advent wait: “Maranatha -- Come, Lord Jesus”?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Something Worth Doing

"Even if a man should be detected in some sin, my brothers, the spiritual ones among you should quietly set him back on the right path, not with any feeling of superiority but being yourselves on guard against temptation. Carry each other’s burdens and so live out the law of Christ. If a man thinks he is “somebody”, he is deceiving himself, for that very thought proves that he is nobody. Let every man learn to assess properly the value of his own work and he can then be glad when he has done something worth doing without dependence on the approval of others. For every man must “shoulder his own pack”... Don’t be under any illusion: you cannot make a fool of God! A man’s harvest in life will depend entirely on what he sows. If he sows for his own lower nature his harvest will be the decay and death of his own nature. But if he sows for the Spirit he will reap the harvest of everlasting life by that Spirit. Let us not grow tired of doing good, for, unless we throw in our hand, the ultimate harvest is assured. Let us then do good to all men as opportunity offers, especially to those who belong to the Christian household." (Galatians 6:1-5; 7-10 - The New Testament in Modern English, J. B. Phillips)

 Every one of us has shown, time and again, how vulnerable and weak we're when trying to choose good over evil. It behooves every one of us, then, to go easy on a sister or brother in Christ who fails, falls, "misses the mark". We have no right to feel superior to him or her. But if we step in to help that person to shoulder the burden of her/his weakness we're, in fact, living out "the law of Christ" which is love. "Owe no one anything, except to love one another…" Jesus spelled it out as two-fold: "you shall love the Lord your God will all your heart…The second [commandment] is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." Living out the law of Christ is "something worth doing". 

 Too often we're motivated to help and minister to others with an unspoken hope of being noticed, of moving up a notch or two in others' admiration and esteem of us. Paul says that it's only when one learns "to assess properly the value of [one's] own work" that one can feel glad for having "done something worth doing without depending on the approval of others.

 Paul goes on to remind the Galatian community and us that we delude ourselves and mock God if we assume that our lives can have any real meaning outside of reaching forth and giving beyond ourselves for the good of others. You reap what you sow. It's easy to pay lip service to that, but we all know how difficult it is as a consistent practice. Like a cheerleader, Paul encourages us to resist the tiredness of doing good, for, unless we simply give up, "the ultimate harvest is assured."

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Soldier Saint

It’s interesting that the soldier/saint honored today in the traditional denominations, St. Martin of Tours, was what we moderns would call a “conscientious objector”. Martin was born sometime between 315 and 330, in what later became Hungary, but moved with his family to Italy. His father being a veteran of the Roman Legions, Martin wasn’t given a choice in entering the Roman army age 15, serving in Gaul! He became a candidate for baptism [catechumen] when he was 18 and during that time had a profound religious experience. While on duty he came upon a beggar, naked and freezing, at the gates of Amiens. Having nothing but his armor and a cloak, Martin took his sword, and divided the cloak in half so that both the beggar and he were at least semi-clad. Later, in a dream, he visualized Jesus, with Martin’s cloak draped on his back, commenting to a “troop” of angels that it was Martin who’d clothed him. 

 About two years later, when he was 20, Martin’s unit was called up to battle a barbarian army who’d invaded Gaul. As an incentive, each soldier was offered a cash supplement before going into battle. Martin declined the offer, stating that he no longer found himself able to kill people, and requesting that he be allowed to serve only as a soldier of Christ. Predictably, he was called a coward, upon which he offered to go, unarmed and unprotected, to the front lines the next day and face the enemy with only the sign of Christ’s Cross. Despite his forthrightness, Martin was immediately imprisoned. Interestingly, during the night an armistice between the armies was somehow unexpectedly worked out, and Martin was “off the hook” and finally discharged from the army.

He subsequently had a long and interesting life: as a monk, founder of the first monastic community in Western Europe, a deacon, a priest, and eventually, literally forced by the people, the bishop of Tours. 

 And in the “Did you know?” category: 
- our word “chapel” derives from the fact that a small oratory in Tours preserved the alleged “little cloak” [capella] of St. Martin. 
- a German child, born on 11/10/1483 and baptized on the next day, 11/11, was named after St. Martin -- his name was Martin Luther. 

(Information source: Stars In A Dark World, by Fr. John-Julian, OJN)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

How's Your Befindlichkeit?

An anonymous writer on a website which I ran across the other day, raises some interesting questions about today’s Epistle (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) and Gospel (Matthew 25:1-13): “How does one prepare for the unexpected? Just exactly how are we to live without some final answers?” The writer suggests that the readings, particularly Matthew’s Gospel passage, “are about what to do when we do not have all the answers we want. They are about the mood, tactics, stance and attitude we ought to maintain until we do have more answers than we have now. They are about what to do in this meantime; between this day and the day of God’s fulfillment, which no one has even the slightest clue when it might arrive -- and might not look like anything we were expecting anyway.

In reflecting on that, the writer alludes to the work of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), a noted German Catholic philosopher in the field of existential phenomenology. In his book Being and Time, written in 1927, Heidegger coined a German term: Befindlichkeit, generally translated to mean state of mind, but in more recent times also as being in a mood, feeling, attitude, predisposition. In German, if someone asks “How are you?” or “How do you feel?” or says “I find myself in happy or sad circumstances”, the word befinden is used. The phrase Sich befinden can mean finding oneself; how I feel; how things are going for me; what sort of situation I find myself in. “To answer the question [How are you?]” writes Dr. Eugene Gendlin, “you must find yourself, find how you already are. And when you do, you find yourself amidst the circumstances of your living.” 

So, Heidegger came up with this clumsy German noun, Befindlichkeit, which is your how-are-you-ness, your self-finding, where you are at a given moment in your living. Applied to what today’s Epistle and Gospel are trying to convey, our awaiting and meeting Christ when he finally comes “is not a when to be calculated, but a how to be lived; not a matter of reckoning a definite time in the future, but of being ready”,  transformed  here and now, “and radically open to an indefinite possibility” that is by its nature indefinite.       
As we approach the end of the liturgical year, the Gospel invites us to “keep awake”. We’ve all had the experience of trying to keep awake without falling asleep. We‘ve fought drowsiness, perhaps by stretching or walking or drinking coffee in order to stay awake. Staying alert without sleep requires effort. In an army, in time of war, a soldier who falls asleep during his watch risks his own life and the lives of his buddies. This being true on a human level, how much more on a spiritual level.

At the end of the first century, many Christians believed that Jesus’ second coming was just around the corner. They felt the need for a spiritual, hardworking and active watchfulness, because Jesus expected his own to be filled with a desire to meet him and be with him forever. Preparation for the coming of Jesus could have consequences for eternity. What was true for them is still true for us. Jesus will come to us one day, as really as he did two thousand years ago. Of course, Jesus can come at any time. For many years, some preachers have periodically forecast the end of the world and the impending arrival of Jesus. Those who are mature and grounded in their spiritual life know that, for most of us, our final encounter with Jesus will take place on the day of our death, but each day, today, brings us ever closer. As St. Paul reminds the Thessalonian community and us in the Epistle: “...since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” 

Every Christian, from the day of his or her baptism, is reminded of our final encounter with Jesus. In the rite of baptism the candidate is given a candle, symbol of our faith in Christ. It’s a sort of allusion to the forsightful virgin maidens of the Gospel, who provided oil for their lamps while awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom. The Saints remind us that the light-providing oil which prepares us for Jesus’ coming are our works of love, especially for the disadvantaged and those in need.

The invitation to be alert and watchful in order to prepare for the coming of Christ is good for all time. We’re to continually live with our eyes wide open. In our world there are persons and things who would distract and discourage us from faith in Jesus which we hold as members of the Body of Christ. We’re all familiar with the many charlatans and peddlers of new and false teachings and theories. The universal catholic faith has been handed down to us by our faithful teachers and mentors through the centuries since the Apostles. We who are the Church witness to the coming of Jesus every time that we celebrate the Eucharist together, as Jesus comes to us, here and now in his Body and Blood, making us ready to share one day in the Lord's Supper in his risen presence.

The vigilance and alertness for the future which we all need to cultivate isn’t out of fear of God or because of the shame of our sins, but because of our confidence and hope in God’s mercy and love. With effort, anchored in God's gracious promises, we, too, will share with him in glory. 

What Matthew depicts Jesus discussing in both Chapters 24 and 25, parables of the reign of God which are in the Gospel today and in that of the next two Sundays, is motivated by a question raised earlier by the Apostles and Jesus’ answer to it: “Tell us when all this will happen and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age.” “‘Watch,’ replied Jesus, ‘and see that no one deceives you...the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.’” The word “Then...” is repeated no less than 10 times throughout Chapters 24 and 25, just as in today’s parable: “Then the kingdom of heaven may be compared with ten maidens, who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom [and the bride, acc. to other ancient manuscripts].” This time-reference (along with others) isn’t linear time, but a reference to help us understand our own present, our own condition, our state of mind and being, our Befindlichkeit, to borrow Heidegger’s term, in relation to God’s coming. “Enduring, keeping awake, is trusting that the Savior will come after the suffering, trusting that there will be something better, trusting that that One is truly Lord and not a false prophet. Then God alone, who is more powerful than all horrors, will be king.” (Shauna K. Hannan)  

The main problem of the virgins in this Gospel is not that they fell asleep, since all alike slept, but rather that though a few prepared themselves for their task, for any eventuality that might happen, the others hadn’t taken into account that the bridegroom might be delayed. This parable, although it generally reflects the Jewish wedding customs of that time, contains some impossible details: For one, why is no bride mentioned? Probably the original text included her because marriage attendants, assisting the bride, not the bridegroom, belong to very ancient Near Eastern custom. Their function was to assist and act as custodians of the bride until the arrival of the bridegroom, in order that he could then take the bride to his home. So, in Matthew’s context, the virgin maidens’ task is to keep watch against the time of God’s visitation, when God comes to claim his bride. Some will unfortunately fail to keep trust; others will remain on guard and maintain vigilance. Jesus’ parable is both an exhortation and warning to all of us as custodians of the Church to “keep awake”.  

There’s another seemingly impossible detail: Isn’t it a bit odd that all the maidens who were savvy about bringing enough oil would deliberately refuse to help their companions who were probably close friends and family, thus excluding them from the celebration? How would it have been possible to go shopping at midnight when no stores were open? Besides, who could deny that, at least according Matthew, the unprepared maidens were somehow scrappy and resourceful enough to find some oil, even though, eventually, they were shut out from the feast? Well, there are obviously a lot of unresolved questions about the parable and a number of ways in which you and I might come at the story. Nevertheless, the point of the Gospel passage seems to clearly underline the fact that watchfulness and preparedness for our ultimate meeting with Christ is a quite personal and necessary responsibility for each of us.

The Lord continues coming in the middle of the night to call his own, through the normal process of human death, but even through extraordinary occurrences such as incurable diseases, accidents, and sudden passings. We can’t afford to waste time, however, in useless conjectures about the time of the final coming of Jesus for each of us. We’re to be a watchful, faithful, listening community, vitally tuned into the signs of our time. As we, in our uniquely personal situations, experience the birth pangs of the coming reign of God, we need to constantly measure our present situation with that reign. In continual prayer we ask that God’s reign may come, that Jesus, Lord of all, may awaken hope in us that all creation will finally be renewed and that God’s righteousness, compassion, and love may prevail. As St. Paul advises us: “Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Morning After

"My beloved, obedient as you have always been, not only when I am present but all the more now when I am absent, work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work. Do everything without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine like lights in the world, as you hold on to the word of life, so that my boast for the day of Christ may be that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. But, even if I am poured out as a libation upon the sacrificial service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with all of you. In the same way you also should rejoice and share your joy with me."  (Letter to the Philippians 2:12-18)

From the time that I was qualified to vote up to the present, some 50+ years, I have faithfully and reasonably, to the extent I've been able, exercised my right to vote on the leadership and issues of our country, nationally and locally. Increasingly since the debacle of the 2000 national elections, I've grown more and more uncomfortable and disturbed by what I see happening. Let me make it clear: what I write here is my own viewpoint and perception. I don't share it with any expectation of anyone necessarily agreeing with me.

This reflection came to me this morning as I was praying over the above text in light of the election results. I'm at the point, on this morning after the elections, where I recognize that the United States is continuing a longstanding process of serious decline. In my humble opinion, the political system in this country is pervasively dysfunctional and broken, and our three branches of government are drifting further and further from the ideals, such as they were, of the founding fathers. Additionally, it's more obvious than ever that a government "of the people, by the people and for the people" has been quietly and rapidly taken captive by Corporate America: Big Oil, Big Pharm, Big Ag, Big Business.

So what is one who is devoted to God's "good purpose" to do? Notice, I don't use the word "Christian" because that has become an almost meaningless term, a sort of hypocritical tag which a lot of principle-less people, particularly politicians, adopt, unfortunately bearing little resemblance to those who genuinely espouse the teachings of Jesus the Christ. Paul uses the word "obedient", a rich word from the Latin ob + audire = to really listen and hear. He says that with that gift you and I are to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling", recognizing that it's God in Christ who "for his good purpose" is at work in us "both to desire and to work". If I genuinely "hold on to the word of life", I know that I can't "do life" or anything else by my own ingenuity or skill. It's all about God in Christ who's responsible for the initiative and the carrying out of any human enterprise.

Paul suggests that, "in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation", "without grumbling or questioning", we continue to hold onto the Word, and his word, of life, who expressed himself, and calls us to express ourselves, in love for one another: letting our whole selves be "poured out as a libation" to support and encourage the faithful service and sacrifice of others, to rejoice and to share joy and hope and mercy and forgiveness whenever and wherever it's needed. That is so foreign to the current culture of this country, especially the political culture, as to be simply laughable to many.

Well, we shall see. We cannot know God's "good purpose"…yet. We undoubtedly couldn't handle knowing it! Right now our task is to "run" and "labor" and "shine like lights in the world", beacons of hope. Paul suggests that it won't be in vain!  

Monday, November 3, 2014

Remembering the Holy Souls

In one of his treatises Anglican martyr, Hugh Latimer, speaks of the departed as possessing God's love, "charity", "in such surety that they cannot lose it…" He says that, as members of Christ's mystical Body, the Holy Souls love us, wish us well and pray for us. They are one with Christ, endlessly praising and thanking God, and sharing God's complete joy.

"And they do us alway good, unless the lack and impediment be in us: for prayer said in charity is more  faithful to them that it is said for, and more acceptable to God, than that which is said out of [lack of] charity. For God looketh not to the work of praying, but to the heart of the prayer…" That's something of which we should be especially mindful as we pray for our departed loved ones.

In any case, the feast of All Souls is one of hope for us, not one meant to engender fear or dread. To quote another great Anglican divine, John Donne, from his Holy Sonnets:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe, 
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow, 
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee. 
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee, 
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow, 
And soonest our best men with thee doe got, 
Rest of their bones, and soules delivery. 
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men, 
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell, 
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well, 
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then? 
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally, 
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Holiness & Servant Leadership

There’s a wonderful quote in the autobiography of the great Carmelite foundress, mystic, and saint, Teresa of Avila, which says: “Life is spent in an uncomfort-able inn.” That Teresa and most, if not all the saints, experienced this should be a comforting reassurance for you and me as we struggle to meet the challenges of a 21st century world.

It so happens that yesterday’s feast and today’s celebration of All Saints provides a perfect background for reflection on what would normally be Sunday’s liturgical readings: Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7; 33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; 17-20; Matthew 23:1-12)

One of the Church’s seven principal feasts, All Saints Day honors all the saints, or holy ones, known and unknown. Its originated as early as the 4th century, when Christians began to honor notably holy people, particularly martyrs, witnesses to the Christian faith.  In the 7th century, the Western Emperor, Phocas, gave the ancient Pantheon to the Church. It was a temple to all the pagan gods, and was and still is located on the Piazza della Rotunda in Rome. Pope Boniface IV consecrated it, dedicating it to “Santa Maria della Rotunda” and all the martyrs. Eventually, the feast was fixed on November 1 for the entire Church. Thomas Cranmer, author of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549, retained only those feasts of saints mentioned in the New Testament, as well as this feast of All Saints in the church calendar.

The Church is holy not only because a few of her members are held up as saints, but because each and all of us who are the Church are called to mirror and be channels of God’s holiness, life, and presence to one another. Recall the Genesis story, where the Creator is described as pausing over each created thing and being, and observing: “It is good.” God, source of all being, goodness, beauty, wholeness, and therefore, holiness, puts a stamp of approval, a stamp of holiness, on all of creation. Holiness or sanctity doesn’t come from a person’s own heroism or efforts, but from the fact that s/he is “gifted”, graced, with God’s own life and motivated by God to share God’s life and presence with others. Holiness, therefore, is an ideal, but a realizable ideal, meant to help build up the Church and, indeed, all of human society. It’s not just for a few select souls, but for all of us. Despite the reality of human sinfulness, Jesus nevertheless says: “I come not to call the righteous, but sinners.
Through Baptism into Christ, holiness becomes part of our spiritual DNA. Plunged into the very life of God, which is love and service, we’re one-ed to God and to one another. Jesus is the unique pattern and model for humankind, living as the Holy One who loved God to the point of identification, and loved others as a servant, attending to their pain, hunger and need. None of us has the luxury of saying: “But being a saint, being holy, isn’t for me -- it may be for the canonized saints, but surely not for me.” That’s an evasion of one’s baptismal commitment. It’s never a question of worthiness, but of willingness: willingness to deliberately commit oneself in love to God, and willingness to commit oneself to the service of one’s sisters and brothers.

Saints aren’t just select heroes chosen by the Church, but all of us who’ve been reborn in Jesus and His Spirit through Baptism, and who take seriously the pledge we’ve made to follow Jesus. In that covenant we declare that we’ll resist evil, and return to the Lord when our weakness and selfishness overcome our resolve. More importantly, we pledge to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ by what we say and by what we do each day. We agree to seek and serve God in all people, to love them as we love ourselves. In the cause of justice and peace, we agree to respect every person’s dignity. Dom Hélder Camara, late Brazilian Archbishop, summed it up this way:

...Let no one be scandalized if I frequent
Those who are considered unworthy
Or sinful. Who is not a sinner?
Let no one be alarmed if I am seen
With compromised and dangerous people,
On the left or the right,
Let no one bind me to a group.
My door, my heart, must be open
To everyone, absolutely everyone.

Lesbia Scott composed the popular hymn, #293, I Sing a Song of the Saints of God, in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, along with other children’s hymns which she sang to her own children in the 1920’s. The hymn caught on in the U.S. during the 1940’s, particularly after it was set to a new tune by a retired Episcopal priest, The Rev. John Henry Hopkins, Jr. Scott’s hymn celebrates the kind of holy people, “saints”, whom you and I run into all the time. It gives just a sampling of a veritable catalog of folks who continually inspire us to become more “holy” as well as more “whole” in our lives: doctors and nurses, farmers and field workers, soldiers, martyrs, school students, seafarers and fisher folk, church workers, train operators, taxi drivers and passengers, shopkeepers, even priests; people who not only serve tea, but Starbucks barristas, restaurant wait, cooking and cleaning staff, bosses and co-workers, teachers and fellow students, neighbors and friends. The thing which we all have in common, as the hymn notes, is that they’re “just folks like me” and you.

To become holy means to become whole, integrated, communal, as human persons and as followers of Jesus. Though that is a lifetime project, and a costly one at that, none of us can weasel out of it. Jesus has pledged to all of us who “labor”: “I will give you rest.” Jesus renews that promise to you and me each time we come forward, hands outstretched, to share his Body and Blood in the Eucharist: the “communion of saints”.

Perhaps the key sentence in Matthew’s Gospel is the one where Jesus says: “The greatest among you will be your servant…” What Jesus is talking about in the sentence quoted is what we today call servant leadership. Speaking from my own 30+ years of experience in this Diocese, especially in mutual parish ministry in several churches, servant leadership isn’t something new in the Church. Nevertheless, it’s taken many folks a while to absorb exactly what the Book of Common Prayer is saying in the Outline of Faith (p. 855): “Who are the ministers of the Church? The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons. What is the ministry of the laity? The ministry of lay persons is to represent [re-present] Christ and his Church; to bear witness [from the Greek for martyr] to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church…” Please note that phrase: “...according to the gifts given them…” “Servant leader” doesn’t mean that every single member is called to be a Senior Warden, or the director of the Altar Guild, or a Convention delegate, or a Church School teacher. But every member is called to be a servant leader, “according to the gifts given them”. 

I was totally amazed when I Googled “Servant Leadership” and found how widespread this concept has been and is, not only in the Church, but in the secular, particularly business and management, sectors of the world for some time now. Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990), who formally coined and defined the words “servant leadership” in the secular setting, lists 10 characteristics of a servant leader:
- Listening: not just hearing, but actively listening; paying attention to others’ unspoken needs; supporting others in decisions.
- Empathy: putting oneself in the others’ shoes, so to speak; trying to understand their point of view; respecting and appreciating others.
- Healing: attending to both one’s self and others; helping to resolve conflict in ways that educate and help others grow and mature; utilizing humor and fun, and creating an atmosphere free of the fear of failure.
- Awareness: again, both of oneself and others; really “being there” when communicating with others.
- Persuasion: not by exerting power, status, or rank, but influencing others by being clear, speaking from conviction, and by reasoning together.
- Conceptualization: thinking “outside the box”; looking with vision beyond day-to-day realities and limits to what can be; setting specific goals and strategies to achieve them.
- Foresight: learning about the past so as to better understand the current reality, and being able to foresee the likely outcome of situations as well as their consequences.
- Stewardship: holding the institution in trust for the greater good of its members and of others in the surrounding society, by advocating for honesty, openness and accountability.
- Commitment to peoples’ growth: recognizing the other’s intrinsic value, beyond simply what they do or can do; encouraging others to nurture their gifts and their spiritual lives; welcoming ideas or input by anyone, and involving others in decision-making through consensus.
- Building community: dedicating oneself to find ways to build an ever stronger community within the institution, as well as trying to develop genuine community within the surrounding society.

The greatest among you will be your servant…” Undoubtedly, the finest summary, in a Christian context, of these words of Jesus in the Gospel, are found in St. Paul’s encouragement to the Ephesian Christian community: “I...beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…

...Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up of the body of Christ…

...speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped...promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:1-3; 7; 12; 15-16)

Would that our parish profiles might come to look something like that as we labor to understand our mission to the world!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Some Thoughts On Grace

What can be the driving force, the motivation which leads a person either to begin, to begin anew, or to continue to live the life which we call “Christian”? I believe that the answer to this is what we call grace.
The word grace can have lots of meanings and understandings. We speak of “grace” before meals. We point to the style and “grace” of an ice-skater or a ballet dancer. When special guests come, we set a table “graced” with fine linen, elegant china, and exquisite crystal. We even speak of the “grace” of a happy death.
On Christmas Day, 1977, when my daughter was seven years old, she came to me with a small, taped-up envelope as we were opening our gifts. From the hapless care with which she’d wrapped it, and the solemn way in which she presented it -- with all of a 1st grader’s formality! -- I knew that it was something very special. On a small card, a familiar scrawl had written: “Dad, I know that this is a very small thing for a gift but it is the only rare and beatyfull [thing] I could find. I hope you like it...” Enclosed in the card was a large, chipped rhinestone. That is one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received, because the rhinestone was a symbol for the really rare and beautiful gift: the gift of herself. What I experienced in receiving that child’s gift is about as close as I can come, humanly, to describing what God’s gift of grace to you and me is like.
The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (p. 858) says that “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” 

God’s favor”:  When you’re a favorite or when someone does you a favor, it’s because you’re special; in fact, because you’re unique. You mean something. You’re important to the other person. And the favor is freely given. The giver consciously chooses to give it to you. A mature person doesn’t give favors indiscriminately or routinely. Favor is reserved for a special someone, on a rare and singular occasion. Grace is God’s favoring you and me: except that it’s not something. It’s God’s very self, God Who is amazing Love, and that is given to you at creation forever, if you choose, in the very person and nature who you and I are.
Towards us, unearned and undeserved”: St. Paul has a passage in Ephesians 2 (5-10), and upon reading it one morning in the study hall my first year in college seminary, I broke into tears at the power of its message: “Even though we were dead in our sins, God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love God had for us, gave us life together with Christ -- it is, remember, by grace and not by achievement that you are saved...Thus God shows for all time the tremendous generosity of the grace and kindness God has expressed towards us in Christ Jesus. It was nothing you could or did achieve: it was God’s gift...which saved you. No one can pride oneself on earning the love of God. The fact is that what we are, we owe to the hand of God upon us…” “Unearned”, “undeserved”. We can each easily recall just the foolish things we’ve done in the past: the careless mistakes, the dumb things we all do without using our God-given reason -- not to mention our willful and deliberate selfishness. Yet St. Paul assures us that “though sin is shown to be wide and deep, thank God that God’s grace is wider and deeper still!
The description of grace I mentioned before goes on to say that God’s favor “forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” Remember the phrase in St. Luke’s account of the Gospel (17:21) where he says: “The reign of God is within you”? Well, that’s what being in grace means: God in Jesus is present within you: all the time, forgiving in mercy, enlightening by his Word, loving and empowering you through the Holy Spirit. Christ’s presence is a sanctifying grace, i.e., a holy-making gift, because the Holy God -- Creator, Redeemer, and Amazing Love -- hands God’s very self over to you and to me, God’s “favored” ones.

Coming to faith by gradual awareness of God’s presence in us through Christ and the Spirit, in the very person and nature in which you and I are created, amounts to something of a personal revolution. We’re all seekers by nature. Spiritual writer James Finley describes a seeker as "a person who, having once caught a glimpse of God, knows that only God will do". We can all think of times when we’ve had “quickening moments”, “stirrings of love”, “fleeting flashes”. In those moments we subtly recognize the holiness of life as it is: in nature around us; in our times of intimacy; in solitude; in music, poetry and art; in the experience of birth; in observing children and young people; in helping others; even in experiencing death, our own or others’. These are moments of revelation, literally, of having the “veil”, the curtain, pulled back for us. God passes through the gate in our momentary quickenings, awakening us to Love, to Godself, given to us in our creation. God continually awakens you and me to see that we have the ability to live habitually conscious of this Love giving Itself away. It calls forth in us a desire for a more lasting, daily deepening awareness of the life which is at once God’s and ours. And the effect of these moments of grace is cumulative, i.e., they lead to our wanting to set out upon the path leading to even deeper experiences of oneness with the Love which abides at the very center of our being. For some, this happens at an important turning-point in our life. For others, it gains momentum through a longer process of investigation, questioning, study, and struggle. For all of us, this is what we mean by “following Christ”, living the Christian life, living in grace.
In speaking of “Grace” through the years: in sermons, retreats and Cursillos, I’ve often begun by saying: “I was conceived in and born of “Grace”. That was because my mother’s name was “Grace”.  My mom favored me with warmth and understanding; with respect and love for others: with a sense of fairness and honesty. She shared with me her basic sense of the holy; of responsibility; and a love of learning. For Grace, who died in 2003 at age 88, her giving didn’t come easy. My father had left us when I was about three, and I was raised as an only child, though 50 years later, through a complicated maze of circumstances, I learned that I actually had four half-brothers and three half-sisters, who, except for a sister and a brother now deceased, range from ages 88 to 47! Grace and her older sister, Florence, my godmother, were only two years apart in age. They were very close growing up, not only as sisters, but as best friends. Sadly, both began drinking heavily in their young adulthood, and by midlife, both had become dependent on alcohol. 
Just after 8th Grade, having lived with my mom only 14 years, I entered Catholic seminary. A year after being ordained a Catholic priest in 1964, I unexpectedly and literally on the spur of the moment, made Cursillo #5 at a parish in Ft. Wayne, IN, in June, 1965, a men’s weekend with 57 laymen and clergy attending.  I still have the group picture and my original notes from the weekend. There I experienced first-hand and in a new way an incredible testimony to love and grace, shown in the caring and giving of the Cursillo team members and other participants. That love and grace was held out to each of us candidates for the taking.  

Three months later, I had an even more vivid encounter of the workings of love and grace which I’d witnessed at that Cursillo weekend. It was the autumn of 1965, and Aunt Florence’s problems with alcohol had become so serious that, by then, after an illustrious career as a nurse for almost 30 years, she now couldn’t hold down a job. By then I was at my first assignment for the Society of the Precious Blood: teaching philosophy and theology at a college in Wichita, KS. Florence called me one day from Ohio, and, in her inebriated desperation, calmly told me that she’d “hit bottom”, and that she simply wanted to end it all with the gun she had. She was calling me as a last resort before deciding whether or not to go through with it. All I could do was listen, for over an hour, and talk, and encourage her, and joke with her, and pray quietly. I honestly didn’t know what she would do after we hung up.
Fast forward three months: I learned from my Mom that Florence had gone back to college, she’d become active at church and was teaching a religion class, and had returned to her nursing job. She’d  discovered Alcoholics Anonymous, and had come to know how her Higher Power’s amazing love and grace was able to transform her life. Yes, and by that same love and grace Florence, too, made a Cursillo, in 1972, two years before she died of cancer. The circle of God’s love and grace kept expanding. A year later, in 1973, my Mom, Grace, also discovered Alcoholics Anonymous, through Florence’s testimony to Love. Seven years after that, Grace became the third person in our family to make a Cursillo!
After Florence’s recovery began, my mother told me that in each of Florence’s AA talks, and she gave many, she said that what was initially a turning point for her was something her nephew and godson had said to her during that conversation in the autumn of 1965. What I’d said to her in passing (and I’d actually forgotten it) was: “The difference between a saint and a sinner is that the sinner falls, refuses to get up, and just stays there; whereas the saint is a sinner who falls, but trusts Christ enough to take his hand, and to get up and go on.” It wasn’t even an original thought of mine, but rather something I’d heard during a college retreat! Yet it’s an example of how witnessing to love and grace, even subconsciously, can unfold exponentially, if we allow it. 
Eleven years later, after I’d left the Community and the priesthood, and after many, many spiritual dark valleys, traveling an unbelievable journey on which only God could have led me, I landed in California at a parish where one of the first things the Rector said to me was: “Hey, there’s something I think you might like to get involved in: it’s called ‘Cursillo‘“...Amazing grace! Some time after that, despite all my attempts at stonewalling, kicking and screaming, God favored me with the grace of priesthood for a second time, in the Episcopal Church; and this past June, I celebrated a total of 50 years as a priest.
The second talk during my Cursillo in 1965 was given by a Fr. McNulty, of whom I have no recollection at all, since he was there only for that talk. But I do remember that the title of his talk was “Grace”, and that in my original notes I jotted down that he had said this: “Grace is what God has to do to me to enable me to love as [God] loves.” 
Francis Thompson’s poem, The Hound of Heaven,  one which I’ve loved ever since high school, talks about Love’s relentless pursuit of you and me in lines which couldn’t be a better summing up of Grace:

Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms, 
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come.”  

(Adapted from a talk given at a Cursillo, October 24, 2014)