Saturday, June 24, 2006

Quiet! Be Still!

The disciples get into a boat and cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. In the middle of the trip, they encounter what this translation of the scriptures calls, “a violent squall”, something we might call a storm. What are the storms of your life?

This past week, I had the great fortune to attend the Frank J. Lewis Institute for Campus Ministers. It was a conference for people who have been in campus ministry for a year or two in order to help us hew our skills. I’ve never been on the campus of Notre Dame University until this conference and, I must admit, I’m very impressed at the quality of the buildings and the care they take with their lawn. It’s one of the only places I’ve ever stayed where a lawn sprinkler was running in the midst of a beautiful spring rain. At one point in the conference, our group was going to take a picture with the dome of the basilica in the background while the setting sun was making just enough light for us to have an awesome. I felt my phone vibrate on the way to the staging area and looked down to see that it was an unknown number from Minnesota. I wasn’t going to answer but, fortunately, I did. It was a friend from College named Jenny who married one of my college roommates named Dave. Jenny asked if I was busy and I told her where I was and stuff and, when she said she understood, I heard the unmistakable sound of someone trying to pretend that they aren’t crying. So, I ducked behind a pine tree and asked what was wrong. She said that her husband was having trouble breathing so she brought him to the hospital and they found Lymphoma, cancer. She didn’t know anything more but I couldn’t help but think that she knows what it’s like to be in the midst of a storm.

I imagine some of you can sympathize with my friends Dave and Jenny. You know what it’s like for health situations to be the storms in your life or the life of family friends. The storms of life are those things in life in which we feel like we are helplessly being picked on by God; they are the times when we ask why bad things happen to God. They are also the basis of the story of Job from the first reading.

If you’ve never read the story of Job, it’s one of those biblical stories that deserves to be read in its entirety. I think it represents true development in the understanding of evil. Before this, it was common for people to believe that bad things happened to bad people; in other words that people were punished by God for their sins or the sins of their parents. Job, on the other hand, tells quite a different story. It begins in heaven where God is gathering with all the heavenly hosts. God and the devil are chatting about earth, which probably sounds a little strange to our ears. This was at a time, theologically, when we thought of the devil as opposing council in a trial. He’s supposed to stand up for the law against the law breaker. It was later when we figured out that, not only does the devil try to prove to God that we are sinners but he also tries to lead us down the path to sin. So it makes perfect sense for God and the devil to be hanging out in heaven talking about the situation on earth and for God to say, “Have you noticed my servant Job, and that there is no one on earth like him, blameless and upright, fearing God and avoiding evil?" Isn’t he cool? The devil, basically, responds by saying: well it’s easy to be good when you have everything that you need. But, if you take all that away, Job will curse you. It’s on.

The devil, in the matter of an hour, destroys all of Jobs oxen, sheep, and camels, as well as the servants and shepherds that we working for Job caring for these animals. And, to top it all off, while his children were eating, the house collapsed and killed them all. Job lost everything in the course of an hour. Job’s stands, tears his garments and shaves his head in sadness. But, he refuses to doubt the goodness of God but, instead, says, “"Naked I came forth from my mother's womb, and naked shall I go back again. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD!" So, the devil sends four friends, Bildad, Zophar, Elphaz, and Elihu to be with him. Do you wonder if these four guys ever visited Job when he was healthy. Isn’t it strange that we give some relationships low priority until someone gets ill, then we feel like we have to run to be with the person. Have you ever noticed that? I wonder if these guys, who haven’t seen Job in years, all of a sudden come when he’s covered in boils sitting in his own filth so that he would have to care for their needs and be hospitable when all he wants to do is be alone. Nonetheless, Bildad, Zophar, and Elphaz each take turns trying to get Job to curse God but Job remains firm for 28 chapters, he laments what is happening to him but never curses God until he finally gives into this intense peer pressure and asks a series of questions that can be summed up in these four statements: I never violated my marital contract, I was charitable to those in need, I have not worshipped false Gods…I deserve to plead my case before God. If I, who have followed the rules and done acts of service to the poor, can’t talk directly to God, who the heck can? Job is angry and he has a firmer foot to stand on than Bruce Almighty did. He doesn’t take the Lord’s name and is even cautious to avoid using the biblical name of God revealed on Mount Sinai but he makes it clear that he’s angry. Six chapters later, God gives him his hearing, part of which we hear in the first reading today. God responds to Jobs series of questions with a series of his own; do you know how I made the earth? Do you know what is supposed to happen next? Do you want to be in charge? God’s response to Job is strikingly similar to the response of Jesus to the disciples in the gospel: “Quiet! Be still!”

This probably seems harsh to our ears and probably seems rather un-Christ-like. But, the truth is that if there is a religion who should not be surprised when the storms of life happen, it’s Christianity. We are a religion with a core believe that something bad happened to a Good person. That Jesus Christ, the one who came to take away our sins and came to make us daughters and sons of our creator, came to make our creator into our father, was betrayed by his friends and died on a tree because of the group think of the crowds. We are not surprised when bad things happen. This doesn’t mean that we don’t get angry and frustrated and even ask why this is happening but we also listen to the response of Jesus today: Quiet! Be Still! You’ve gone through bad things before and I will be with you to get you through this. Quiet! Be Still! I brought my son through suffering and death to the glory of the resurrection to give you hope that even the worst evil in this world can be overcome through me. Quiet! Be Still! Let me be in charge and comfort you. Quiet! Be Still!

A great day of rejoicing

It's nice to go to conferences and talk to peers but it's even better to go away for a while and realize just how nice it is to sleep in your own bed and pray in your own prayer area, even if that means driving through the night and arriving home at 3:30 am. Yikes!

I was surprised at the Frank J. Lewis Institute for training Campus Ministers. I'd never before spend this much time at the University of Notre Dame or the INCREDIBLE Basillica there! I tried to bring it back to Ames but they caught me attaching the log chains. Nonethless, the first thing that surprised me about the conference was the number of young people who are a part of campus ministry. There were at least 10 people age 25 who were not ordained that were doing campus ministry. I was inspired to think that young lay people are willing to do this. And they had social skills to boot! I was also surprised at the number of people who were faithful to church teaching on controversial issues like abortion, contraception, and homosexuality. Even though we struggled with providing pastoral care for all people, I didn't hear anyone say that they just didn't talk about those issues or compromised church teaching. They sought pastoral ways to be honest. That was awesome.

What was frustrating for me was when we talked about spending time with students. The questions was asked if it was ever appropriate to spend more time with one student than another. I said yes and most of the other people said no. Actually, only one other person said yes and he was a young guy who may have just been obstinent. When I explained that there are some people that you connect with more than others and, in particular, if that person is a young man who may have a vocation to priesthood, I'm going to spend a lot more time with him than with others. This caused, in my opinion, the most unfair remark of the conference as someone accused me of, basically, selling snake tonic while looking like I'm counseling. The remark came from a middle-aged sister. I wasn't able to defend my remarks because of the nature of the debate but her remark, in my own opinion, goes to a deeper undercurrent that vocation directors face constantly. Part of the vocation crisis comes down to selfishness on the part of society, which is a pervasive problem in (so-called) first world/wealthy socities. The more we get, the more we want. But, the larger problem is that I believe there is an active element within religious leadership that actively discourage young men from considering priesthood because it doesn't forward their agenda. If the contention is that young men don't want to become priests because they can't get married or if the priesthood shortage if caused by "half the population being excluded", then a man who is willing to at least consider forfeiting wife and child in order to be a priest is a threat. I used to notice it more but I've come to expect it by now. It's tragic that I know most sisters between the ages of 40 and 60 not only don't like me simply because of my age and vocation but hate my promotion of vocations. I'm not saying all sisters are like this and I find an occasional incredible sister who loves and supports her priests but, as a friend of mine says, you can only hit a dog so many times before he starts to recoil every time he sees you. I pray for these people because the church isn't going to change. You can hang on to the hopes of a new Vatican II spirit of openness to "new ideas" (that we've been proposing since before Vatican II) or you can realize that it's not going to happen and find value in what is happening right now. Let's live in the now.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

from Notre Dame

I realized last night that I haven't posted in quite some time. I've been busy preparing and going to a conference at Notre Dame for campus ministers. I can't wait for Saturday when I will finally get to sleep in my own bed. Nonetheless, it's been good in many ways and a very rewarding experience to get to know so many people.

BUT, today is my four year anniversary. Four years as a priest...only 50 more until retirement. Just kidding. It's actually been an incredible four years. It's true that the worst day as a priest is better than the best day as a seminarian. It's even more true that each day I seem to feel more like a priest than the day before. At first, I couldn't believe I had actually made it. Then, a few months later, I would still catch myself thinking, "Gosh, you're actually a priest!" and feeling so unworthy. Lately, I've had times when I wish I could just take a little break, like not be a priest for this party or this conversation. That's strange, I know, but I usually realize that I'm really wishing I could go backwards in my relationship to God at the same time that I wish I didn't have to be a priest. Only in prayer do I sort out the feelings of temptation for sin from the ones that draw me deeper to God.

I pray for the priests that have left. I hope it's God's will in their lives and not their own wills getting in the way of God. I can't imagine ever being happy not as a priest...I can't imagine me being holy not as a priest. I understand what the theologians say when they say that ordination affects a person's being, not just what they do. I am a priest. I'm not perfect but it's who I am and the challenge that I must live up to every day for the rest of my life.