Friday, April 14, 2017

His Hour

At the Holy Thursday Mass, I had one of those moments where the Scriptures exploded in my head in multiple directions at once.

It was that first line of the gospel reading: Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father.   

Just a couple of weeks ago at the Sonshine Bible Club I had been teaching my kids about the miracle at the wedding feast of Cana, where Jesus tells his mother "My hour is not yet come." One of the things I have been impressing on these kids every week with every gospel story is that Jesus had his mind constantly set on fulfilling his Father's will that he lay down his life for us. His love focused him on the mission for which he was born, which was to be the atoning sacrifice for our salvation.

So, when I heard these, where Jesus knew that finally, his hour had come, and knowing all that his Passion would entail, my mind shot back again to that moment at the wedding feast. I know that account is rich with layers of spiritual meaning, especially because of how the wedding feast prefigures the marriage supper of the Lamb which Jesus would bring about when his hour did finally come. But what struck me at that moment was on a much more human level. And also, it was born of a time of prayer several years ago where I felt greatly consoled by the Blessed Virgin in the understanding of her grief when Jesus left her in Nazareth to head out into his ministry. This moment of the wedding feast happened probably very shortly afterwards, a brief hiatus in their separation. 

What struck me Thursday night was how it must have affected the human heart of Jesus, also, not only to leave his mother in Nazareth, but to cast his gaze ahead to the day when his hour would come, and he would suffer this kind of separation from her, and the pain of her pain. I think of Jesus in Gethsemane. He wanted his disciples to stay awake and pray. We know he was in anguish. We should not dismiss the pain his humanity endured in being left alone by everyone he loved in that moment -- including his mother. 

Why is it that we go through these moments on earth with no sense of consolation at all, no experience or feeling of love? God allows these moments; at some point, it is his way. In them, we face our misery, brokenness, and need, and we know that without the Father, we are nothing. So Jesus, too, reveals himself to us in this very place. 

In fact, Jesus calls us to himself in this desolate place, and bids us have the courage to meet him there, and love him there, and to know that even there in that place of immense human suffering, he is filled with nothing but love and longing for us.

And because love calls forth love, it can be very disturbing to hear that call unless you are prepared to also lay down all consolation, and the experience of the love of your closest ones, and embrace the desolation that is his in his moment of determination to love us to the end.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Life-Changing Holy Week

Five years ago, I experienced a Holy Week that changed my life. If I had known at the time what lay ahead of me, I probably would have bolted and run.

Now that it is Holy Week again, I cannot help but think back to those days. In many ways, the pain of those days is gone, and the fruit of those days is with me. For example, without that experience I doubt very much if I would have recognized my call to Carmel.

In another way of thinking about it, what God gave me during that time is so deeply etched into my heart that I don't think I would recognize myself without it, and everything still continues to flow in my life as of one piece with it.

My deacon friend who preached today's homily mentioned how we hear the Passion story so often that we can be dull to it; that it strikes as so much "ho hum." As he said this, I was wiping tears from my face because of the force with which I heard even the abbreviated version we had of the reading. Something about that experience five years ago has moved the Passion from something that happened to Jesus 2000 years ago to something that I have participated in. Even as a kid, I was one to cry while watching Jesus of Nazareth or other movies about the crucifixion. But there is something of Holy Week that strikes fear in me. Not in the sense that fails to understand God as Love, but in the sense that the end game for which all penultimate loves, all loves of creatures, is destined, is death. Loves of things are to be purged from us; loves of people will all go through the separation of death. We will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ alone, and we do not know when this will be. Those in Egypt who went to worship today and were killed probably did not expect to die during the liturgy. They would not have anticipated worship of God costing them their lives.

As I waved my palm branch this morning, and reflected on the words of St. Andrew of Crete from the Office of Readings ("Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches"), and as I went forward to receive communion, I was deeply aware of the price those new martyrs of Egypt paid, and the price many around the world pay for simply going into a church to worship on a feast day. Here I am, here is my whole life, I hand it all over. I don't know what will come as I do this. I do it because you bid me to do it by your great and awesome love. 

And so it was five years ago. God had a purifying trial that I could not have imagined, and from which I would have run. So, what exactly have I learned?

  • God is always to be trusted. 
  • Understanding what is happening is not most important.
  • The cross of suffering like this is like a royal scepter extended to the soul. It is favor.
  • God desires far, far better for me than I desire for myself.
  • God never belittles me in my woundedness, but meets my wretchedness with elevating grace.
  • Trustworthy people exist. 
  • He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.
  • St. Teresa of Avila knows what she is talking about when she says courage is an essential component of a life of prayer. 
  • God loves me; He knows every pain I've ever felt, and He is concerned to heal my wounds.
  • It is so powerfully tempting to throw away everything good for what offers pleasure.
  • God's mercy reaches the full extent of all of my folly.
  • God is real. His love is real. His desire for me is for good, but this does not mean I will not feel the pain of my folly burning off. 
  • Folly burning off is extremely painful, especially the tighter you hug it to yourself.
Ultimately, following the Lord Jesus Christ is worth the total surrender of oneself. God is immeasurably good.

And yet, I tremble when it is Holy Week. Because there is always the walking through it part.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Teaching with the Sonshine Bible Club

This academic year, I have taught Scripture lessons to groups of public school kids in an after-school program known as the Sunshine Bible Club. The Club is ecumenical in nature, and is held at a downtown Presbyterian church. I was invited to be involved with the group by the man who has spearheaded this and many other city-wide ministries to youth and teens in our small town. It was a Holy Ghost appointment, because at the time of his invitation, one season in my life had closed (when friends leading another youth ministry I'd been with moved away), and a desire for deeper involvement in my town outside of my Catholic bubble was already growing in my heart.

Initially I had prayed about offering music, but when I was told that one of the teachers had backed out just a few weeks before beginning, I decided I'd take a chance with teaching. Frankly, I've never, ever enjoyed teaching Sunday School or Vacation Bible School or Parish School of Religion sessions, and I didn't expect much of the experience.

As I prayed about what to teach, I landed on the idea of presenting the gospels connected to the mysteries of the rosary. I wanted some kind of structure that gave me direction without being too restrictive (because that desire is the story of my life).

The kids who come to this Club are registered for it by their parents, guardians, or caregivers, and that registration and the bussing is handled by the various public elementary schools in town. The precise format had undergone tweaks in the preceding couple of years of its existence, and at the suggestion of the schools, in order to help curb some of the wild discipline scenarios that had been experienced, the kids were split into two groups: 3rd and 4th grades during the first semester, and 1st and 2nd grade kids during second semester. (In this town, 5th grade is included in Middle School.) Friends who operate a Christian martial arts school volunteered to run through some very basic energy expenditure/self-defense movements with kids as they arrive off of the school bus at 2:30. Then, they sing praise music (or at least listen to it). Then, with the assistance of several adults and teens, the kids are divided into three groups of perhaps 7-12 kids each: one comes to my Bible lessons, the second goes to another teacher, and the third eats snacks. We rotate all three groups around, and then their caregivers come to take them home at about 4:00.

We have brilliant conversations some days; other days everyone is shouting, talking, moving around, and/or everyone is telling everyone to be quiet. (That's always my favorite. Five kids shouting over each other telling everyone to be quiet.) Sometimes it is a mixture of these two. I have generally 15 minutes with each group of kids.

Our town has significant pockets of poverty, especially among the population that has children in the public schools. There is also a strong presence here of drug activity, crime, violence, and all of the fear and hopelessness that tends to accompany these things. And the children are definitely affected. Children are good at slipping comments out about their personal lives in between all the chaos. And so I hear how they have witnessed domestic violence or known homelessness, how parents have been in prison, how they and their siblings have been separated by foster care, how they are bullied, how they are scared, and how they themselves are violent.

Some of the kids go to a church. Some of them know almost nothing about God and have never read a Bible. Most of them have detailed questions to ask me about the devil or magic or the nature of evil. To my knowledge, not a single one of them is Catholic.

The first thing I began to notice as I taught, starting with the Joyful Mysteries, was how much I was accustomed to presuming. My past experiences had taught me to presume that because I was teaching kids in a church, surely they already know who Jesus is. My past reference point had been kids I regularly saw in church.

So as I stopped presuming, I began enjoying the freshness of introducing Jesus to them. And, using the gospels of the mysteries to systematically walk through God's plan unfolding in history, I also saw the freshness of the gospels through these new eyes of theirs, these new hearts that I was getting to know. I was instantly sensitized to details about Jesus' life that resonated with them: Jesus had a "foster father," lived a materially poor life, had to flee from those who wanted to kill him. Mary had to trust, she went to serve instead of glorying in herself. They lived a simple life of humility. They were not powerful by worldly standards.

I have never mentioned the rosary to the kids. But I have seen the logic of the mysteries pop into 3-D. Everything can speak of God's plan of salvation: how Jesus came to reveal God's love, to make clear to us that the misery we all feel comes from separation from God, and to love us to the point of laying down His life so that he could open heaven, and we could all receive His life through baptism, faith, repentance and following Him. Jesus had his mind always on His mission to lay down His life out of love. Almost every week, I illustrate that to repent means to turn from walking toward a sin that I love to turning my back on it and walking away from it and to God who loves me. I also frequently illustrate how Jesus opens heaven, then calls us to follow Him and be with Him. I repeat how to believe in God really means to believe God loves me, and to know that God does not stop loving us when we sin. I teach them a very simply morning offering prayer: "Jesus, I give you my day," and I encourage the kids to start every day by asking Jesus in this way to be with them. He knows well what to do with that invitation.

When I pray in the time before the crowd descends (after drawing one of my famous white board Jesus illustrations -- she who cannot draw), I think often of the image of planting seeds. Who knows where these kids may go or what may happen to them, even in the next 10 years. But I know from my own life that it does not take anything big and fancy to secure a seed of truth planted deep that sprouts to life when it is ready. It takes only the Word of God spoken and anointed by the Holy Spirit. So, I do not tire of telling them the same things, and even of struggling sometimes to be heard over verbal skirmishes between kids.

I have benefited so much from teaching these kids by getting to "see" how Jesus loves them, and loves getting introduced to them. Peeling back to the basics and presenting the kerygma has made me realize that Catholics stupidly often skip this step, assuming that because kids have been baptized, they don't need to meet and come to faith in Jesus. I would also be stupid to think that the kids in Catholic schools or in homeschool settings have no tastes of the pains of life that these kids as young as six or seven are facing. We have to deal with the reality of kids' lives, and if we think we can represent God or speak the gospel at a determined disconnect from the lived reality of our audiences, we are sorely mistaken.