Saturday, April 29, 2017

Who Cares?

Last night I had the privilege of being able to volunteer for an overnight shift with an organization our parish partners with--Family Promise of Chester County. A partnership of churches throughout Chester County rotate for a week at a time making space available in their congregational facilities for families who, for whatever reason, find themselves temporarily homeless. It's a really neat model--inter-denominal cooperation and using the resources already available for the congregations to make a welcoming, home-like environment for the families as well as case management and assistance in securing permanent housing. Volunteers cook, provide childcare and playtime with children, drive, and stay with the families overnight.

I arrived at Kennett Prysbertian last night around eight o'clock in the evening. The dinner shift was just finishing up and the three families who were staying there for the week were relaxing in the rec room with their kids. Their English was minimal, and my Spanish was limited as well, but exchanges of smiles and laughs really took us a long way. My partner for the night and I played with the kids. One of the men was working and didn't end up getting home from work until well after midnight. Another had to leave for work at 5am. A baby had just been born a week before. One family was intergenerational--grandmother, daughter, and children. In the morning we got breakfast ready and the coffee made around 5am. We were able to chat with one of the men before he left for work--he had slept from 3am (when he got home from work) to 5am (for when he had to leave for work). His daughter was about a month old. "Life is hard sometimes. But also very good," he said with a shrug. He was hopeful about a potential house to rent near his work. We prayed with him, for his family, his job, for finding housing. 

It was very humbling for me to spend time with these hardworking and humble migrant families. It was also a privilege. Serving the poor is such a huge part of the Christian life, and how often I neglect it. What is amazing is when you serve those in need--those who are hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked--you are serving Christ himself in the "distressing guise of the poor." Waiting on the God of the universe. I hope to serve with Family Promise again. They coordinators are great, people who care and are doing the work that often goes unseen. I did one night, but some of these men and women have been volunteering for decades. I have a lot to learn, and looking forward doing more.

Sometimes it can seem there are so many problems in the world, you are really powerless to do anything. But that's not true. As Mother Teresa said, "Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you."

Monday, April 10, 2017

Day 40: Lessons From The Garden

This weekend I was working outside in the garden getting it ready for the planting season. It's a great place to think and work at the same time. God is reflected in Nature, and so a lot of the spiritual life has a parallel in the natural world, since it is His handiwork. Here are a few things I was reflecting on:

The Weakest Link

I had a perimeter fence two feet high made from chicken wire, as well as a slanted wire deer fence. It's a pain to get into the garden with the fence up, it's costly, and is somewhat of an eyesore. I realized that despite how much time and effort and money it took to put up this protection, something was still nibbling at the kale and chard. How was it getting in? A fence, even a 150' foot long one like mine, is only as good as it's weakest spot. If a rabbit is able to burrow down and dig underneath, the whole thing is pretty much useless.

So I started retrenching the chicken wire. It was a lot of back breaking work, and after a couple hours I was only a quarter of the way done. "Forget it," I told my wife, "the fence is coming out." And I took it all out. This is going to be an experimental year, then--how much more of my crop will I lose with no fence vs a fence like in years past. I realized I'll probably lose a good bit of my crop to wildlife if I'm not careful, so I am trying to adopt the mindset of non-expectation; I don't expect to harvest anything this summer, so anything on top of nothing is a bonus. I plan to cover with thin netting as a precaution for the low-level crops like beets, turnips, chard, kale, and mesclun. I'm not going to plant certain things that are susceptible, and I'm planning to plant other things that animals don't like (like onions). I'm expecting to lose it all, so I will be pleasantly surprised if I don't.

Fences protect what's inside, but they only work when they are uncompromising and secured consistently. My fence became useless because I didn't secure it or trench it in. Likewise, as Paul says, "let there not be a hint of immorality among you" (Eph 5:3), and "a little yeast leavens the whole batch." (1 Cor 5:6)

Transplants and Converts

When it comes to gardening there are two ways to plant--you can sow your seed directly in the garden outside, or transplant seedlings. There are some advantages and disadvantages to both methods. Pros of direct seed is it's easier, plants tend to have better root systems and seeds germinate when they are ready. Transplants can be started earlier indoors to get a jump start on the season, and is necessary for some plants, but it's sometimes a rocky transition from indoors to outdoors, and critters tend to attack young transplants as well.

It made me think about being a transplant, a convert, in the church. I have secular baggage that cradle Catholics maybe don't have as much of, though they might have more religious baggage than I may. My early fervor fueled my growth early on, but maybe my roots do not run as deep as someone who has always been Catholic. The temptations I face, the animals that strip my leaves and chew my stem, are not unique, but I do wonder if I am working harder just to get to zero because of choices I have made in my past versus someone who was never a prodigal, never strayed. I don't know. Some plants need to be transplanted, some grow best directly in the ground.

Look at Paul and Peter in Galatians 1 and 2. Peter grew up as a friend of Jesus during his lifetime, a Jew through and through; Paul was an apostolic transplant, the apostle to the gentiles. They even came head to head at Antioch over disagreements of the direction of the church. We need Peters. We need Pauls. God calls both. That is a healthy church. Just like transplants and seeds sown directly, God calls us each according to his purposes (Rom 8:28).

Use What You Have

You can geek out with gardening if you want to: taking soil samples, high-effort composting, applying specific fertilizer ingredients, hand watering. I used to do a lot of that kind of stuff, but just found it was more effort and input than output. Now I am a self-proclaimed lazy gardener. I try to minimize my inputs and maximize outputs. I'm more apt to direct seed certain things, even if it means a late harvest, rather than the hassle of starting seeds indoors under lights and having to constantly water. I'm ok planting high-yield plants with easy to pick fruit (I don't grow peas or beans, for instance). I lay down wood chips (a lot of effort early on, but once they're down they're good for years) as a mulch to suppress weeds and to hold in moisture. I rarely hand water except in the driest of weather, and don't weed much because there's not many weeds. I fertilize occasionally with whatever nutrient-rich organic material I have around--coffee grounds, grass clippings, compost--but try not to buy anything.

Practicing the Christian faith should be natural, using what's on hand. Sacramentals and devotional objects are nice but not necessary. I usually pray the rosary on my hands (10 fingers) when I don't have one, and don't let not having rosary beads on hand stop me from praying it. I read books here and there, but often get them from the library. A bible is indispensable, but again, can be accessed online for reference without cost. I've never been to Rome or the Vatican. When our prayer life becomes too complicated or mechanized, maybe it's a good opportunity to take a step back and get back to basics. Air, rain, sunlight, good soil--these make 95% of a plant's growth. If all we do is sit and adore God in worship, or serve his poor and welcome strangers (and as a result, welcoming him) or read our bible and meditate on the Word consistently, then we are 95% there. Follow the example of Jesus, whose yoke is easy, and burden is light (Mt 11:30).


Some days I think, "why do I bother? There's a grocery store just down the street. Or I could outsource to professional farmers who have CSAs and markets nearby. Why do I put myself through this every year, growing food?" Honestly, I don't know, especially when you spent months growing a plant from seed only to see a half eaten pile of tomatoes on the ground next to it compliments of a squirrel. It would certainly be easier, albeit less satisfying. I've invested some money and time and energy, which I'm hoping will pay dividends over time. It's relaxing for me to do something productive outside, get my hands dirty, learn some new things, and its' physical as well.

I guess that's kind of like faith. You spend years cultivating and building up the soil with the hopes of a future harvest with no guarantees. There's hail, and caterpillars, deer, drought, disease, that work against you. It's a good bit of effort on our part to till and toil. You grow and nurture little seeds and bring them to maturity though care and attention. Progress is slow; it can't be seen day-to-day.

Every year I tell myself this is the last year, that it's just not worth it. And every Spring, I start again.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Day 38: Just Being Honest

Deb and I were away for a few days; she had a conference, I went along for the ride. It was a nice break from routine, but that in itself comes with some downfalls.

The break in routine for me meant I was sleeping in, not praying in a structured way, not reading the bible as much, indulging in what I had given up (coffee), and getting depressed as a result. There is no real 'vacation' or 'day off' in the spiritual life, though this is how I was treating it. It is dangerous to give the devil a foothold, because he will take advantage of the situation when you lay your armor down, even for a moment.

This is the hardest stage in Lent for me. You can see that Holy week is just ahead. You're tired and cranky. You've made some exceptions and concessions in your resolutions, and you feel like it's hard to get back on the wagon so why bother? Temptations seem to increase. It's like a marathon runner who has been going to 25 miles and decides to take a breather with a mile to go.

Have you heard of the Stations of the Cross? It's a Catholic devotional practice that traces Jesus' steps on the way to the Cross at Calvary. Jesus was made to carry his own cross. He falls not once on the way, not twice, but three times. He just kept falling. But also getting up. Only to be crucified. For the sake of people who could care less about him, and had no idea what he had taken upon himself.

When I was away, I did whatever I wanted. I was off from work. I went out to eat. I read or wrote if I felt like it, but if I didn't, I didn't bother. I slept in and didn't bother to exercise much. I was my own master, living for myself.

Driving back and hitting DC Beltway traffic at rush hour on a Friday, after taking an extended wrong-turn, and having to pee like you would not believe, with no where to go, things were getting ugly in the car. Deb and I were getting salty with each other, yelling, blaming each other and being mean. In serving no one but myself for the past few days and taking 'time off' from prayer, I am sure I opened up myself to spiritual attack, like a plant weakened that is attacked by insects. I really regret neglecting that, and learned my lesson.

I learned something on this trip--living for yourself does not lead to happiness. Happiness becomes elusive the more you try to please yourself, whether it's with nice restaurants or leisure, or pleasurable recreation. The secret to joy is in giving of ourselves to others, for it it is in giving that we receive (St. Francis of Assisi). Hard work allows one to experience earned leisure, but leisure by itself rots like hoarded manna. Prayer tunes us into God's frequency, where everything is right and natural, and when we forget to do that it's just trying to make decisions in a field of static. Fasting and sacrifice, training the flesh, hones our faculties and keeps us spiritually health and toned, not flabby and lethargic like I currently feel.

Please pray for me friends, as we enter Holy Week next week. Let's finish the face faithfully together, and hold each other be faithful to the end.

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race..."
(2 Tim 4:7) 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Day 34: No Way Out

When I was in grad school I remember hearing about a group of scholars looking to "discover the historical Jesus" convening something called the 'Jesus Seminar' in the seventies. These scholars of a liberal bent did not feel the miracles of Jesus were all that important or even reliably sourced, and often explained the away or minimized their account. I frankly didn't know what exactly their purpose was, or why this would be attractive to anyone. Was it to deconstruct the person of Jesus? Rewrite the Gospels? Discover something new? It seemed like a sanitation project, a sterilization of the live and active cultures teeming in a lived life of radical faith. Bleh.

I have no problem believing in miracles. I do not feel a need to explain them away in a cheap kind of bland rationalism. Miracles give us hope in this valley of tears. What I do struggle with is having the radical faith necessary to have miracles worked in my own life. 

I was reading the fourth chapter of 2 Kings tonight. The entire chapter is devoted to the miracles performed by the powerful man of God, Elisha, one after another. It begins with the prophet encountering a widow in debt, with no ability to repay, and the creditor coming to collect her sons as slaves since she can't repay the debt.

I remember reading a staggering statistic a few years back about Indian farmers who had taken loans with extortion rates they could never repay, after their crops had failed and they had no recourse. Debt like this is a kind of slavery, and over 300,000 Indian farmers who saw no way out had committed suicide since the 1990's, usually by ingesting insecticides .

Have you ever been in a debt so deep that you literally cannot see out of it, back against the wall facing down despair? Collection agents relentlessly hounding you to pay what you owe, and having no ability to? I haven't. And this shapes my faith (or lack of it) in a way--when you don't really know what it means or the full implications of such an impossible situation, you tend to think "I got this," or you draw from savings or whatever to make ends meet. 

But when you have no recourse and no resources, the story of a widow about to lose her sons, her own flesh and blood, to indentured servitude, becomes our own. Do you know it? The situation is, quite literally, an impossible one. Elisha, drawing on the power of God to do the impossible, miraculously multiplies her oil (all she has in her house), filling all the borrowed vessels, so much that she can sell the oil to pay off the debt, with enough left over for the sons to live on. 

We want a 'little bit' of God, don't we? We want 'just enough' God to make us good citizens, well behaved children, morally acceptable people, but we don't want to get carried away and we certainly don't want to risk looking like fools if were in fact to lose big. Let's admit it--we don't really NEED's just kind of this nice accessory, one among many in our drawer. We believe He hears prayers and politely answers them sometimes, but if we are honest we are providing for ourselves as best we know how and relying on our own savyness to put a comfortable buffer between our family and the streets. At least I do. We keep one foot propping the door open, just in case those prayers aren't answered we have our own creativeness to fall back on to fill the gap.

I suppose it is the responsible thing to do, financially speaking, providing for the uncertain, for change, for retirement. But what happens when you lose your job, and the numbers aren't balancing anymore, and the jobs aren't showing up? When the savings is dwindling and the kids are getting some hunger pangs? What happens when your child is on life support or in a coma, and it seems they will never wake up? Do we believe then? Did we believe prior? It's times like those when our backs are against the wall that I am less concerned about a historical Jesus or great moral teachers and more concerned with a God who does the impossible, who works miracles, who ransoms and saves and rescues us from the clutches of those who seek to enslave us, shackled in dungeons for time untold. 

It's no coincidence that those times when our lives feel literally out of control, when the winds of change and uncertainty blow open the shutters, when the chinks in our armor are exposed, have the potential to be rich times of spiritual maturation and trust, when God's great power and glory can be on full display. It opens the door to the kind of radical trust that God can work with, can bless, to change a potentially dire situation. It makes a way when there is literally no way to be made.

God is faithful, and His power is mighty. He credits faith as righteousness (Gen 15:6; cf Rom 4:22). He raises dead boys from the grave and gives them life again. He multiplies loaves of bread to feed hungry masses by the thousands, changes hundreds of gallons of water to wine, expels demons that have made their home in a person for years, putting them in their right mind. He dries up flows of blood, gives sight to the blind, makes rotting skin white as snow, He calms storms when they threaten to capsize boats. He walks on water and frees chained prisoners from their shackles, opening gates for them to walk out. He does all these things supernaturally, yet in the most natural way when viewed with eyes of faith. Where we fail as disciples is to think and say that he is not capable, not able, not willing, and not interested in helping us. 

When I said I had never been in the kind of dire debt that I could never get out of, that isn't entirely accurate. While it is true financially speaking, it is not true of my soul. I was a slave to sin, bound by it, unfree for all eternity. I was shackled, and it wasn't even entirely my fault, yet there I was, mired by sin and unable to escape death, the fate promised to us thanks to the disobedience of our first parents. Christ paid the debt, the amount of which could never be repaid in a hundred million years. He ransomed me, and he ransomed you. He gave his life to save us, stood in for us. 

So the next time you are in a seemingly impossible situation, do no squander the opportunity to let the name of the Lord be glorified, to let his mighty deeds be seen. Trust and do not doubt (James 1:6). When your back is against the wall, with no way out...that is when you will see the full glory of God revealed for those who trust in Him!

"If the son sets you free, you will be free indeed." 
(Jn 8:36)

Day 33: Finding Rest

I've been up since 3 am this morning, got 3 hrs sleep Monday night, and have about fifteen minutes to write before I head out the door this morning. Let's see how I do for a speed-post!

It's been a hard week for Deb and I for a lot of different reasons. Lot of running around, and also late night talks at the kitchen table. The idea of rest is alluring. So when we heard at Mass on Sunday that the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal were visiting our parish to give a three day retreat, it came at the right time.

We hustled after work and dropped the kids off at Deb's sister's house. When we got to church it was pretty crowded, which I was surprised by. The sanctuary was dark and lit by candlelight. The young friars were strumming their guitars with quiet music. These are joyful, young, bearded guys, on fire with the Holy Spirit. We settled into a pew. Jesus was present on the alter in the Blessed Sacrament. The friar leading encouraged us to just be present before God, who is truly present before us.

Adoration is one of my favorite forms of prayer because I don't have to be 'on.' I don't have to be active. I can just rest and be, which is what we so desperately needed this week. We laid all our fears and anxieties and weariness before the Lord. Deb started crying, and I just closed my eyes. One of the friars shared his story--an aerospace engineer from Japan, whose father was an American diplomat, who was not satisfied with what he had in the world and found joy and fulfillment in the priesthood. Another friar shared that he was seeking all the pleasures of the world in Southern California after graduation and nothing seemed to satisfy, that is, until he turned his life over to the Lord. We both got the chance to go to Confession.

It was a simple, hour and a half weekday retreat--Adoration, praise worship music, confession, testimony. But it was just what we needed to prep for Holy Week. Deb's sister made a comment when were dropping the kids off that it seemed like a lot of running around just to be able to pray, and was it worth it. When you are stretched so thin and have nowhere else to turn to find rest, full of worry, the answer is obvious, it seems an easy thing to cut. But just to be with him for an hour and half, undisturbed and strengthened, in silence...I can't think of any better way to spend that time. Thank you, Lord, for the gift of YOURSELF!

"My burden is light."
(Mt 11:30)

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Day 31: Sports Ball on the TV

We had dinner at our good friends Dan and Missy's house tonight. Dan told me about something called the "Final Four" on television. It is college basketball, where there are 64 teams, and all but four are eliminated, and then they play each other for the glory. It's called the final four because there are four teams left. "Dan, what am I going to write about tonight?" I ask my friend. "You should write about sports," he says with a smile.

I grew up playing sports. Soccer, wrestling, track and field, cross country, and bicycle racing. I was fairly competitive. I think sports are a great outlet for boys and girls, to learn teamwork, develop self-confidence, acquiring self-discipline through training and practice.

Watching sports I just can't into, though. I do try, but I just have no interest.

My first exposure to the spiritual life was, ironically, through a series of lectures I came across on Krishna-Consciousness in the late nineties. A Hare-Krishna devotee was being interviewed on why they live the lives they do, lives of renunciation and seeking pleasure in serving God rather than engaging in worldly things, and the talk turns to sporting events, and would a Krishna-devotee ever go to a football game:

"If in watching this-or-that configuration of colors running on a pasture (otherwise known as football)...if in doing that I forget my eternal nature, then it does in fact become a most relevant moral issue. After all, in the bible, does it not say, 'if the love of the world is in you, the love of the Father is not'?'

Christians do not have such an extreme outlook on the "distraction" of athletic endeavors, though I do think our culture can get into a kind of idolatry when it comes to our 'devotion' to professional sports. But engaging in sports can have benefits in that we can use those skills and training for a higher purpose. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians:

"Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified." (1 Cor 9:24-27)

And again in his letter to Timothy:

"Train yourself for devotion, for, while physical training is of limited value, devotion is valuable in every respect, since it holds a promise of life both for the present and for the future." (1 Tm 4:7-8). 

In the spiritual life, we can be devoted spectators--reading about the lives of God's holy saints, attending retreats, listening to talks and lectures on prayer, having spiritual conversations. But the hard work of training to make the team consists in the things for which there is no substitute--prayer, reading the Word, worshiping regularly on the Sabbath in fellowship with other believers, fasting, resisting temptation, givings alms, working for justice, providing for the poor and walking with them. It takes work and training to stay fit spiritually and to hone one's devotion.

Well, it looks like Gorgonzolla just beat out North Carolina to take the Final Four sports championship match. Congratulations basketball team, and don't forget to thank the Lord for your victory!

"I saw under the sun that the race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the valiant." 
(Eccl 9:11)