Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What I put in the bulletin this past weekend.

From Fr. Dennis Miller, your pastor

Once in my previous assignment in Ames, I was standing in the gathering space of church greeting people. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a young man walking into church. He was wearing a shirt that seemed about four times too large, though at least it matched the size of his jeans. He had inch to inch and a half large disks in his ears and had one tattoo showing just over the top of his shirt on his neck. I won’t lie to you. My first thought was that this slime bag is probably here to cause trouble. But, thankfully, my cooler head prevailed and I decided to give him a chance. As I started walking towards him, I noticed that his head was pointed toward the floor while he looked out of the top of his eyes to navigate around people. I could tell he was trying to not make eye contact with me so that he wouldn’t have to talk to me but I wasn’t going to let him by without doing so. I reached out my hand and looked him in the eye and introduced myself and asked his name. He curtly told me it while continuing to look at the ground. I asked him if he was an Iowa State student, which seemed really dumb at the time but it kept the conversation going. He told me he was a Gen Ed major but that he was hoping to get into engineering. I told him that there were a lot of engineers that came to the church and maybe some of them could help him. At this point, for the first time, he raised his head and looked me in the eye, although he still looked scared. I told him that I glad he was here and that he could sit anywhere. He smiled as he walked past me and sat down. After a few weeks of seeing him and greeting him as warmly as I could, he confided in me just how scared he was to come to church that first time. He didn’t like the direction of his life and knew that he needed the church but feared walking into mass because of people’s judgment.

I’m reading a book with the Britt Ministerial Association called No Perfect People which, despite having a flawed view of grace, does challenge Christians to create a “come as you are” climate in church. The author says that we shouldn’t have expectations of people who come to our church but accept them as they are with the knowledge that, as they attend church and become a part of the body of Christ, they will be transformed as God wants them to be. Often, we set up expectations of our fellow mass goers that have nothing to do with spreading the gospel. We expect that people know exactly how to treat their crying child. We expect that people wear their Sunday best and have perfect hair and nothing unusual in their appearance. We expect that people not cough or make other noises. Basically, all too often, we expect not to be bothered when we come to church. But the whole point of church is to transform us from the inside out.

I know that I would never have seen that young man in Ames again if I would have approached him and told him to go and change his clothes. As it turned out, he ended up bringing other people who were deeply in need of knowing Christ with him to church in the next few weeks. In my time since coming to these six parishes, I’ve heard stories of people leaving church upset because of an unkind word from someone about the person’s appearance. I’m asking that this immediately cease. You never know what’s happening interiorly for that person and it’s important that we not give into the vain belief that what a person wears defines who the person is. If the person’s appearance bothers you so much that you cannot pray or participate, perhaps that speaks more about what you need to do interiorly than about anything they need to do.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Prepare for transitions

My Dear Friends in Christ

Grace and Peace to you in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ who sent his Spirit to guide and direct the Church. One of the things that priests have to learn how to both do and teach well is transitions. As you have experienced in the past few years, priests are asked to move to a new assignment quite often and, as one who has lived in five different residences in the last eight years, I can tell you that it’s a challenge. I’m hoping that I’m not going to have to make any transitions anytime soon but, as you all know, it’s not really up to me. That’s the Archbishop’s call. Part of the challenge of transitions is spatial and part of the challenge is relational. The spatial part is, in some ways, the easier to deal with. You take all your stuff and move it to a new place and try to find the best arrangement for it. In my mind, the harder transition is relational, having to say goodbye. Both Fr. Hertges and I have remarked how much we miss people in our previous assignments. We aren’t in any way discounting the new relationships we will make. In fact, we are counting on them. We are just mourning the loss of old relationships.

The readings today are all trying to deal with transitions, each in their own way. Starting from the middle and working out, in the second reading, Paul is communicating with a church he founded that has several problems transitioning away from Judaism and Roman pagan religion to Christianity. Part of the reason for this difficulty is that they have splintered into different groups. Some associate themselves just with St. Wenceslaus, others just with St. Patrick, still others just with St. Boniface…wait, I’m sorry. That’s not right. Let me try that again. Some with St. Paul, others with a fellow named Saint Appollos, and still others with St. Peter or, as St. Paul calls him, Cephas. These groups are independently developing their own traditions and may even have been formed because of the minister that came to town to baptize the people in the groups. But, ultimately, Paul worries that the divisions will not allow for the unity that needs to be a component of the church. He asks, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” The answer to all of these questions is, of course, “No”. Paul emphasizes for them that the Jesus should be the one that draws them together not “the wisdom of human eloquence.”

In the gospel, Jesus is likewise dealing with a transition. His cousin, John the Baptist, has been arrested and this indicates that it’s time for him to stand up and begin to lead. He moves out of his parents’ house and moves to the big city of Capernaum. It’s interesting to note that Jesus’ first public message is basically the same message as John the Baptist gave, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” He, then, goes on to begin recruiting help. He had to be concerned about John, but he knew that his time had come and that he needed to begin his public ministry.

I imagine each of you has had to deal with transitions in your life. It could be sickness or death of a parent and realizing you are now the one who has to be the “adult” for your family. Maybe it’s dealing with your own financial problems or health concerns. Maybe you’ve been part of a group that used to do things to help people and the group has had to face tough realities like declining membership or funding decreases because of the economy. These are difficult transitions and ones that are best met, as I imagine Jesus did in the gospel, with a great deal of prayer and discernment as to what God wants you to do next. Yet, we find hope in the first reading that Jesus, likewise, found hope in the gospel. Despite bad times in the past, eventually “The People who walked in darkness (will see) a great light…” Transitions can be difficult and frustrating and there’s always a part of us asking why we have to undergo them. Yet, if they are done well and with hope, we hope to echo the words of Isaiah the prophet, “Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness…upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shined.”