A Mission, OP

JMJ

Always on Christmas, there is a sense of disconnection for me. Back when I thought I was going to be an Episcopal Priest there was the same sense of disconnect. My Family was hundreds (and later thousands) of miles away. My friends all did their family things. Later I discovered the “orphans’ Christmas” which was a collection of people getting together because they had no other place to go. It always seemed to be at least as dysfunctional a gathering as the families we were all avoiding. I stopped going after a while. We are meant to be with blood-Family, I think, on Holy Days. Family is the smallest unit of the church and it’s not replaceable. So while I can call home on Christmas (and I do) I miss the gathering of 65 people (or more) that were all my relatives in one small town – that was a Holy Day. All I have now is a day off from work with religious obligations.

So I was struck after Midnight Mass by a tweet from a friar calling attention to the Christmas Message of the Master of the Dominican Order. The Master hits on this curious point in the First Christmas story:

At times, we tend to “sanitize” the disturbing details of the Christmas story. The nativity scene in our churches and convents appears to be a tender and warm picture of a loving and peaceful family. But as we pause and ponder, we realize that it must have been extremely painful for Joseph to be homeless in his hometown,  for he could not find a single relative who could give them a room for the night, thus they had to look for a room in an inn. Probably, Joseph’s kinsmen shunned him for having a young wife who got pregnant even before they were married. It must have been terribly difficult for Mary to deliver a child in a smelly stable and then have a manger for his bed. It must have been terrifying to know that a king who feels so insecure threatens their newborn son and has ordered the killing of many innocent male children. The Gospel on Christmas day speaks about the world rejecting the One they needed the most: He came to his own yet his own people did not receive him (John 1:11)There is a “dark side” to Christmas. No matter how big or little they are, the sadness and emptiness we feel even during Christmas day is part of that dark side that we have to acknowledge in order to let Jesus, our LIGHT, shine through that darkness. 

Fr Gerard Francisco Timoner III, OP

I’ve never actually thought about it before. Our culture turns the Holy Family into Politically Correct stand-ins for political refugees, migrant workers, or homeless people. Then Christians fight over this reading. The Biblical text tells another story that will be far more familiar to any Christmas Orphans out there. In this story, the Dysfunctional Family of David tried to ruin the first Christmas. …[I]t must have been extremely painful for Joseph to be homeless in his hometown, for he could not find a single relative who could give them a room for the night, thus they had to look for a room in an inn. Probably, Joseph’s kinsmen shunned him for having a young wife who got pregnant even before they were married…

After St Joseph’s experience, the Church spent the first 300 years of her life rescuing not only lost souls, but also those who were rejected by their families: babies, elders, and the infirm who were abandoned on the hillsides. Families could literally throw people away. These are not just the “poor and the homeless” as we think of them today in our cities: these were the rejected, the broken, the used up. Slaves that could no longer to the tasks allotted them, daughters who dishonored their families by getting children outside of wedlock, elders who were too sick and drained the family wealth, unwanted babies (especially girls), or the blind, the deformed, the mentally ill. The Christians went out to the edges of the city and brought these folks in, healed them, raised the babies, comforted the dying. In this way, the Church evangelized literally by action: the religion of your Pater Familias abandoned you to die on the hillside. The religion of your rescuers told them to love and told you to forgive. The early Church didn’t ask these folks to change as the price of admission to love (as Roman Paganism did) but rather these folks changed their lives as a result of the love they experienced from God through the Church.

Pope Francis calls us “to the peripheries”. Speaking before he was elected Pope, then-Cardinal Bergolio said:

The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.

Today on the peripheries we might better think of our homeless encampments as more of the same: adding drug addiction and even prostitution to the list of ways that men and women might end up on this list of Unwanted Family. When I read a newspaper story earlier this year about the Homeless of San Francisco, I was surprised by how many of them had family – but couldn’t go to them.

So, not just peripheries of geography (are there any peripheries there any more?) but the Church also has a mission to the peripheries of sociology.

Many of the homeless men and women in my neighborhood are rejected by their families for issues around sexual morality. This is especially true of the youth. I wish it were not the case, but “Get out of my house…” seems a horribly common thing for religious parents to say to their children. How are we supposed to act, as Christians, in this case? I know there are some who want to use this sort of story as an argument for changing the Church’s teachings. Sed Contra, I see it as a chance to enforce the Church’s teachings on charity, love of family, and mercy. We should make it a mission of the Church to welcome in those who are shunned and even shamed by their families.

One Christmas, after Midnight Mass at the Episcopal Cathedral of St John the Divine in NYC, I went down to what I used to call “My Parish” in Greenwich Village. If you go into any gay bar you will find men who are angry at the Church. But on Christmas you’ll find something else entirely. In NYC the bars close at 4AM, but by 2AM on Christmas morning you’ll find the real orphans: the men who have no “orphan Christmas party” to go to, who have no other place to be, who are lost. When I walked into Ty’s the only people in there were the Bartender (he had a home to go to, but he was at work…) and a drag queen who was in “boy drag” as the saying goes, sitting all alone. The bartender greeted me warmly, gave me a drink (4 actually) without charging me and left me to chat with the other patron as he went about cleaning up. We were watching Bing Crosby’s White Christmas.

It was all chitchat. We sang along to the movie. I shared about Mass and the guy remembered St John the Divine and commented on the beauty there. And he grew wistful talking about fond memories. There’s no religious conversion here, but when I moved away from NYC, I got a going-way card from the man who thanked me for that night of friendship in a bar when it was very dark in his life. Sometimes, that’s all that’s needed.

Let me point in another direction: as many of our parishes become rest homes for aging members of the over 6os set, who wish to be unchallenged in their cultural hegemony, we should realize the peripheries also contain Techies and other Millenials who are very successful in the world but, for exactly that reason, are disconnected from their families and any social structures. Many of them lack the social sense even needed to recognize the need for religion in their life. But they need God as much as anyone. I mentioned this once to an Parish Council as was greeted by stony silence. These folks need Jesus, too.

Fr Timoner points out that “Christmas is not just a celebration but a mission.” We each have missions, of course, but the Church’s special mission has been outreach – we go beyond. Beyond the boundaries of the Jewish People, she embraced the gentiles. In Roman culture, she embraced the outcasts. She reached out to the Barbarians – the enemies of the Roman State. She embraced other cultures and peoples at every turn.

This is the Church needed today. This is the Church we have, to be honest, even though there are some who try to deny this along the lines fear of the Other in all forms: race, nationalism, populism, and sexual morality. We have forgotten again that the way to bring folks in is not to demand they change as the price of admission, but rather to let them change as a result of being loved. “…[T]he mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery” lives on the edges of our lives: usually just outside of our doors or in the discard pile of our social media.

Can the Church reach out in these directions: on the one hand to the lost, the marginalized, and on the other hand to the folks who seem to reject us as quaint and old fashioned? Again, the interesting point is that from a societal, political point of view, each of these groups is “successful” in some very worldly ways. But how can they find the Gospel unless they hear it first, and how will they hear it unless it is preached?

The Feast of St Barnabas

JMJ

I was in New York City for the Ordination of my friend, Linda, to the Diaconate of the Episcopal Church, to be held at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, the Largest Gothic Cathedral in the world. This was the Summer of 1985: I had taken a year off of NYU and moved to Atlanta, made a few errors, came back to New York. Then I spent a semester at the Institute of Theology, the ECUSAn Diocese of New York’s “Late Vocation” project.

That semester I had my first clue that I wasn’t fitting in with the general ECUSAn slant on things: my sense (even at age 25) of what was Christian was not quite en vogue. Still, I struggled bravely forward, holding to my “big tent Anglo-Catholicism” that had room for gay couples and ordained women while still insisting on the literal reality of the Virgin Birth, the Physical Resurrection, and the Adorable Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

After Linda’s ordination I had a wake-up call. One of her friends arrived at the party late (pretty much everyone had gone and it was down to a few professors and geek talk). He had that afternoon been fired as pastor from his parish – an Anglo Catholic bastion on Long Island – because he, a celibate, had been asked if he was attracted to men or women. In honesty he said the former, and that was a bit much for the folks at St Fortescue on the North Fork. There was suddenly much anguish and chatter at the party and the guest left with others to plot a future. For fear of the same future, I broke down in the silence, and suddenly Linda was holding me as I cried for the all the crazy stuff in my heart, and all the ways I was sure God was calling me, and all that ways that doors could suddenly close.

Linda and her daughter departed on a vacation and I was left alone, minding their apartment on Chelsea Square: feeding the cat and spending my summer vacation on the property donated to the Episcopal Church by the author of A Visit from St Nicholas. I went out that night and got drunk, to be honest, drowning my sorrows and low self esteem in several local watering holes. I let myself back on to campus by the postern gate on 21st St and crashed out hot and wet in the dank night of a New York City summer.

Waking up too late the next morning I totally needed a shower. I woke dressed and hung over, but drowned sorrows only sink to the bottom, they are still there when the swamp is drained. I removed my clothes and stepped into the shower. At that moment, the Angelus rang from the Chapel, and I decided to go to Mass. I put on fresh clothes and went down to the square and went left into the Chapel.

Sitting in a stall, I was approached by the sacristan and asked if I would take the first lesson. I demurred because I was unshowered and not a seminarian, but I was told this was OK. At the appointed time I stepped up to the Bible and read the lesson from Isaiah appointed in the 1979 Book for the Feast of St Barnabas.

Thus says God, the LORD… who created the earth… who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: “I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you;… Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.” 

35 years later the Feast of St Barnabas came round again (on Monday) and I was remembering this event. I have a history of misreading moments like this. If that random, coincidental call to a Bible reading wasn’t God telling me I was called, what was it? Why do I feel like such a huge failure after 25 years in Customer Service?

Today I’m reading that pivotal moment differently. All of life with its chances and changes is right there: “… I have taken you by the hand and kept you…” The clearest actions of God in that 1985 weekend was Linda holding me while I cried; me holding on to Linda’s apartment and cat while she was gone; even the invite to come away from my small town in upstate New York and spend a week for free in New York City. All of that was the action of God, taking one by the hand.

This is what I’m learning from St Catherine of Siena: God gives us love and all we can do is give it away. God calls us each (even folks who can’t or won’t listen) to be loved by him. He is infinity itself, an infinity of Love. Our finite lives can never repay that love nor return it. So our love, our repayment of His love, must be lavished on those we find around us while expecting nothing in return save only more love from God himself; to send out even further. What if all our cravings for understanding and validation, all our desires for awards and participation trophies are but bad coverups for this one transubstantiational loop? God loves us and lavishes us with grace. He changes us into models of himself that we can likewise lavish others, aiding them in their theosis, by the love we pass on. The only place love can go is out and through.Yes we love God, but he has told us clearly that the only way to love Him is to love our neighbors. All our Godward worship is really God’s us-ward charging of our batteries. When we are fully charged up, we are to turn and serve our neighbors. This action to others is the only love that reaches to God.

This is how customer service becomes a spiritual path, and Rick told me so two decades later, preaching from the howdah at St Gregory of Nyssa parish. What a customer needs and wants is not up to you to dictate. Service is all that is possible. Yes, there are rules beyond which we cannot go (support boundaries, as they are called in the trade). No customer will get beyond those – no matter how many times they ask to talk to a manager – the Customer is not always right. In the same way we cannot, in God’s love, help our neighbor to sin, either.

Service is an act of Love. Rather, it can be as also professional hospitality can be an act of Love. Both of these can also be a painful, automatic business transaction. They are ideally a fully-human, generous action of Grace; just as a doctor can be cold, calculating, greedy, or caring, and either way still cure your lumbago. As God is holding us, we can hold others. We might not be able to make the pain stop (that’s what people often want Customer Service Agents to do) but we can feel the pain with you, and move through the pain with human interaction. This can be stopped by unloving on either side of the conversation. God can take you by the hand, and put people in your path daily whom you are obligated to love, but you can make that obligation as joyful, or as much of a failure, as you wish.

And as true as it is of Customer Service, it is true of any other-facing job: yes, there are places where love is about as welcome as corporate espionage. I suggest Christians have no more place there than they do in the production of Adult Films. But for the other 90 percent of the darkening world, we can be light.

Bishop Barron, wrapping up the Q&A after his talk at the Googleplex, was asked, “How do you see our role as Catholic employees at Google?” The Bishop answered, (paraphrased because I can’t take dictation) First, that you be a person of Love, wherever you find yourself. In any situation find the opportunity to love. Love is not a sentiment, it is to will the good of the other. Wherever you are, find the path of love and walk it. And, secondly, if someone is curious about you Catholicism, be ready with an answer. Love first, and be ready to give a reason for the hope that’s in you.

This is the path of service, the Little Way of St Therese, the action of God holding is you holding someone, as Mary holds the God-Child who holds the cosmos.

Never be Thrown Away



From: Meditations and Devotions By Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman

Section 3:2

God was all-complete, all-blessed in Himself; but it was His will to create a world for His glory. He is Almighty, and might have done all things Himself, but it has been His will to bring about His purposes by the beings He has created. We are all created to His glory — we are created to do His will. I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created; I have a place in God’s counsels, in God’s world, which no one else has; whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by my name.

2. God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission — I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his — if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.

3. Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me — still He knows what He is about.

Colloquy: O Adonai, O Ruler of Israel, Thou that guidest Joseph like a flock, O Emmanuel, O Sapientia, I give myself to Thee. I trust Thee wholly. Thou art wiser than I — more loving to me than I myself. Deign to fulfil Thy high purposes in me whatever they be — work in and through me. I am born to serve Thee, to be Thine, to be Thy instrument. Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see — I ask not to know — I ask simply to be used.