Monday, April 18, 2016

First Semester Almost in the Bag

I'm nearing the end of my first semester of diaconate formation.  My last class of the semester is this Wednesday.  Last paper is due then and I'm off until the end of August.  I'll need to do 10 hours of "shadowing" with another deacon over the summer, which is in the works.  Not sure what I expected this semester, but it's been very interesting.  Academically, it's been no sweat.  I've been able to block out the time to get the work done and don't feel like I've been ignoring other areas of my life.  My grades are fine and I have no worries about passing the course.

Spiritually it's been quite a semester.  It's not that there's been anything challenging or that I've learned something that I didn't know previously.  It's just that I've never thought about my faith in the way we've been discussing it.  I've never thought about theology as a subject and it's really broadened my thinking.  And it's left me hungry to learn more.  As in I almost can't wait until the fall to get into it again.

I think the biggest impact on me has been reading Pope Francis' book The Joy of the Gospel.  Part of it is the text itself but part of it is the way he approaches teaching and ministering.  One of the things we learned about in class was Liberation Theology.  Bet you didn't know there were different kinds of theology, did you?  I didn't.  Liberation Theology began in the 1970's in Latin America (think Bishop Oscar Romero).  It's basically a theology of the poor and underprivileged.  The focus is on how does theology help those that are poor and persecuted.  Hence liberation.

The central theory behind it is the praxis method.  You see a problem that needs addressing, you consider ways in which the problem can be solved, then you take action.  Then you repeat.  Pope Francis, being a Jesuit and Argentinian, is steeped in Liberation Theology and praxis methodology.  Once you know what it is, it's so obvious in his writings.  Francis' methods, primarily from Jesuit training, is to observe, discern what God wants you to do, then act.  It's the heart of his message for the Church to focus on the people that are hurting first and foremost.

It was such an "ah ha" moment for me when all of that came together.  I'm a person of action.  I think if we want to improve our country and our world we need to stop saying something should be done and start doing it.  Focus on our own communities.  Get involved with people one on one.  It's one of the things that I believe called me to begin this process.  I have no idea how that will translate into ministry or what God has planned for me, but I'm starting to see the outlines.  I'm keeping myself open to whatever the Spirit is calling me to do.

To me, this is the beauty and wonder of God's grace.  Give God a little bit of yourself and stay open to God's grace.  God will take what little we give and multiply it far more than we could have imagined.  I'm looking forward to where this journey is leading.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Finding Your Niche

My first semester of deaconate classes is quickly coming to a close.  There are two more classes this semester, this Wednesday and next.  I'll probably put up a reflection on what I've learned after next week.  However, last week, as part of the evaluation of potential deacons, I met with a psychologist who will be preparing a profile on me for myself and the diocese to review.  It was kind of a neat thing to do.  One of the questionnaires I had to fill out was kind of hysterical.  There were some seriously paranoid questions on it, like "I hear voices telling me what to do" and "I believe people are out to get me".  I don't recall the specific ones but they were in that vein.  There were some more normal questions as well so it wasn't all craziness.

One of the interesting things we did was a Rorschach test.  You know, look at ink blots and tell what you see.  One was kind of neat and reminded me of the Queen logo.  Wonder what that says about me, hmm?  You'll be happy to know that I "passed" that test and didn't show any signs of insanity.  It appears I've quite good at covering that up.

What struck me most, though, was a casual conversation that came up.  We were speaking in general about family and I was asked about my kids.  You always worry about your kids but my oldest has been on my mind a little more lately because he's preparing himself to "fly solo" and start his own life.  As a parent, it's one of those things where you look forward to them doing so but also worry about whether they're really prepared to live in the "real" world.  My oldest, especially, concerns me probably because his outlook and the way he approaches things is so very different from mine.  Not in a good or bad way, but in a way that I just can't relate.  As an example, I've always been a self starter, getting up early and giving myself plenty of time to get ready in the morning.  I give myself extra time to get anywhere and want to be there early.  He, on the other hand, times things so that he gets up as late as possible and leaves the house with just enough time to get where he needs to go.  Usually.

In the course of this discussion, the psychologist pointed something out that I had not considered and actually resonated with me as well.  When I stated I was concerned about keeping a steady job when you have trouble getting places on time, he replied that everyone finds their niche.  He related to me the story of a client that was the best there was at a seemingly very dull job.  It involved talking to customers for a few minutes to gather information and then refer them to the right person/process to get what they want.  Each call was different and this person excelled at doing it and loved the work.  They did their job so well, this person was promoted to supervisor.  Because if you do your job that amazingly well, you should be able to run the entire team, right?  Wrong.  This person failed at being a supervisor and went back to doing their old job and being happy again.

The moral of the story was that this person had found their niche in their work life.  I realized I'd gone through the same thing recently.  In my last position, I moved into an area of IT and management that placed me in a level of high responsibility and visibility, but the work itself was very different than the customer support work I'd been doing.  And I hated it.  And I didn't think I was very good at it.  I struggled with the position (for many, many reasons) even while trying to get better at doing it.  It was quite a relief when I was laid off, to be honest.

Now that I'm back doing support work, I realize that from a career perspective, this is my niche.  Along those same lines, I'm beginning to feel that from a ministerial perspective, becoming a deacon may also be my niche.  There is a lot more to come, but I'm enjoying the experience so far in the same way I enjoy the work that I do.  I think that bodes well and indicates perhaps this is indeed what God is calling my to do.  I certainly pray that all of us find our niches, personally, professionally, and spiritually.  Because finding your niche can make you very happy indeed.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Are All Religions Created Equal?

Yesterday, I read a blog post that one of my Facebook friends had shared/responded to.  To be fair, the person responding was not in favor of the theme of the blog post.  It was one of those rants that makes you unsure if you want to be sad or angry.  Or both.  I was tempted to post a comment, but the majority of the comments were in favor of this position and were denigrating "liberals" and mocking those that dared disagree.  I doubted my comments would have made a difference as the commenters were so sure of their righteousness.  I was going to let it go, but it was still on my mind this morning so I thought I would put my thoughts here instead.  The post is entitled "It’s Time To Stop Pretending All Religions Are Equal".

The author was ranting about this weeks' attacks in Brussels.  He states multiculturalism and diversity are not potential sources of strength, but drivers of division.  His basic position is that Christianity is the best religion out there and Islam is bad and evil.  He uses a lot of words to try to say so, but he's peddling the tired mantra that Christianity is the only non-violent religion and Islam is a religion of violence.  And he gives lots of "examples" to prove his point, or rather, try to disprove the points of those that disagree with him.  Just a taste of a quote:  "In fact, aside from Islam, the only other truly violent religion in existence is liberalism."  And this little nugget:  "Obscure nut jobs like the Westboro Baptists are not Christian fundamentalists. They are apostates. They’ve fabricated their own fundamentals and sprinkled a little Jesus on top of the fake religion they made up."  Because, you know, that can't happen with Muslim factions either.

The thing that makes me most sad about this silly article is that the author completely misses the point of being a Christian and Christianity.  Are all religions created equal?  I don't know.  But this I do know.  Jesus first and foremost taught us to love.  Unconditionally.  Especially those that hate you.  As a matter of fact, go OUT OF YOUR WAY to love those that hate you.

Today is Holy Thursday.  A tradition in the Catholic Church is for the priest and deacon to wash the feet of others.  Just a little history as background for what Jesus did when He gave us this tradition.  At the Last Supper, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.  Washing of feet was the task of the lowliest of servants.  It would have been scandalous in the extreme for a great teacher and leader to debase himself to that level.  Yet, not only did Jesus do that, He said it was an example for all.  Because Jesus did not come to be served but to serve.  THAT to me is what Christianity and being a Catholic is all about.  Loving and serving others.

THAT is how you witness the faith.  THAT is how you attract others to the truth and message of Christianity.  Going on about how yours is the only true faith will not win you over with anyone other than those that already agree with you.  Also, I've said on many occasions that I believe all religions lead back to God.  We are all created in God's image and have a longing for the spiritual.  For a desire to know God.  We don't all do it in the same way.  I believe the Catholic way is the correct one.  But one thing the Church teaches is that God and His mercy are so big, so wide, so beyond our understanding, that even those that are not Christian can still go to heaven and be one with God.  It's the yearning and searching for God in whatever imperfect human way we manage that matters.

Do some distort God's message for their own agendas?  Of course they do.  Muslims do it.  Christians have done it for centuries and still do it.  I'm sure there are plenty of examples in other religions of doing terrible things for "the glory of god(s)".  Does that mean some religions are better than others?  Hell if I know.  But one thing I do know, people like the author of that blog post are part of the problem that make others hate members of a religious group, not part of the solution.

I pray for all of the families of those affected by the terrorist activities in Brussels and all over the world.  May they find peace and strength in the midst of tragedy.  May we all follow Jesus' example of love and service to make our world a better place.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

I Wanna Rock

So this may be a surprising admission.  I will begin by saying that I've been doing music ministry for quite some time and have been playing an instrument since the 4th grade.  That means I've been playing music for about 41 years now.  I've played in rock bands, folk groups, contemporary christian groups, and wrote and recorded music.  Music and playing guitar are part of who I am.  I believe it is a gift from God and it is my responsibility to give it back in whatever way I can.

And I may be getting tired of it.  Mind you, I'm not tired of playing the guitar.  I still love doing so.  I'm getting tired of all of the other stuff that goes with it, especially trying to run a group.  Of the three groups I work with right now, I'm de-facto in charge of two of them.  I play with the choir at our church.  That's an ideal situation since I show up on Sunday morning, warm up with the group for 45 minutes, play Mass, and go home.  No fuss, no muss.  Music is always easy and usually something I already know.

The other two groups are my christian band that plays Mass once a month and my cover band.  Getting everyone together to rehearse, coming up with set lists, dealing with even the little bit of drama that comes up is tiring.  And with my beginning deaconate formation, I'm not sure I want the hassle or have the time.  Short term, I'm sticking with everything.  Monthly masses with my Christian group ends in June.  I suspect I won't be doing it again in the fall.  I'm not sure what I'm going to do about the rock band.  However, I suspect I'm going to give that up by the end of the summer as well.

And, honestly, I'm not really broken up about that.  Being in a band can be a love/hate relationship for me.  On the one hand, it's fun and I get to play songs that I like.  On the other hand, I'm not really doing what I'd want as a musician.  Most of the music I really enjoy and listen to these days wouldn't work for a cover band.  And I definitely don't have the time for a band doing originals.  So I'm in this limbo as a musician.  It's a minor issue, to be sure, but we musician types are funny that way.  We like to be able to be creative as well as entertaining.

So what does the future hold?  No idea.  I still see music as one of my ministries.  I'm hoping I can somehow incorporate it into whatever my deaconate ministry will be.  But the ministry is not really mine, but God's.  I need to follow the path that He's set out for me.  And that may include what I would like to do, and it may not.  But I'm committed to doing the work God wants me to do.  So stay tuned.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

It's the End of the World As We Know It

The political primary season is well underway.  I don't intend to use this post to talk politics specifically.  However, in watching and listening to the candidates, I've come to the conclusion that it's time to give up on our politicians.  Let me elaborate slightly before getting to the real point of this post.  I've had inklings lately that our culture is in decline.  If you want to read something interesting along those lines, check out this article.  I see a lot of parallels between things going on in America right now and what was going on in Israel in the times of Jesus (minus the being occupied by a foreign power, of course).  Certainly I think there's a general lack of concern for the less fortunate in our society.  Individualism is getting to the point that what the individual wants takes precedence to the exclusion of other people.  Screw everyone else as long as I got mine.

Which gets me to the point of this post.  I've just finished reading the majority of The Joy of the Gospel by Pope Francis for my Orientation to Theology course.  I HIGHLY recommend reading this book/encyclical whether you're Catholic/Christian or not.  If you care about other people, you need to read this book.  Pope Francis talks about many things, but overall he really lays out the Catholic position on social justice with a focus on helping the poor.  In it, he really nails the problems and malaise with our society (American and global).  I'm sure you've heard about parts of it.  This is the document that states trickle down economics is a fallacy with no proof that it works.  It challenges the notion that growing the economy at all costs results in prosperity for everyone.

And it goes much further than that.  It discusses the rise of a materialistic society and cult of individualism and moral relativism.  He calls everyone to action to stop thinking only of ourselves and think about how we can help others.  He talks about how we are stewards of our resources and should use them to further peace, justice, and elevating the poor.  He talks about how we should not be producing goods purely for profit but for the benefit of humanity.  He's not saying accumulation of wealth is bad, only the unbridled quest for wealth at the cost of others.

There was so much in there that I'm going to need to go back and read it several more times to really absorb it all.  It just blew my mind on the first read.  All the while I was thinking our politicians need to read this and really absorb it.  What a different world we would live in.  Pope Francis even said that being a politician is one of the noblest pursuits, assuming, of course, that you're in politics to improve the lives of your fellow citizens.

I'll need to keep coming back to this book as I go through diaconate formation to see how this might affect my ministry.  Social justice issues have always been of interest to me.  Call it my innate sense of fairness, but I've always had empathy for those less fortunate than me.  The Joy of the Gospel is a call to action to do something to help those less fortunate and build a better society.  Even if  you're not Catholic, you can learn something from him.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

It's Sunday I'm in Love

Today being Valentine's Day, I thought I would reflect a little on my relationship with my wife.  Although many of you probably know the story, I'll recap.  Ellen and I met our freshman year in high school.  We were in the same homeroom since both our last names began with the letter F.  She sat in the row to the right of me a few seats up.  I won't claim it was love at first sight, since it wasn't.  Honestly, we were just two kids in the same homeroom.  I got to know her through a mutual friend.  In band, I played baritone sax and sat next to a clarinetist with whom I became friends (shout out to my buddy Roz!).  I began hanging out with her friends and Ellen was a part of that group.

However, I never honestly considered dating her until junior year.  Apparently, she thought I was kind of cute (a fact of which I was COMPLETELY oblivious at the time).  We dated through the rest of high school for the most part and went to our junior prom and senior ball together.  However, by the end of high school we decided to break it off as we were going to different colleges (although both of us were local).  That lasted through the summer and until about the middle of September.

We still talked to each other throughout that time and in September I needed a date to the Marine Corp birthday party as I was part of the ROTC unit at the time.  Since I didn't have a lady friend, I invited Ellen.  We realized that night that we still liked each other and that we should get back together.  And the rest, so to speak is history.  About a year or so later, I realized I really wasn't interested in other women and that I was truly madly in love with this woman.  I eventually proposed to her and we were married in 1989.  And I've been a happily married man ever since.  I'm still madly in love with my wife and can't imagine life with another woman.

So, what is the point in my story?  People have asked my our "secret" to staying married over 25 years.  Before I answer, I'll move to the real reason for this post.  And that's a reflection on marriage.  I've come to believe over the years that one of the causes of the issues facing our society are due to the breakdown in marriage.  I'm not going to get into the debate on what "marriage" is in the legal sense.  What I'm talking about is the divorce rate in this country.  It's over 50%.  Marriage has become disposable, like a car or a home.  You really liked your car when you bought it, but now it just doesn't satisfy you.  So it's time to trade it in for a new one.

Except marriage isn't supposed to work that way.  We've lost our sense of marriage as sacramental.  That marriage is a union that should not be lightly entered into or lightly broken.  We've lost that understanding that marriage is a hard thing that requires work on the part of both people in the relationship.  Marriage isn't that romantic, happy ever after, found my soul mate and life is perfect kind of thing that is sold to us by our culture.  So what is marriage?  I really believe marriage is the union of two people into something greater than they are.  Marriage is a sacrament where two people become one.  I also believe that a marriage is really between three people: the couple and God.

Scripture is very clear that when people marry, they are no longer two but one.  And like all areas of our lives, we need God to bless it and help us to be successful.  And if you ask me the secret to how my wife and I have made it this far, I would tell you it's because we realize that we need God in our marriage to help us work through all of the issues that come up in life and in a relationship.  Part of it too is that we're committed to making this marriage work.  We went into it with the idea that we're in it for the long haul.  And we rely on the grace of God to help us get there.

Sure, there are lots of practical reasons we're still together.  I won't speak for my wife, but one of the reasons I think we've gone this long is because, at the end of the day, I'm still madly crazy about her.  We've fought, been angry with each other, didn't talk, and you name it.  But then I look at her and can't stay mad for very long.  Even after over 30 years together, I find her to be the most beautiful woman I know.  I wake up in the morning and marvel that God has blessed me to have this amazing woman in my life.  I thank God for her every day.

I think another reason we've been together so long is that we're genuine with each other.  By that, I mean that we're honest with each other and don't pretend to be what we're not.  Be both respect each other for what we have in common and what we don't.  And we support each other, even if it's something we may not be completely interested in.  And we can disagree with each other without thinking the other is wrong or being unsupportive.

At the end of the day, I think what has kept us together is that we both try and take care of the other. Paul was very clear in his epistles that spouses should put the interests of the other above their own.  That they should be subordinate to each other.  I think when we put the welfare of our spouse first, it allows us to love each other more deeply and makes it easy to stay together for so long.  It's not an easy thing and certainly a process, but it's one we've gone through together.

So Happy Valentine's Day to my wonderful wife.  I think she knows how much I love her, since I tell her often.  And I think she knows I mean it.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

We're Not Worthy

This weekend's Mass readings included one of my favorites.  It's the story of the call of Peter.  Jesus is teaching by the sea in a boat.  Afterwards, He tells Peter to go out and lower his nets for a catch.  Peter tells Jesus that they were out all night and didn't catch anything.  But, because Jesus insisted, Peter goes out and lowers the nets.  He catches so many fish it takes 2 boats to bring in the catch and the two boats almost sink.  Peter reaches the shore and tells Jesus to leave him because he is a sinful man.  Peter recognized he wasn't worthy to be in the presence of Jesus.  And what does Jesus do?  He tells Peter that He wants Peter to follow Him.  And, to top it all off, Jesus makes this scared, unworthy man the head of His church.

I love the story of Peter and his association with Jesus before the Crucifixion.  Peter tries so hard to do things right.  And he keeps screwing it up.  He eventually denies even knowing Jesus.  And yet, Jesus picks this seemingly most unworthy person to be a leader.

Peter's story resonates with me because there are many times that I feel unworthy of the blessings and graces the Lord gives me.  Who am I that God would do so much for me when I don't always do enough for Him?  And yet, that's the love that God has for us.  That even though we always fall short, we're forgiven.  God picks us up, dusts us off, pats us on the head and seeming says "Keep working at it and try to get better."  Peter is my model for that.  The way I look at it, if Jesus trusts a man like Peter to take care of His flock, then there's hope for us all.

Before the most recent change to the English version of the Mass, just before communion we used to say (and I actually still say) "Lord, I'm not worthy to receive you.  But only say the word and I shall be healed".  I firmly believe this is an essence of the Catholic faith.  Even though we're not worthy, God sent His Son who died on a cross for us to forgive our sins.  Jesus could have walked away from that destiny.  But He chose to do it despite the cost.  Think about the depth of love that must be.  Who among us would die a horrible death for people we don't know that probably don't like us anyway.  And yet He did.

Lord, I'm not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.  And, for the most part, I feel healed.  Thank you Lord.