In one of my favorite tunes from my college years, Joni Mitchell sings: “And the seasons, they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down. We’re captive on the carousel of time. We can’t return, we can only look, behind from where we came, and go round and round and round in the circle game.” There certainly is a cyclical feel to the passing of time, here in the Midwest where we experience all four seasons in their splendor. Yet, the new campus minister at the Newman Center –Erin Duffy – speaks of spirals instead of circles. Because each time we hit fall, or spring or winter, or SPRENKE time, we have moved a bit farther down the road of life. We’re not exactly where we were the last time.
So I find myself thinking on the edge of this spiral called the Msgr. Sprenke tournament – “What’s the same and what do I hope to be a bit different.”
What is the same: Those are easy to name: The excited faces of the athletes as they make their mad dash to the center line under the lights once their name has been announced. The succulent smells of BBQ’d pork kabobs wafting over the field. The pride our Men’s Club members feel in putting on a wonderful and successful tournament. The “bitter ender’s” seated in lawn chairs under the deck of the garage, telling stories and laughing long after the lights have been turned off and the majority of folks have gone home. Current and former parishioners catching up on life along packed sidelines.
What I hope would be different ‘this spiral’? I think three things in increasing order of importance: That the press would cover this “good thing” happening so consistently in North County as vigorously as they have covered the deficiencies in the Normandy School District. That there would be zero incidents of parents making less than stellar choices around their intake of alcohol, or the way they model good sportsmanship on and off the field. That the experience of community and belonging so at the heart of these days would spill over into increased attendance at mass – that those who never miss a Sprenke week-end BBQ meal would make the same commitment not to miss the meal of all meals – the Lord’s Supper.
With apologies to Joni Mitchell, it seems true that “The Sprenke’s, they go round and round” – a bit different each year – but always such a source of blessing for this community.
There are sometimes when I wish I was God, or minimally, that I had Jesus’ power to heal the sick. The most recent time was this Friday during one of my communion calls. There is a woman there whom I have brought communion to for a few years now. She looks at me, her eyes track, sometimes her lips mouth inaudibly the words of the Lord’s Prayer, she follows the bread to her hands – but never anything more. I so want to know what is going on in her head. Couldn’t I just have the power to go *snap* – and she’d be free/able to speak and converse and be THERE with me? I would love to be God if I could do that.
But the part of God’s job I would not want is perhaps the most important one. Deciding. Judging. Sifting. Who gets into to heaven and who doesn’t? What are the qualifications for that? What if someone is ‘close’ but like that student with a 68% average has neither ‘extra-credit’ nor ‘class-participation’ points: how do you decide whether to let them in or not?
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” is the question shouted at Jesus along the way to Jerusalem. Unspoken in that question is the one question that matters: “What gets you in?” If there are not many, then how does God decide who is in and who is out, who’s got the passing grade and who will be left outside, “wailing and gnashing their teeth”? It is at that point where I realize I don’t want to be God to have to make that decision. I would hate that part of his job description.
HOW MANY will get in? It is a question that each generation of believers wrestles with. The details of the afterlife and the means of getting into heaven and avoiding hell were questions that preoccupied my parents’ generation of believers, almost to an unhealthy extent. They were paranoid about the venial sins (the hamburger you ate during a Friday in lent) and accidental failings that might keep you out. My generation, having being taught over and over that God is a loving God who is always ready to forgive, believes that everyone gets in. If God is love, than how could he not let us ALL in? This makes us utterly indifferent to spiritual development. If eternal life is a given, then why should I bother with spiritual things?
Jesus’ response takes a kind of different road, doesn’t it? He turns his attention to the questioner. “It is not about God’s role in deciding who or how, or how many. Don’t start the conversation there.” That leads either to paranoia or indifference. Rather, he says: “STRIVE to enter through the narrow gate.” Know that the life you are seeking to enter into is more than just ‘knowing about Jesus’ – “he taught in our streets, we shared a beer at the local tavern.” Rather, eternal life is the stuff of STRIVING.
It is all about participating to the fullest degree possible in the very life of God. It means conformity to love. It means allowing the relationship with God to invade EVERY aspect of who we are, so that grace flows through you and into the wider world. Eternal life is allowing ourselves to be caught up in the embrace of God. This is not SOFT language. This requires disciplined striving. To walk the path of love is not an easy thing. To be conformed to Christ is an entry into that narrow gate. It is about turning the whole of your life to love, to self gift every day. You don’t do this on cruise control. NO, it is only by imitating Jesus’ way of being that Jesus comes to KNOW us. Jesus recognizes his own.
And that is how judgment works. It is not God up there sifting the D – (minus) students from the F students at the gate. “You’re in. You’re just barely in. You – too bad. You –definitely out! Rather, it is God looking at us trying to see something of Jesus in us. And He will only see that to the extent we have allowed ourselves to live his way of emptying love. He will see Jesus in us, to the extent that we have strived to enter that narrow gate.
The Trappist Monk, Thomas Keating said it this way: “Most of you will not enter into heaven.” He went on to say that he was not speaking about HOW MANY of us; he was speaking about HOW MUCH of each of us won’t. All that is NOT GOD will not be able to enter the narrow gate. All that is selfish and egocentric, all that is small and petty and not Christ like – none of that will fit. The gate is narrow because it is precisely in the shape of Jesus himself. It looks like him, is shaped like him, it loves like him, heals like him, interacts with the world like him. And if we would enter it, then we have to learn to look and be like him as well.
Are they few who will enter the kingdom of heaven? Don’t ask the question that way, Jesus tells us. It’s not about God judging and sifting sinners from saints, but about that day when we see God and he sees us. He will say to us: “Ah, I know you. I see my Son in you.” And we will say back: “And I know you too, because I see your Son in you.”
Summer time, and the living was easy…
After last summer’s record heat, who would have thought we’d have a summer filled with such delightful, fall-like days? Do not get me wrong – I am SOO grateful for the gift of a cooler summer. And for wonderful weather in Scotland and London (10 nights and 11 days and the only rain we got was one night between 4 and 6 am…) And for AMAZING weather at Christian Family Camp – in my twenty years of doing camp, never did we have weather this cool, not even the years when Camp was in early June. How nice it was to snuggle up in my sleeping bag, all zipped up and be ‘just right’ for sound sleeping.
“Summertime, and the living is easy” goes the song from Porgy and Bess. Certainly, that has been my weather induced experience with the summer of 2013. I find though, that the days are coming SOO quickly to an end. The first day of school will have happened by the time you read this. And the UMSL orientation days will be over, as the new students arrive the 15th of August. Another season of welcoming and teaching and forming students, both at St. Ann and at New-man will have begun.
I can’t say I look forward to the end of summer. But I can say I look forward to the beginning of a new semester of grace. There is the excitement of the new and the possible and the endless opportunities that stretch out like beacons in time, calling and inviting one on the journey with great trust and openness. The easiness of summer gives way to the rhythm of class schedules, parent meetings, Newman activities and the interactions that make St. Ann such a vibrant community. The relative quiet of the school yard and field will be punctured by the joyful shouts, laughter and voices of our students at P.E. or recess or after-care. It is a wonderful sound to behold.
The end of summer also heralds the beginning of the RCIA class for those who are seeking to find out more about our Catholic faith, or who want to become Catholic. If you know of anyone with interest in be-coming Catholic or studying more about their faith, have them contact me or Pat Marstall at their earliest convenience.
Finally, this year is a confirmation year for our 7th and 8th grade students. Please keep them in your prayers as they prepare their hearts for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into their lives…
Two reporters had an interesting conversation on the ledge of the 37th floor of a building under construction. They had been invited there by the company’s marketing team to cover the progress of a new skyscraper. It was to connect to a building across the street. The reporters stood on an open air platform next to the I-beam that would join the two buildings.
One reporter said, “Could you imagine crawling across that?” The other one shook his head. “No way,” he said, looking at the fall of several hundred feet to the pavement below: Then the first asked “Would you crawl across that beam for $10,000?” “Absolutely not” he said. What about for $100,000? Still absolutely not! Then he asked, “Would you cross that beam if your child was in trouble on the other side and needed you and that was the only way to get to them?” He looked at the other reporter who could tell without him saying a word that, yes, he would.
The difference, of course, is what he kept his eyes and heart focused on. He would do it for his child.
Today’s Gospel offers us the image of a Jesus who would cross that I-beam. And he names the cost of discipleship in hard terms. “I have come to set the earth on fire -literally – to ‘throw down fire upon the earth. I have a baptism to receive – how great is my anguish until it is accomplished.” This is not the warm and cuddly Jesus here. Rather, this is the Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, focused in on the world in danger on the other side of the I-beam – knowing that there are hard choices to be made and a price to be paid for walking into the fire. You see, there is always a price to be paid for setting the earth on fire, and for walking into that flame. We try to push it aside, cover it up with fancy words or the consoling passages of the gentle Jesus – but every time we come into a church and see the cross – we are reminded of the price of setting a fire on the earth. The price of fire is always sacrificial love. And we’ll never receive our baptism unless WE are willing to walk into the fire.
But today’s scriptures also speak to HOW we are to do just that. Our second reading tells us: “… let us persevere in running this race, with our eyes fixed on Jesus.” We do it by keeping our eyes fixed on the right thing. That reporter would do it for his child. Jesus did it for us. And when we keep our eyes fixed on what is needed for love, when we keep our hearts focused on the needs of the other, we can walk into that blaze as well.
Many of you begin the adventure called college tomorrow. Some of you are returning for your second or third or fourth year or for what we call at UMSL – your victory lap years. There are many things that beckon these college days – things that would/could pull you out on to that I-beam of life – without much support – suspended between life and death, both figuratively and literally. Yet there is also so much to be excited about – so many possibilities. How will you make the journey of discipleship?
Sometimes, it can feel so lonely. Why am I the sober one at this gathering? Why am I choosing to honor the gift of my body that I want to give pure to my future husband or wife? Why am I not passing off someone else’s work as my own? Why am I volunteering my Saturday morning in service when everyone else is hung over in bed? Most of the time, we don’t get cheered for doing the right thing.
And when the cost of discipleship is great, when we would rather skip the price of walking into the fire, the author of Hebrews adds this encouragement: “There is a great cloud of witnesses who spurs us on,” an unseen loving presence of all of our loved who have gone before us… the saints… who kept their eyes focused on others, who did what was needed for love, who walked into the fire ahead of us.. They pray for us, believe in us, encourage us, and spur us on. Their witness invites us to keep our eyes focused rightly…
Perhaps you know the story of a woman who came across Mother Theresa as she was in the gutter, picking maggots out of a dying man’s body. The woman said, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” Mother Theresa responded, “Neither would I.” She did it because she knew that man was a beloved child of God… She kept her eyes fixed on Jesus, who dwelled in that man, the Jesus who shows up as she called it “in all his distressing disguises.” When we keep our eyes on others in their need, we are ourselves keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.
Most of us will never have to walk across an i-beam suspended on the thirty seventh floor. But today’s scriptures won’t let us forget that there is always a price to pay for doing what is right…a price for setting the world on fire with the love of our savior. And like that reporter who would go across that i-beam bridged chasm for his child, we too can cross the journey of college and life – when our eyes are fixed on Jesus.
A farewell to our college bound…
Every summer, about this time, the Newman Center gears up for another year of ministry, new faces and new opportunities to connect students to their faith tradition of love and service. It is always an exciting time. As pastor, though, I am aware of another population that is preparing to move. That is our own St. Ann parishioners heading out to their respective colleges and campuses.
I write to offer you, those students, or their parents, just a word of encouragement and support in the year to come. College life is a great adventure, but also comes with its own unique challenges and struggles. Students who ‘do college well’ find ways to do three things: they
stay connected to significant support systems in their lives; they engage others in helping them make smart decisions for both the short and long run, and finally, they find a place to plug into – where their desire to make a difference in the world can bear fruit. To that end, every college has a variety of resources to help with all three of those goals. Fraternities, sororities, Newman Centers, clubs, student groups – all are places where those goals can be met.
Be a little proactive this year about those kinds of connections. I and my staff would be happy to do some of the research for you if you are heading off to a campus for the first time. Or if you don’t know what is available at the campus you are returning to, contact Kay or Fr. Bill at [email protected] or [email protected] respectively, and we’ll do a bit of research…
And for those who are staying in town, there is our beloved little Newman Center just a mile up the road with all kinds of opportunities to give of yourself and folks to meet to walk with you on that journey of life.
This year finds a new Campus Minister on staff – Erin Duffy. Erin received a BA in English from Washington University, and an MA in Education from Notre Dame while spending three years teaching in an inner city school before becoming a Catholic Campus Minister at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. After 4 years of that, she received a full ride scholarship to The Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley where she completed Masters degrees in Multicultural Ministry and Christian Spirituality. I am thrilled to welcome her to the staff at the CNC this year.
So, even if you don’t attend UMSL, but are in town or in that college/grad school age demographic, feel free to plug into our little Newman Center. First mass of the semester will be on Sunday August 19th at 11:00 am in the Provincial House Chapel. (the rest of the Sunday masses will be at the usual 8:30 pm time slot.)
A few years ago, at the Christian Family Camp that I returned from last week, the theme centered around being a leader after the heart of Jesus. In a small group following the session, a man named Paul Staelens said an insightful thing for me. “Prayer and Leadership after the heart of Jesus is more than saying to God – “here’s my idea. I hope that you go with it…” As the small group talked, we wrestled more and more with that struggle. How do you know where God is leading you? How can you be sure that what you are contemplating is what God has in mind for you?
..faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen…
Isn’t walking in faith something more like this? I spoke to my friend whose husband has ALS. Ann says it is advancing more quickly that either of them thought and then the doctors had hoped. As hard as that was for me to hear, I am sure it was more difficult for her to say it. And as we talked, I heard, not the doubt of disbelief, but a kind of quiet courage in her voice. She and Dave are still praying for a miracle. But if that does not happen, then she is trying to figure out what her next steps are, in terms of caring for her husband and watching over the kids. And what I heard God whispering to me in the midst of that was a gentle invitation. “Bill, you need to do what you can to walk with her and Dave in this part of the faith journey. Make sure you make time to do that.” And though the only ‘evidence’ of this unseen call is that feeling in my gut, the more I sit with that conversation in prayer, that response seems the only faith-filled response possible.
..faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen…
The 11th chapter of Hebrews – is an extended meditation on this faith which we walk by. And it is fascinating to see how the author deals with it. After his one sentence ‘definition’, rather than expound upon it, he simply gives us a description of two people who did it well – Abraham and Sarah. Let me show you what it looks like to walk by faith – to have that confident assurance concerning what we hope for, conviction about things we do not see.
You see, I have this image of an aged Sarah and Abraham together in the tent. Sarah is on her death bed and they are still not in the promised land. They look back over their lives and their journeys and with a bemused shaking of the head Sarah says: What a life it’s been! And then, wondering aloud, she asks the question: Did we do this right? Were we faithful to the one who called us? And Abraham, eyes tearing up in remembering of both hardship and joy, retells the story and the peak moments of what they have done and learned…
In your prayer this week, I invite you to pull out this section from the letter to the Hebrews – and look at the model of Abraham and Sarah for insight into your own walking by faith. Three things jumped out at me..
1) Like Abraham and Sarah, who looked to the City God would establish: Do I live each day thinking: I’ll be one day closer to eternity by the time today is over? And do I live accordingly?
2) When things are difficult – disease hits a family member, tragedy strikes, jobs are difficult to come by, a desired child is never conceived – like Sarah, can you trust that God is worthy yet of trust – even when human wisdom says God is absent? (And lest you think this was easy for them, God promises descendents when Abram was 90 – Isaac was born THIRTY years later!)
3) Will you live the life of a spiritual nomad – dependent when temptation strikes for aid – asking for it in the moment of desire; will you travel lightly through this world – perhaps not clinging to possessions – to material things, so that your brothers and sisters might have enough…
Walking by faith is a lot more difficult than saying to God: “Here’s my idea, I hope you go along with it…” Like Abraham and Sarah, may we have the courage to make our journey – faithfully, each step of the way…
Edward Hayes tells the story of “The Magic Folger’s Coffee Can” in his book “The Ethiopian Tattoo Shop.” The short version of the story begins with a young boy, whose whole world was his imagination, piloting his pirate’s ship – a small stick floating willy-nilly down a stream- on endless adventures on a summer’s afternoon. As the stick passes beneath a bridge he meets a troll who seems to be the happiest person in the world. After an exchange, the troll shares his secret. Tossing the boy an empty Folger’s can, he says simply: “Fill this can to the brim and you will be happy always. With a few mumbled words of thanks, the boy set off. Once back in his room, he began stuffing the can with his toys – his ball glove, stamp collection, toy cars… And thus, innocently, began a lifelong passion.
In high school, he stuffed the top grades in his class, football and baseball trophies, and various honors into his Folger’s Coffee Can. Yet, for some reason, the can never became full to the brim. In college, he again added top grades, more intellectual and athletic awards. He became class president, and was voted ‘most likely to succeed.” These too, he pushed into his magic can. But for some reason, although each of these prizes was very sweet, the coffee can never seemed to be really full.
He stuffed good times, good food and drink, the attention and affection of beautiful women and of many friends into his Folger’s Coffee Can. After each rich experience, he would feel very happy and it would seem that his coffee can was full. But by the morning, it was painfully evident that the Folger’s can was not full to the brim.
A wife, two kids, three cars, a successful career, even two mistresses went in. His friends told him to run for public office, so he did, and he won easily. Into his Folger’s Coffee Can he stuffed all the respect, honor, authority and most of all the power of his elected office, but the can was still not full.
Finally, in his old age, with the dented coffee can adorning the carved mahogany desk of his corporate office, he signed the transaction papers to the biggest international corporation merger ever done, making him the richest and most powerful man in the world. With a wry smile on his face, he took the contract and began to stuff it greedily into his battered, old Folger’s Coffee Can. At that moment, he was stricken by a fatal heart attack. As he stumbled forward, the can flew out the high office window.
It took a playful bounce off the sidewalk, almost as if it was happy to be free of the old man’s hands. It rolled along, gathering speed, through the hectic business district, to the outskirts of town, where with one final, exuberant bounce, it rolled to a stop in the middle of a green lawn where a little, blond haired girl was in the midst of a tea party with three of her dolls and her set of tiny, blue rimmed china.
The little girl picked up the can, and looked at it inquisitively, and immediately noticed something its previous owner had never seen – had never taken the time to see because he was so busy trying to fill it. The girl was puzzled because the can had no bottom. The tunnel-like opening of the tin coffee can, unnoticed during the old man’s whole life, delighted the little girl. She held the can skyward, and it became filled with the golden sun. She held it up toward a bird, and it was filled not only with the beauty of the creature but with its lovely song as well. She filled it with her dolls as they sat in all properness at their front lawn tea party. She filled it with flowers and people, and running to a hallway mirror in her home she filled it with herself. With delight she called out, “Oh. Mother, come quickly! A magic Folger’s Coffee Can has just rolled into our yard. Come quickly, Mother; I’m the richest and happiest person in the world. The whole world, Mother, the whole world is in my red, magic Folger’s Coffee Can!”
Few things steal our happiness more than our greed does. It becomes this monster within us, shiftless, restless, pacing, insatiable, until it consumes more and more. It is never satisfied and roars its rage when not appeased my more. For this monster, the more it has, the more it wants.
The only antidote I know – is the practice of gratitude. Be grateful for what is, for what you have, for who you are. This I know: gratitude in my life and for my life leads to trust. Gratitude helps me to trust in the promises of God to be everything for me. Trust that God will not fail in providing for me one day at a time.
Thus it is for the one who grows rich in what matters to God…