Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Blessings of Clarity

Yesterday was Wednesday, so I got to do something I particularly enjoy – preparing backpacks of food for the BackSnack ministry. Every Wednesday, seven or eight parishioners gather in the undercroft at St. Andrew’s to fill backpacks with nonperishable food provided by Harvesters, a local hunger-relief agency. Parishioners then deliver these backpacks to the students at Blenheim Elementary School in Kansas City. Although the school is only about three miles away from the church, it’s light years distant in terms of socioeconomic status – basically all the 200 kids there receive free or reduced-cost school lunches. So, each Friday, every student receives a backpack of food to take home for the weekend, to provide extra nutrition for the days when they don’t have the assurance of getting lunch at school.

This coming Sunday, May 3, we’ll highlight the BackSnack ministry in our monthly children’s homily. Among the readings that morning will be these verses from the First Letter of John: “We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (3:16-17)

Sometimes Christianity baffles us with mystery and paradox; sometimes the Scriptures challenge us with circular reasoning or make claims that tax our capacity for belief. But other times, we get the clarity of Christ’s command to love, particularly in John’s gospel and letters. “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). It’s this kind of clarity that gets me through the confusions and frustrations of parish ministry. Sometimes, discipleship really isn’t a lot more complicated than feeding hungry children who live nearby your wealthy church.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Healing, Cure, and Calling

I have to admit that I don’t read nearly as much as I should. But I did read something in a recent Christian Century that caught my attention – partly because of my own home situation and partly because of a conversation with a parishioner about something her daughter had said. In all three cases, the subject is healing – and specifically, where God is in it.

First, here’s my situation. Since 2001, my wife has been struggling with lupus. Hers is a particularly nasty case that attacks her cardiopulmonary system. It nearly killed her when she was first diagnosed; and now it’s causing pulmonary artery hypertension, a chronic, progressive condition from which one typically doesn’t recover. As you might guess, we’ve done a lot of praying in the last eight years, asking God for healing. Do we expect God to reach into our present situation, snap the divine fingers, and bring an end to her disease? Certainly I wouldn’t say God can’t do that. But I’ve also sat with too many people who’ve watched loved ones die to think that if they had only prayed harder, they would have gotten the outcome they wanted.

Second, here’s the conversation that a parishioner reported having with her daughter. The little girl, who’s four, has a chronically ill family member. She said to her mother that she thought God and Jesus were praying for her family member to get better – but that, by implication, she wasn’t expecting God actually to bring about a cure, and certainly not in some impressively miraculous way. Does that reveal inadequate four-year-old faith, or perhaps inadequate witness by her parents (and her priest)? Or is it a fairly astute, four-year-old way of coming to terms with the mystery that God heals us in the end, despite the fact that impressive miracles usually don’t come when we want them?

Third, here’s the article I mentioned – “Accidental lessons” by William H. Willimon (pp. 30-33 of the April 21, 2009, Christian Century; unfortunately, this article isn’t available on the magazine’s website). Willimon is one of the best writers and preachers anywhere, as well as a bishop in the United Methodist Church. I won’t give away his story except to say that he’s recently gone through his own time of healing after enduring a rather nasty accident. In his article, Willimon reflects on prayers for healing, God’s agency in healing, and our expectations about what healing means in our cure-obsessed culture. Ironically, Willimon argues, our expectations about God’s power to cure us are too small. Rather than simply wanting to cure us and put us back where we were, God desires healing for us … which most often doesn’t look like the cure we want. And, on top of that, it usually comes with something else we didn’t expect – some new shade of vocation to help heal a hurting world.

When the bishops and the four-year-olds agree, I tend to think they’re on to something. May God grant me the grace to be open to true healing, and may God grant me responsiveness to the holy calls that come along with it.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

"Do this for the remembrance of me"

Last night, at the Fools for Christ’s Sake dinner, I found myself in a role I’ve never played before: bartender. I’ve done several kinds of work in my life (busboy, dishwasher, sandwich chef, reporter, editor, writer, etc.), but bartending was a first for me. Steve Corey, Jeff Unger, and I worked the bar more or less in the middle of the undercroft, which gave me a great view of the room as I doled out glasses of rum punch and wine.

There were several surprised looks from parishioners as they came up to get their drinks: “What are you doing here – a priest as a bartender?” (I had taken off my collar but was still wearing the black shirt because it worked well with the server outfit.) I made some smart comment about how I had some professional experience in serving red wine, which brought a laugh or two.

But there was more to what I was saying than what I first thought. Looking out at the “congregation” there assembled for dinner, I imagined the view I get from behind the altar on Sunday mornings – not so different from the view last night. There we were, the people of God assembled for a meal that reminded us why we were there – to do our part in making Christ present in the world. There were no words of consecration, but there was certainly holiness embodied last night as we actively remembered Jesus and his command to care for the least among us. Standing there behind the bar, I might as well have been behind an altar – for Jesus was there, too.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Beans, Rice, and the Reign of God

Tonight is our Fools for Christ’s Sake Dinner at St. Andrew’s ( – a gourmet Haitian feast along with entertainment from parishioners. The event benefits the school we support in Maniche, Haiti, specifically the lunch program we began there earlier this year.

The school at Maniche and its hot-lunch program are worth a little theological reflection, particularly in this Easter season. Think back about the news reports from Haiti over the past year. What most of us probably remember are the four hurricanes that struck Haiti this fall, one after another in just a few weeks. More than 500 were killed; thousands saw their homes destroyed. And, as if Haitians didn’t have enough of a challenge finding adequate nutrition in the best of circumstances, the hurricanes wiped out many crops and livestock. And now, months later, the effects continue because, of course, seed for the future was destroyed, too.

In the midst of this darkness, light still breaks in. Led by Dr. Kathy Shaffer, St. Andrew’s began a hot-lunch program this fall for the 200 or so students at the school in Maniche. Initially, meals were served three days a week; this semester, it’s increased to five days a week. A bowl of beans and rice may not seem like much, but it’s huge for these students, both in terms of surviving today and in terms of learning for tomorrow.

Of course, Haiti is just one example of poverty and injustice in the world. Every day, we see and hear about darkness apparently gaining the upper hand. But especially in this season of resurrection, it’s good to see the kingdom of God springing up in the midst of devastation. Christ is alive, after all – not just 2,000 years ago on the first Easter morning, but right now. There in Maniche, in a small hot-lunch program, you can see Christ’s reign breaking into the darkness. And we get to be part of it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Getting started

This is the first of what I hope will be regular entries in this blog. I’ve hesitated in starting a blog because of the pressures I put on myself about writing. It’s the same kind of pressure that, ironically, has always kept me from being a good correspondent with family and friends. Somewhere down deep is this little voice saying, “If you’re going to write a ______ [letter, blog, whatever], it has to be good and complete” – as if my college composition instructor, Dr. Hennigan, might turn it back to me covered with red ink. So I don’t write letters much, and I’ve avoided blogging until now, because I’ve feared that what I had to say wouldn’t be “publication-worthy.”

Oh well. As God so often says to me (and all of us, if we have ears to hear), “Get over yourself, and do what I tell you.” So this little journal will, I hope, be at least an exercise in that kind of faithfulness, the kind I think God has in mind for most of us – discipleship in small bytes.