Thursday, March 22, 2007

Does Anybody Hear Her?

I was just a teenager at the time - a junior or senior in high school. In many ways, those years of my life I was much closer to God than the first years of my "adult" life. I don't remember all of the circumstances. What I remember is this. I was out front of the church walking in. She had on clothes that weren't all that clean. Her hair was a mess. Honestly, I think she was drunk or high. She'd been crying. She wanted to go to church - but wasn't sure if she'd be welcome. (I don't remember if she said this to me - or if I knew somehow that's what she was thinking.) I do remember knowing that if Jesus were walking with me, He would have stopped, and smiled, and asked if she wanted to come in. And I do remember trying my best to act - instead of just thinking about - "What Would Jesus Do".

(My mom sometimes reads this blog - Mom, if you see this and you remember more about the story than I do, will you add it to the comments. This memory is touching my heart today - I've lost a lot of it, whatever you might add back would be a real gift.)

She came into the church - it seems that she didn't stay the whole time. I do remember answering questions from some of our church members like, "Who was that girl?" And I remember thinking - if the church isn't for that girl, then who is it for. I'm not passing judgement on any of the people who inquired - I know they were acting out of a sense of love and protection for the church and the people in it.

And I have to confess - I've been one of the folks in the pews asking, "Who is that?" If not asking, thinking to myself - couldn't they have put on some nicer clothes - don't they know that behavior of that nature isn't acceptable here of all places? It's easy to become one of the "churched" who forgets...

...forgets that, in God's eyes - we are all sinners in need of grace, and love, and acceptance.
...forgets that, to honor God we must honor one another, love one another as He loves us.
...forgets that, in the shadow of our steeples, there are lost and lonely people, that we've never even met because we don't see past the "scarlet letters" we find to look at instead.
...forgets that we wear our own "scarlet letters" - even if they are more "socially acceptable" or are overlooked because we're "a member" of the church.

Today, I feel deep in my heart that what God is calling me forward into is a life dedicated and devoted to hearing those who aren't being heard. That young mother wandering around outside our church doors, that young father battling his addictions, the teenager who just can't believe there is a God who would create a life as unloving and cruel as the one he sees through those tender and frightened eyes... all of them knowing that the last place they should turn for help is the church, because they wouldn't fit in, might not be wearing the right thing, or just don't want to be in another situation where all anyone sees is the big red letter on their chest.

God - help me to be the man you're calling me to be. Help me to never become so "churched" that I forget we are all just poor sinners in need of your love and grace, help me never to forget that in Your Holy eyes we are ALL beautiful.

Grant that I may see with the eyes of Christ... and that, wherever You allow me to serve, I'll follow You in loving the lost and lonely people in the shadow of our steeple.

You know - my friends - memories and tears are not always sad. Often, memories and tears wash away my illusions, and bring me back to the heart of this journey.

(You knew there had to be a song somewhere in all of this - didn't you? I'm so grateful for all the ways God speaks to me through music these days. If you want to see and get to know the young woman I was writing about at the top of this post, listen to Casting Crowns' Does Anybody Hear Her?. Let it speak to your heart.... God bless.)

She is running
a hundred miles an hour
in the wrong direction.
She is trying
But the canyon's ever widening
In the depths of her cold heart.

So she sets out on another misadventure just to find
She's another two years older
And she's three more steps behind.

Does anybody hear her? Can anybody see?
Or does anybody even know she's going down today
Under the shadow of our steeple
With all the lost and lonely people
Searching for the hope that's tucked away in you and me.

Does anybody hear her?
Can anybody see?
She is yearning
For shelter and affection
That she never found at home.

She is searching
For a hero to ride in
To ride in and save the day
And in walks her prince charming
And he knows just what to say.
Momentary lapse of reason...
And she gives herself away.

If judgment looms under every steeple
If lofty glances from lofty people
Can't see past her scarlet letter
Then we never even met her.

Does anybody hear her?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

What Sin?

Tonight is our parish's Lenten Reconcilliation service. Each year during Lent and Advent, two seasons of reflection and anticipation, our parish schedules a service where the community can gather together to reflect on our shortcomings, our sins, and to experience God's love and forgiveness and mercy through the sacrament of Reconcilliation. This may be the most 'talked about' sacrament of the Catholic church by those who belong to other denominations. It's often referred to as "going to confession".

I remember growing up in another Christian denomination often thinking many different things about the idea of "going to confession". 'Gee - it must be nice to just be able to do as much wrong as you want - all you have to do is go see a priest and then its all better.' (Funny, I had these thoughts about the Catholic sacrament, but I always believed that all I had to do was pray to God seeking His forgiveness, and it was all better.) I also remember thinking, 'Why do you have to confess to a priest? We can talk directly to God. And God's the one that forgives our sins. What's the deal with involving the priest in the mix?'

I've learned some about the theology of the sacrament of Reconcilliation - and I know I've got a lot more to learn. My experience in receiving this sacrament is what beckons me to return. Yes, I often spend time in prayer talking with God about my sin, asking Him for strength to overcome them, seeking His mercy. But, there's something different that takes place when I have this "conversation with God" in the confessional, aided by the Priest. One of the biggest differences is that I always come away with some tangible experience of mercy. Even when what I have to confess is nagging me, dragging me down, and the guilt it powerful... another human being, there in front of me, says, 'I understand. Isn't God wonderful to love us enough to forgive all that we've been talking about.' And, though I know God has/is already taking care of my sin, there's something powerful in hearing with human ears the words, "Your sins are forgiven."

I've been letting tonight's service wander around in my mind today. Beginning to search my conscience. I often have to remind myself that my sin really has been removed. And that, with God's grace and love and guidance, He is helping me along a path that helps heal the "sin nature" within that leads us toward sin in the first place. But sometimes, I struggle a little with lingering guilt. I was thinking about that earlier today when (you KNEW it was coming) another song that has been very powerful for me in the last six months or so came on the radio. I was at work when it played, but I'm going to go home and find some quiet time before tonights service to pray with this song.

It happened so long ago
And I cried out for mercy back then
I plead the blood of Jesus
Begged him to forgive my sin
But I still can't forget it
It just won't go away
So I wept again, "Lord wash my sin,"
But this is all He'd say

What sin, what sin?
Well - that's as far away as the east is from the west.
What sin, what sin?
It was gone the very minute you confessed,
Buried in the sea of forgetfulness.

The heaviest thing you'll carry
Is a load of guilt and shame.
You were never meant to bear them
So let them go in Jesus name.
Our God is slow to anger
Quick to forgive our sin.
So let Him put them under the blood
Don't bring them up again
Cause He'll just say

What sin, what sin?
Well - that's as far away as the east is from the west.
What sin, what sin?
It was gone the very minute you confessed,
Buried in the sea of forgetfulness.

Lord, please deliver me from my accusing memory
Nothing makes me weak this way,
Then when I hear you say
What sin?

One of the things that speaks most powerfully to me in the Sacrament of Reconcilliation, is the priest sitting before me, standing in the place of Christ - a human representation if you will of what is actually taking place when I make my confession. Yes - the priest speaks the words - but Jesus Himself looks to me with loving eyes, pierced hands, and (at least in my mind's eye) a beautiful smile on his face and says, "You don't have to carry it any more, my friend." And when my nagging mind begins its accusations, I gently hear Jesus whisper, "What sin? Oh that? Alan, it was gone the minute you confessed - separated from you as far as the east is from the west."

You know, sometimes all there is left to say is, Thank You.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The 'conflicting' call to be a father or a Father

This past weekend, I was able to spend some time with one of my "nephews". For those of you who don't know me, I've been blessed to have two young men in my life that I love like they were my own children. Twin teenagers - just about to turn 18. They're actually not nephews - they are related by marriage through a cousin of mine. But "nephews" describes the relationship very well.

I realized about a year ago how blessed I was by having these fella's in my life. For a long time, what I thought was a call to the priesthood seemed to be conflicing information, and I couldn't figure out what God was saying - or why he was saying things to me that were so different. On the one hand, my heart's deepest desire forever has been to be a father. And, in the context of the Latin rite Church, that always seemed in direct contradiction to what I was hearing louder and clearer as a call to the Priesthood.

One day I was listening to a talk show on the local EWTN radio station - it was a call in show about vocations. The caller asked this very question about seemingly "conflicting" calls. I remember feeling as if God had "arranged" this "coincidence" of me hearing the show. The guest was a seminarian in his final year before ordination to the priesthood, and he shared that he'd felt exactly the same way early in his journey. I'll never forget his words.

'But, what I realized was, these weren't conflicting calls at all. All about me that yearns to be a father, all that God has given me and all that God is calling me forward into that points toward being a Father - they're all the same. All the things it takes to be a good father are precisely the things it takes to be a good Father.'

It was as if a gate opened up somewhere in my heart, and I began to see glimpses of understanding. God wasn't sending me mixed signals after all. My discernment journey took a turn at that point - it wasn't any longer so much about figuring out which of two conflicting messages was genuine. It became more about searching with God, and the Church, where this one unified call forward into f/Fatherhood was leading - a vocation to marriage and family, or to the ordained priesthood.

While I'm not the twins father, for many, many years I've loved them like they were my children - or at least that's the best way I (having had no children of my own) can describe it. With that love comes all the 'good' and the 'bad', the 'wonderful' and the 'difficult'. And there is both. The great times - with a fishin' pole and a catfish that got away, teaching them how to shave, taking them on their first real vacation, 'being there' as they try to navigate life's challenges. And there are difficult times as well - struggling with addiction and legal troubles, trying to set and maintain boundaries for teens who are unaccustomed to the concept, medical and other kinds of issues, teen pregnancy.

But, over the years I've come to see that all of it has been a blessing. As I move one day at a time closer to more deeply following the call to be a Father, I realize in many ways I've been given the gift of at least a glimpse into the gift of being a father. And that 'gift' is made up of it all - the good and the bad, the wonderful and the difficult.

God wasn't and isn't sending mixed signals. For today, it seems rather that He was offering a gift, and providing a very practical "school" in which to begin the process of formation for becoming a Father. On reflection today, one of the other things this 'practical school' has given me is the gift of humility, and a deep understanding that I don't have all the answers, that I'm imperfect, and that often the best I have to offer is to try, and to trust God above all and in all. Six years of seminary - today at least, I'm not struggling with whether its too much - I'm wondering if its enough! In addition to humility, and a realization of my own limitations and imperfections, this gift for me is beginning to help me see that the gift of my vocation - whether it be in matrimony or orders - will live and breathe in the totality of its daily experience, the good and the bad, the wonderful and the difficult.

To the twins: "Hi fella's. Chances are, you'll never see or read this. That's OK. I love you. And am intensely grateful for all that you have meant and will mean in my life. It's not possible for me to doubt that there is a God, or that He loves us, for many reasons - but one in particular. The love I feel for you could only have been a gift from a Father, THE Father.

Each day I pray that He will continue to teach me to love you as He does. And each day, along with all the other ways He reaches out to you, I pray that my reflection - imperfect as it may be at times - of a dad's love for his kids in some small way will lead you to the Source of that love."

Thank you, God, for the gifts......

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Lifesong...

If every post I make starts with a song lyric, some are going to start wondering if I ever have an original thought of my own. *grin* I assure you, I do. Although, honestly, I can't remember what the last one was. (OK - sometimes I crack myself up - and its my blog, so that's enough for me.)

Anyway, I was enjoying some quiet time this morning with a cup of tea before showering for work. And on the radio is that great song by - is it Casting Crowns? "Let my Lifesong sing to You." Let the words I say and the things I do make my Lifesong ...bring a smile to You. There's some really powerful stuff in that sentiment.

What sacrafice do I really have to offer? "Rend your hearts, not your garments." I can go to seminary, become the best priest of my generation, celebrate beautiful mass, always live perfectly within my vows. And yet, what kind of sacrifice would that be to the God of all creation? The God who, above all things, in all things, source of all things, chooses to know who I am, chooses to call me into life, ransom me from my shortcomings, and bring me into His very presence. Is a life of motions, actions, and piety alone a sacrifice worthy of such a God?

The song's beginning is what always catches me - helps me to step outside myself and look back at me - and calls me forward into trying to focus on BEing as my offering to God, as opposed to merely DOing. It begins, "Empty hands held high, such a small sacrifice. If not joined with my life, I sing in vain tonight."

This is what has the power to keep all my DOing from being in vain. I can hold my hands high, empty sitting in the pew at mass, or holding the Chalice as one ordained at the altar. But, 'if not joined with my life, I sing in vain tonight.'

My life as a song, a song that I try my best to sing to God Himself. You know - I've always been a fan of music. As soon as we could play the recorder at school and choose to play in the band or the orchestra -- I signed up to play in BOTH. And was singing in the chorus. (Although, to hear me sing now, you'd never believe that.) I never became a talented musician, but playing a low brass instrument for 8 years or more made me a passable player.

But, boy - there were times when I know I must have stunk to the heavens. Bomp - Bomp - Bombom SPALT. (A fourth grader practicing very basic music on a baritone can sound a lot frumpy, and be very annoying on the ears.) Sure, sometimes I'd hit a note right. And, over time with lots of practice, I could play a song. By the time I hit high school, I could even march and play at the same time - and together with my friends, we could play a song that would bring a smile to your face.

My mom & dad & grammaw were there for all of it. They heard the Bombom SPLATs. They smiled though the elementary school renditions of Star Wars that clunked along to an unfeeling metronome tempo. They traveled with the band in high school, cheering, lifting, even dressing up as California Raisins to help raise money for us while we were playing. (Don't ask....) My guess is that, even when we hit those bad notes, even when our song wasn't so good, even when trying was the best we could do, there was something pleasing about the song...

I can only hope, as I Bombom SPLAT my way through trying to offer a Lifesong that's pleasing, the effort is an offering to God that brings the same kind of smile to His face.

Let my Lifesong sing to You...

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Lord, Listen to our Hearts...

One of the blessings that I find in the Catholic faith is the wide variety of ways we have to pray. Some (many) without words. Some focused on listening instead of 'saying' anything. At the same time, "talking" with God is something that is always close to my heart. Sometimes in "petition". Often, in "praise".

Sometimes when I'm praying like this - and its been this way all my life - I get to a point where my words fail me. Either there's so much I'm trying to express - the idea is so big - that it just won't come out. Or, there's so many aspects to what I'm trying to say, that I can't get the words to fit together right. Or, sometimes I find the words, or the ideas, or the thoughts - but they come together too fast for me to feel like I've communicated them.

Since I was a teenager, I can remember being thankful for the scriptural promise from Romans 8 that "We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express". In my prayer time when I find my - words, ideas, thoughts, whatever - not being sufficient, I sort of 'throw up my hands'. Not really out of disgust, but more out of surrender. I smile sheepishly at God and say, "I'm not doing a very good job of getting this across. YOU know what's on my heart and mind right now - YOU know what I'm trying to say. Take it, please. I offer it - in faith - knowing that in my imperfection with this you can 'hear it' perfectly."

As I pray the Liturgy of the Hours, I often pause between psalms or other sections... sometimes because there seems to be something to hear... other times because there's something I want to say. This limitation of mine with words that I've been talking about - it comes up with these 'pause' times in the LOTH also.

This morning, I'd paused. I'd been trying to communicate something to God. I threw up my hands and smiled. The idea I was trying to offer God was too complicated for me to get out. And so I said my "I'm not getting this across, God. Take it. I offer it." And on the radio (I often listen to music in the background during my prayer time) began to play a song that I remembered from my college years. I began to sing with it... with tears in my eyes, I let the words form part of my prayer:

How do you explain...
how do you describe...
A love that goes from the east to west,
And runs as deep as it is wide?
You know all our hopes
Lord, you know all our fears
And words cannot express the love we feel
But we long for You to hear!

So listen to our hearts.
Hear our spirits sing
A song of praise that flows
From those you have redeemed.
We will use the words we know
To tell you what an awesome God You are.
But words are not enough
To tell you of our love,
So listen to our hearts.

If words could fall like rain
From these lips of mine,
And if I had a thousand years
I would still run out of time.
So if You'll listen to my heart
Every beat will say,
"Thank You for the Life,
Thank You for the Truth,
Thank You for the Way."


So listen to our hearts.
Hear our spirits sing
A song of praise that flows
From those you have redeemed.
We will use the words we know
To tell you what an awesome God You are.
But words are not enough
To tell you of our love,
So listen to our hearts.

(Geoff Moore And The Distance - from A Friend Like You)

Lord - when words are not enough to tell you of my love, please listen to my heart. Amen.