Monday evening, we will all witness, reflect upon or be transported into the “cuteness” and “semi-scary” culture of the time for “…ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night..” which we call “Halloween.” But I am not going to give the usual sermon about how this was (and is) “All Hallows’ Eve” and of a former time when (at least in theory) Christian civilizations would honor and mark the celebration of all its men and women of extraordinary holiness and virtue – those we call “saints.”
Now in the autumn of my own life (to quote the great Chairman of the Board – and if you know not who he was, I feel your pain!), this time of the year fills me with hope and challenge. For sure, it is a time to mark the passing of summer and its warmth and life. For some of us who lost parents this year, the dying of nature simply and symbolically manifests a loss we feel.
For clergy, now begins the time to remind our communities of the need for the Stewardship drive that must begin so that we can meet our ministerial and administrative responsibilities next year. It is the time when some of us mentally speed by the month of November and dwell on preparing for Christmas liturgies, upcoming fundraisers, final exams for students at the seminary, keeping the attention and enthusiasm of our high school confirmation teens, maintaining vestry enthusiasm – always pointing to our future.
Halloween for me is one of those markers of time where I take a moment and reflect: OK so what have I been doing, and what needs to yet be done, and am I using the time which the Lord has given us – because this time passes so quickly. As each leaf is seen falling from its summer’s perch, ask yourselves: what have I been doing with my time this year, and what yet needs to be done, and am I doing what Christ has commissioned me to do?
This past Sunday I shared a video clip with some Middle School young people on Jesus accomplishing miracles. I needed to make sure they understood the concept of “miracle” as the bible describes such events and not with the use of the term as our culture might use “miracle” (e.g., the safe landing of the “Miracle” on the Hudson, or the USA Olympic Hockey “Miracle” on Ice, or even that it will be a “miracle” if the Mets win another World Series in my lifetime!) I even asked them to share what “miracle” they might ask God for because they understand that what they are asking for is beyond our human capacity to accomplish. Remember these are 12 and 13 year olds.
One wryly prayed that God might undo our political process and neither candidate be elected President; one would wish that the evil of slavery might be undone and its scars no longer felt; and the others in one fashion or another prayed that there really might be peace on our earth. They all sadly admitted that they know that none of these will ever happen short of God’s intervention. There is no hope on their part.
At first I was struck by both their honesty and their loss of innocence. Their appraisal of humanity’s abilities is far less optimistic than mine was at their age. But I was also struck by how deep was their theological insight: without grace, humans cannot save themselves. We don’t carry within us the ability to make things right among ourselves or with God.
These young people innately comprehend that it is the power of grace alone and our openness to that power that will make for any hope or change. With Christ, miracles can happen (or as we pray: “through Him, with Him and in Him…”). Shun Him, and humanity remains in the mess it creates for itself: war, slavery, political animosity, bigotry, poverty and all the darker aspects of life that our youth believe are on their horizon.
Last Wednesday was almost a rueful “flashback” experience! Returning from teaching at the seminary, I watch a group of high school boys racing for the train in various stages of dishevelment (perhaps having completed some team practice) – making the train by .08 of a second before it left the platform. I was transported back to the early to mid 1960’s and “saw” in their places four boys (named O’Neill, Campo , O’Leary and Kaldahl) who would do the exact same thing returning home from various high school teams, clubs and/or even detention!
What struck me this time however, although I have seen this a zillion times on the streets, in malls, even here at church is how the kids were in some kind of non-verbal semi-communicative state with one another (without any seeming verbal or facial contact) as they were all plugged into their phones and staring intently into the electronic abyss. Where “back in the day,” the four of us would try to polish off the worst of homework (either math or Latin .. usually) and then spend the remainder of the commute talking about earth shattering topics (usually sports or girls), these young men never seemed to talk at all – just stare and thumb and once in a while smirk.
I am not judging. I am observing. Are we losing the ability to communicate – to just talk to one another face-to-face? Have we lost the ability to read one another and know, perhaps, that in spite of words of bravado, my friend or my sister is really hurting and needs my ear and my attention. Must we always be plugged in with noise? If so, then where is there space for quiet, for thinking … or for God?
On Sunday, you will hear a familiar story about “lepers” and “gratitude.” For me, it’ll be one of those “gut moments” where I tend to show that this is an issue I take rather personally. In a parish community, I don’t believe you can ever thank people enough for what they do. It should be immersed in a parish’s DNA: treat others with respect and be grateful for what people do.
As a younger priest, I once had a particularly unpleasant assignment that, in one year, had me interacting with some 206 individuals who needed canonical assistance. By year’s end, I had heard back from a total of 8 saying “thank you” (although one was a snarky “thank you, but you should have finished this quicker.”) Jesus had 1 out of 10 return to say “thanks.” That’s a batting average of .100. I had 8 out of 206 which computes to .038! (Not much higher than my college batting average – a different silly sadder story – sigh.)
Here’s the point: our culture is hard edged, rapid paced, and few people have “time” to show simple courtesy much less be authentically grateful for the acts of kindness of others. And I truly believe we are losing an important side of our very humanity by relegating gratitude to the dustbin of forgotten virtues.
Even more to the point: Christians hold to the truth that the Triune God has interacted in human history to bring us what we could not attain for ourselves – abundant life that will not end. Are we as Christians even remotely grateful, and if so, how do we show this?