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.
 


Going Home for Christmas…Finally!

 

It was Christmas 2014. I left right after Mass that day to head home to Erie to get there before my dad left us. I knew the time was close. I never made it; just 30 minutes, that’s all I needed. I lost my dad and my world crumbled. It stayed that way now for some almost three years. Oh, sure, most wouldn’t notice, as I put up a good front and weep in the darkness when no one is around, but my heart – and my life – has been broken ever since.

That is why The Longest Night, our annual ‘Blue Christmas’ Service tomorrow evening at 6:30pm, is so healing for me and so important. It allows me to actually cry at church – the only home I have now –  and feel my grief and let go of some of my grief. Tomorrow, I will heal a bit more and become a bit more whole again. I may never be the same, but whatever is left, God will use for good. That I know and that I trust.

While studying in seminary in Washington, DC, I had the honor praying on the Howard Thurman Chapel at Howard University School of Divinity. Howard Thurman, an African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, as well as someone whose legacy has impacted my worldview, once penned these moving words,

“There must be always remaining in every man’s life some place for the singing of angels — some place for that which in itself is breathlessly beautiful and by an inherent prerogative, throwing all the rest of life into a new and creative relatedness — something that gathers up in itself all the freshets of experience from drab and commonplace areas of living and glows in one bright light of penetrating beauty and meaning — then passes. The commonplace is shot through with new glory — old burdens become lighter, deep and ancient wounds lose much of their old, old hurting. A crown is placed over our heads that for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow tall enough to wear. Despite all the crassness of life, despite all the hardness of life, despite all of the harsh discords of life, life is saved by the singing of angels.” And so, it did this year. This year, I gained an angel and hope is renewed and the harshness that once was is now gone.

You see, this year, my friend Katelyn made me the gift I used as my image today. It was my Christmas gift from her and she handmade it herself, and she could not have chosen anything better. The image is lovely as could be, but it is the wording that touched my heart most deeply, “I’ll be home for Christmas.” 

Home was always important to me from the time I was a child. I loved going home and being at home! When I left home for college, I returned for every break and for every holiday. From San Diego to Great Lakes to Erie was my route back home from the United States Navy. When I left for seminary, the time away was longer due to demands of learning and formation, but I still returned home. When I studied aboard, I was home by the end of a very long year. Yes, no matter where I was, I always knew where home was, but home has not been the same for me since I became a priest.

You see, as a priest my home is wherever I am needed. From Chaplaincy services to my years as a Trauma Chaplain in some of the nation’s largest Level 1 Trauma Centers, to becoming a parish priest, my home was never a place, but rather a need. I go where needed, and when I am there, I am home for a time.

Moving to Flourtown, I gave up my condominium in Philadelphia, moved into a tiny house and lived in a motor home for some two+ years, I endured freezing winters, waking up to no water, and learning the lesson of conservation the hard way! My commute time was less than 45 seconds, but it never really felt like a home. Now that the Friary Rectory is done, I thought I might have home back in my world, but even with my mom here, it is more akin to a hotel, than a permanent home. I am often reminded of Luke’s Gospel where Jesus says, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Yes, being a priest is a homeless position where you go where needed, and where home is so elusive until God calls you to a place of rest.

That is why Kate’s gift came at the best possible time! As Howard Thurman said, ‘old burdens become lighter, deep and ancient wounds lose much of their old, old hurting’, and because of her love for me, it has done just that; her simple, selfless gift has turned my world just at the right time! Any earlier, it would have been lost in the darkness of my grief; any later it could not have been undervalued or under appreciated. Her timing – and God’s – was impeccable. This beautiful gift is cherished far beyond my mere words here can ever express, for I am a mere mortal and broken man. But, suffice-it-to-say, Kate gave me this gift at a time where I was ready to let go of my deep pain and tragic loss of my dad – I had to let it go – in order to try and find home again, but this time within me.

So, you see, the lesson of Christmas is that home is never a place, it is rather a feeling or a destination that dwells deep within you all the time, even when you fail to know it is there! The Christ has never left me, even when I felt abandoned in my loss and depression, God was still there; Jesus was still holding me. But it took the passage of time, the softening of my deep grief, and the gift of an angel named Katelyn to remind me that Christmas, too, is not a day. No, Christmas lives all year long!

Merry Christmas, dad. I miss you. Merry Christmas, Katelyn, thank you for being my true gift this year and sharing my life! And a Blessed Christmas and Happy New Year to all!
 


“If Not Now, When?”

 

One of our parishioners sent me a little encouragement when I was healing from my leg injury. For some reason, I kept it all these weeks, not discarding the email like I would normally do, but somehow knowing it would be needed. So, it was saved, until today.

She told me how she had been reading some literature of the Jewish Holocaust, just a few books that had been waiting for her attention, as they remained nestled on a shelf for years. Her most recent two readings are by a renowned Italian author, an Auschwitz survivor, and Jewish-Italian doctor named, Primo Levi, who was in a Partisan group and deported to Auschwitz in the last year of the war. His work, “If Not Now, When?”,  is a riveting story of Jewish partisans who fought back, both men and women, in Eastern Europe over several years. She enthusiastically reported that she ‘could not put it down.’ So much so, she decided to read his second book, “The Drowned and the Saved”. This work is replete with questions of moral ambiguity that are both disturbing and thought provoking. He finished this last contemplation of the Holocaust before his death in 1987, sadly at his own hand by suicide.

Observing a general loss of understanding about Nazi Germany, as time passes and eyewitnesses die, he asks this deep question, “How much of the concentration camp world is actually dead?” Now removed from the experience by time and age, Levi chose to serve more as an observer of the camp than the passionate young man of his previous work. He writes of ‘useless violence’ inflicted by the guards on prisoners and then concludes his book with a discussion of the Germans who have written to him about their complicity in the events of the war. In all, Levi tries to make sense of something that he knew made no sense at all.

Toward the end of the work, Levi asks his reader, and down to us here today, a vital inquiry for thought, ‘What can each of us do, so that in this world pregnant with threats, at least this one threat will be nullified?’ Levi’s answer is a thoughtful analysis of the process that was the camps back then, but his chilling conclusions about the conditions that created them, are uncomfortably relevant to current events we face, as terrorism and apathy pervade today.

I think that is why this week I am preparing for an end to Advent that ironically falls literally hours before Christmas will be observed. This year, the Early Mass at 7:30am on December 24th is actually the observance of The Fourth Sunday of Advent. Then, hours later, we will gather as a community for the 4:30pm Family Mass and Christmas will be upon us! But, for me, it is what happens, as we prepare our hearts in Advent, that will make or break Christmas Day.

So, let us gather and ask ourselves, have we become better people? Have we decided to care more for the parish and one another than some random toy or game? Have we cared for the poor and the needy? Have we given a gift to the underprivileged with our annual Giving Tree? What have you and I done – each one of us – that we can legitimately point to that will prevent chaos, heartbreak, and apathy from winning, while the Christ Child is born anew to us?

Perhaps I will end in a rather unorthodox manner for me. Rather than give you my answers, let me allow you to forge on you own. I will end with a writing from Sir Francis Drake, an English sea captain who lived from 1540-1596. He was the second sailor to circumnavigate the globe. Below is his famous prayer, found on page 143, one that it would appear God heard and rewarded.

Let’s make it ours today, and see where God takes us in our journey toward Christmas. After all, ‘if not now, when?’

 

Prayer for the Parish

Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little,
when we arrive safely because we have sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of the things that we possess,
we have lost our thirst for the waters of life;
having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity;
and in our efforts to build a new earth,
we have allowed our vision of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas
where storms will show your mastery,
where loosing sight of land, we shall find the stars.

We ask you to push back the horizons of our hopes,
and to push us into the future in strength, courage, hope and love.
This we ask in the name of our Captain, who is Jesus Christ.
Amen.
 


Saving Advent.

 

Yesterday, I received a photo from one of our families via text message. They texted me because they missed Mass on the First Sunday of Advent, but wanted me to know that they still honored the traditional lighting of the Advent wreath at home with their children. They were gathered around their dining room table and the small Advent wreath was being lit by their children. They ended with a note of the impact Saint Miriam has had on their lives that they would do this, despite missing church. I was touched and felt as if we really do matter.

If you look at Saint Miriam by the barometer the world uses to measure success stories, we aren’t very much at all, I suppose. A medium size parish that is growing, but where most activity occurs only on Sundays. One where, despite our best pleadings, not everyone gives to support her financially, and where less than 30% of parishioners have returned their end of year gifts. A parish that is always present when needed, but that need often escapes most folks until they are in trouble; then we become more important for a time until the need or circumstance passes. Then, we are relegated to the periphery of their lives once again. I have learned to live at the margins until needed and then I give and retreat back. It is not always easy, but it is the life of ministry.

If you look at the way we place importance upon things, I would imagine that is how we do with most of them. The importance, or relevance, is always changing based on our needs, but that is why Advent calls us to look at things differently and to place others ahead of ourselves.

A few years ago, I don’t remember where, I found a short video posted online. It was called something like, “The Advent Conspiracy.” It was a grassroots movement that was started by a few Christian churches to bring some sanity back to the season we now find ourselves within. It hoped to bring more worship and less consumerism to Christmas, to “give presence.” Its four principles were, “Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All.”  I wonder what would happen if we all made a concerted effort to just that this season; if only for a month?

For me, especially this month, the earth seems to be dying as I walk around our campus. Perhaps I am dying a little, too, and that is part of the plan of God. The once beautifully green and lush foliage now finds trees that have lost their canopy; the grass has withered and brought the mowers to a standstill. The beauty of colored flowers have given way to the emergence of the only things that stand to retain their hue: the dark green of the evergreen and the deep brown of the earth. The wind has increased from its more northerly direction and frost appears daily upon my car. Even the sunlight is less, the darkness more and the nights seem longer, deeper, darker, and sometimes more foreboding. In just a few days, we will come to the Winter Solstice, the longest day of the year, with the year’s least amount of daylight. Symbols not to be lost or overlooked, I would imagine for us now. These changes remind me of the impermanence of this world and that I need to always focus on something greater that will always be present, always sustaining, always giving, always feeding. It is during this time of year; this very specific time of year that God has deemed to grant us the wonderful opportunity called Advent.

I say opportunity because it is more than just a liturgical season. It is a time to be challenged as a world, as a people, as Christians, and as practicing Catholics, but more importantly, inside ourselves where God dwells and where the tensions of the world seem to be at their height; their strongest. We are called to pause and reflect on what needs to be changed in the world and within ourselves. What is broken, damaged, in need of repair, what needs to be changed, and Who do we want to help us effectuate those repairs? Is our parish worthy of more than a ‘now and again Sunday appearance’ and do we respect her – and all that she does for us – to give and sustain her from our bounty this season, and not just from our leftovers?

Yes, Advent is our season and our chance to change and to become better people, but to do we must focus on others and on God.

Will you help me save Advent this year?