The Temptation to Hate, Even in Lent.

 

Someone close to me received a text message from someone now removed from their life that read that our parish is home to ‘murderers, thieves, conmen, and rapists’. Yes, I agree, and I am proud of that fact.

Look, to be clear, I am not aware of anyone – other than myself, of course – that has transgressed the law or found their way to the wrong side of a set of jail bars over some youthful stupidity. But, it doesn’t matter. I don’t care. Yes, that’s right! I don’t care who did what or when or even to whom, as long as they sought forgiveness, repented, and became better creations to work for God and the Kingdom to come. I don’t care who is divorced, or gay, or unwanted, or rejected. I don’t care who was ever homeless, or immoral, or inadequate for others. I don’t care who they sleep with or who sleeps with them. Jesus was the One who was always preaching about love, tolerance, and forgiveness. In that, I follow His lead, and in doing so, I now know that God often calls the most unlikely, the most broken, the most rejected to lead the change needed to become better followers, a better church, a better faithful people.

To prove my point, we must all pause in this holy season and ask ourselves, ‘why’? Why do it this way? Why choose the broken and not the famous? Why choose them from before birth to be an apostle of Christ? Look at Paul! God allowed him to sink into wicked and violent opposition to Christ, a tax collector and an abuser of profit, and then save him dramatically and decisively on the Damascus road! Why? Because God often acts in ways that are not our ways. God is in control. God calls. God builds. That is good enough for me. It should be good enough for you, too.

I have been the object of ridicule, scorn, gossip, innuendo, backstabbing, misunderstanding, verbal assault, and outright abuse. I have also been the recipient of overwhelming love, unconditional support, and the most amount of respect I have ever received by those of you who call Saint Miriam home. That is not something you find in most parishes, if any at all. That is worth celebrating. You see, we follow Jesus; plain and simple. And, as we do, we love others, even ‘murderers, thieves, conmen, and rapists’, and yes, people like me.

So, here we are in the beginning of our annual Stewardship Appeal. It is time to ask ourselves why. Why support this parish and no others? Why do we welcome even the most broken? How does our radical welcome and warmth betray the world’s confidence and understanding, but simultaneously follows that radical example of Christ, whom we follow, worship, and adore?

We often say that we believe that “God’s light shines brightest through our cracks.” Don’t let that love fade. What we have is simply too limited.

Blessed Lent.

 



Shall We Journey to Be Better People…On Our Knees?

 

Today we begin our Lenten Journey. Today, we should look to become better people. Today we ask God to help us to be more merciful and loving, just like our Father in Heaven and the way our Lord, Jesus, taught us to be as a people of faith.

You see, mercy doesn’t have room for hatred or resentment; neither does love. Mercy asks us to forgive, even when we believe the person doesn’t ‘deserve’ to be forgiven, and love asks us to love, not because someone has ‘earned’ our love, but because we are dedicated to making love a part of our character. Even the most unlovable should be lovely to our hearts. This means we are to love even when someone is difficult to love. But, because we are human, to be merciful and loving is difficult to understand, and even harder to put into action. Enter Lent.

During this Lenten holy time, let us each take a serious look into our lives. Are there people in our lives we have not truly forgiven? How about ourselves? Have we been able to forgive ourselves for a past action or event or hurt? If so, let us ask God to take these relationships in our lives to reshape our hearts into hearts of love and mercy, even when it needs to be directed inwardly. Let us also ask ourselves this question: Have we hurt someone and not asked for forgiveness? Although we are called to have mercy and forgive those without being asked for forgiveness, saying ‘I’m sorry’ never hurts. It is never too late to apologize. Finally, let us recommit to God a portion of what we have been so generously given for this year’s Stewardship Appeal.
 
How might we support the work of this parish and God’s holy Church better this time of year? Do we recognize that what we have, we never really owned in the first place?
 
Our Lenten Prayer…
 

Dear God,

As we begin our Lenten journey, create in us hearts of mercy and love. Help guide us in acknowledging people in our lives whom we need to forgive. Help us to forgive even ourselves. Help us also recognize those whom we have hurt. Give us the courage and strength to not only give forgiveness but to also ask for forgiveness. Help us to be more generous toward others, toward You, and toward our parish.

In your name,

 Amen.

 


Of Chocolates and Ashes: What to do this Valentine’s Day!

 

 

Yes, it is true! Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fall on the very same day this year, something that has not occurred since 1945!

So, how do we address the conflict between the joy of St. Valentine’s Day and the somberness of Ash Wednesday when the observance of Ash Wednesday requires fasting in many traditions, and Valentine’s Day is a time for celebrating love, often by eating out and giving candy?

As Catholic Christians, Ash Wednesday begins the fasting season of the 40 days of Lent. Liturgical fasting during Lent emphasizes eating plainer food and refraining from “pleasurable” foods such as meat, dairy, and eggs. Many people “give something up” during Lent, as a way to prepare for Easter.

And, how can we forget St. Valentine, a priest in Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. Claudius was having difficulty enlisting enough soldiers for his army, which he attributed to men being reluctant to leave their wives and families, so he banned marriages and engagements, but Valentine defied the edict and continued to perform marriages. And, in good Catholic tradition was summarily arrested, beaten, and beheaded! He was executed on Feb. 14, in about 269 A.D., according to church tradition.

And so, now comes wisdom from on high! The Magisterium says that Catholics should fast on Ash Wednesday and celebrate Valentine’s Day dinner either on Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday”) the last day of allowable heavy consumption before Ash Wednesday fasting begins, or on another day when penitence is not required. I say phooey!

Rather than looking for a bridge, a compromise, or even the denial of one over the other, the combination of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday may be better framed as a welcome contrast for us to dive more deeply into our feelings and hopes. You see, next Wednesday the holy Church observes the ultimate and unconditional love of God, which calls us, in turn, to a time to self-denial, fasting, and repentance in the face of our own denial of God’s love in our lives and the reality of our mortality. But for us to ignore the secular would seems out of touch to me! Rather, story of St. Valentine is one of sacrifice, of witness, and of a changed life! (That all sounds pretty Lenten to me!)

The hope of the Lenten season is that we will find our lives transformed by the many ways we encounter God’s Word, by the richness of the Scripture readings chosen to encourage, to challenge, to confront, to comfort. Focusing only on the end goal would cause us to miss so much along the way. I would much rather have you observe Ash Wednesday in the daytime, and the love of another in the evening. Or, why not attend Mass together and then go to dinner to honor your relationship? Then, rather than worry about the denial of some pleasure, add something meaningful to your lives as a couple! Promise to attend Mass every Sunday, go to Stations of the Cross on Thursdays together, bring your children to Lenten observances or Adoration, or why not increase your gifts of time, talent, and treasure to the work of the parish and God’s holy church!? This way, this Lent, will have lasting impact, rather a fleeting pleasure of your boasting about not eating chocolate!

As penance finds its way into our lives next week, instead of giving up things like chocolate, Netflix, or alcohol, choose wisely and pray and reflect on the hope of the season ahead. 
 


How Much Can We Love?

 
Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do, but how much love we put into what we do.” It is an appropriate quote to begin this month, for as we turn the calendar page to February it brings a lift to our hearts for two reasons. One is the knowledge that no matter how much the bitterly cold wind chill numbers and icy roads have plagued our daily activities so far in the Philadelphia region, winter is halfway over! The second and more sustained reason for joy is that February is the month of love!
 
As Catholics, of course, we know that true love is always in season. We can look on the celebrations associated with the coming of St. Valentine’s Day, as we do those associated with Christmas— these are ways to reflect God’s great gift of love to us by sharing gifts of affection with those we love. And the women of Saint Miriam this year have a beautiful Valentine’s Gift Basket to raffle off just to be sure you get into the swing of the season, and to also show their love of our parish, too! But we also know that our call to express our love “in word and deed,” in tangible presence and action, is not limited to one day a year. Nor is it restricted to our circle of family and friends. 
 
And, this year I get to ask a very strange question: ‘When does Valentine’s Day start to feel less like a day of romance and more like a day of … ashes?’ This year! Yes! Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day for the first time since 1945! So, perhaps rather than worrying about giving up something, you might decide to use this opportunity to love even more! Why not focus on your love of each other, a lost friend, or a forgotten neighbor, a neglected or alone family member, and your parish family here, too? The world can always use more love! We are to love always and, in all ways, and this year we might just have a winning combination!
 
And, before you begin to grumble, I get it! I know it is difficult to love more, but I remind us all that we are called to be what we want to the world to become. So, we will start this Sunday with the Memorial of St. Blaise and the time-honored tradition of the blessing of the throats at all Masses. This is a unique way to extend the love and protection and gift of healing and prayer to those who come to us.
 

So, this coming month offers us yet another chance to reflect on the meaning of the love to which we are called. We begin with Scripture, where the First Letter of John puts it pretty uncompromisingly: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love”. Yet there is a world of difference between love used to describe the commitment of a couple celebrating 50 years of marriage and the love a fan uses it to describe devotion to a team in the coming Super Bowl and the Eagles (E-A-G-L-E-S!)!

Last week, I spoke of our love to God and I asked us all a very simple, yet very complex question: “Do we truly love and trust God”. This week, I would ask that we think of the many ways we use the word love, and the many ways in which we express love in action. Do we truly love God? Are we willing to trust God enough to place our lives into His hands?

St. Valentine reminds us not to take our personal relationships for granted. Perhaps this year we should use February to think about our engagement and commitment – the giving of time and tithing financially – to our parish? How might we better infuse this commitment with love and gratitude?

 I know this…in February I will love more than I ever have…
 


Loving Mom.

 

Like most children, I thought my parents were superheroes. My mom could open the tightest of jars and could carry us around while she finished her chores, even on an extended run to the grocery store. My dad could come back from a long day at work and still have the strength to play and take care of my sister and me, and plan our next visit to the beach together at Presque Isle.

I have been in denial about my mom’s aging until the last few months; living with her has proven to be difficult at times. She has become more forgetful and frail and the last trip to the hospital made her seem almost ‘mean.’ I realize that she does not process information like she used to, and her gait is slower and her speaking more measured. I also have tried to offset her changes by being more upbeat, but all to no avail. The hardest part of witnessing our parents age is seeing a regression in their strength and capabilities. The two people whom my sister and I turned to for a helping hand no longer have the physical or mental strength to do so; and one is already gone.

I use my blog to write about my feelings and how they impact the church. I also use my words as a teaching tool to show others you are not alone and that even priests are broken and deal with life matters and changes. My dad is gone, and my mom wanted to go back to Erie for an extended visit with my sister. She needed to go home. I feel like I lost her.

My sister, Andrea, and I have been dealing with these transitions for years now. First my dad’s stroke and then rehab and nursing care; finally, his death that tore us to our core. Now, we turn to care for mom. She wanted to come to live with me here. We welcomed her and made her a home here for almost two years, but over the last few months she longed for a return to Erie. I wasn’t ready to let go; she was.

One thing we all notice as our parents age is the change in their character. As we become more independent, they often become more demanding, forgetful, irritable, stubborn, and even angry. Because of this change in character, we are reminded that especially during this time we have to show the utmost kindness and respect to them. I have tried, and I know I have failed often. I love my mom and I wish she were able to be like the mom I knew, but age has somehow crept in when I wasn’t looking. Now, I will deal with another transition and walk into the unknown.

Now that we are older, stronger, and more capable than our parents, this is the time to really show our compassion to them. We are to be more generous, even when they speak out or cannot process information, or act in ways that we feel hurt. We must constantly remind ourselves that part of them is changed and will be made whole again, and until then, we give what they gave us: unconditional love. Our emotions will be stirred by what they say and do, and instead of getting angry, frustrated, or annoyed at them, we should restrain ourselves and try to be humble.

Just as they still loved us when we said or did things to hurt them as children, we in return must do the same in their old age. I have been dealing with loss as I age, too. This is one that I share with others, so they might find hope, and not fall into despair like I once did.

In the end, it will be my relationships that help me. My love for God and God’s love for me. My sister and her family. Those who love me most deeply, and my love for them. I will not call upon scripture or fancy idioms, but rather my deepest relationships to get me through this time, as I always have, and somehow – someday – I will see what God has planned for me, for them, for mom, too. You see, my mom’s greatest legacy for us will always be how she taught us how to love unconditionally, no matter what, no matter how broken or damaged we were. Now, we return that favor to her.

I know that I was not always the best child. I certainly could have been a better son. But, I also know, deep down, where my mom may not always be able to reach, there I am – perfect and whole – her beloved one. The good son, who remains in love with his mom.

May God have mercy on our parents and help us as we endure these transitions of life. May we harness all that we are as Christians to make these times less painful and more loving as we call upon God to bring us His peace.
 


Together, God Comes.

 

Well, we are almost away! That is, the parish Board of Directors, our ministry team, and myself, as your pastor, will be away for our annual board retreat this Friday and Saturday. Together, we will change our lives and allow God to come and change the parish, too.

I know that it doesn’t seem like that much time, but in our gathering together, we will make choices, decisions, and place expectations, and evaluate who we are and where we believe God wants us to go next as a parish community. Many think this is a rather mundane or routine process, but for us, it is dynamic and life giving and it has served us well for some almost ten years now.

We began to hold an annual time away for the board members all the way back to our days in a small rented chapel at Mishkan Shalom. Then, there were less than 25 parishioners in total, and the board made up almost half of them! But, we gathered, prayed, cried, sacrificed, laughed, and listened for that still small voice of God. Sometimes we felt we heard God loud and clear, like when we decided to ‘welcome everyone’. Other times, we thought God abandoned us, like when we made the decision to move to Blue Bell. It cost us part of the board back then, and even the president of the board left. No one believed we could do it. The few that remained did, and so we moved and prayed and had faith. From that big step, here we are today…

No, the constant decisions, and the upkeep on this place, and the prayer, and the direction are never easy. Many times, we all wanted to pack it up, call it a day, and tell God we gave it our best shot. Instead, God peeked through our clouds now and then and gave us just enough to keep going; to keep believing. We stayed. God stayed. Other followed. Saint Miriam thrived.

I am not sure what will come at the end of this year’s meeting, but I do know that whatever it is – whatever decisions are made – they will come from God, and as broken as we are, we will follow.

I was ready to think my service as pastor was not enough anymore, that maybe a change was needed; perhaps I had taken us as far as I could. Then, I received this note from a good friend. I will end with it, because through this note, God said, “James, you’re not done yet!”  
 
Pray for us that we put on the armor of God and serve you better and better…See you Sunday!
 

My Dear Friend, James

For those of us in ministry, the years can be tough. I know you are struggling. I am, too. But when we said yes to God to become a priest, there was never a promise it would be without hardship, right?

While many of our friends are off work and enjoying their family and friends, we are often ramping up into the end of the year, we give more of ourselves (or outpouring?) of ourselves to serve the church, God, and community.

It’s fulfilling AND it’s also exhausting!

So, from our team here to yours there, I just want to let you know that the work you are doing is a gift to the world. Lives will be changed for the better in no small part to your effort!

We, the church and the community, are eternally grateful for you, my brother! Stay strong. Stand your ground.

Aelred

 



This Place is Hopping!

 

Well, we are hopping! It isn’t even spring and Saint Miriam is entering fully into 2018! 

I drove onto the campus yesterday and needed to wait in line! Yes, I needed to actually wait for cars to park and people to move to where they were heading! Then, as I entered the building, I watched with great joy all the activity going on and I was overwhelmed for a moment on how far we have come! There were children running, teachers engaging young minds, administration keeping the parish going strong, ministry team members serving God and community, staff members were preserving our campus, ice was being removed from fixtures and grounds crews for the cemetery were on task, as our own maintenance team were also repairing our facilities, and keeping us all safe. There were also visitors and families, small groups meeting, and support groups, as well; not to mention the Tommy Conwell Rock Academy, too! So much going on, every day, in our little corner of the world. We should all be proud of what we have done together in such a short span of time.

In just about a month, believe it or not, we will enter Lent already; then in March of this year, we will celebrate our 10th anniversary as a parish, and the 200th anniversary of the site we now are stewards of! We will be honoring both as Bob Pardi is already working diligently on gathering information and planning a celebration! Yes, God is good.

In our ten years of us being a parish, we have become so more than we could have ever dreamed. Our Franciscan identity serves us well because we serve so well. We have served others without reservation and made needed changes when they came. We have never stopped loving, or welcoming, and we have grown into a fine parish where everyone who comes feels welcomed and included; they know God is here.
 
I realize that I am not a prefect leader and that mistakes did occur and my cracks sometimes were abundant! I can only hope that I have served better than my worst mistake. I pray that you will continue to love me, pray for me, and support me, as I do each of you. I have come to realize fully that together we are better.
 

As I look toward gathering with the board next week to see where God wants us to go next, I am so comforted by the fact that God has always been here, because we have also prayed God would be. We have kept our eye on Jesus, and while it hasn’t always been easy, it has been fulfilling because we love with wild abandon. We love and welcome beyond what the world thinks wise. I think that is a pretty wonderful thing!

I can’t wait to see what the next ten years brings us!

 



A Time for Change or the Status Quo?

 

Well, as I mentioned in my Franciscan Devotion for this week, here we are! Another brand-new year! A time of transition, change, and reflection. And, while it may not always be easy, it is also a time for us – as a parish community – to do the same!

Each and every year, about this time, just as the calendar unfolds into a new year, the parish board and our ministry team leadership take a couple of days to go on retreat. This year, we will do so with the Community of St. John the Baptist in New Jersey in mid-January. We will sit, talk, pray, and reflect. We will hold each of you in prayer and love, and make decisions that will impact, change, or alter things that may need change or may not be working so well, or we may decide to simply leave alone what is working. All of this will be done, as it always has been, in community, with respect, and in open dialogue with one another. This is the way God comes and helps us to discern. This is how we have become Saint Miriam!

Over the last few weeks, well into the prior Thanksgiving season, I have been doing my own reflections and making needed changes. While most of this has been to improve my life, increase my personal happiness, to find a sense of accomplishment, as well as to let go of some stress, it has also been to allow for me to remain a strong leader and warm and accessible pastor. They say that ministry is hard. That is an understatement. And, for the last few months, as I have dealt with my seasonal depression, the remembering of my dad, as well as caring for my mom now, I have noticed that I needed to also find a way to regain my focus, and to stay steadfast at the helm of what makes us, well…’us’. I realized that I was on the verge of what we call ‘ministry burnout’. This should have been expected, as we have done so much with our less than ten years together! Yes, God has been good, and we have grown, expanded, and moved and now have grown even more, but that has come at a cost to all of us; a shared cost that we should all be so proud of. It has also cost me a sense of being me.

You see, being a pastor means that I am human, too. But, many folks forget that I am human, have human needs, and need to reflect and engage my broken parts! I have become more open to my own sense of being broken since my brain surgery, and what legacy I will leave when I am called to return home to God, but I failed to also note that my humanness demands I care for myself and that I am able to maintain a personal life, too. So, over the last year, with the help of my administration and ministry teams, I have tried to allow myself more personal space, take a day off now and again, as well as work on my personal ‘stuff’. Some of you may have noticed that I have needed more time for myself and some days I have been distant or reclusive. As I was working on healing from being berated in the press and made to feel a villain, I have shut down at times to find strength and to grow into a better person. This may have heightened your anxiety, and caused a few rumors to spread, but I assure you, I am okay and that this is normal. I, like you, need to be fully human every now and again, and not a priest or a pastor, just me…just James.

Living in a Friary is often tough business, too! I am almost always accessible; perhaps too accessible. I am always working, always on, and folks often just walk upstairs without notice or warning! I, like many of you, perhaps forget that I need my personal life and personal space to become and remain a good pastor, but also a good James! In other words, we all need to remember to reflect and change and grow. One cannot grow without change. Once cannot become fulfilled if all we do is live and work and not care for one another, and ourselves. I am learning how to be kinder and gentler to myself, how to forgive my wounds and my past mistakes, as I also try to become a better priest for all of you.

And, there is my request! I would like you to engage us, and me as your pastor! Send me your suggestions, your needs, any desired changes, and tell me what is good and what you wish we might look at again! Allow us to use our retreat this year to come back renewed and rejuvenated and focused on what makes this place so wonderful. (Please be kind in your writing to me and use this forum to help everyone.) Let us also allow one another the room to grow personally, and as a community, to maintain our personal and our corporate lives, to not be hard on one another with false words, or meaningless innuendo, but to love and to love deeply.

The world is full of hurt, we are different. We always have been, and I pray our radical welcome will always be different to include the hurting, the lost, the sojourner, the seeker, and yes, even me, too.

I will end with a wonderful idiom I was given this week; may it bring us peace this new year.

Always do what makes you happy, the naysayers are there to remind you not to be like them!
 


And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet…

 

Life is all about change and the transitions we experience as we adjust to them from year to year. And one of the biggest ones is almost here! New Year’s Day!

As this will be my last blog of 2017, I thought we should all enter a brand-new year, as many folks do by seeking a proper direction, rather than the making of some impossible plan! I know that this time of year oftentimes leads us to grand and audacious plans, with huge goals and big ideas! We make seemingly impossible ‘new year’s resolutions’ that almost always get broken, as real life settles back in as the norm. But, this time of transition should mean new changes deeper within us; the kind that will make us better people.

If I could offer any small bit of learned advice, it would be to think back before you move forward and ponder how your life has changed this past year. Maybe I will use my own life by way of example!

Here is how my life has changed in 2017. I have grown older, but a bit wiser. I have found a way to let go of my deep grief over the loss of my dad to smile again when I think of him. I live in a new home, built by a loving parish. Our campus is simply beautiful and together this parish thrives and grows because we have learned to let God work and Jesus to dwell here. The children here are loved, protected, and joyful! They will grow up in a parish unlike the one I did, where love is prevalent and their lives matter. I have had some personal transitions, but in them someone walked into my life who reminded me that I am loved so deeply. No, I am not perfect, and that is simply okay. For the first time, however, I feel worthy and accepted and whole. That is my greatest gift this year and I thank God for allowing this to happen to me.

And what about us? Well, we said goodbye to a few who felt their journey with us had come to an end, and we grieved their going, but we welcomed so many newcomers to our loving table. We bid farewell to a few beautiful souls, and will one day we believe – and trust – we will see them again. We welcomed the newly baptized, anointed the sick, held the dying, prayed for those who asked and a few who didn’t, and loved many in marriage. We flung wide the doors of our hearts and allowed every single person who wanted to come and join us to do so and feel loved and hopeful again, too. We improved our grounds, built a rectory, added additional classrooms and offices, renovated our spaces, and cared for the homeless, and those in need. We kept true to our mission of extending the radical welcome to all who come. Our doors, and our hearts, have remained open unconditionally, and have become such loving places to everyone. Yes, we have much to be proud of, and 2017 was good to us, because we were good to God.

St. Bernadette Soubirous once said, “From this moment on, anything concerning me is no longer of any interest to me. I must belong entirely to God and God alone. Never to myself.”

So, there it is! That will be my simple resolution this year: to become better at lessening the focus on me and to continue an   intentional focus on the needs of others, especially those who love me so deeply and taught me to love myself, the church, my parish, and my God. Why? Because I have learned that I am truly happy when I give freely to others, and when I allow God to love me by hearing His voice in those who love me so deeply, and when I find God in the small things, because those are the things that really matter.

As one page of our calendar will soon now almost imperceptibly flip into another, and thereby cause the birth of a brand-new year, tethered to our hopes and dreams of a fonder tomorrow; and as we remember, too, those lost to time, but never to God, it is a good time to also reflect on ourselves and how we view God in the world and within our very lives.

Join me and let us all make this the year we finally realize our lives are so filled with love and hope, and would be so empty without such a loving God in our midst.

To all who taught me the power of unconditional love. I am so very grateful and love you beyond measure!

Blessed New Year!
 

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!

and surely I’ll buy mine!

And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,

for auld lang syne.