Our Weekly Devotional from
One of the most prevalent ideas of stymied church growth is their lack of willingness to adapt to change. It has been a topic of mine for several weeks as we use Lent as a time to look at ourselves, our parish, and where God is asking us to make changes to allow for growth. We have all agreed that as difficult as it is, sometimes a tree only grows with pruning.
God comes. That is what I always say, and, yesterday was no different! There we were, sitting and discussing this topic in the library, when one of the participants was not sure that a church needed to change. We allowed the discussion to continue until the point was made and then, one of the other participants reminded us that she was a member of Zion, the church that was here before us, and that they dwindled down to less than eight members with not a single new visitor in years. As she ended her point so eloquently, “Those statistics that Father quoted at the start of today, that was us.”
When I was a young boy, I learned that I had been adopted. Now, I loved my family and was never treated any differently and was loved very deeply. I felt different, though. I knew that I had been an orphan and being an orphan meant that you were not wanted. At least that is how I saw things then. One day, my mother taught we a little song to sing every morning. It made me laugh and reminded me that every day I should begin with a song, because every day was chance to begin again, begin anew, begin fresh, and sing!
My song can now be your song. My song can be your chance to let go of fear, allow change, welcome transition, and watch God grow in your life. A new song can be your way of protesting against the way the world is, and be your refusal to accept the present world – as it is – and permit change to come and make things better! A song sung today can usher in a place where you realize that perceptions can be wrong, stories have two sides, gossip harms, and not supporting the church wounds real people.
I have learned in my years as a priest that the holy Church is always at its best when it is the most daring, most risky, most dangerous, and when it is free to sing a new song! For it is in that new song the power of the Gospel of our Christ forces the world – and every parish in every church scattered throughout the world – to recognize that it must change or die, and in that change God’s power is finally brought into the present tense!
Can you dare to sing a new song today? Will you actually allow God to bring change where it is needed to reach more people and bring wholeness to others? Will you let go of your own selfness needs and help God in times of transition to bring the boldness of true love to others?
Lent is a time of self-reflection and self-discovery. It is true for laity and clergy alike. It is true for me. I once penned in a Blog post that the hardest thing I endure as a priest is always having to say goodbye. It is most especially true when you pastor a growing parish.
I used to think, in my younger and more naiveté days, that as the parish grew more and more people would come and simply stay. I have learned that is farthest thing from the truth! As the hold southern saying says, ‘folks come, and folks do go, but one thinks for sure, they surest go!’ I suppose if we operate a parish and not a prison, that will always be the case, but it is something I will never get used to; I mourn every person that leaves our fold, but I also know that in many cases we grow when God prunes.
Now, folks leave for all kinds of reasons. Some are disgruntled staff members who find the work too difficult. Some leave because the time required is too exhausting or demanding. Some leave because their commitment is less than what is needed to engage in true active ministry. Numbers of gifted persons and organizations have studied the phenomenon of the church “back door,” (the metaphorical way we describe people leaving the church), but all the research studies of which I am aware, including my own analysis, return to one major theme to explain the exodus of church members: a sense of some need not being filled. In other words, these members have ideas of what a local parish should provide for them, and they leave because those provisions have not been met.
So, then, perhaps Lent is a time for pruning after all. We prune ourselves of things that need to be let go of; the parish prunes folks who no longer wish to help us grow, thrive, and serve; and the Church prunes to allow the gospel to be spread to the four corners of the earth by servant-hearted people who wish to remain and wish to become better than themselves; better they could have of dreamed of, if only they truly trusted God and let go.
Lent is about noticing our blindness and seeing differently. For some of us it is about seeing clearly for the very first time in our lives…
I know, I am late. I am actually intentionally late in writing this devotion. You see, I was away this past weekend to make a Pastoral Visit to St. Padre Pio in Summerville, South Carolina. They also had five individuals, one adult and four children, who were prepared for Confirmation! They needed me to come and as their bishop, and I went. As you know, I rarely “inhabit the habit” of Bishop Ordinary, unless there is a diocesan or liturgical reasons to do so. I am a pastor in my heart, but being Chief Pastor comes with its needs, its advantages, and its joys, too. So, as I said, I went where needed and made my visit there this past weekend.
Now, to be honest, I did not intend to write late. I had every intention of getting up early on Monday, before heading back to the Charleston International Airport for my flight home and penning a devotion, as I always do. But with the intensity of all the events, the work that was needed and the coordination, too, as well as that time change thing, I was totally wiped out! Then, on my flight home, I realized that one of the main reasons I was so tired was that I was out of my normal routine and away from my own home; I was out of my ‘comfort zone’. I was ‘out of my element’ for several days, away from the normal people who inhabit my life, but in that time God came and taught me a few lessons. A few lessons for Lent that even the most tenured of priest and layperson alike could use to deepen their own faith journey. I share them here today…
First, you must always go where called. I went to where God needed me and where God’s people needed me. I did not want to go. It is hard to leave here with all our busyness and the myriad of stuff to do, but I promised. So I went. I learned and was overjoyed. I am grateful God took me to St. Padre Pio. They are a people of light and overwhelming love. They welcomed me. Many even kissed my ring several times, despite my protestations. They wanted me to know of their respect and love. I learned that I desperately needed theirs, too.
Second, you must be willing to give your all. I was not at home here at Saint Miriam. I was there in a place that knew me not. I could have skimped on the liturgy, my dress, the certificates, the way I celebrated the Mass, the homily, or in any number of areas. I could have arrived later and left earlier. I could have celebrated the Mass where I was definitely needed, and then skip out right after and missed enjoying their hospitality that was optional. I could have skipped engaging them in conversation, learning their stories, or hugging the confirmandi. But if I had done even one of those ‘misses’, my life would be less fortunate. I would be less a man and certainly less a pastor and shepherd.
Thirdly, you must go beyond yourself and welcome all God’s people. A more diverse group of people you could not find than at St. Padre Pio! That would be my summation line for my experience there during my visit. I noted their highly diverse statures: a tall skinny man, a very well-dressed lady and her husband, a poorer looking man who wore clothing more tattered than the rest, an older more plump lady, a bright-eyes child, a baby cradled in his mother’s arms, the New York City cop with his stern face and a beer in his hand at fellowship (that he brought with him!), the learning-disabled man who cried as he kissed my ring, and the very, very energetic woman who could never stop telling me how much she loved this parish, next to her very quiet husband who simply smiled at me a lot; to that recovering addict who stated clearly, “Bishop, thank you; this place saved my life”, and the erratic gentleman who was obviously on medication who welcomed me as best he could, to the refined folks who simply sat and smiled at me, but who – one could easily tell – were comforted by my presence and enjoyed my sense of humor, especially when I began my homily with, “Who hates bishops as much as me?!” Yes, their diversity was evident in the color of their skin tones, their ethnicity, their age, and their dress, but they were the same in their faith and love of their parish and of our Lord.
Jesus reached beyond His own people. He reached beyond the perceived mandate and beyond His own comfort to seek and to find ‘the others’. In Chapter 15 of the Gospel of Matthew, we find Jesus reaching out beyond perceived societal norms to welcome the ultimate stranger in that Canaanite woman. The woman sought Jesus out, even as He withdrew from people, and she was persistent in her need because her own daughter was possessed. As Walter Brueggeman says so well, ‘She was the ultimate outsider and she comes to the ‘Ultimate Insider’ and instructs Him on His true and greater mission! Through the persistent faith of this woman, Jesus finds His larger vocation as the Messiah of all peoples. Jesus learns that being faithful often means reaching beyond one’s comfort zones to gather, embrace, welcome, and care for the others in our world. I learned that lesson again, too, this weekend at St. Padre Pio, and I am grateful.
Thank you, gracious God, for allowing me – a sinner and yet still a servant of Your holy Church – to learn the lesson of continued true servanthood. Gather us all, dear God, and draw us where You might call us. In this holy Season of Lent, make us better people by allowing us the fortitude of mission to welcome the stranger and embrace the outsider.
How will you see that in many ways you are the ‘other’ to someone else? How will you go beyond your own comfort zones this Lent to find a better, more compassionate you?
Change is inevitable. It always amazes me, however, how much we rebel against it. How much we disdain it. How much we become anxious and almost petrified of change. Then, change comes, newness springs forth, and the world is anew again and we learn – but only briefly – that change is good.
Ponder these words of Walter Brueggmann:
the world waits for newness;
settled wisdom knows nothing of newness;
settled wealth knows nothing of newness;
settled power knows nothing of newness.
This is where Lent lovingly guides and deeply disturbs us simultaneously. This is where we must go and sink and learn in order to become something new in Christ. We must let go of false, bad ways and learn to embrace new, life-giving ones. We must let go of things that rob of us our joy, and engage these that bring freshness to our being. We must discard bad habits, and delight in ones that will be worthy of what we are: a temple of the living Holy Spirit.
Because God is God, there are things that make God happy and there are those things that displease God greatly. God chose what is foolish to help us become wise in living better; in being better people: more compassionate, more caring, more loving, bearers of the Gospel of His only Child. We know these things to be true, but to make them different requires change and we are afraid of change.
When we began our parish some almost nine years ago, no one could have told me how many times I would witness change. How many times I would need to say ‘goodbye’ to friends I took into my life and heart as family. No one could tell me how many times I would say goodbye through death, relocation, change in life circumstances, and yes, even through disagreement. No one could tell me how many times, in my role as pastor, I would need to even hold the door myself and wish them well for the good of the whole community. And no one could tell me how many times we would change. But, we have, and we have grown because sometimes to grow you must first prune. Sometimes that pruning is intentional, sometimes by mistake, but always at the hands of God to help us on our way, to bring growth through change.
We have been here together on our new campus and witnessed much growth and much change in our almost two years here, the end of this coming summer. In my blog this week, I will spend some time with you on more change that must occur to allow us to grow. Change will come in board direction, structure of operations, and staffing changes, too. I ask that you begin to approach these changes with one eye in to the past, and one toward tomorrow. The eye of your past should look back to our beginning with only two people in a rented chapel in a Jewish synagogue in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia, and then flash forward to today on 12+ acres in Montgomery County with a vibrant parish, school, a historic cemetery, too, and a community that knows Jesus and lives by a strong Covenant to love one another, even in our goodbyes. The eye to the future should relish the fact that with every change, growth, stability, and new folks in need of that love and seeking our type of welcome and compassion have been brought to our door; a door that would not have even existed if not for change.
“It is believed that St Francis refrained from eating out of reverence for the fasting of the Christ, who fasted forty days and forty nights without taking any material food; and thus, with just a half loaf of bread, he kept from himself the poison of vainglory. After St. Francis had sustained this marvelous abstinence, God granted many miracles through his merits; for which cause men began to build houses there, arid to inhabit them; and in a short time there was built a large and prosperous village…and to this day the men and women of the village have great reverence and devotion for the spot where St Francis made this Lent.”
Last evening in Hollywood, California, Mahershala Ali became the very first Muslim actor to win an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Ali gave a humble speech, thanking those in his life who helped him achieve such a deserved feat. He said,
“I want to thank my teachers, my professors,” the “Moonlight” actor began. “One thing they consistently told me […] was that it wasn’t about you. It’s not about you, it’s about these characters, you are a servant. You’re in service to these stories and these characters.”
It’s not about you. There is it! That is the secret to what makes a Christian a good Christian. It is why Catholics, who are to believe in the inherent dignity of all persons, should welcome and love them beyond what the world thinks wise. It is what makes a priest a good priest. It is what makes a person humble and worthy of making real change. It is about finding where true happiness lies. It is where forgiveness is hatched, and true love is born.
I have always been intrigued to learn the derivations of words. The etymology of a word can give insight into its use and function and deeper meaning, often hidden in a world so busy as ours in this modern ‘always-on’ century. One such word for me was ‘minister’. I learned the meaning in seminary and it stuck with me all these years. It is what I have become by first learning to let go of myself! The word minister comes from around the year 1300 and means ‘to render service or aid’, but derives directly from the Latin word, ministrare meaning ‘less’. You see, you cannot serve, attend, render aid, or assist; you cannot minister unless you are willingly able to be less than the one you serve. I could think of no better way to begin to prepare us for a deeper and more meaningful Season of Lent.
The disciples watched with supreme indignation, and were completely astonished, perhaps even embarrassed, when the Lord became a servant and took a towel, a simple basin, and some water and began to wash dirty feet. Their indignation soon turned into anxiety when they heard Him say, “Do you know what I have done?” The disciples, who should have by now learned so much from Him replied, “Yes, you washed some feet.” The Lord turned and said to them in reply, “More than that; for if I your Lord and Teacher have washed feet, I have now set an example that you should do as I have done.”
To be clear, it was based on that introduction, that later the Lord gave us the Great Commandment, to love one another! You cannot truly love unless you get out of your own way, let go of your own fears, your own hatred, your own vengeance, your own pride, your own hypocrisy, your own arrogance, your own mean-spiritedness, your own self-serving attitude, your own inhospitality, your own lack of welcome, your own unwillingness to forgive, your own malice, your own…way.
St. Francis once said, “While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart.”
Ease is harder on progress and enlightenment than hardship. Yes, you read that correctly. Ease makes us soft and unlikely to make much progress toward spiritual growth, the desire to help others, and deepen our love of God and our desire to make our way toward our true life where we behold Him face to face.
It is a primary reason to attend Mass, go to church, and be one with the community. For it is only there that we remind ourselves of the story – The True Story – the life-giving, life-changing, world-altering story of the One who saves us all by taking on our wretchedness and bringing us to the grace of new life in God. Undeserved. Unmerited. Unrelenting. It is within the community of faith – our parish – where we personally, collaboratively, socially, and ecclesiastically engage the story because the world is too harsh, too busy, too cynical, too anxious, too preoccupied by self- interest, and too much in denial to do the same.
The cloudy darkness and opaque thickness of pain ultimately brings healing by making us more receptive to others, bringing knowledge of true-self, renewing a depth to our faith, and granting us the gift of true empathy and compassion in order to love all, even those, and that, which we despise so deeply.
But, remember that the remarkable revelation of our Christian faith is that God, too, was in torment. God, too, hurt with a depth that even God could hardly bear it. Like two parents loving a delinquent teenager where that love must at times simply learn to be a form of toleration, until a breakthrough occurs and change happens. So, in His own pain, God saved us – you and me, undeserving, terrible human beings, you and me – and so many others like us – to bring us to eternal life.
So, then, it is true. Love always wins. Love triumphs through alienation, and pain, rejection, and silence to bring us to newness! That is the Story we celebrate. Remember that in the end, it is only death that brings new life…
Our salvation, then, comes in a broken package, but we are not alone. Jesus’ life was cruciform long before the crucifixion and so shall ours be, too, as we become imitators of the One who saves us in this life to preserve it in the next. We will always have our trials and we will always have our ‘satans’, but we shall overcome because we believe in the One. St. Francis himself reminds us that ‘Men lose all the material things they leave behind them in this world, but they carry with them the reward of their charity and the alms they give. For these, they will receive from the Lord the reward and recompense they deserve.’ And so, we press on, and do our best, and treat others with mercy, love, forgiveness, and justice. We do not store here the things that fail us.
When Jesus says, “What you have done to the least of these, you have done it unto me,” He is not speaking sentimentally, nor even ideologically, but rather with a depth that only the truly perceptive can feel! You see, Jesus sees Himself in the hungry, the naked, the lost, and the imprisoned because of the desert experience, and, ironically, the devil was the one who made it so. After the desert, it is through the eyes of the “least of these” that our Christ cannot help but to gaze forever after upon the world. It is why the beautifully moving, “Beggar Christ: When I was Hungry” bronze statue by Timothy Schmalz, based on the Gospel of Matthew 25, welcomes everyone to our parish doors. A reminder to all who come to us of what we believe, and what we maintain in that deep belief.
So then maybe the good news, the message of salvation from Jesus, is not fantasy, but a reality yet to come if only we follow; truly follow. Perhaps they are truths revealing the paradoxically, upside-down truth that from suffering we are redeemed by the very hands of God…
Psalm 39:5, perhaps says it best, “Lord, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am.”
The fire of God’s love and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is most evidenced by St. Francis’ own constant adoration when he prayed, “We adore You, Lord Jesus Christ, in all Your churches throughout the world, and we bless You, because by Your holy cross You have redeemed the world!”
St. Clare, too, followed closely this adoration and the desire with oneness with the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The Poor Ladies nurtured the commoners and nobility alike to discover the fullness of life by basking in the light of the Living God made present in Adoration!
Saint Miriam is making a strong push toward Adoration of late and a new brochure entitled, “Join us in Adoration of Our Lord at Saint Miriam!”, explaining the process, privileges, and expectations will soon be ready! We offer adoration every Thursday from 5:00pm – 6:00pm and twice annually we provide a 40-Hour Devotion as well as a Lenten Refection in Adoration. All of this is done to provide a means to honor Christ and to deepen our faith as we gaze, consider, contemplate, and imitate. We will look at these areas of adoration and prayer over the coming weeks together as we ponder the glorious God that is so close, and yet so often ignored.
When you depart from a time of prayer with the Lord in Adoration, and you go your own way, look for continuing ways to surrender to the flame of God’s love and serve Him in the world. See Christ in the beggar on the street near your work, play catch with your son, enjoy playtime tea with your daughter and dress the part, just sit with an old friend, care for a grieving mother, allow yourself to encounter the street person, or those at-risk. Each opportunity invites you to let go of your own control and be drawn into the fire of Divine love. Each encounter may change a life by your presence!
“You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian,” he said. “You cannot be a Christian without practicing the Beatitudes. You cannot be a Christian without doing what Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25.” This is a reference to Christ’s injunction to help the needy by such works of mercy as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and welcoming the stranger. It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help,” he said. “If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”
No, they are not my words, but rather of the Holy Father, but could have just as easily been takin from my homily delivered this past Sunday at Saint Miriam. We stand with refugees and immigrants. It is that simple because we are Christians and Catholics and we believe in a living God named Jesus.
Yesterday, after my homily was posted, a parishioner removed his support of my salary fund. That’s right, he decided to immediately remove food from my table because of my words of support to the immigrant and condemnation of the executive order that may well have sent Syrian refugee families to their death. He emailed me and said that I had no right to speak the way I did and that he disagreed with letting immigrants take food from his table. So, he took from mine in protest. It is his right.
So, to him, and to anyone else who would like to condemn me, I ask you this question: what kind of priest would I have been if I stood in the pulpit of our parish and condemned other to die at the hands of their oppressors? What would you of thought of me if I stood up for the administration and waved a flag and cursed the refugee? Had I done so, I would barely be able to call myself a Christian, let alone a priest.
The greatest reformers brought change by following the gospels. They knew the words of God and followed them, despite even harm to self. In putting ourselves at the service of the neediest first, we follow the greatest of commandments and honor Christ in the world. I am willing to lose my pulpit, the church, and even my life, too, if needed, but I will not stop defending the rights of those in harm’s way. I will do what we always have done at Saint Miriam and fling open wide the doors to others in need and give sanctuary and refuge.
St. Francis believed that the power of the Holy Spirit is continuously at work in the world through the people of God who suffer persecution and oppression. The body of Christ – the Church – bears living witness to all people of the Resurrection when it lives its own Passion. The radical transformation of the world that is needed will come only through the efforts of people – like you and me – who lessen violence, reduce injustice, stand for the rights of the unfree, and advance peace and the eradication of hatred, in all its varied and human forms, to bring about brotherhood, fraternity, love, freedom, and peace.
I’m sick. I am not just a little sick, but a lot sick. In fact, yesterday, I was so sick that my family doctor paid me a house call. I am weak, lethargic, sore, have the chills, shaking, headaches, my breathing is labored and difficult, lungs are filled with phlegm, and I can’t eat well. Yes, whatever I got, I got it good and the number of meds I am on proves I need lots of support.
Ironically, last Friday I was at my normal CrossFit session in Manayunk. I could complete the workout of the day, throw hundreds of pounds around, lift myself literally hundreds of times up to a bar, and turn around and throw a twenty-pound ball against a target followed by a hundred more pushups. By early Saturday, I could barely get out of bed.
There is a lesson here. You see, last week I was strong and sure, but by Saturday I was weak and alone. Last week, I was determined and steadfast that I could lead, and do, and be whatever I wanted, but by Saturday I was broken, weakened, and unable to even lift my head from my pillow. Last week, it was my power, and my strength, and my will, but by Saturday it was all about God, and prayer, and begging for some support and relief. It was about my needed reliance on others for support. How quickly we, as powerful a creature as we are, can be let down by our own bodies, but never by God.
The Son of God entered our human condition to be one with us. He knew what misery resulted from our sin because He lived within our human nature to overcome it for us. But the human Christ did this knowing full well the power only came fully from His Father and His Father’s love and that was more powerful than any illness, any force, any evil. He placed Himself totally in His Father’s hands and He brought healing and peace to the world.
Today, in the midst of the turmoil around elections, and presidents, and power, and world might, I am weak and now remember where the true power of the world dwells.