Franciscan Moments

Our Weekly Devotional from

Saint Miriam!

Franciscan Moments @ Saint Miriam: May 18, 2020

We announced some pretty amazing news today! Not only are we planning to reopen safely over the next two months in stages, we also are in the midst of renovating our sanctuary and adding a new restroom for the school. And, of that weren’t enough, we now own a Retreat Center, too! Yes, we now welcome The Fall Retreat Center to the Saint Miriam family! And, perhaps, with a weekly Franciscan Devotion, we should pause for a mini retreat on what I believe that we have learned lately!

I have found five important lessons learned as we have adjusted our lives as a parish family to Quarantine and anticipated Post-Quarantine planning.

First, God is with us, He always has been and will always ever be. I know we know that theoretically, but it helps to slow down to listen to it, too! Looking back, the first few weeks of quarantine felt manic and confusing. It’s been essential to remember that God is with us and we need to put our devices away and take time to “be still and know”—even when the “be still” part is hard! This is why our earnest planning has brought a sense of calm, and our virtual offerings has continued our life together! Plus, even in the midst of some loss, God has brought us such amazing gifts and opportunities! Are we willing to listen now? To care for God and the church that has proven to be a solid anchor in the winds of this pandemic?

Secondly, we have learned the importance of checking in a lot. As a parish, we’ve tried to share with you from our hearts in word and video. It’s because, as many of you have learned, we need to see and hear from those we love and trust. This is why I call my mom every day! And, judging from how often we see you sharing our posts and words of encouragement from your living rooms and porches, you’ve been doing the same thing!

Thirdly, we can do new things and worship in new ways, even if they’re hard. Like you, our strength has mostly been in being an in-person gathering organization, built around face-to-face worship and gatherings. But, we’ve had to reinvent and create new opportunities virtually and online. We’ve been reminded that we are blessed in being flexible and inventive! Now we have a whole new skill set for guiding and loving and worshipping and learning into the future! God continues to breathe in new ways and old.

Fourthly, we have been practical. I have had to learn it is ok to slow down, not to work out every day, sand some days, to simply do nothing! We have all had to learn to modify work-life, school-life, and even grocery shopping with a constantly shifting focus and changing rules! We’ve all done our best to solve the problems immediately in front of all of us. But it is also time to start thinking deeply about big-pictures issues that will come in time, and how we will allow the good parts of this time to remain. That is the BIG Fifth Lesson! You know the ones: what is now important? The family time, the less stressful and slowing down time, the connecting with others time. The changing in what is truly important time. It doesn’t need to be right now, but we should all begin to rethink what is valuable. I know Saint Miriam will be on your list; it is surely on mine!

We’re all new expressions of the one holy Church now. For 12 years now, Saint Miriam has been guiding people to reimagine how they live and what they value. We have done that by listening, loving and serving, and building community. Now it is more important than ever for us to be committed to something greater.

St. Francis once said, “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” Thanks for being a part of our impossible journey at Saint Miriam.
 


Franciscan Moments @ Saint Miriam: May 11, 2020

We as a people love to grumble, right? Grumbling seems to be part of us as human beings. We used to grumble about going to work, or having to get a haircut, or even going to church! “Oh, man, do I HAVE to get up to go to Mass today?!” “I want to stay in bed another hour!”

And, how often we took things for granted! A walk in the park, a vacation on the beach, the touch of a hand, the hug from our own mother, an unexpected visit from a friend, a drink together with neighbors on an outdoor deck, running into a store without a facemask on or gloves or anxiety! Now, it has all but been stripped away from us.

Oh, sure, it will make its way into our lives. Work will return, restrictions lifted, and haircuts will come more regularly. Churches will gather and God will be praised in community. We will return to whatever a ‘normal’ life is, but will be changed? Will we appreciate what we have; what we almost lost for good? Will we stop all of our grumblings?

This past week we pushed forward on our planned and discussed Sanctuary renovations. Truth be know, we actually had always planned, since we purchased the property some six years ago, to remove pews and add chairs to allow versatility of space and a liturgy more ‘Saint Miriam’. Now, unexpectedly, we need chairs to permit safe distancing. (It is hard to distance in pews, especially when the center needs to move over the ends!) We had planned to do this at a time of calm, but now we need to do so in the midst of anxiety.

Over this period, as pastor, I have been hard at work to provide us all with a safe worship experiences, despite our not being able to gather in person. We have added countless Virtual Gatherings, Small Groups, Reader and Serving options, and Masses, too. We increased our livestream and even added an FM Broadcast capability. We are hard at work and yet this past week, still more grumbling.

The pews will be removed and stored now onsite at Saint Miriam. Change comes and I recognize that change can cause some anxiety, but some change will be better than we might expect, if we only give it a chance and allow God room to breathe on us. This change was decided long ago after much prayer and discernment and over an extended period of time. The plans were made, the parish board voted, and the ministry team agreed. In fact, over 98% of the parish agreed. But, to be mindful and respectful of those who like the pews, we had always planned a few ways to honor them and to maintain them in some meaningful way as part of what was at our parish.

For instance, the pews in the main hallway will remain, as will the two ‘pew chairs’ in the handicap access hallway. Secondly, the pew on the right side of the back section inside the Sanctuary will also remain. And, the new free-standing Tabernacle will be constructed from the wood of one of the pews. Finally, we are adding a wall of Votive Candles on the rear left side of the Sanctuary and these, too, are being made from the wood of an actual pew! What better way to shed light than to light a candle and say a prayer and remain a hospitable and loving people?

I had the chance to speak to a former pastor at Zion. I was informed that the current pews are not close to the originals and were actually put in during a renovation in the late 1960’s (when all the original and beautiful hardware was stripped away, too)! Sadly, the actual and more valuable and historical pews were not only removed, they were burned in the parking lot! (I am sure there was a lot of grumbling!)

Over the years, I think that we made good decisions; this will be one of those. Some decisions and changes are not always popular, but we always make them with the best interest of others and the community and our future needs, too. I wonder what it says of us if we refuse to help the church because we would rather have a pew, instead of chair?  More deeply, what does it say of us if we refuse to give a chair for a visitor, or burden the minority with added chairs to purchase because we withhold our contribution? I suppose our grumblings and our own self-interest outweigh even the hallmark of the gospel: hospitality.

St. Francis once reminded us, “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.”

I wonder if what I asked way back at the original announcement still needs to be asked again?

Is the hardwood of a pew more important that the hardwood of the cross?

 



Franciscan Moments @ Saint Miriam: April 27, 2020

What used to be important for me isn’t so much anymore. Until the pandemic, I was always working against myself. Deadlines that needed to met, and creativity that needed more creative, planning and schedules and meetings, and office time and so forth; the list was endless and exhausting. Then, suddenly, it all stopped. COVID-19 was here and we were in a lock down in one form or another. The major question for me is not whether “normal life” will ever return, but do I want to be that normal again?

Over the weeks of the pandemic and isolation and quarantine, I have found myself slowing down, taking more time, just sitting and listening. I have found days where I would not leave the house, not once and others where I actually heard the stream behind our home. I sat quietly, holding my newborn Son and listened to the creaks of the house, the sound of the wind as it ran up against a window, or a branch suddenly letting go of its tree-holder. I have become more comfortable with myself; all of myself. I also have found that I am kinder, gentler, and more compassionate. No, not to others, I think I have always been that to the others in my life, but more to me. I haven’t been kind to me in a very long time.

This past week I received a note from someone who was angry that I would inform them of our parish being down on donations. It was not meant to be a slight against anyone. Rather, it was to be informative in a way that would allow people to consider, or reconsider, if Saint Miriam was important to them and if they could support us. It was meant to gain an understanding that while closed we literally miss out on Sunday income that normally comes. While we all have issues right now, it would be criminal of me, as a pastor not to inform those who call Saint Miriam home, right? What would they think of me if one day we just closed without an appeal, or a word about our current condition? At any rate, the note came and plunged me into a quick and solid depression. I felt the weight of the world and I was crushed. Now normally I would be in such a state for weeks, even furthering my manic state. But, instead, I prayed, sat quietly, I re-read what was at issue and then said to myself – to ME –  “James, this isn’t about you. You did nothing wrong. Let it go.” And for the first time in a long time, I did just that. I was kind to myself when someone else wasn’t. And healing began. Yes, what used to be important, isn’t anymore, and perhaps, just perhaps, that is a good thing.

Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Dr. Sherry Turkle, said she’s been struck by the warmth, creativity and thoughtfulness that some people have displayed online during this pandemic. By way of example, she pointed to the renowned cello player Yo Yo Ma, and the award-winning actor Patrick Stewart, who have both broadcast themselves practicing their art. “Every group I’m in is trying to reinvent itself in an online form,” she said. “You see people trying to find something of themselves that they can use as the medium to express themselves.” She wrote something that struck me, it was “Alone Together,” which detailed how technology can isolate and yet still connect people. Social media platforms meant to connect can sometimes cause us to self-isolate, it is true, or even become a virtual world, but perhaps this forced move online could end up changing what it means to beonline. As Dr. Turkle asked, “Will people say, ‘You know, I don’t want to use this screen for nonsense anymore’?”

So, perhaps some good will come from all of this in the end when we are presented with a chance to return to whatever we wish to return to; whatever normal is for us. Maybe instead of going to back to whatever was, we will instead reach for the best of us? Maybe that will be the legacy: we overcame, and we changed, for the better.

St. Francis once tried to get people to see themselves differently when he said, “I am as I am in the eyes of God. Nothing more, nothing less.” May it be so.

Now, you will have to excuse me, I need to pick up a telephone and call my mother.
 


Franciscan Moments @ Saint Miriam: April 20, 2020

Fear, anxiety, trepidation, dread, the unknown, and for some, worse, the known. Even though we are meant to be a people of faith, being constantly bombarded with the awful news about the spread of COVID-19 can strike at the heart of our emotions and make the bravest among us cower now and then in a heap of defeat and fear.  As a new dad, I lay awake at night and wonder if I will catch the virus? I am jolted from a deep sleep by a nightmarish reality of death and loss. I see my wife grieving and my son without a dad. After all, I have an underlying condition with Asthma that makes my  risk greater, and lessens my survival ability. I think, silently where I let few in, will I die alone like so many have in hospitals across the world, or with only a phone pressed against my ear as I gasp my last few breaths? Will I see Jameson grow up, or will he learn of me only from his mom in story form? How will my beautiful wife live without me? Who will care for her with the passion of one like me? I know it isn’t just me, right? We all wonder if someone we love will be the next victim. Will they survive or will grief come our way, too? Will it be me?

I find comfort in knowing I am not alone in my fear. I also take comfort in St. Francis. You see, Francis knew that everything in existence is intended for relationship, and as Franciscans, we are especially should be attuned to our relational nature. This nature is for good as well as bad times. We need one another. We always will need each other. Even in the midst of “social distancing” and self-quarantine for the foreseeable future, we need to come together – if only virtually – to find ways to engage with another to ‘feel’ less alone and less fearful. Yes, during times of crisis, our faith brings us together and we reach out to one another in solidarity and in love.

It is through our relational  love that we have compiled internal resources to help us survive this troubling time. And that is why I love Poet Lynn Unger and her Pandemic poem she posted recently in Chicago. I spoke of it in a sermon and it comes back to me today here, devotionally. Ms. Unger asks us to look at what’s happening in today’s world with a different perspective. She suggests that rather than fear, we might consider this time the same way our Jewish brothers and sisters view the Sabbath with its many restrictions. She invites us to re-think of this time as sacred.  If we do so, willingly and even fearfully, then we find a calling to sing, and to pray, and to extend our hearts in love and relationship to one another. We will find a renewed sense of urgency to reach out to others with compassion, even with our own fear intact. Her poem reminds us that we are all connected, like St. Francis taught, and most importantly, that “our lives are in each other’s hands.” This time, literally.

So, let those who will flock to beaches and shores and protest closures and restrictions. We shall not! Why? Because we know the deeper truth: We are each other’s keeper, protector, friend, companion, and lover. If I fail, we all die.
 
 


Franciscan Moments @ Saint Miriam: April 13, 2020

I recently wrote in my Easter Message that the devil thought he had won, but the light still came through The Light of the earth! Darkness was overcome by Christ’s resurrection and ushered in an era of joy and hope. Perhaps our own little deaths may be overcome by laughter and joy, too?

In the Middle Ages there was a custom called, “Laughing Monday ” (read as ‘Laughing at death’). This custom was common in central Europe but was gradually suppressed by the holy Church due to the violent attacks against it by the Reformers.

On Easter Sunday afternoon, the people would gather back at the parish for Vespers and Benediction. During the sermon that preceded this solemn service, the presiding priest would entertain his congregation with funny stories, anecdotes, and poems from which he would extract a moral conclusion. The purpose of this event was to “reward” the parishioners with a fun activity after the penitential spirit of the Lenten Season! Peals of laughter and frivolity could be heard in the many little towns and villages that dotted the landscape of central Europe — a happy consequence of the reality that life overcame death through the passion and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ!

This custom later led to what was known as “Laughing Monday”, a tradition of practical joking that took place on Easter Monday where one would poke fun at the devil’s defeat. The devil thought he had won the battle when Jesus was crucified, but God had the last laugh — Jesus arose from the dead!

So, on this Easter Monday, as we still may not return to the normalcy of routine work and play, we can still return from a season of penance to one of great joy and hope, despite our present circumstances. For you see, Christ is risen! The devil has been defeated. Joy is here. Our life will find its way again post-pandemic. The real question is, will we be a people of joy? Will we allow this present circumstance, terrible as it may be, to rob of us of Easter joy and laughter?

Alleluia! May you have a most blessed Easter Octave! God bless you and know that we are praying daily for you during this time of turmoil and uncertainty. Happy Easter!
 


Franciscan Moments @ Saint Miriam: March 30, 2020

Usually I invite you to let the sacredness and beauty of Lent, found in the simply beauty of our parish, her grounds, our liturgies and reflection times, such as Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or Stations of the Cross, or even our Lenten Focus (this year was the plight refugees crossing the sea in Lesvos, Greece to find shelter and safety) bring you a deeper experience of the suffering of Christ and Christians around the world. But that has mostly been taken away from us. We have, in a very real sense, been stripped naked and laid wide open to the world, but more so, and more deeply, to ourselves as we have all adjusted to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Yes, we have all had more time to be at home, isolated and alone, with our thoughts. We have had more time to be with family and let go of those who don’t live under our roof. We have let go of entertainment we so often take for granted like gyms, movie theatres, and dining out. We have had to let go of social activities like bars, game night, and just hanging out with friends. We have had to let go of going to church or worship services, at least in person. Yes, our lives have in a very real sense, been turned upside down and inside out. We have had to live with ourselves and our thoughts. For some of us, that is the most uncomfortable of all things. We are learning to love ourselves, let go of false and inaccurate criticisms  – self and worldly – and let go of that which we thought was important to find that ‘pearl of great price’ we had all along.

I wonder, if as we are in a forced game of solitaire, we might also revaluate that which we neglected? Will we use this time as a sort of chrysalis to rediscover self and let go of all things of ego?

Perhaps, God is more important than we thought now? Maybe Saint Miriam is really more a part of us than we had ever thought? Perhaps the dedication of our priests is now shining into areas of our lives before untouched? Perhaps our families and children will find us with a renewed sense of commitment and that love we thought lost for our spouses, will reemerge with a transformed vitality and hope?

St. Francis of Assisi willingly and intentionally abandoned a life of luxury for a life of faith. We have been forced, in many ways, to do the same now. He once said, “Lord, grant that I might not so much seek to be loved as to love.”

How about us? Will we finally love more? If you see someone in need, give them a good deed.
 


Franciscan Moments @ Saint Miriam: March 23, 2020

I lived my formative life in seminary in Washington, DC. It was the loving and open friars at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land who first introduced me to Franciscan life. It was also there that 59-year-old John-Sebastian Laird-Hammond, the first known person with the COVID-19 virus in the District of Columbia, and a Franciscan friar, died after battling the disease for just under a week. None of us are immune.  All of us must make changes to afford life to everyone.

Saints Francis and Clare, the founders of the Franciscan tradition, acknowledged God as creator and all humankind as made in the divine image. This is sometimes troubling when we are faced with uncertainty. And, yet, we remain a people of hope. St. Paul reminds us that we only see ‘as through a glass dimly’ but one day, we shall see Him, our Creator, face-to-face. Until then, as Friar John-Sebastian now knows, we live our walk in faith alone.

Nourished by our lives of prayer and reflection we must focus on the example of Jesus. In this spirit, we are invited to be persons of diverse faith backgrounds but embracing and living a set of Franciscan values that include caring community, inclusive love of all people, a reverence for creation, and a desire for peace.

We must remember that our true Franciscan spirituality is always communal, emphasizing the “we” over the “I.” This is why we adhere to those demands placed on us by our government and healthcare leaders, because we do for us what we want for others communally. A Franciscan communalism has a calming insight whereby we can choose our friends, but we cannot choose our brothers and sisters. In the larger society, Franciscan communalism is always for others. We exist for them. We live because they live, too.

So, then, perhaps we change now for a better us tomorrow. So often, people complain that they don’t have enough time for family, lunch with friends, or the novelty of just chatting with another. This respite – forced as it may be – is an opportunity to catch up with how our children, our spouses, and family members are dealing with confinement, but more importantly to share our lives and our journey again. Then, after a bit of rest, prayer or meditation, we will return to work or chores, but until then, let us light a candle and meditate, ask for forgiveness, look inside the self and cleanse the soul. And if nothing else, let us all just ask God for mercy.

After all, it is still Lent, and we’re finally in a time of forced downtime that allows for ample reflection as we ask our God, who is never far away, for those things that only heaven can provide us.

Rest well, my brother. Rest well from a journey replete in hope and a life of service. May we all be so remembered.
 
 


Franciscan Moments @ Saint Miriam: March 16, 2020

I used to spend a lot of time worrying about how other people judged me. How I acted. What I said. Was I too angry? Too mean? What I wore, was it appropriate, did it fit right? Am I too fat? Did I say too much? Or, did I say too little? This person must think I’m too intense. And that person must think I’m not very fun at all. Does he like me? Does she really deep down despise me? Are they looking at me? If so, why?

And the thoughts were worse at certain times, especially when I was feeling depressed or anxious, or when I was presenting in a parish meeting, or sometimes when being out at a social event. It was so distracting and difficult to stay in the present moment, because I had a whole inner monologue going on in my head about how much I thought someone else though of me. I assumed every facial expression and every comment from others meant something. And there were always specific themes and beliefs. Universal truths about myself that other people surely thought. I’d hone them and shine them like a pretty little marble and then keep them in my pocket. It was exhausting. I work on myself every month in therapy. I try to harness all of the ‘little devils’ that speak to me, but I still do this today; almost every day to a certain extent.

Certain beliefs about ourselves are hard to break, I know that. We are all broken to some extent, but at least I am now able to recognize the pattern and reframe my inner dialogue. And, now I understand the truth about most people. The truth that has been shown in research over the years, but lately all the more during this health crisis: Nobody is thinking that much about me. Because we mostly think about ourselves.

We aren’t as nice as we thought we were, huh? I mean, look at the fights in parking lots, and the empty shelves at grocery stores now devoid of sanitary wipes, hand sanitizer and even toilet paper. Many large chains are out of food and fresh produce. It seems that the few purchased more than they need our of their own fear, and that left the many with nothing. But, isn’t that the way it is?

Look at the man who reportedly took a 1,300-mile road trip across Tennessee and into Kentucky, filling a U-Haul truck with thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer and thousands of packs of antibacterial wipes, mostly from ‘little hole-in-the-wall dollar stores in the backwoods, as one newspaper reported. Then, he was left with it all after Amazon and eBay prohibited the sale of such items to combat price gouging. He claims he was in the right to make a profit. But, really? Now?

St. Francis was clear when he said, “For it is in giving that we receive.”  There ain’t much giving going on right now. Fred Rogers also once gave us a moving futurist look at the good that could come during times like these when he said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

 I am looking. How about you? Or, perhaps you are actually one of the few.
 


Franciscan Moments @ Saint Miriam: March 9, 2020

Lent is here and we are still seeking to be comfortable. As creatures of comfort we try to avoid pain whenever possible, both physically and emotionally. Even the most avid adrenaline junkie has soft spots. We cling to what’s secure, safe and feels good in our circumstances and relationships, naturally seeking to protect ourselves. A lot of times, that’s a good thing. We were designed to value life and preserve ourselves and there are covenants to uphold. On the other hand, if we hold ourselves too tightly, we keep ourselves from following God with our whole hearts.

I have discovered that God often asks us to get out of our comfort spots and set ourselves aside for His glory. God wants us to trust him, but we can only do that when we let go and obey and follow. I know it is difficult for me, and even for other priests, too. You would think we can obey and follow, just like those fishermen so long ago who dropped their nets so willingly. But, I wonder, did they? Did they just drop and run or did they first weep and struggle and debate?

One of my favorite stations during the Way of the Cross or, Stations of the Cross, is Station V, Simon Helps Jesus. More than likely, Simon had other things to do that day rather than get personally involved in Jesus’ scandalous crucifixion. I am sure his plans and agenda where interrupted when he was given an order to carry that bloody cross for Jesus. It was hard work, bloody, dirty, and humiliating, but he carried the cross for Christ and walked with him in his most difficult hours. In doing so, he became part of the greatest story to go down in history. 

How about you? Will you become part of the greatest story by letting go of what you think you need and allow God to show you the truth? Will you let go to follow Jesus, just like you promised so long ago?
 
Simon, let me become like you.

 



Franciscan Moments @ Saint Miriam: March 2, 2020

So, how do you feel about our church, or any church for that matter?  I imagine you have some pretty solid opinions on the subject. If I asked you to tell me about it, you might mention the children’s ministry or the mass times. Perhaps you’d tell me it’s not as important as it used to be. Or maybe you’d excitedly share about your small group, one of our meaningful outreaches, or your favorite priest even (maybe it’s me!?)! Truth is, if we posed that opening question to a roomful of Christians, the answers would probably be as varied as the number of people in the room. That is exactly what happened yesterday at our Annual Town Hall Meeting.

We gathered, in the midst of Lent, and our pastors allowed everyone to be heard. (That, in and of itself, is a minor miracle for a Catholic parish!) Most often, no one asks, inquirers, or even cares about your opinions. It is all about the priest. But, not at Saint Miriam and yet, sadly, for much of the time – even after hearing all the great things God has done, and is still doing, at Saint Miriam – it became quickly all about me.

Lent is tough, I know. The Devil (and the devils) do their best to destroy what God is doing. And, truth be told, the more you do to serve, the larger the attack. I have been preparing for it because it happens every Lent. We lose some people, and we gain some, and some are hurt and mostly it is because it becomes all about me.

Church is not all about a single person. It’s not about me, as the pastor, or the greeters, or the perfect music leaders. And truthfully, church isn’t even all about you! Church is bigger than one person because Christ called the church a body. A body of believers who gather together as family! A group of Christians who choose to be in one place so they can worship Jesus together, focusing on Him. That is what we try to do every day, every week, and every year God allows us to be here. But, in our brokenness, it is often not about the collective, but us as individuals.

We spent an inordinate amount of time this past Sunday debating pews vs. chairs and almost no time seeing the greatest financial gifts we have every received from some amazing and generous donors; One who gave us a property worth somewhere around $600,000, and another who is repaving roadways that would cost us over $100,000. Instead of being awed and grateful, it was about pews. Wooden, inanimate, utilitarian objects that we sit our butts on, not to be comfortable, but to worship God and see one another. It became all about us.

He used to praise God the Artist in every one of God’s works. Whatever joy he found in things made he referred to their maker. He rejoiced in all the works of God’s hands. Everything cried out to him, “He who made us is infinitely good!’ He called animals “brother” or “sister,” and he exhorted them to praise God. He would go through the streets, inviting everyone to sing with him. And one time when he came upon an almond tree, he said, ‘Brother Almond, speak to me of God.” And the almond tree blossomed. That was St. Francis. For us, it was better to argue over benches that we once never owned.

I guess it really is Lent.