A Question for Our Final Test

Fr. Charlie died on October 15, after celebrating 100 years of life two weeks before.  He taught me two classes during my seminary training, one on the 20th century German theologian Karl Rahner, and another with the impressive title, “Christian Anthropology,” which examined what human existence is like in the light of faith.  Honestly, he was not my favorite teacher.  I was unable to earn an A in either class.  But he was a character to remember, which I do as I look out my window at snow falling hard and steady, unseasonably, in mid-October.  

I remember being frustrated taking his first test. After studying what I thought were all the important facts, I failed to answer correctly a question which asked, “If a monkey sat in front of a typewriter randomly striking keys, what are the chances he would type out one of Shakespeare’s sonnets?”  Apparently he mentioned that in class once in an attempt to show us just how unlikely it is from the viewpoint of physics that human life could have formed on our earth.  He liked science.

Fr. Charlie was most famous for his annual attempt to walk through a door.  Again, with his passion for science, he tried to show his first-year students how some miracles in the Bible could have scientific explanations.  Noting that all matter is more space than substance, because atoms and molecules have all that space between electrons, he said the same is true for human bodies and for doors.  So, is it theoretically possible for all the atoms and molecules in a person’s body AND all the atoms and molecules in a wooden door to align in such a way that a person could walk right through a locked door (John 20:19).  In an attempt to prove his point, he walked right into a door!  It was funny then, but even funnier three years later when my classmates and I heard a loud thud from down the hallway of the classroom building.  We all looked up, curious, and someone said, “Fr. Charlie’s trying to walk through the door again.” Indeed.   

As I said, he was not my favorite teacher.  I didn’t know why I needed to know about monkeys randomly striking a keyboard, and trying to show how Biblical miracles can occur according to the laws of science seemed to eclipse the brighter light of their spiritual truth.  His greatest impact on me came from something that took place entirely outside the classroom.

My prize possession when I began my seminary studies was my boom box.  Yes, I am dating myself.  It had a radio and dual cassettes so that I could dub one cassette from another.  If cd’s had been invented yet, I was too invested in my many cassettes to bother with them.  Then my boom box broke.  It wouldn’t turn on, which is a problem.  One of my classmates, sensing my anguish, said, “Take it to Fr. Charlie.” 

So, I took it to Fr. Charlie’s room, walking through the dark and mysterious wing of the faculty dormitory before knocking on his door.  I wouldn’t say he was happy to see me, but as the Lord heard the prayer of Jonah (Jonah 2:3), Fr. Charlie heard me in my distress and invited me into his quarters.  There I saw all kinds of electronic gadgets.  Apparently his interest in theoretical science was accompanied by the more practical skill of actually knowing how to things work and how to make broken things work again.

He ran a few tests on my boom box and concluded that my AC power source was burned out but that he could solder the wires of my power cord to the spot where the batteries delivered DC power, and then it would work.  This was over 30 years ago, so the details are a little foggy, and I’m not sure even then I understood him.  But I knew that he was doing me a great favor, and sure enough three days later my boom box, fully operational, was sitting outside my door. He must have again failed to walk through a locked door. 

I don’t know how Fr. Charlie was eulogized at his funeral this week.  I’m sure he was praised for his life-long service to the intellectual formation of priests who went forth to serve people all over the world.  But I remember him for this one great act of kindness and generosity, doing what he could to help a hapless young man with a broken boom box. I wonder how often he did such things.  I wonder how often I will, and you will, do such things worth remembering.  That question will probably be on our final test. 

Feeling Good v. Being Good

Some years ago, I visited a man in the Dunn County Jail.  He was serving time, again, for starting a fight in a bar.  He shook his head, angry at himself and said, “It happens every time I drink too much.” 

Knowing that a pastor should probably have a better, gentler way of asking a follow up question, I nonetheless said, “Well, then why do you drink too much?”  I’ll never forget his response.  Looking me right in the eye, he said, “You know, Father, sometimes I just need to feel good.”

My first reaction was compassion. I understand that experience.  Fortunately for me, that need to feel good finds expression in less damaging ways.  It’s why I too often add a cream-filled long john to my gasoline bill at the convenience store, or why I “reward” myself by finding my way to a bag of chips after getting through a stressful day.  It’s why for years I was on-again/off-again with tobacco.  I’ve done a lot of things because feeling bad—empty, stressed, alone—seemed too much to bear in the moment. 

I’ve been remembering that conversation in the jail fairly often since our days of social separation began in March.  It seems that much of the continuing spread of our COVID pandemic is due to the fact that people are emotionally sick and tired of not having fun in their usual ways and so we see scenes of maskless crowds of people in bars, on beaches, at a giant motorcycle rally.  People want to feel good!

I understand the need to gather and be close.  I have been feeling the pain of distance.  I never knew that a simple affectionate elbow bump could feel so good! But it does, after weeks of no physical contact with anyone. 

So, what do we do with the need to feel good, when often what makes us feel good puts others and ourselves at risk?  It’s a question for our time, but it’s also a question for all times.  Too often, what makes us feel good is harmful—satisfying our greed, our lust, our cravings generally provide us with short-term good feelings but long-term wounds and addictions. 

A spiritual counselor once told me, “Everyone needs to experience pleasure, and so everyone will find a way to feel good.  But we can choose whether to do it in a wholesome or an unwholesome way.” 

One time I was driving to the home of a family who had kindly invited me for dinner.  I was running a few minutes late and was almost there when one of my favorite radio shows began.  I was conflicted! I really really wanted to hear the host’s monologue which often touched on spiritual topics with insight and humor.  I knew it would make me feel good to drive around for another ten minutes soak in his words instead of pulling into the driveway.  God’s grace held sway with me that night, however, and I was able to do the right thing by putting aside my need to feel good.  While I felt the sting of loss when I turned my radio off, I was also surprised at how quickly that feeling of loss was replaced by wholesome joy.  I knocked on the door with a light heart, lifted, I think, by the knowledge that I was acting in a way that made God proud of me.  Overcoming selfishness can be a pretty good feeling, it turns out.

Sometimes spiritually-oriented people can convince ourselves that a selfish action is OK with God because God loves us and wants us to feel good.  I would qualify that, however, by saying that God wants us to feel joy (John 15:11).  What I learned that night in the driveway, and countless times since, is that joy comes not from doing something to make myself feel good; it comes with the effort of actually being good.  Being good is harder than grabbing a beer or a bag of chips, but it gladdens the hearts of many, including our own. 

God Made You to Be You

I thought I was clipping along pretty well on my bicycle, probably about 17 mph heading home on Lowes Creek Road with the sun close to setting to my left.  Perhaps because of the virus, I have done more bicycling this year than ever before, and now, nearing the end of summer, I was feeling really quite strong.  I even had the passing thought during this ride that I’m actually getting stronger as I get older—defying the laws of nature.

 

Not long after having this thought I heard a sound behind me.  At first I thought it might be a car approaching, so I moved closer to the right edge of the road.  Then the sound became louder but less like a car.  I thought it sounded like, perhaps, a flock of low-flying, very low-flying, geese.  Could geese be following me?  I had to look, and as I turned my head, I saw not fowl but human bicyclers coming upon me very quickly.  I nodded to the lead man, who only said “There are eight of us,” as he whizzed by.  Sure enough one by one, all eight with nary a foot between each of them passed me at a speed I myself could only attain going downhill with a tailwind.  I would say they were going at least 25 mph, probably a little more, based on the fact that they were out of sight in less than a minute.

 

I’d like to say they were angels, not men like me, because then it would have been easy not to compare myself to them.  But alas, they were men, fast men who made me feel bad because, compared to them, I was less than I should be.  I was slow.

 

There is a cardinal rule in the spiritual life that few of us live out very well:  Don’t compare yourself to others!  Yes, we can learn from the good example of others, but when all is said and done, God didn’t make you to be like someone else; God made you to be you.

 

The Jesuit author James Martin tells a beautiful story about a friend of his, Rick, who was born without a right arm. When he was in first grade, his teacher heard that a relic of St. Francis Xavier—actually the saint’s right arm—was “on tour” so to speak, and many of the area’s faithful were going to see it and touch the case that held it, in hopes of being healed.  Rick’s teacher told his mother who showed up at school and took Rick out of class to take him to see the relic.  While he was gone, his classmates all prayed for a miracle, a new arm for Rick.  When he returned to class the same as before, they were all disappointed, and Rick, who wasn’t really expecting any miracle, caught their feeling of disappointment. But someone else had a different reaction.  When he got home, his older sister was hiding behind the window drapes and when she peeked out and saw him, she jumped out at him delighted.  “Oh great!” she said.  “I’m so happy nothing happened, because I like you the way you are.”  It was a healing moment Rick always remembered.

 

It is always good, and important, to remember that God likes us as we are.  Yes, we are called to deeper conversion every day, but this is not so that God will like us.  Rather, realizing that God likes us helps us be better—more joyful, more generous, more comfortable in our own skin.

 

There is a new fountain on the campus of UW—Eau Claire. It is round, about twenty feet in diameter, with wide and gentle springs of water emerging from what look like river rocks. Toward evening, blue and white light colors the waters.  I often bicycle past it on my way home, at sunset.  Typically, no one is there.  I think of God as like that fountain, beautiful, flowing with life, often with no one noticing but living, and loving, nonetheless.

 

That night when I felt old and slow in comparison to the others, I stopped at that fountain.  I needed to be close to these waters to remind myself that I am, to quote the psalmist, wonderfully made, that these living waters live also in me, not because of anything I’ve done or might do in days ahead, but because of who I am in God: Treasured, gifted and invited into these waters.    uwec fountain

Sustain Us that We May Live

Lots of inspiring things happen inside churches.  One of the most inspiring that I’ve witnessed was the renewal of vows by the Benedictine sisters living at St. Bede’s in Eau Claire, where I was their chaplain for seven years.  Each year on the feast of St. Benedict, July 11, the jubilarian sisters celebrating 25 or 50 years of professed life would come forward to the altar.  There, they would kneel with their arms stretched out wide, side to side.  Then they would chant: “Sustain me, O God, according to your promise, and I shall live.  Do not disappoint me in my hope” (Psalm 119:116).

 

I was so moved at this time of recommitment there was no muscular resolve to keep going by their own strength.  Rather, they asked for the only thing that could sustain them to sustain them:  the hand of God.

 

In them I saw utter humility, trust and vulnerability.   Their posture was one of unrestrained offering—try striking that pose yourself and feel it.  Their words were at once both confident and vulnerable, showing both the remembrance of God’s life-giving promises, and the honest fear that they could be disappointed.  That’s why we call it faith.

 

Those are two things, confidence and vulnerability, are so needed for our times.  Clearly we are vulnerable.  Any sense that we might have had before March 2020 that we are in control of our world has been shattered.  As infection rates climb and we discern things like how safe is it to come to church or how safely we can educate our children in our classroom, we feel vulnerable.

 

What of confidence?  In the midst of such uncertainty, is there anything certain to which we can cling?  Are we aware of God’s promises?  What are they?  It seems to me that the main promise God makes in the Old Testament is that he will not leave us; I will be your God, and you will be my people.  In the New Testament, this presence continues but intensifies.  Jesus’ promise is unprecedented.  To paraphrase, “If you believe in me, you will never die, and I will raise you up on the last day” (John 6:54; John 11:26).

 

Of course we know that people die, of the corona-virus and many other causes.  And yet, we the Baptized believe that we don’t die—our lives have been joined to Christ who died and rose, and so within us we have the Spirit of Christ who has conquered death, and is Risen and Eternal.  On our best days at least, we can live from the strength of our Risen identity, knowing we are here not to fearfully secure our lives but to generously give them away.  Our security is in God who never leaves us. The eternal life of God within us is the one certain thing to which we can cling.  Our response is to love one another; God takes care of the rest.

 

Today, throughout the world, loving one another means taking care to not harm each other and taking precautions so to keep the virus from spreading.  Earthly life isn’t our ultimate value, but it’s a pretty big one!  Loving one another also means praying for each other and supporting each other however we can—a phone call, a note, financial and moral support.  As it says in the funeral rite, “One day, the love of Christ, which conquers all things will destroy even death itself.”  Truly, one day all this difficulty will be over and we will look back and appreciate all those who kept hope alive and sustained our faith.

 

I pray that these difficult days of separation do not diminish your faith or your felt connection to God and to one another.  There is truly a lot we are missing now.  I miss casual affectionate touch. I miss joyful celebrations in a full church.  Truly the most joyful part of my priesthood is gone now, temporarily.  And I know there is a lot you miss, too.  If you’re looking for a little inspiration, you might consider getting on your knees and chanting, “Sustain me, O God, according to your promise, and I shall live.  Do not disappoint me in my hope.” IMG_5001[1]

God and Distance

From the rectory window facing the church, I saw the most red, the reddest, the max-reddest cardinal I’ve ever seen.  Sure to get a fine mate, I thought.  Sure enough, an hour later when I left the house, I saw a flash of that reddest red in the lilac hedge and slowed my pace so as to not startle it away.  Handicapped by not having my eye glasses, I squinted to discern the finer features of the bird, the black ring around its beak and the tufted crown of its head sticking up like my own cowlick often does.  I sensed movement to my right then, and there she was, presumably, his mate.  She didn’t command my attention like her chosen one did, her gray feathers blending seamlessly into the foreground and background of branches.

 

For mates, they didn’t get very close, I thought.  Despite the phrase “love birds,” maybe they are not all that romantic.  I do recall, however, a pair of speckled flickers, in a tree near La Crosse that I caught sight of in a sugar maple, rubbing their chests together and making such a straining sound that I had to avert my eyes.  In any event, these cardinals in my lilac hedge were no speckled flickers.  When the male flew over to a branch a little bit closer to the female, the female flew a little bit farther away.  Then, she would approach, and he would move away.  I guess people are like that, too, when they are getting to know one another.  Few of us are willing to go “all in” without some testing of the waters to see how much we can trust.  Will he come after me if I fly away a little bit?

 

Farther along my walk, I saw a family of three walking away from their house, a dog barking desperately nearby.  It turns out that that dog was theirs.  While the dad pushed the baby stroller, the mom craned her neck toward the house, “Be quiet, Buddy!”  In this instance, at least, Buddy was extremely disobedient.  The farther away the family walked from the house, the louder Buddy barked.  It occurred to me that it was not the raw distance between them that panicked Buddy but the fact that the distance was growing.  They were walking away, and Buddy knew it.  Clearly, he was not sure they would come back.

 

I observed the birds and Buddy and his family in these days of social distancing.  Oncoming walkers swerve away from each other on the sidewalk in a dance of politeness with a splash of fear.  A friend of mine reported on Facebook that in the grocery store line, the man behind her was too close for comfort and she asked him to move back.  He rolled his eyes and moved.  Spring break revelers on southern beaches scoff at distancing their invincible selves, and we roll our eyes at them.

 

We sometimes speak of God with the metaphor of distance.  God seems far, or God seems close.  Maybe you have heard the pious phrase, “If you feel far from God, guess who moved?” There is something I love about that question and something I hate about it.  I love that it can motivate me to take prayer and my moral duty toward God more seriously and kick start a sagging spiritual life. I hate that it can add guilt and shame to someone who, through no fault of her own, has lost confidence in God’s nearness.

 

Keeping distance from others in these days of contagion makes me aware of the pain that distance causes in people’s lives, whether between themselves and others or the perceived distance between themselves and God.  With people, if we cannot bridge the gap with a hand shake, we can certainly smile, laugh or a phone call to others.  And with God? That is more of a mystery, but it helps me today to believe that God wants to be with me even more than that female cardinal desires the redder than red male who seems to not want to get too close, and that God is as desperate as Buddy to have us home with him.

cardinals male female

Changing the Way I Pray

I made a New Year’s resolution this year that has been affecting what I ask for in prayer.  It has to do with what I expect out of life and out of God.  I decided that rather than hoping bad things will not happen and asking God to make them not happen, I would start with the assumption that bad things will happen and pray that when they do I will have the grace to respond well–faithfully and lovingly.

 

There was a time about fifteen years ago when, during my drives between Menomonie and Madison, I would stop at every frozen custard place along the way to try its “flavor of the day.”  My metabolism was faster then.  I only stopped at shops very close to the interstate; this meant about three or four single scoops on a plain cone per drive.  I have to say that this succession of stops divided the travel time very pleasantly, as I went on my merry way from one treat to the next.

 

I was remembering those glory days during a recent drive down I-94 when I passed by Mauston.  And it occurred to me that, against my better judgment, I have seen life that way.  That is, I have thought that life should be one treat after the next.  I have deeply resented times of suffering and adversity—everything from stubbing my toe to the deaths of my sister and father.  When you expect life to be a frozen custard tour through the years, well, you get disappointed often.  Slowly but surely, most of learn to adjust our expectations.

 

When the mother of Jesus brought her infant child to the temple, Simeon tells her that “You yourself a sword will pierce” (Lk 2:35). From the start, Mary knew to expect hardship and suffering.  Jesus himself tells his followers that weeds will grow with the wheat (Mt 13:30), and to expect even that “They will hand you over to persecution, and they will kill you” (Mt 24:9).  Jesus, while promising a glorious ultimate end for those follow him by laying down their lives in service to the world, clearly never suggests that between now and this glory there will be one treat after the next.  He tries to steel them to expect difficult trials.  They all learned quickly enough that having faith is not a way out of hardship and suffering.

 

That’s why I’m changing what I ask for in prayer.  This does not mean that I do not pray for people to recover from illness and for things like famine and human trafficking to end. It means that my focus is more on what I can do in the midst of all the bad things that will happen.

 

The main thing I have noticed after praying this way is that it is more difficult!  I can no longer simply put out some requests and leave them in God’s hands, and then walk away.  Praying for the grace to respond faithfully and lovingly to life’s hardships places more weight on my shoulders.  Suddenly, I am a major actor in this spiritual drama, no longer just in the audience bemoaning the hard things that I see on stage.  No longer can I in good conscience just get mad when I stub my toe.  I have to make a spiritual response like thanking God that I have a toe to stub or learning to pick up my feet when I walk.  No longer can I simply pray for homelessness to end.  I have to make a spiritual response of supporting efforts to increase low income housing.  No longer can my focus be simply praying for someone’s cancer to be cured.  I have to seek the strength to make the spiritual response of showing compassion to the person suffering and to that person’s family.

 

For some blessed souls, these spiritual responses come naturally.  For those of us who have subscribed to the parade-of-frozen-custard view of life, it takes more work.  I am confident God wants to help us, however, and so I expect and rely on that help.  That’s my prayer.

 

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A Christmas Moment

For as hard as pastors often work on their sermons and homilies, sometimes we hear the best and briefest ones from our people.  That was certainly the case for me on Christmas Eve this year.

My goal each Christmas Eve is finish the message I want to preach early enough so I can go and visit a nursing home, a hospital or the jail.  This year, I was pokey, and so didn’t have time for more than a few visits to the nursing home closest to my church.  With Communion in my pocket, I arrived at the nursing home and meandered through its halls until I recognized a name next to a resident’s door.

It is nice to be a welcome surprise for others.  And for pastors, I think, it is especially happy because we sense not merely a welcome for ourselves but also a wider welcome for an experience of faith, for God.  After a little chit chat and catching up, I mention that I have Communion with me and ask if they would like to receive.  I was four for four that day, each wanting the sacrament.

Betty was one of them.  Betty is in a wheelchair.  She has very limited use of her right arm, and she is grieving the recent death of her husband of sixty-three years.  She was sitting in silence when I walked in, comfortable in her own skin and needing no distraction from whatever she was thinking or feeling.  “What are you doing here?” she asked.  These were friendly, not accusatory, words.   Betty is friendly.

When I asked if she would like to receive Communion, she said “Oh, yes!” and with her left hand placed a magazine that had been on her lap onto the dining tray next to her.  I began with the sign of the cross and a prayer that went something like this: “Dear Lord, it’s Christmas Eve in this quiet space of faith.  We thank you for coming to us in Bethlehem that first Christmas Eve, and we ask you to help Betty and all your people feel the love of your approach today.” Then we exchanged a few prayers from our ritual, and Betty took Communion in her hand and ate of the one whose birth we were celebrating that day.

Then we sat in silence.  There is no sense rushing this moment.  After about a minute, I started to formulate a prayer in my head, since Betty had had ample time to swallow and pray.  I was about to speak my prayer, but it was Betty who broke the silence.  “Aren’t we lucky?” she said, peacefully and matter-of-factly.

“Yes,” I responded.  There was no need for any further words.

christmas star

Loving Bethlehem

‘Tis the season for us to hear the word “Bethlehem” often.  From Christmas cards and stories proclaimed, we commonly imagine a quaint “little town” surrounded by moonlit shepherds’ fields. This Fall, I spent three months living right next to Bethlehem, and walked its streets many times.  I fell in love with it.  Here is a description of my last day there that might explain why.

 

Before leaving my room, I needed to make sure I had my passport.  That’s the first thing to know about Bethlehem today.  It is in the Palestinian Territories or West Bank and is separated from Israel and nearby Jerusalem by a wall that Israel erected in 2004 to prevent terrorists from entering Israel, and to stake its claim on more land that had belonged to Palestinian people.  With my American passport, I could go in and out of Bethlehem. Most Bethlehem residents, however, cannot.

 

I enter Bethlehem through a 120-foot enclosed pathway that leads to two vertical turnstiles that extend from floor to ceiling.  Emerging into daylight I am greeted by twenty or so taxi drivers eager and sometimes desperate for business.  I love to walk, and try to find a way to refuse their offer without aggravating them.  It’s not easy to do, and sometimes they follow me on foot demanding to know where I want to go.  I learned that ignoring them is the worst thing to do, as one driver told me, “Why won’t you look at me?  You disrespect us when you will not talk to us.  You tourists come with money in your pockets and you don’t even notice the people around you.”  I responded by apologizing and saying, “I do respect you, but I’m afraid that talking will make you think I want a taxi and I really don’t want a taxi.”  After hearing me out, he said, “Thanks for talking to me; now I feel respected by you.”  After that, I always said something, “La Shukran” (“no thank you”) or “Not today,” but honestly it never got easy and I was always relieved to get past them.

 

That day my destination was the L’Arche Community, which is close to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, about another forty minutes’ walk.  At L’Arche, people with intellectual disabilities and people without those disabilities work together, making Christmas crafts out of wool from Bethlehem sheep.  The first time I walked into their building, I was just looking to buy a gift or two.  Instead, I was greeted by a worker who invited me to stay for lunch, and after lunch others invited me to stay and help make woolen nativity sets. I loved it; I went back about once a week.

 

The first stretch of the walk from the checkpoint to Manger Square and L’Arche is along the barrier wall.  The Bethlehem side of this wall is covered with rather sophisticated graffiti, some satirizing world leaders unsympathetic to Palestinians and others glorifying Palestinians who have shown courage in the face of their oppression.  On the wall are drawings of children jumping rope with barbed wire, a dove with an olive branch in its mouth and a bullet-proof vest around its torso.  One drawing after the next expresses frustration with the way things are.

 

Getting closer to the center of town, I pass a gift shop owned by a good-hearted Bedouin man named Majdi.  I bought a few things from him early on, but even when I do not he always welcomes me inside and pours me a small Dixie cup of Arabic coffee from his thermos.  If he can, he offers to drive me where I’m going.  Over the months, we became friends and I know I will miss him.

 

Leaving Majdi, I walk the “Pilgrim’s Road” to Manger Square, the path that tradition holds Mary and Joseph walked in their search for lodging, and which today thousands walk on Christmas Eve on their way to Midnight Mass.  Often, I stop at a fruit stand to a buy a few pomegranates. An icon studio where I took classes and made friends is also on this road.  Just before reaching Manger Square, I hear the sound of shopkeepers selling beautiful textiles and leather goods, and Arab treats like chicken shawarma, hummus, and desserts drenched in honey.

 

Before getting to L’Arche, I stop to visit the Church of the Nativity, where underneath the altar is a spot that marks the birthplace of Jesus.  The line to touch this spot is, as usual, very long, so I just stand near the exit and watch people as they emerge from this holy place, some clearly touched by God and others looking unimpressed, like they were just leaving McDonalds.

 

I leave the church and walk through Manger Square, down the hill to the west. In five minutes, I am at  L’Arche.  I roll up my sleeves to work at a table with about five others.  I wish so much that I had studied a little Arabic before coming so I could do more than smile and laugh and hum along to music.  Somehow over the weeks, despite my language deficit, a connection was made.  One person near me, Haddid, said something in Arabic and the assistant who knew some English told me, “She said that you seem really happy to be with us.”  I was touched, and thought the same could be said of Jesus, after being born in Bethlehem.

 

It is my last day at L’Arche. I say good-bye and tears come to my eyes and theirs.  I had loved them and been loved by them despite not being able to talk with them. Wet-cheeked, I walked back to Manger Square where they are testing the lights of the huge Christmas Tree they had set up outside the Church of the Nativity.  As I was feeling both the sadness of good-byes and the love of Christmas, taxi drivers saw me and aggressively asked me where I was going.  I was polite and tried to make it clear that I just wanted to be left alone, but they would not allow that.  Eventually, I had to walk away from that beautiful space just to get away.  The moment was gone.

 

And yet that moment revealed to me something of the essence of Bethlehem today, and why I fell in love with it.  The people of Bethlehem suffer from their confinement.  It pained me each time I walked out of the city knowing that those who had befriended me could not follow me.  I felt compassion for the taxi drivers who can only drive so far, and for Majdi and the people of L’Arche whose spirits stay strong despite all the problems.  In experiencing both the pure love at L’Arche and the badgering of desperate taxi drivers, I touched both the joy and the pain of Bethlehem, much like Jesus who was born into a family of pure love before walking into a world that had largely forgotten what love is. bethlehem wall

Our Journey from Galilee to Jerusalem

It’s not every day that I get to float for as long as I want in the Sea of Galilee.  So, when that day came recently, my reaction was simple and pure gratitude.

 

After swimming about twenty-five yards from shore, I turned on my back to float, and saw the Mount of Beatitudes beyond the reeds.  I was grateful for Jesus.  I was grateful that he taught from that Mount about a loving God who invites us to share divine life by loving one another, especially our enemies.  I was grateful that, close to where I was floating or maybe right AT the spot where I was floating, Jesus spoke parables to crowds to help them understand the gracious reality of God’s presence in the world.  The healing, the exorcising of demons, the feeding…all right here on this sacred stretch of shore.

 

This gratitude for Jesus overflowed into more gratitude. I was grateful for my parents who paid for my swimming lessons, and for those who taught me how to swim.  For everyone who had a hand in the food I ate for breakfast or made it possible for me to ride a bicycle to the shore that day, I was grateful.  Really, I thought, what is there not to be grateful for?  The temperature was eighty-nine degrees, and I was floating in the Sea of Galilee with nothing else to do.  All seemed right with the world.

 

Then I recalled where I would be two days later, spending the night locked inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that contains both the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and the empty tomb, the place of his resurrection. I recalled that Jesus voluntarily left lovely Galilee and went to Jerusalem to enter his passion and pour out his life on the cross.  That was the mission of his life.

 

I shuddered a bit as I realized that, as a follower of Jesus, I could not cling to Galilee’s comfort.  The pattern of Jesus’ life was a movement from fullness to emptying himself for the salvation of the world.  To be in communion with Christ is to share in his mission.   It might seem on a sunny day floating in the Sea of Galilee that all is right with the world, but the truth is otherwise.  Followers of Jesus share his mission to bring healing love into situations that need it so badly.  That means going to Jerusalem, putting higher value on mission than comfort, and finding ways that we can stretch ourselves to help others, often at some cost to our comfort.  Reluctantly, I concluded that it is not enough to be grateful.

 

As I floated and pondered both the importance of this mission and my own resistance to it, I remembered something about floating.  It’s easier to float on your back after taking a big, deep breath. I did so, and felt my body rise effortlessly in the water. The connection to the spiritual life came quickly to mind.  We breathe in the breath of God, full of love and blessing. We breathe out lives of service, full of mercy, patience and the struggle to be strong for those who are hurting.  Both the breath in and the breath out are essential, and they need to follow one another, again and again.

 

I’ll probably never again have a day when I can float in the Sea of Galilee for as long as I want.  But I can breathe in the breath of God and allow that to lift me, wherever I am.  With that strategy for life, I left the sacred shore and within a few hours stepped onto a bus bound for Jerusalem.

tk is sea of galilee

 

Prayer and Pain

Praying in Pain

 

I had the happy circumstance of spending a whole week in Rome recently.  I like good food and beautiful churches, and there was a lot of both to be enjoyed.  I had some rigatoni with pesto that I will never forget.  I also had a prayer experience I will never forget.

 

It became clear after just a day or two of visiting Roman churches that martyrs play a major role in forming the spirituality of that city.  Peter and Paul most famously died there because of their faith, but there were so many other martyrs with churches built in their honor.  Clement, Cecelia, Sebastian, Agnes, Lawrence, Agatha, to name a few.  Their ability to withstand suffering and death rather than compromise their integrity by denying their faith stands as a witness around every corner, it seems.

 

One special house of prayer invited people who were up for it an opportunity to share a little pain of their own.  Inside the church are the “Scala Santa” or “Holy Steps,” which Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena brought back from Jerusalem with the claim that these were steps leading to the place where Jesus encountered Pontius Pilate during his trial.  The marble steps are now covered with wood to protect them from people walking on them.  However, people do not walk up these twenty-eight steps; rather, they go up them on their knees.

 

I don’t think that God wants me to feel pain, and I think that I can pray anywhere in the world and be heard just as well as any other place.  So, I was not prone to perform this act of piety.  Yet, I had two thoughts that urged me onward:  I am a pilgrim and pilgrims go to strange places and do strange things, and I remembered the cliché, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  So, down on my knees I went.

 

The pain wasn’t as bad, I’m sure, as what Sebastian felt from the arrows that pierced his side, but I have to say it hurt a lot.  My intention was to say a prayer for someone on each of the twenty-eight steps, stating the intention to God and then saying an “Our Father” or a “Hail, Mary.”  About eight steps up, I didn’t know if I could go on.  But at that point there were not only six or so people in front of me but about that number behind me as well. I took strength from their company. I also found that the pain was more tolerable if I distributed my weight across the tendon below my knee cap and not just on the top knobby part of my shin.  Finding no shortage of people to pray for also seemed to ease the pain.  A final strategy to endure was looking at the large scene of Jesus’ crucifixion at the top of the stairs. After my twenty-eighth prayer, I rose, with a cold sweat and knees a bit wobbly, affected.

 

Unpacking that experience, I wrote in my journal that night, “I almost hate to admit it, but that was an important prayer experience that I will not forget.  The pain and effort created an intensity that opened me to feel deeper compassion for the suffering of others, gratitude for having a God who suffered on the cross, and my own desire to be consoled by this crucified God.”

 

I don’t plan on making this a regular habit on my stairs at home, and I really don’t encourage anyone to inflict pain on themselves for any reason. Still, this experience leads me to the conviction that in this culture of ours that is so skilled at avoiding pain, we should also be aware of the positive role that pain and struggle can have in our lives.  I advise this: When you are hurting, pray for an end to your own pain and the pain that exists everywhere in the world.  Pray that people who have the power to end the pain of others do so.  Pray for your family, your friends, and for all who need your prayers, those you like and those you don’t, especially those who are hurting.  Pray for yourself, that you will grow in freedom to serve the world generously, even when it hurts. And, if you are Christian, pray that your pain will draw you more deeply into the life of the Crucified and Risen One.

scala santa