Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

BACK TO THE BASICS

Dear Jesus,

How long will it take for me to learn the basics of discipleship?  You first called me so many years ago when I was young, just a child, that I can’t remember a time when I did not know you.  Even when I strayed I loved you.  It was the weight of that love that caused me anguish and helped me right my course.  Never did it occur to me that you would turn your back on me, much less spurn my return.

Here I am now, no longer a child, wondering if I have understood anything about the demands of friendship with you.  The fault is not yours.  I accept full responsibility for my proclivity to adapt your teachings to my comfort level.  It is hard to accept baldly your teachings that ask your followers to be a completely new creation (your words).  Do we ever, this side of glory, come to understand and accept what you mean?

There is something comforting about ascetic practices.  I can feel so holy when I am fasting, for example.  I don’t think I have ever been tempted to wear a hair shirt.  The thought of flagellating my bare back with leather thongs and bits of bone is repellent.  Crawling on my knees to some shrine as a sign of my devotion to you or to your Mother or one of the saints does not appeal to me at all.  Yet sometimes I find myself wondering if I were really holy, wouldn’t I do all of those types of things and so win God’s favor?

That’s what I am getting at.  I am still hung up on penances as ways of getting God’s attention so that God will save me.  If I suffer enough God will love me.  If I maintain a humble posture on my knees.  What would happen if I let your words have full impact on my heart?  Of what am I afraid?  Is it freedom?  The full responsibility of being your other self?  That’s what happened, isn’t it, when I was baptized?  I was conjoined to those in whom you live, those identified with you, those living in Resurrection now.

Something tugs at me to take up former ways.  From this perspective, the way we did things when I was a child seem safer.  Then, if I were a good adorer I felt holy.  Keeping the mysteries at a distance made them mysterious but also kept me from entering into Mystery.  I didn’t have to accept to responsibility of being a c-celebrant with the presider at Mass.  It was all done for me.  All I had to do was be a passive adorer.  I could say my rosary during mass and feel that I had fulfilled by Sunday obligation – as long as I got to church before the Offertory of the mass.  And I could leave after Communion without a problem of conscience.  Today, as a co-celebrant, it is expected that I will be present for the entire Liturgy with full, active and conscious participation.  I can’t say do that and say the rosary, too.  In those days, the rosaries I said and the fasts I kept, my adoring posture, all this, I thought, made me holy and compelled God to notice.

Those were the attitudes that I thought were the basics of faith.  Maybe they were, but I wonder.  Why am I afraid to live in the freedom of the children of God (words of another friend of yours)?  Please be patient with me.  I know that over and over you have tried to explain these things to me.  Perhaps I am a slow learner.

What finally is beginning to dawn on me is that each person in every age who hears your call must be transformed into new cloth and new wine in fresh wineskins, resisting those who would try to attach him/her to old cloth or confine him/her in brittle skins – even if it would seem safer for a time.  Is that why life with you, both for individuals and for the whole people of God who are the Church, is one of constant conversion that will never be fully accomplished until we rest in you?

Sometimes, late at night, when I am very quiet and darkness envelops me, when I am anxious about the demands of discipleship and aware of my shortcomings, I think I hear you, I think I hear you whisper over and over again, “God loves you.  God loves you.  God loves you unconditionally and without reservation.”  That’s the Good News you announced.  It is hard for me to accept the image of a god who would go to the great lengths you say God would go just to get me back, were I to wander.  Even if I were to sin grievously and give no evidence of relationship with you, you try to convince me that God waits patiently and always longs for reconciliation.  Does God really love that unconditionally, dancing like a flickering flame to lure the moth?

It’s the implications of the basics that scare me.  I long for a church that proclaims that Good News loudly and clearly and without reservation.  In stead, some in the Church do not let an opportunity go by without iterating those who are not welcome to come to the table.  Aren’t you the only one who is capable of making that judgment?

I try to envision a church full of people caught up in their freedom as God’s children, exercising their Baptismal Priesthood, living as a resurrected people now.  I wonder what that would be like if the whole Assembly were gathered at the table fully, actively, and consciously co-celebrating the Eucharist in union with the Presider.  (I’ll bet no one would have to make an announcement pleading with people to remain in their pews until recessional is sung.)

Why does the vision terrify me?  Is it fear of the implications of discipleship?  Is it the weight of responsibility that freedom brings?

That is a lot to think about.  I’ll give it some more time.  Maybe I should remember that you are committed to being there with me and strengthening me with your gift of the Spirit.  I guess, in the end, more depends on you than me.  All I have to do is to cooperate with grace and take you at your word.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – January 30, 2011

Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13

1 Corinthians 1:26-31

Matthew 5:1-12a

It shouldn’t be surprising that there are those who try to reshape the Gospel to make it more palatable in keeping with today’s standards and values.  What is this era all about?  What are the goals to which young people should aspire?  They have everything to do with youth, power, and wealth.  I wince when I hear a popular televangelist preaching a gospel of bounty.  If people will just turn their lives over to Christ and find a good Bible based church they will also find the success that God has in mind for them.  And that success will have to do with financial security.  In an age of rampant materialism, an age that is all about power, position, youth, beauty and wealth, we oughtn’t to be surprised that all of those things are attractive.  I can’t fantasize about being young or attractive.  Those days are gone forever.  But there is a tug when tit comes to power, position and wealth.  There is no security in poverty and vulnerability.  When that man looked out at me from the television screen and whispered with a leering smile: Imagine what it would be like if this ($90,000) car were in your garage, I thought, yup, imagine.

This Sunday’s gospel is the telling of the Beatitudes.  When they are proclaimed, I’ll bet they won’t have near the impact that they had on those gathered around Jesus as he sat and taught on the mountain.  Don’t miss the significance of the way Jesus is positioned.  The one who sits and teaches is the one who teaches with authority.  When that happens on the mountain the result is the new Moses proclaiming the New Testament to the people.  No stone tablets this time.  This law is written on the human heart of those who believe.  Those first hearers just might have been stunned.  That is not likely to be the case this Sunday because we have gotten used to hearing them.  We are so used to them that many even are able to recite them from memory.  The Beatitudes won’t shock or bring us up short.  There will be those who will drift off after they have heard the first Blessed and think: I know this one.  I wonder where we should go for brunch when mass is over.

We are early in the Liturgical year and in Matthew’s Gospel.  For the next several weeks, the Gospel proclamations will continue the Sermon on the Mount that begins this week.  Some have said that the Sermon is the Magna Carta of the new Kingdom.  This is to what those who decide to be disciples must ascribe.  It’s clear that not all those gathered about Jesus have made that decision.  They are divided into two categories, disciples and the crowds.  Disciples are those who have made the decision, not yet tested, to follow Jesus.  The crowds are those people milling about, curious about Jesus, perhaps seeking something, but undecided about him.  Matthew tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds he went up on the mountain like Moses, the great lawgiver who encountered God on the mountaintop and came down from there bearing the Decalogue.  Jesus sits, taking the position of authority and teaches in his own name.  Matthew says that it is then that the disciples separate themselves from the crowd and gather around Jesus and these are the ones he teaches.  In other words, the Sermon on the Mount isn’t for everyone, certainly not for the faint hearted, or even for those on the fence.  Jesus teaches the disciples an extraordinarily new Way, a way that is defiant of established ways and commonly accepted values and necessitating a whole new way of perceiving reality.

This Sunday we must sit at Jesus feet as docile students and let the words wash over us.  We must listen without defenses in place.  Pay attention to what causes you to wince, or to wonder who can do this?  Avoid the temptation to smugness and think of those who need to hear this teaching.  Dare to be open to the Beatitude you would most like to dismiss or ignore.  That is probably the one we stand most in need of taking to heart.

Am I poor in spirit?  Well, I know I’m not wealthy, at least by standards of most people in this country.  But how much of my focus is on things?  How entitled do I feel to the wealth that is mine, even seeing my good fortune as a sign of God’s favor, masking the fact that I am desensitized to a longing for God that opens the door to God’s reign in my life which is the kingdom of heaven.  That is the hunger, the void that only God can fill, that is poverty of spirit.  If I thank God that I am not as poor as most of the people in the world, is that a good sign of the state of my discipleship?

Is mourning a happy state?  Blessed (happy) are they who mourn. That can only be if the mourner is convinced that the separation from the one mourned is temporary.  There must be a confidence that the hoped for reunion that is the heart of mourning will be realized.  But it isn’t only people who are mourned.  So are the losses of position, reputation, and relationship.  In all of these, it is restoration that is the desired comfort.  The blessed state of the mourner comes from the confident assurance that God will heal, restore, and reunite.  Remember, Jesus mourned his friend Lazarus and mourned as the rich young man turned away from the invitation to go, sell what he had, give to the poor and return to follow Jesus.  Jesus mourned because the young man preferred wealth and could not imagine himself ceding the security that he had.  Jesus mourned over Jerusalem.  How often I would have gathered you to me as the hen gathers her chicks, but you would not. Jesus is the model for this beatitude in his final moment on the cross.  When all looked on and saw destruction and failure, Jesus breathed forth his spirit into the hands of the Father who could raise him up.

Blessed are the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness.  It must dawn on us that Jesus is the personification of all the Beatitudes.  He is the meek one that lay down his life for his friends.

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart. That yoke is living the Beatitudes.  Have you ever wondered why it was that, throughout his public ministry, many of those who sought Jesus out were the despised tax collectors and shunned sinners.  They came to him with a hunger that he awakened in them, a void that only he could fill.  These were the ones who were recipients of his table fellowship.  Welcoming them became the principal reason for his being denounced and condemned.  In everything it is Christ’s trust in God that is the example.  His constant desire is to do the will of the One who sent him.

If we let the words of the Beatitudes wash over us and allow ourselves to be vulnerable in the hearing, that means open to having our hearts penetrated by them, we will have to conclude that to achieve the blessed state Jesus outlines, we must desire to imitate Jesus in all things.  To have union with Christ must be our greatest longing.  But if we do that, won’t our attitude toward every other person and every thing be affected?  We will have to speak out against injustice and denounce war and warmongers.  We will have to align ourselves with the poor, the outcasts, and the sinners and dare to associate with them, even have dinner with them, and celebrate Eucharist with them.  What will people say then?  What if we are denounced for being to liberal and soft in our response to some of the perceived evils of our times?  What if we are rejected?  Where will our strength be then?

If we are to be Jesus’ disciples, is there any other way?

Sincerely,

Didymus

A BOY NAMED MATTIE

A little boy shouldn’t talk so glibly about death as if it were an inevitable conclusion to this life, one we should expect every day, not to be taken by surprise when Death calls.  Nor should a little boy be confined to a wheel chair and be attached to a respirator in a body weak from the ravages of mitochondrial myopathy, a rare form of muscular dystrophy.  And a little boy shouldn’t have to deal with the memory of three older siblings who died in childhood from the same disease that is taking his life.  But little Mattie endured it all and could speak quite naturally about what his life in heaven would be like when he died.

I “met” Mattie while I sat by my father’s recliner waiting for his dialysis treatment to end.  The rotator on the machine imitated the heart, causing a pulse in the tube returning the purified blood to my father’s body; blinking lights on the machine signaled the need for some adjustment.  Dulled by the hum of the equipment, I began paying attention to the little voice from the cherubic face on the television screen above us meant to help dialysis patients pass the time as they waited for the four-hour process to be completed.  That evening the monitor was tuned to the Oprah Winfrey Show.  Most of the patients in the bay were intent on the child as he spoke.

This was a boy who months before had clung to life.  His mother, who also has the adult form of Mattie’s disease, thought he was dying.  The doctors said that his death could be imminent.  She had toyed with the idea of celebrating his birthday early but then decided to wait for the actual date, lest celebrating early would result in Mattie’s giving up hope and yielding to death.  She made the correct decision.  He recovered.

You might have heard of the lad.  His name is Mattie Stepanek.  When he was 3, before he knew what poetry was, he asked his mother to write down his thoughts that he called “heartsongs.”   In his heart, he said, is where his poetry forms.  The poems speak about God and the world and how transitory life is.  And when he was able, he wrote them for himself.  He wrote about peace, the importance of little things, and of his desire to be a peacemaker.  He had three ambitions, the last of which was being realized with his appearance on the Oprah Show.  Before that he had visited his hero, Jimmy Carter, because of the former president’s commitment to peace.  Mattie had wanted to have his poetry published so that others could read his heartsongs.  In the end he had five books of poetry published.  All five made the New York Times best sellers list.  Two additional books were published posthumously and also made the bestsellers list.  One of them is a collection of Mattie’s peace essays and email correspondence with Former President Jimmy Carter.

Mattie wanted to visit Oprah because she could help him reach many people.

It was uncanny to listen to a child speak so simply of death – his own – and what he planned to do with his heaven.  He said that he prayed a lot to his siblings, whose presence he sensed.  He prayed to St. Therese of the Child Jesus because she died young, too.  He said that when he got to heaven he would continue to be a peacemaker because then he would be able to talk to God about people still in purgatory because of choices they had made.  He would talk to God about them so that God would hurry them home to heaven.  No wonder St. Therese was a friend of his.  He had absorbed her example and translated it into his own way of spending eternity doing good on earth.

As the light wanes in the northern hemisphere with the approach of winter, it seems natural to think thoughts of death and to remember Mattie.  Signs are all around us.  It would be easy to wax in terms of defeat and inevitability.  But at the heart of our faith is the truth that Christ has conquered death forever.  We believe that those who live in Christ will never die because Christ promised that.  Winter’s grip will not be forever, nor will the darkness envelope us.  Winter yields to spring as death does to life.  It is one thing to pray over those images and struggle with the realities.  It is quite another to have been amazed by one who lived by those truths and longed to have others know them and so find the peace that comes with acceptance.  With Mattie it all seemed so natural.  And so right.

Mattie died on Tuesday, June 22, 2004, three weeks before what would have been his 14th birthday.  Over 1300 people attended his funeral Mass, Oprah Winfrey among them.  Former President Jimmy Carter eulogized Mattie and in his remarks said: “We have known kings and queens, and we have known presidents and prime ministers, but the most extraordinary person whom I have ever known in my life is Mattie Stepanek.  His life philosophy was ‘Remember to play after every storm!’ and his motto was: ‘Think Gently, Speak Gently, Live Gently’.  He wanted to be remembered as ‘a poet, a peacemaker, and a philosopher who played.’”

Mattie’s legacy lives on.  Here are some evidences of that.  Shortly after his death, some of his neighbors established in Rockville, Maryland the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Foundation.  It is a volunteer run and non-profit organization with the mission of making Mattie’s message accessible to everyone.  A primary goal of the Foundation is to create curricula to support teachers in helping students understand Mattie’s concept of Heartsongs, and embrace his “Three Choices for Peace.”  In the light of the epidemic of bullying that is rampant in the country, and that has driven some young people to suicide, Mattie’s message should be proclaimed in every school.

On October 18, 2008, the 26-acre “Mattie J.T. Stepanek Park” in Rockville was dedicated.  Thousands of people attended that event and heard a 100-voice choir perform the debut of “Look Up Way Down.”  Pepper Choplin set the words from Mattie’s final peace speech to music.

In 2009, five poems from Mattie’s “Reflections of a Peacemaker” were set to music by Chicago composer Lita Grier and released on record.  On June 6, 2010, the anniversary of D-Day, the world premiere of “Heartsongs” took place at Carnegie Hall, in New York.  Mattie’s message and poetry were set to music by composer Joseph Martin, and was performed by a 200 voice combined Children’s Choir and other members of the Distinguished Concerts Singers International, directed by conductor Stephen Roddy.  It was a huge success and will be repeated in a concert in June, 2011.

And there is more.  Very impressive, don’t you think?

Maybe someday Mattie’s cause for canonization will get under way.  All we need are a couple of miracles.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they have already happened.  And I’ll bet that if you asked them, many of have felt his impact in their lives would tell you that they already consider him a saint.  In earlier times that’s how saints were made.  Saint Mattie?  Sounds good to me.