Pastoral leadership at the parish level is quite different. Days are really weeks or months, there are no shifts, one day can change as quickly as the weather, and ministry is marked by years, not days. And, as I have often ruminated, perhaps the hardest thing for me to get used to is saying goodbye, or worse, watching someone walk out the door knowing that it is good for the whole.
Most folks who come to us, come for a season. A season is a biblical term often used, but never defined, and I have learned that is very true in parish ministry. Some come for years, others for a mere number of weeks or months, and some just for a single Mass. But, however long their season is with us, they deserve our love, respect, greatest effort, and warmest welcome. In other words, we are to be radically hospitable to all, even if they are not to us, or leave abruptly.
I have also learned a valuable lesson on goodbyes; some folks are just not good at them. This is not a reflection on them, positive or negative, it is simply the truth. Some leave without nary a word, others with much hoopla, and still a minority go out with a proverbial bang! Some leave because they move or relocate jobs, others due to life changes such as illness or loss, still others because they have fulfilled their time – their season – with us and are ready for the next adventure, wherever it may be. Those are all valid reasons and we wish them well, but mourn their absence; and, as I said, it is part of healthy parish ministry. The hardest ones for me, however, are those who leave because they give in to gossip, or feel harmed in some way without giving anyone a chance to hear them out and perhaps, prove their perception wrong. I also find that many people are afraid of change, and that fear inhibits their ability to find where God truly lives and God’s best for them.
Lent this year at Saint Miriam has been intentionally deeper. We carefully added both liturgical and reflection elements to allow us all to find God in ways we could never have imagined. We were intentional and reflective in our choices and decisions; just like Lent should be.
We began with Ash Wednesday and used the powerful symbol of ashes made from the burnt palm branches that welcomed in Christ at last year’s Palm Procession. We then added the ominous words, ‘Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust that shalt return.’ But, we were not selfish in our investiture day of Lent, as we then took those ashes to the streets with Ashes-to-Go and stood train side at the Ft. Washington Commuter Station to help others welcome in this time of refection and change, too. So, began our journey together.
Since that day, we have added moments of reflection in Adoration, and Stations of the Cross and the 24-hour Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament to take place the 29th-30th from 6:00pm to 6:00pm; as well as moments of instruction in the Instructed Eucharist and the coming Evangelism 101 on March 26th. We will soon enjoy together a beautiful and moving Lenten Retreat with Sr. Eleanor Francis this coming Saturday, and then – being a people of welcome and inclusion – will welcome her to our Altar for the Morning Mass on Sunday, the 19th and then enjoy her forum discussion afterward in our Undercroft space! A special Lent-edition Sacred Meal is slated for tonight, the 15that 6:30pm, and we will gather for Mass and Stations again, and the cycle will repeat until God deems us ready and we welcome in the Easter Triduum and the Light comes again on Easter Sunday…
Lent is a time for cold, sober, intentional reflection on what we have become and what we wish to – nay, need to change. Lent is a time of reflection on that which, deep down, our faith knows to be true, but our human spirit fights to change in our brokenness and selfishness. Lent is an opportunity, given us by a god of love and grace, to move closer to the ultimate reality of community and love and dedication to God and church that we want to be true, but have mostly forgotten in our hustle and bustle life.
The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God of community. The God of light and love and peace. The God of hope and of grace. Is also the God of the poor, the marginalized, and the hurting. He is the God of the outcast, and the needy, the hungry, and the lost. Our God is pro-life in every sense of the word; God loves all, created all, and welcomes all. We, as followers of that God are to welcome the outcast, the seeker, the naked and the afraid. How we, as a community, do just that is the barometer of how we will be judged. This is what Lent should bring to us. Are we willing to give up something of ourselves – some enjoyment, some need, some desire, some time, some convenience – and add to our day an inconvenience, an outreach, a handout, to improve the life of another, or to stop long enough to worship this God we say we love, but rarely actually show it.
On my recent visit to St. Padre Pio, I met a man who desired to become a deacon. He has a heart of service, but he also has a severe learning disability. He drives a school bus and is simple in his demeanor. He is sometimes unkempt and disorganized. He often presents himself with a less than pressed attire and looks a bit disheveled. He has been the object of ridicule, even within his own parish, and yet he serves. Some believe he should not be at the altar, some have even suggested that he should never be allowed entrance into the discernment process, let alone ever be ordained a deacon. I met with him during my visit and he was very clear on his ‘issues’ and his disabilities. He admitted his failings and his shortcomings. He told me of his concerns in learning and how he would even be able to complete the intensive formation of diaconate training. I listened and I observed. Later, I returned to both priests of the parish and I asked the same question of them at two different times: What do you think of this man? The common line was this: “He is a good man, he is considerate, he is kind, he is compassionate, he loves God and the church and is dedicated to the parish.”
With the consent of the pastors of St. Padre Pio, a letter of welcome to the process will soon be going out from my desk to this man. And, one day, within the next few years, I have little doubt that we – as the community that calls God’s one holy catholic church our home – will welcome a new deacon!
New Wine into Old Wineskins is a parable of Jesus. It is found in all three synoptic Gospels at Matthew 9:14-17, Mark 2:21-22 and Luke 5:33-39. It reads:
“No one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out, and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins.”
While speaking out against the status quo of His day, Jesus referred to Himself, His message, and the recipients of that powerful life changing message, as new wine poured out into new wineskins. Jesus was scandalous and even intoxicating at times during His tenure on earth. He challenged the everyday ‘way things used to be’ and promoted a new way of living based on the Gospel. But, it scared people because they had to change their current ways of living and believing. Things have not changed all that much in the two millennia that has passed, as we are still frightened of change.
Jesus to this very day is still very much scandalous and intoxicating. The problem is that those of us who claim to follow Him — no matter our status, or stage in life — are so prone to pour the new wine of His life and word into our old rotten skins of “Church-ianity” that can never contain it, ruining both in the process. You see, we must change to grow, and the church must grow and change, and yes, it must allow for growth and change or good people will never grow, never find Christ, never be what God intended.
Think of it this way: IF things always stayed the same, leadership never changed, and oppressors always won, then Miriam would never have been born, never saved Moses, never influenced the course of Salvific history, and later, some thousands of years later, Saint Miriam Parish would never have come into existence either! This place we call home, where we worship, pray, cry, baptize our babies, anoint our sick, pray for the dead, welcome the foreigner, feed the hungry, warm the lost, cloth the naked, support the needy, and bear witness to a living, breathing, always–existing God – this place – would never have existed for you to find it in the first place!
However, this place must learn to deal with change, too. That is why I prefaced my blog post today with my opening comment in my weekly Franciscan Moment Reflection this past Monday with the words, “Change is inevitable”. And it is. For us, for our parish, for our nation, and for the world. Change is here, and change must always be here; and we must welcome and embrace and endure change with a spirit of playfulness and whimsy, or our wine will surely spill and our salt will lose its saltiness.
This past week, I accepted a very kindly worded written letter of resignation from Kathleen, as she will soon leave the position of Parish Administrator. This position has grown and changed tremendously, just as we have grown and changed greatly in the past almost two years now here on our new campus home. She feels it is now beyond what she wanted, far more things to care for than ever imagined, and she is ready to search for a new beginning. We support her in that choice. We send her with our best wishes, our regret for the times we disagreed, (especially me, as pastor, in my own humanness and brokenness) and we wish her nothing but faith, love, and happiness! We also thank her for the gifts she brought to the parish for the time she spent with us in this position and she leaves with a new computer laptop, and many good memories, as our gift for her journey! In her caring style, she asked for no fanfare, we will honor that request, but send our love and support.
The Board and I decided that we will not replace this position. I will accept more work in my current role, and we have promoted from within to others already this week on our team several of the tasks; they were thrilled to accommodate. Further, we will hire a new employee that will serve in an administrative support role, as well as a very much needed receptionist for our school at the start of every new day! These changes will reduce our payroll expenditures by almost 18% and increase our ability to serve even more students, families, and parishioners alike. This new position is slated to be filled within the next two weeks so get ready to welcome a new face to the team! We welcome what new wine God will bring our way and stand ready to accept with openness and love the changes to come.
At our school side, we welcomed Miss Margaret, back after the tragic loss of her son, Nick. She returns to us, changed as she is, to continue her journey and to touch the lives of the children she has come to love so deeply. We welcome her home. Too, we also have a few board transitions coming up. Every Board member, except for the Executive Board, has imposed term limits for 2-4 years. Many of them automatically renew, but this year a couple members wish to finally step down after several such renewals; who could blame them? They have served well and helped us to be where we are today! So, we are excited to welcome Ms. Donna Mitchell who fill one such position, and we are hoping that someone new will help us by volunteering to serve for a two-year term? We need new wine to continue to strengthen, and to challenge, the status quo! Please see me, or email me, if you are so inspired. We would be grateful and certainly can use your talent and voice!
Finally, I would be remiss, as a priest and your pastor, if I did not take us back to Lent. This holy time of year is a good time of our journey to experience change that makes us uncomfortable. It challenges us to look within and see how we, too, must change to grow. If we do not readily accept change, we should seek out why? If we gossip over change and harm those who remain to serve, we should seek to change that destructive habit and become more in tune with our Covenant here at Saint Miriam. If we seek to cause division by spreading innuendo and falsehoods, we should recognize that Jesus was killed by the same activity. We are all better than that, and this is perhaps why God gives us the gifts of change, one another, and this holy Season of Lent.
The New Wine into Old Wineskins is also a good metaphor for building relational bridges with one another, even those we fall out of relationship with, or do not know yet. Our duty as Christians and practicing Catholics. We must all understand that relations change, but they never end unless we – in our brokenness and human selfishness – cause them to do so.
I will not be with you this weekend, as I will be traveling to St. Padre Pio for a diocesan pastoral visit and to confirm five new Catholics! I am excited and I will miss you greatly, but I leave you in the very capable hands of one Father Bryan! I hope you will pray for me, the Confirmandi, and their ministry team, but always pray for one another, too.
So, perhaps then, Lent is not just a time for loss or change, but also a time for a gathering up. We can use this time for self-reflection, penitence, and preparation before the Easter sunrise to gather up, with what I like to call intentional love, new habits, new ways of looking at our world, a renewed sense of commitment to our parish and greater church, and a renewed sense of wonder and respect for all God has given to us through His generosity, love, and grace, as well as our willingness to accept the change that always comes. I believe that such an increased recognition will better enable us to give to those in need, and receive even greater blessings because of our unconditional trust in God.
So how do we start? I think that our Catholic Catechism is clear: We need, first, to gather up the disposition of the humble heart.
I will bring mine with me, I pray I meet all of yours, too.
See you next week.
Well, Lent has finally arrived, and I guess it did so without much fanfare. I suppose, that is how Lent should arrive; inconspicuously, movingly, deeply, and with a gentle persistence that will call us to become better than we were at its conclusion, than today at its commencing.
We, as a parish and a ministry team, have been preparing ourselves for literally months now. Our liturgy, events, and dedicated opportunities for sinking deeply into Lent have cumulated into one of the finest Lenten seasons we have ever planned as a community of faith. This Lent will be different because we have all worked so hard to make it so, but that calls each of us to participate fully if we expect to get something out of it in the end. I pray we all will do so.
But Lent is not devoid of its joys, subdued as they may seem. I reflected on a funny Facebook meme I saw yesterday when posting on my personal page. It was the famous character, “Grumpy Cat” and he was positioned this time in from of a high altar within a large gothic Cathedral and the words emblazoned over the image read, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of The Year: Lent”!
The image reminded me that the Cross, as tortuous a death machine as it was, still allows us, as Christians, to sing Alleluia from the very depths of our graves – in whatever form they come in life and in death – because of what Jesus did for us. So, there is always some grateful joy around the edges of deep penitence and sorrow, in Lent, too.
That is why we chose to launch our new Livestream today on Ash Wednesday! Now, you may actually watch many of our services and Masses live when away from the parish. It will also be a grand way to introduce ourselves and our liturgies and deep, unbridled, belief in the One we follow, Jesus, to those who wish to ‘visit’ us online first!
We will begin our Livestream @ Saint Miriam with both Ash Wednesday services today at 12:15pm and 6:30pm. Then, as a weekly routine we will live broadcast Adoration and Weekday Mass every Thursday and our Morning Mass on Sunday morning at 10:30am. Other events will be announced ahead of time.
Another added feature to our beautiful parish is our brand new in-house store! That’s right, on your next visit to Saint Miriam, outside our Library, you will find a beautiful new rotating store kiosk that will offer you many opportunities to make purchases that will benefit the parish and school! From rosaries to books, to statuary, to t-shirts, water bottles, Mass cards, and much more! Stop by, make a purchase, buy a gift and support the parish that is always there for you! At Saint Miriam, you can shop online and now in person to support those who support you!
There is a lot going on, a lot of people to thank, and most importantly, a lot of people who work hard behind the scenes every week to bring you so many opportunities to engage your faith, grow into better human beings, and make the world a better place. All of this hard work brings us new innovations like Parish Apps, eNewsletters, Websites, a strong social media presence, and now livestreaming and a store, too. But all of this is without meaning if we do not do what we are meant to do and worship a loving God every week, change and reflect during Lent, welcome the stranger and the foreigner, love our enemies, forgive those who hurt us, and grow into better Christians and stronger Catholics.
At Saint Miriam, our faith is over 2000 years old, our thinking is not…
Soon it will be Lent. It almost unimaginable, but we have been in planning mode now for the last few weeks! Everyone from Ministry to Liturgy to Design to Music Teams have been working hard to create Lenten Opportunities for you to deepen your faith and find God in new and moving ways. Our 2017 Lenten Schedule is one of the best we have ever out together, but it will need you to set aside some time and commit to becoming a better person, to wanting to find our Lord, and to being willing to give a part of yourself to the One who gave it all to you in the first place. Are you ready for Lent?
As followers of St. Francis at Saint Miriam, we can rely on his life and inspiration to follow the pattern of the Gospel more closely. It will lead us more deeply into the coming Lenten season and perhaps allow us to let go of the troubles of the world, as we try and find a closer relationship with Christ.
The world will always be full of trouble, pain, conflict, and war. Just turn on the news today and we may witness a plethora of the world’s troubles and in some very horrific ways. Even our own lives can seem tense and troubled, too, at times. Debts can be high, income low, and our relationships strained. Days run into weeks and the clock often controls them. Few of us find ways to simply stop, get off the proverbial merry-go-round, and find a place of peace and refuge, if only for a few moments to commune and gain strength from God. But, we must, or we shall perish like the wheat that falls to the earth. Every week we offer brief times of respite; from Adoration to Mass to Rosary, but the truth is few take time out of the ‘busyness’ of their own lives to focus on God. It seems the world – and ourselves included– is so busy we allow selfishness to creep in and we find it difficult to untangle ourselves even for 30 minutes. Then, tragedy strikes, and our first scream is for the God we neglected for years…
How will you dedicate your Lenten focus to God? Are you willing to make an intentional change? Will you promise to attend Mass regularly? Give more of time, talent, and treasure? Will you pray more? Give more of yourself, rather than ‘giving up’ chocolates, or some worldly good? Will you attend Stations of the Cross with your family and teach your children the meaning of what Christ did for us? Will you find a way o let go of one 8-hour day and sink fully into our Lenten Retreat to emerge a new creation? How will you focus your life more on that which lasts, rather than what fades with the passage of time?
Soon I will be interviewed for a documentary from a world-renowned filmmaker from Sundance Film Festival. He will interview me to show the world that there are priests, and people who make up wonderful parishes, that actually do the work of the gospel. In our original meeting, some months ago, he asked me to sum up what makes Saint Miriam so special and how we stay on course. I said, “It’s simple, and just as complex and difficult, we keep our eyes on Jesus!” And, we do!
In our culture today, everything has become increasingly caustic to human life and human dignity. Words have become more volatile, communication instant and devoid of feeling, rhetoric more hateful, vehicles armored, guns with larger magazines more deadly, social media is harsh, communities less caring, politics more mean-spirited, international relations more and more hostile, and yes, even Jesus has become weaponized.
Church and religion are often nothing more than vehicles to promote hate, separation, division, and a culture of inhumanity and hatred. From the sacred ground of Vatican to the institutional multifaceted compound of Franklin Graham, to a church near you. They are more like clubs than parishes where ‘who is in’ and ‘who should be alienated’ is often determined by the strongest voices, the majority color, the richest and the most powerful, the Pharisees and Sadducees of the day, rather than those who offer inclusion and love. In other words, the weakest are once again on the outside looking in, or stuck behind some large immovable wall, being further oppressed and marginalized by words, voices, and mean-spirited memes on social media, all dubbed as outsiders while the insiders – the rich, the powerful, the in-crowd, and yes, dare we speak it, the often white and well-to-do and non-struggling – are being warmed by the glow of their own denial of the true gospel, as they worship their non-Mexican, non-poverty ridden, non-Afro-Asiatic, non-inclusive, weaponized Jesus and build their walls to keep others out. No, that is not the gospel to me. No, that is not Jesus.
Why would we think that God would love everyone – even those society deems as different – all God’s created, God’s children, their families, their parents, their communities, and even us, those who dare to embrace them; could God not love us as our ancestors, too? Why would we think – and worst project on others – that God would ‘hand them a snake, when they asked for a fish, or a scorpion when they ask for bread’?
Not here. Not at Saint Miriam. We believe and follow the one true God: our Lord, and our Savior, Jesus, He Who is The Christ! The Light of the world! The One Who willingly died a horrible death, and took on our sin, so that all of us – every single soul – black, white, asian and native, gay, straight, rich, poor, transgender; the Democrat and the Republican, and Independent, too, those who can sing and those who can’t carry a tune, as well as the immigrant and refugee, the outcast, the lost, and even the found alike; so that all of us might find true life…
So why this particular candle, this year, among all the choices we had to choose from? Because this introspective candle, with the deeply moving name, will shine with the joy of our community’s life, and honor the discipline of hard work, and the love of concealed sacrifice. Apis Mater!
You see, we are a community built on introspection and hard work. We never shy away from the work of the gospel. That became even more apparent this past week when we embraced my response as a Catholic community of faith, and stood up for the rights of the immigrant and the refugee. Oh sure, there were a few who decided to take their own stand and walk away; there was even the one parishioner who removed his financial support in protest, and to make a solid point against me, he took it from his weekly giving toward my salary fund. He literally took bread from my table in order to prove his view that refugees are unwanted. Not here. Not with me. My response was simple and direct: I will lose everything that I have, I walk away from the parish, and even my own life to protect the right of the refugee and to welcome them and give them sanctuary. You can destroy y home, and try and take away my spirit; you can take bread from my table, but you will not take away the Gospel of Christ from me. Ever. I am a priest.
That is why I have directed my team to try and hire a refugee for the two open positions we have within the parish and school currently. If we can locate a qualified refugee, seeking a better way of life, we will do more than just speak to the current anti-immigrant/anti-refugee sentiment, we will welcome, embrace, and give a home filled with the light of love to someone and all them and their family a place of sanctuary and hope.
We are a community built on the radical inclusion of the gospel and resilient and profound hospitality that pervades all that we do. Or, we are nothing but charlatans.
The vibrant honeycomb design that wraps around our newest Paschal candle pays homage to the dedicated work of the bee; it includes rosettes of myrrh and a design that separates it from others as a reminder of who we are as a people of God.
So why now? Well, this coming Saturday, this team of dedicated persons will gather for an intense day of prayer, planning, discernment, and decisions for our annual “Saint Miriam Board Retreat”. It is not a normal ‘retreat’ where we take a lot of time to sit quietly and reflect, but rather a ‘working retreat’ where we remove ourselves from the world long enough to try and hear what’s going on, reflect on things to come, and wrap it all up with the ‘still small voice of God’. It is not an easy day. It is a day that requires love, and dedication, and willingness to commit and give back even more. It is a day of surrender; surrender to God and to one another. A day of trust. And this year, to save the parish the cost of going away, we will remain on campus and work within our own walls. We are praying that this will deepen our ability to make wise decisions, and better our direction for the coming year. We ask for your prayers.
And, that is where you all come in! We do ask for your fervent prayers, but also your input. If you have any suggestions, ideas, questions, or even complaints or disagreements now is the time to send them to me. Just drop me a quick email and I will discuss with the team this weekend. After all, we take our fiduciary duty seriously, and we have proven to be strong advocates for every parishioner, as well as good stewards of every dime given to further the mission of Saint Miriam. While my door and heart are always open to you, I know that sometimes folks may be a little intimidated to disagree, or bring ideas to me, so here is your chance! Don’t be shy or bashful! This is your parish, too! We welcome your input.
The past year has seen tremendous growth and our leadership teams of dedicated and loving professionals, many who volunteer long hours, have led us to exceed every possible measure of success! Our school has doubled its student population, our parish is growing in numbers and volunteers, our assets have increased, and our giving is going up, our outreach is evolving to help more and more folks beyond our walls, our facilities are cared for and becoming even more beautiful and future is brighter. And, our historic cemetery has opened not one, but two brand new sections in honor of St Francis of Assisi; one for our fellow humans with Section F: the St Francis of Assisi Green Memorial Section, and one for God’s smaller of creatures in the Angels of Assisi Pet Memorial Garden! Why? Because we maintain the mission of the parish from its founding and welcome everyone without reservation, keep our ‘eye on the ball’ we intimately know as Jesus, and maintain a heart that is extremely hospitable!
So, while this team of ours at Saint Miriam may not be real super heroes, at least not in the traditional sense, they give and care like they are, and each deserves a cape of their own!
There is much more to come, much more happiness to share, much more to be proud of…Thank you for all you do – from the leadership teams to the folks in the pews – to keep Saint Miriam growing and as lovely as ever! God bless us all…