June 14, 2018
This morning is Thursday June 14. To those of you who have a more (or less) patriotic calendar in front of you, you might remember this day as “Flag Day.” I have a less significant memory (in terms of how it might have affected civilization and life as we know it) but for me, an extremely important date that marked a life changing experience.
On June 14, 1971, having graduated from college about a month previously, I received a letter from the Cardinal-Archbishop of New York. (Actually it was a form letter from a staff member, but when you’re a recent university grad, you see things having more significance than they may actually have had!). The neatly typed note on crisp diocesan stationary simply informed me that, although I had applied to enter the diocesan seminary to begin four years post graduate study in theology in preparation for possible ordination to the priesthood, I was being sent on scholarship to live in the American seminary in Rome. I was to attend the Gregorian University and begin these studies in an international environment at a theological university whose demands and tradition rivals Oxford or Cambridge. (Here is where I make the comment “with the best and brightest”, but as my sometimes spiritual mentor the great Groucho Marx is alleged to have said, “why would I want to join any club that would accept me?”)
Although “technically” I had a “choice” in this matter, in reality – not so much! One did not turn down such appointments. Whatever my class standing had been, no matter my (total lack of) knowledge of conversational Italian (since all lectures there were in Italian), no matter how “average” my background in classical Latin and Greek, guess what, I was being sent into an environment that I could not control, did not understand, and in retrospect was probably as ill prepared as one could possibly be.
And yet because of all of that, I bless this date in my memory. This was the date that marked a change in my life forever. The Lord does that to us. Unexpected challenges that both build us up and humble us at the same time. From this point in my life, my classmates, friends and mentors would hail from all over the U.S.A. and indeed all over the world. Because of years living and studying in an international environment, I tend to view issues beyond the myopia that infects us politically. Living among those who were so talented taught me to push myself past what I had accepted as my limitations. Being exposed not merely to great theological minds but to those who actually taught those minds gave me a love of scholarship which, even though I hardly share their status, gave me a love for learning that I never previously had. I learned to experience the sights, smells and sounds of living cultures and important histories. (Don’t tell anyone, but I even cut a class or two once to insert myself into an archeological dig so that I could touch history rather than just read about it!)
Remember those days when your life was so affected. Remember the choices you made that shaped you. Appreciate the choices made and the paths chosen, or even for the choices made for you that you did not appreciate at the time. Pray for those who made such choices and who just might have appreciated your potential more than you yourself did. Be grateful for the unexpected blessings. Know that the Lord has given you far more ability than you might believe about yourself – if you would only stop and remember what has brought you to this day!
May 24, 2018
I am trying to make sense out of the “power” of tradition. It seems to me that traditions are declared to be powerful, symbolic, fussy, senseless, useful or useless – depending on the meaning with which we infuse them. They can sustain life or suck it right out of you when you buck them.
Work with a couple preparing for marriage! Even those who have a tangential relationship (at this point in their lives) to any Christian Community are horrified at the thought of changing things associated with wedding day liturgical traditions as they understand them – even those that have long since lost their meaning. Tradition has power!
Come to any Episcopal parish as the new priest. You will eventually be told in no uncertain terms (either directly in honest conversation, or through overheard gossip, or if you are truly blessed, that ever popular anonymous complaining note) that there are certain ways of doing things in this place, there are certain people who must always have their way in this place – concluding in the choral anthem: “but we’ve always done it this way” or “but we’ve never done it this way!” The power of tradition, for good or for ill.
That’s just an ordinary part of “church life.” So translating this insight into life out in the world, acknowledging the rights of all citizens and the need of the rule of law, even unpopular laws, even laws that may have outlived their original intent, I have observations to make and questions to ask:
Wasn’t the high school experience intended to be the educational locale where the rites of childhood pass and where intellectual growth and curiosity were to accompany the reality of physical maturation? Wasn’t high school, admittedly never a perfect place, still a place of growth, challenge, awkwardness, friendship, and learning? We learned about ourselves and others. We made mistakes. Our teachers were either friendly or unfair. We began to understand and to be understood.
I know those years were not “perfect perfect,” but wasn’t there at least a longstanding “tradition” in this nation that our children would be safe? Wasn’t there a tradition that when you sent your daughter or son off to class, you wouldn’t have to wonder whether yours would be the next school bathed in blood from gun violence? We were intended to hold our children in our arms, but not cradle their lifeless bodies as the targets of rage.
Wasn’t school the place for education and growth? So I wonder: what happened to the power of those traditions? Please don’t tell me that merely waiting for the next murders in our schools (and praying it does not occur in our town) is now becoming a new and acceptable tradition!
May 17, 2018
Last week, I pulled an “all-nighter” that I am sure many of you as parents have experienced. You all know I love our border collie, but …
So for reasons that will never be explained and at a time that has yet to be ascertained with certitude, Abby ate something she should not have! And did she ever get sick. Just after midnight, when all of us “normal” humans are now heading into fitful “r.e.m.” sleep, she awakens in terrible distress, and literally drags me outside into the night (where the deer roam, the coyote prey, the bears hide out, and who knows what else is out there) where she manically consumes what seemed to be tons of grass. Bottom line – in a very short time, she was soooo sick, and retching every (any) where (on porch, stairs, beds, people).
After this self-purging, I tried to be a good doggie dad, and sat up with her for some time, just petting this now clearly repentant (for NOW at least) but helpless little creature. Eventually she fell back to sleep.
I did not! I sat up for most of that night, listening to the sounds of the darkness. I had to reaffirm that no one should ever face the fears of pain and sickness alone – how we need the company of others, and that there is a reason why Jesus mentions in his great judgment parable that we will be blessed because “I was sick and you visited me.”
When one cannot return to sleep and avoids early morning T.V¸ then one can appreciate the gift of silence. There is so much noise in our lives. No wonder it is difficult to focus on what is truly important.
Sometimes instead of “doing” anything, we need to take time to be silent and just “be.” When I realized that I was so wired and concerned that I wouldn’t be returning to sleep, I tried to work on a sermon for a week or so from now. (The outline of this document is now in the trash – as it truly was rubbish after I re-read it a day later). Sometimes we just need the quiet, and we need to take it when the time is provided. We need to take it even if the cause was the naughty behavior of one of God’s loveable but not always bright creatures. When was the last time you had quiet time? When was the last time you took some “quiet time?”
May 10, 2018
As much as I love our border collie (and believe that as a creature with self-awareness and capacity for love, she possesses a “soul” – a position that puts me at odds with some other Christian Church’s doctrinal stance), I certainly observe a major difference between her and me. I have the capacity to choose while she is caught in the rhythm of her instincts. We humans make choices: some good, some not-so–much, and some just dreadful unto evil – but it is we who determine our choices!
The last “Confirmation Class” each year is a fun one for me because I put the teens through a number of “no win” morally ambiguous situations, and they must choose the “right” behavior. Of course, at age 15, they have yet to mature (mentally or spiritually) to understand the difference between a “good” choice vs. a “right” choice. They do not yet know that we cannot always frame the context of life’s dilemmas nor can we “change” a preceding event to make a present choice more reasonable. They haven’t learned that life’s experience will not present us a “do over.” They are young Christian men and women who are maturing in their life in Christ just as they are maturing physically, mentally and emotionally. And they are still children – they have yet to realty master the relationship between choices and consequences.
So what are the principles that reflexively and immediately come into play before each of your decisions? Is it Christ’s “new” commandment to love one another as He loved us? Is it the “golden rule?” Do you determine whether this thought, word or action is in accord with the Covenant with God you made at your Baptism? Does it follow or violate one of the “10 Commandments?” Do you take each situation as a unique universe with its own norms for good vs evil, or do you abide by principles that endure no matter the situation? Must every decision make you feel good? Does what you “feel” in any way determine (or should it?) what you decide? Are we as Christians supposed to judge situations differently from non-believers? If so, why? Or, why not? We often hear the phrase: “don’t judge me!” So is every behavior to be accepted? If you believe there are no absolute principles, then, of course, you’ve just created one! So does one create one’s own absolute norms? Is every choice to be evaluated simply by outcome: if it works, don’t fix it and, heaven forbid, never change it.
And on and on the discussion might go! While this is the basis for a good few get-together sessions to discuss “Ethics’ Today 101” (or whatever you might wish to entitle the course), I just thought I’d pose the question for you: so just how do you decide to do what you do and why? Does being a disciple of Jesus make a difference, or not? — Fr Joe
Thursday Reflection May 3, 2018
Last weekend, I escaped upstate for a day and experienced life “in the far northern burbs” as a grandpa and observer of everyday USA reality. Can’t say it totally left me with a “warm fuzzy” feeling. So for many of these observations, I end up questioning now how you do it, but rather, why?
So let me just take one slice: a two hour immersion into cultural insanity yet cuteness known as my grandson’s first 9 – 10 yr. old little league game. Now I am NOT going to be one of those nasty caricature parent-fanatics who seem to need to live through the success of their progeny. OK, so my grandson tried to score from second on a four time kicked ground ball, and was out at the plate by a mere 45 feet. The umpire could have gotten that call wrong, but I’m not going to loudly comment at a volunteer high school kid – unlike some folks I overheard!
I do have a few other unsettling observations. Will someone explain to me where the “fun” of the game is to be found when the mom of one little guy, (trying to) pitch, who would pace back and forth in front of the bleachers like a caged lion grumbling: “…can’t enjoy myself whenever he pitches!” Silly me, I thought this was about little kids enjoying themselves and learning the game. Didn’t know that one’s own self esteem must be forever tied to little kids doing as little kids do: imperfectly and silly even when trying!
Will someone explain how you can enjoy a game when you’re on your cell phone for all but 4 minutes and 37 seconds of a two hour game – calling this associate, speaking to that underling (?), making changes, and apparently orally “rewriting” several key pieces of legislation that surely will impact western civilization as we know it? Sorry, you missed your son’s at bat – again! By the by, without even trying I now know more about this person’s work and personal life than I really need or want to. No one has to steal his privacy; he tossed it away!
Will someone explain the logic in signing up your various children to so many sporting and non-athletic activities per day that they are forever trapped in the cycle of car here unto car there – missing this practice to attend this activity – and not seeing that you cannot do everything – no one can. One cannot be in two separate places at the same time. One sometimes must make choices in terms of what one can or cannot do. Shouldn’t we be teaching our kids this?
Will someone explain why one mother, bringing her son to the game, has to be glared down and publically lied to by the child’s father (and latest girlfriend du jour) because he is avoiding child support, and he seems to need to have all the world know (and loudly) that “I’M the victim here”!
Or we can reflect upon why the need to stand in front up of everyone so that one can see better, block everyone else’s view (and give out more personal directives to one’s particular offspring – so that the little kid might be totally confused between what his coach is telling him and what dad/mom is telling him. (I also really loved this one guy who delegated his daughter and sent an older daughter to shout instructions at her diminutive sibling – seriously)?
Yeah, this was quite an afternoon for observations. So will someone explain to me where the “fun” of all this can be found? Is there anyone out there who agrees that we as a people really need to have a serious conversation about civility, about letting our children be “children” and having fun, or about building folks up and not looking to tear them down. Also the conversation might include respecting privacy (one’s own and that of others). And while we are at it, do not assume everyone wants to hug you or being hugged. Finally for goodness sake, give our children the space to be children and love them in and through their mistakes. There will be enough opportunities to experience the wrath of others when they become adults.
|A week ago, I was reading from one of my usual on-line spiritual reading sites, when I was almost knocked over by this posting by a Fr. Hankinson (from I know not where – and it matters not!)
This hit home for me – all the expectations and plans that were made through and post college, through and post seminary years later that did not occur because the Lord seemingly has different plans. And this is not just about me! One of the hardest spiritual disciplines to cultivate in one’s own spiritual life is the ability to “let go” and see God’s guidance in the unexplained or unplanned events of life – even the ones we dread. So I share this reflection with you because it brought me so many memories. I hope this does the same for you.
– Fr. Joe