Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Baskets...the Beauty of the Baskets

25th Sun OT Yr B/2015
Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center

One of the great joys of our parish family each week is the preparation of the gifts.  I’m always struck by the beauty of the entire community living out their call to be cooperators in the ministry of the Church in that moment.  It’s the baskets that have caught my attention in the weeks I’ve been settling in among you.  The baskets. 
Have you ever noticed that every single one of us – in one way or another – every single one of us plays a part in passing the baskets?  The baskets – I love the baskets – the way we all play a part in using them to gather our gifts and then offer them to the Lord.  And I absolutely love the way we include our children in this ritual.  Young – some barely able to walk; older – sometimes not all that excited to be sent to the front (and we can all see it on their faces).  Sometimes there aren’t young ones in our row, and we adults come forward with our baskets – but I’ve noticed a very child-like quality among the adults carrying their baskets, too.  Some filled with the same joy – some carrying that same absence of excitement – all the way to the front and back again.  Somehow in our community of faith, we all participate in the basket passing and collecting and bringing forward.  And somehow as we all do that, we find a child-like moment in our faith each week with the passing of the baskets.
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Children are amazing, aren’t they?  Have you ever noticed that they don’t hide their joy?  When a child is happy the whole world knows it!  There’s a big smile on their face and sometime a giant laugh escapes them.  They’re not worried about their clothes being wrinkled – or whether they’re wearing the right clothes or not.  When they’re happy they’re just plain and simple happy.  I’ve seen it at every Mass.  Big smiles.  Looking back to wave at mom and dad. Oblivious as to whether they actually get the envelopes in the big basket or not sometimes – having the time of their life. 
Children don’t hide their joy – and they don’t hide their frustration, either.  Once or twice I’ve seen a little one heading toward the big basket up front, and it’s very clear they had no interest in being pressed into service.  I’ve seen a stomping toward the front with a big frown once or twice in my few weeks here – no pretending to be happy because that’s what we all expect.  ‘Fine – I’ll take your stupid basket up to the stupid big basket – but I’m gonna’ make sure everyone KNOWS I’m not happy about it!’  Stomp – stomp – stomp.
Babies are the best though, aren’t they?  When Father’s homily doesn’t put them straight to sleep, you can tell when the babies are happy and when they’re sad.  They giggle – they laugh out loud – they scream at the top of their lungs in joy or in anger telling the whole world around them just how they’re feeling.  Happy or sad – babies – children – they’re completely content to feel how they feel and don’t try to pretend one way or the other – they just show it to the world around them.  And if God Himself were to sit right down in front of them, they’d let Him know too – no questions asked, no pretending, just plainly and simply being how they are, face to face with God
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I’ve been in St. Louis since last Friday with the Vocations Directors of our country – and it’s been a great time.  Learning how to receive young men and women who are seeking Christ in their hearts.  Learning how to walk with young men and women who are sometimes filled with joy in the moments Christ is calling them; sometimes filled with frustration and tantrums as they try to let go of what’s holding them back from saying “Yes” to Christ.  And I’ve been thinking about this gospel passage the whole time, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me…”  I’ve been thinking about this gospel passage, and reminding myself that the primary work of a Vocations Director (and a priest) is to receive people just as they are – receiving them as we receive our children who will come forward in a moment, some happy, some frustrated, with their baskets.  I’ve been thinking about that, and looking forward to being here today to receive the baskets…. 
I’ve also been reminding myself that Jesus wants us to be child-like in our relationship with Him, and that when we do that He stands us right in front of Him and places His arms around us, and loves us…  I’ve spent something like 50 hours giving spiritual direction and counsel since first arriving here in August, sitting in my office across from men and women, young and old – all trying to grow in their relationship with Christ – all trying in one way or another to hear the Lord more clearly and respond to Him more freely.  And all week I’ve been noticing, as I’ve prayed for and with them – and prayed for and with all of you – that almost every obstacle and storm we encounter in our relationship with God comes down to forgetting that the Lord wishes to receive us, to love us, to talk with and journey with us as children.  We are God’s children – and we do better in our relationship with Him when approach Him like children – when we simply are how we are with Him.  Our problems and feelings of isolation in prayer come when we try to conjure up fake happiness to cover up our despair, or when we try to hide or tone down the happiness and joy we’re experiencing in life from God because we somehow don’t think it’s appropriate.  And I’ve been thinking that perhaps the most difficult lesson in today’s Gospel is that, if we wish to be great in the kingdom of heaven, we have to first accept ourselves in child-like ways – simply feeling how we feel, not hiding it, and giving it to God just like we are in the moment we encounter Him.
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Friends – one of the things we forget as we “grow up” is how to be a child of God.  We forget how to receive ourselves in child-like ways in God’s presence.  I believe when Jesus said, Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me – I believe when He said that He meant first of all to receive ourselves in child-like ways: simply, accepting and receiving how we feel, acknowledging what we’re afraid of, removing the masks that hide us from ourselves and from God.  We can’t be God’s children until we accept ourselves in child-like ways in His presence.

Today as we pray around this altar, let the rest of the world slip away.  Think about the baskets.  Think about the children bringing forward their baskets.  Some happy.  Some perturbed.  Some oblivious.  And then imagine yourself carrying your basket forward to the altar – see yourself how you really are today – and go child-like into the arms of Jesus.  Accept yourself just how you are today – angry, sad, scared, oblivious, numb, filled with joy, eager – however you are, come to Jesus today just like that – and feel Him wrap His loving, accepting arms around you.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Be Opened!

23rd Sunday OT Yr B 2015
(Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center) 

         I will never forget watching The Miracle Worker movie as a youngster.  Some of you may have never seen it.  It’s based on the autobiography of Helen Keller – a young girl blind and deaf from an infant case of Scarlet Fever.  Helen’s intense despair and frustration began to lead to violent outbursts and a heartbreaking retreat into herself; her parents made arrangements to have Anne Sullivan (herself nearly blind from a childhood illness) come to companion her, and to try to teach her how to communicate.  Ms. Sullivan’s tough love and patience throughout the movie made a real impression on a young Fr. Alan – at least on the inside.  For appearance’s sake, I had to pretend that watching this old people’s movie was a drag.  The movie was, after all, made in the 60’s – what self-respecting child in the 80’s would want to watch such an old movie?
          As a side note – college students – I know I now probably qualify as old – that’s OK.  I can mostly handle that.  But do yourselves a favor – watch this ‘old people’s movie’ – ‘The Miracle Worker’.  OK?  Trust me…its worth it…but I digress…
          The climax of that movie kept coming to me this week.  Ms. Sullivan is nearly at her wit’s end – young Helen is becoming harder and harder to manage, and the family is on the verge of complete despair.  Watching the film, you can feel Helen’s pain – her oppressive shell of darkness and silence – you can feel the prison of solitude she’s locked within.  Helen, on the verge of complete and total despair – Anne, refusing to quit showing love and determined the break through the blackness and silence of Helen’s prison. 
          Anne nearly drags Helen with her outside to collect water from the cistern.  (This was back in the day when water came from a hand pump outside that you pumped over and over again, pulling it up from the bowels of the earth.)  Anne shoves Helen’s hands under the spout and begins to pump – Helen struggles – her frustration at fever pitch – her despair threatening to plunge her into the depths of aloneness for good.  Anne pumps frantically with one hand, speaking sternly, forcing Helen’s hands to hold the pitcher under the spout.  “W-A-T-E-R; Water! It has a name!”  Using her other hand to spell in sign language as she works…determined…not giving up…not willing to lose Helen to that lonely darkness… “W-A-T-E-R; Water! It has a name!!!”…and just when we begin to wonder if all is lost…
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…light comes crashing in…Helen tosses aside the pitcher and uses both hands to feel the trickle run down her fingers from the spout…and she cries out, muffled, her first attempt at a word… “water…water?  WATER!!!”  She frantically pounds the spout – realizing for the first time that water has a name, and beginning to understand…the darkness beginning to shatter…the bars of solitude broken!  “WATER!!!”  She spells it back in sign to Anne…and then joy comes crashing in!  She falls to her knees, pounding it hard, and reaching out her hand…Anne spells “G-R-O-U-N-D; ground” – Helen spells it back – “Yes – GROUND!!!”  Frantic now in freedom and in joy – she runs to everything she can find realizing that she is not alone – that the world around her is knowable: P-U-M-P, pump! T-R-E-E, tree!  Yes!!! S-T-E-P, step!!!  B-E-L-L, bell!!! Yes!  M-O-M-M-A, P-A-P-A, Momma, Papashe knows – she KNOWS!!!!
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Friends – you and I are not so different than young Helen sometimes.  Blinded to the beauty and depth of God’s love.  Deaf to pleading to let Him love us more completely, to live our lives in the freedom of His embrace.  Our sin and our struggle very much like young Helen’s outrage and despair that sometimes seems to be closing in around us.  Will I ever get it all done?  Will I ever stop hurting from missing my loved ones who have died?  Can I ever overcome this sin? Will I ever enjoy living this life? Will I ever find someone to love me?  Why do I feel so all alone? Where is God?  What do I have to do to please Him?  Will there ever be any rest? Even with perfect speech and sight, we’re sometimes as deaf and mute as the man they brought to Jesus, who – like Anne Sullivan – broke through his prison…and brought him into freedom.
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“Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus says in Revelation.  Just like Anne Sullivan – never giving up – never willing to surrender you to being overcome and overwhelmed by whatever prison of silence or loneliness or overwhelming emotion or mountain of work to overcome.  If you’re here today, it’s because in some way, you know that Jesus is there, and that He can speak to you and break through whatever prison you feel locked within today.  But sometimes it all piles up again, and we begin to wonder, to struggle, to despair…
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What did Helen do that finally led to that amazing breakthrough?  Somehow, inside, she finally stopped resisting what her teacher was doing – she finally stopped fighting and turned toward her teacher to try to listen.  Even completely deaf – she found a way to let the ears of her heart be opened.  How are you fighting Jesus in your life today?  How can you give up that fight and turn to Him, stop resisting what He’s doing with you – and try to listen to Him? 
What did the deaf man do that led to his healing in today’s Gospel?  He let others bring Him to the feet of the One who loved Him – and then he let Jesus heal him.  How can you let the ministry of the Church, your family and friends, even this celebration of the Eucharist – how can you let all that bring you to Jesus in a new way today – to meet Him here on this altar – and let Jesus heal you, break through the despair, and open your eyes and ears a bit wider today – so that you might hear His voice, and break even more completely into His love and freedom?
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Friends – open your hearts!  Let the ears of your soul be opened!  Look – here He comes – here – on this altar!  Be strong, fear not!  Here is your God – He comes to save you! Your eyes will be opened – your ears will be cleared!  Whatever is lame in your life will begin to leap!  Whatever is mute in your heart will begin to sing!  Whatever is dry and parched in your journey will be watered with love and spring forth new life!  Your thirst will be quenched.
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Listen to Jesus…find Him here today…watch what happens when you hear Him speak to you:  Be opened today! Ephphatha!!!