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Friday, August 26, 2011

Epiphany courtesy of Charlie

It was not quite two months ago that my son, Charlie, was born.

After his birth, he had trouble breathing. I quietly left my wife's side for just a moment so that I could put my hand on his little struggling body. The nurses hurried around me trying to make sure that he was fine. After that,he was whisked away and connected to tubes and machines and given medicines.

About four hours later, I rode in the ambulance with him to the Cleveland Clinic while my wife stayed at the hospital to recover. Waves of tears washed over me as I sat with the little boy connected to so many tubes. In between the waves, I traced the path of the ambulance across the interstate and down Chester avenue until we arrived at a back alley entrance late in the dark of night. The experience of a sick child is one that some of you can understand.

My wife arrived the next day after an early release from maternity recovery. I hugged her and held her tight while the tears flowed again. Thankfulness for her mixed with fear for our little new born son and permeated ever corner of my being. They filled my mind and expanded my heart. They coursed through my veins and pounded in my ears. Batteries of tests, feeding tubes, and ventilators were added to the usual changing of diapers that new parents experience. It is only through the haze of sleepless nights that I can recall those first days.

That event changed my experience of mass. You see, I used to stand on the other side of the altar. I used to pray for all the parents and watch all of the babies while I led all of us in the celebration of the Eucharist. I had seen priests upset with mothers of screaming children, and seen priests preside carelessly over funerals. I never could do either one. I was always glad the children were there. I hope every mother could feel the joy that their presence brought me. At each funeral my heart would break, and at some I wept with the families.

My experiences of the Eucharist as a priest were vivid and meaningful with slight leanings toward the mystical. From the altar, I saw gleam of love shining from parents and the fiery darts of attraction between spouses and offered those gifts with the gift of Christ to be united in the embrace of Salvation and Divinity. At times, I smelled sin and evil in the congregation and in my own heart. Parishioners and priests plotted, stole, abused, sought revenge, and broke vows. Still the whirling angels connected us to the depths of the universe in the moment where we passed beyond past, present, and future at the summit of the Paschal experience. I encountered vivid holiness and goodness and felt my heart race and my soul rise in their presence. The power of life and death embodied in the Eucharist confronted me and memories of ancient rites and biblical fervor washed over me.

The climactic words of Christ shook me every time I spoke them, “He took bread and gave you thanks. He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples and said, “Take this all of you and eat it.: this is my body which will be given up for you.” When supper was ended , he took the cup. Again he gave you thanks and praise. Gave his cup to his disciples and said: Take this all of you , and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of a new and everlasting covenant.” These were the words that made sense of Christianity and priesthood for me. These were the words that brought life to vocation. These were the words that fleshed out the meaning of love, relationship, and sacrifice. They are the touchstone of my Christianity. For me, the Eucharist was never a boring place. mystery and surprise always hovered in the next moment like like the hesitant breath of a newborn.

Now, those experiences are joined by another world of experience. A world that many of you know well. It is a world that begins with falling in love and starting a family. It is a world mixed with desire, joy, fear, and anxiety. It is a world punctuated with hours of work and caregiving as well as Kodak and all-star moments. In this world I don't mind vomit, and I am happy to see a bowel movement because the next moment you smile and your eyes light up the world and my heart.

Last week, I said to my wife, “I love him so much, I feel like my heart will burst.” Looking at his tiny body huddled in my arms. His little limbs contain a hidden strength despite the feeling that I need to protect and care for him. He is not as fragile as he seems. My soul melts when I wake to watch my wife go, bleary eyed, to feed him. My dissolved soul spreads through my body as she hands him to me. I lull him to sleep among a thousand whispered prayers and fluttering angels.

So last week, kneeling in the pews of St. Mark's I heard the climactic words anew. Fr. John stood, larger than life echoing the words of Christ. “He broke the bread...take this, all of you, and eat it...this is my body....
After nearly two days without sleep in the NICU my body was broken. After a week, of going to work when my every thought was wondering if you were breathing my mind was broken. I realize all the parts of my life broken as they are help provide you with love, shelter, and nourishment. Charlie, take all the broken humanity that I am and let the love that holds it together nourish you.

“Take and drink ...this is the cup of my blood... a new and everlasting covenant.”
Once, on coming to a new parish I summed up my feelings this way, “Before, I even met you I loved you.” It was a mystical experience of universal love that many have shared with the Christian community. Now this mystical experience came to focus on one tiny heart and two eyes that barely opened or saw. It was a new covenant of Love. It was a new shared life, and it was certainly to be everlasting. Charlie, my blood is the blood of a new and everlasting covenant with you.
God Bless you Charlie.  

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Easter Revisited

From the passion in the Gospel of Matthew. “Crucify him! Crucify him!” The guilt of saying this phrase washes over me. On it’s heels comes an even more shocking phrase, “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children.” I am sitting in the pews at St. Mark’s and a standing room only crowd of more than five hundred people shockingly responds in unison. I have several reactions. My first reaction is, “It’s not fair! Why can’t we read the Jesus sections or even the sections of one of the other characters. After all we are the body of Christ!”

The priest gets to be the voice of Jesus and act in his role every day. Why not share the wealth with the baptized. Imagine us in the place of Jesus. Feel the sting of betrayal. The pain of torture. The empathy for the crowd and the crucifiers. Imagine the abiding benevolence that surges to the fore to allow me to go through with the death that will change the world. That is one reaction.

A second reaction follows. It is a reaction punctuated and overlaid with the Judeo-Christian biblical experience and memory. It is a reality layered with story and symbol that carries the ritual power to transform. In this reality words are not only sound vibrations they are a part of the the divine creative act. After all, in Hebrew speaking and making are the same word.

The base layer of the portrait is formed by the story of the Passover. In the story of the Passover, God is unfolding his process for freeing the Hebrew people from their slavery in Egypt. A string of miracles bringing calamity to the Egyptians has only hardened their hearts. In the final stroke, the Angel of Death is sent to kill every firstborn of man and beast in the land of Egypt. In a moment of high drama and revelation of the luminous power of death and life the Hebrews are given a ritual to save themselves and strengthen their bond with God. The sacrifice and unblemished lamb and mark their homes with the lamb’s blood. They are saved and quickly take their first steps toward freedom. The blood marks the chosen people.

The second layer occurs on Mt. Sinai (exodus 24). God and Moses perform a ritual to finalize the chosen people's covenant with God. Moses speaks with God and returns to share what the Lord had said with the people. In response to Moses the people say, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.” Moses writes down all the Lord said, and the next day he offers sacrifices which culminate with the following:
 8 Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
This covenant is renewed at least three more times.
The first with Joshua (Joshua 8), the second with King Josia and the high priest Hilkia(2 Kings 23), and the third with Ezra (Nehemia 8 &9).

It happened again. One more time. Outside the Praetorium an unwitting crowd says the words that echoe the actions of their ancestors. They will be saved even in their sin, stubbornness, and love of violence by the blood of the one they have condemned. We speak these words for ourselves in Holy Week. “Crucify him! Let his blood be on us and our Children.”
Are we any different? Any less sinful? True knowledge of our own sinfulness is a difficult ingredient to add and maintain in our spiritual perspective but it is vital. We must open our eyes to our sinfulness if we are to truly be Christian. It is not just that once upon a time we stole a cookie or that in a terrible breach of covenant we had an affair.
WE ARE SINNERS TODAY, YESTERDAY, TOMORROW AND FOREVER. We fall short of the love and justice that Jesus calls us to and gives us the grace to achieve. That is why we need his blood on a continual basis. His blood must be on us. His blood is on us. Through that blood we take our place with God’s people. Through that blood we are saved from the Angel of Death just as the enslaved Hebrews were. Through this blood we are saved from the Final Death of Sin.

And it continues, in each Eucharist. We accept His blood again. Our lives and our souls are marked with it. Our place in God’s holy people is renewed and our life in God is strengthened.

“Crucify him! Let his blood be on us and our Children.” It isn’t a threat; it is our hope for the Resurrection.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

An Easter Meditation

Mathew, Mark, Luke and John slipped one past us. Every year as Easter draws near, I dread one storyline in the Gospels. I sit there every year as fathers and preachers stick it to the uppity future pope for his failure. You know the one I am talking about: Peter or St. Peter denied Jesus three times.

First for a piece of long term context. Peter was one of the first disciples to respond to Jesus call to follow him. Peter makes the first proclamation that Jesus is Lord. Peter is the only one to actually get out of a boat in the middle of a lake to follow Jesus. We all know these stories about Peter, but the stories that gets the most press proves to be the Achilles heel of his fame as a disciple.

When the chips are down, Peter folds. He sells out. In Jerusalem, the tensions are rising. The disciples know that the authorities are seeking to destroy Jesus. Yet, Peter stays close while Jesus prays in the garden. Peter takes up the fight alone to prevent Jesus’ capture even to drawing blood of one of the Jewish police. I imagine it as a good old country boy facing off against Dog the Bounty hunter and his family. The odds are bad, but they always fight don’t they?

What happens after this that leads to such a stunning denial? Let’s continue the story. Jesus is led away in captivity by the armed group. Peter continues to follow Jesus. He follows as he is lead in to face the Jewish authorities. With the conspiratorial assistance of the beloved disciple he even gets inside the compound where Jesus is being held. The courtyard must have been filled with still more guards. The gate is closed. Peter is only there for one reason; he knows Jesus is inside.

Peter has appeared with Jesus in the city and around the country continuously for the last three years. Is it any surprise he is recognized? Of course not. Peter knew he would be recognized.

Or have we missed the greatest revelation of the character and meaning of Peter’s discipleship. He chose to go in anyway. He chose to lie and destroy his image before all the generations of followers that would hear the story. For the sake of following Jesus, at the closest distance in even the most dangerous circumstance Peter sacrifices his honor. He lets his only valuable possession slip from his fingers. One thing surpasses the value of everything for Peter: remaining close to Jesus.

Should we see this man sneaking into the enemy’s compoundas a betrayer and coward? Is this compound of the men who will in short order happily execute his greatest friend and leader a place for cowards?
I do not believe it is.

Maybe the tears he sheds outside the compound are a reflection of the two great losses he has suffered. The loss of his closeness to Jesus and Jesus loss of his support. Peter faces the fact that Jesus endures his crucifixion alone and this aloneness leaves a dreadful hole in Peter’s heart too. He must have known his denials and curses would be seen as denials of the Messiah. Maybe the tears were tears of doubt that his presence and steadfast courage would be enough to allow others to understand that denial was his only path to continue his discipleship and stay close to Jesus.

After the Resurrection we know that Peter and Jesus met. One intimate conversation is recorded where Jesus questions Peter. It is often portrayed as Jesus confronting Peter about his denial (and giving him a chance to make it up by being loyal), but does that seem likely? Jesus had not hesitated to point out the faults of those who he encountered before. Even the disciples have felt the sting of Jesus accusation, but there is no accusation here. Should we read in a rebuke when there is no evidence that Jesus meant it as such? What we see here is the same as what we saw in each of the previous scenes. Peter standing by Jesus’ side.

Perhaps, it is merely the final scene to show us and the other disciples that Jesus harbors none of the doubts that we have regarding Peter. Peter finishes the story in his old familiar place: by Jesus side.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

I am “That Guy” or How I almost broke my arm patting myself on the back and what I learned

               The Thursday before Valentine’s Day, I surprised my wife with a trip downtown to see South Pacific. Friday, we attended a dance performance by the “Verb” at the Breen Performing Arts Center.  On Valentine’s Day, I went with my wife to “Baby Yoga”. Did you know that Baby Yoga existed? Well, it does!
                Now, it was the Wednesday after Valentine’s Day. My coworker, Darrell, yelled across the hall asking what I had done for Valentine’s Day.  I reeled off my list with some satisfaction, “Took her to South Pacific, saw a dance performance on Friday, watched basketball at the Winking Lizard on Sunday, and went to “Baby Yoga” on Monday.” 
                Darrell got up from his desk and silently came over to my office door. “Are you one of those artsy fartsy guys?” he asked.
                A brief wave of panic washed over me and I stammered out a response. “Well, my wife likes that stuff, and I got to go to the bar to watch basketball.”
                His steady gaze remained on me, “Baby Yoga, huh?” His eyes narrowed. I could nearly read his mind, “Your That Guy.”
                I was dead in the water.  I had been nailed. I realized I was “That Guy.” You know, the guy who goes to the play.  The one who brings his wife the cosmo when they are at the bar.  The one who leaves early from the poker game with the guys.    These are the things “That Guy” does.  That guy makes other guys look bad.
                Seen from the other side of the gender divide “That Guy” looks different.  He helps with laundry and chores at home. He asks her how she is doing and listens when she describes how she feels.  He makes women swoon. “That Guy” is the good guy and he still makes other guys look bad.
                I tried to maintain my cool as Darrell went back to his office, but I thought about it all day.  There comes a time when even “That Guy” has to be honest, right? 
                I got the tickets to “South Pacific” because I wanted to see it.  NPR had done a segment on it earlier in the week.  It sounded cool.  And the dance performance provided one of the most athletically rigorous and thought provoking evenings of recent memory.  The variety of music and motion created a stunning effect. A three dimensional canvas stretched through a performance of more than an hour that left mind and body tingling. I liked it.  I really really liked it. Don’t get me started on “Baby Yoga”. Meditation.  Movement.   Focusing mind and body and doing it with my wife.  The session inspired me and pushed my physical limits.  It recalled me to the basics of life…breathe and love.
                Then there was my moment : the macho moment. We watched the game. I drank beer and she had an odouls. We both farted…more than once. I followed her beautiful blue eyes while she followed the abundance of large screen tvs.  “Did you see the guy spin all the way around in the air? Who was that guy?” I smiled most of the time at the bar. It had nothing to do with watching the game or having a beer.
                Sitting at my desk, I smiled and realized that, really, it’s fantastic being “That Guy” when your wife is “That Girl.”

Friday, February 4, 2011


     As a priest, I was called Father all day, but never thought about being a daddy. Now, I think about being a daddy all the time and I couldn't be happier.
     We saw our first ultrasound just a few weeks ago. Sara's tummy barely showed any signs of being pregnant. The technician cleared a little space on my wife's abdomen. She spread on some gel and moved the ultrasound device slowly around just below the belly button. First, we saw a hand. Neatly formed finger bones appeared, clearly visible for a moment. Then in rapid succession: the top of a head, a torso, the bottom of a foot, and the length of a leg. The screen went dark for a moment as the technician tried to find another good position for the instrument. Both feet came into view. The little child appeared seated in profile. The feet whirred rapidly as if the baby rode an impossibly small invisible bike. Suddenly, as if impelled by the energy of those little legs, we witnessed a complete back flip. Talk about miniature athletic talent!
     Now, I am drawn to babies constantly. They whole city is crawling with them and I can't stop watching them. At any given moment there must be 10 at Giant Eagle. I don't notice the parents as much, but I see the babies. In Church there are usually dozens with at least one guaranteed near by. I make faces at them and they try to mimic. I stick out my tongue and they wriggle theirs. I smile and they beam. I intermittently try to pay attention to mass and reach out to hold Sara close as we pray together.
     It isn't hard to imagine holding my newborn. I visit my first and only God-daughter, Carmen, and my God-baby-mama indulgently lets me hold her while she chats with my wife. I practice cradling her head. She wriggles and turns her.
“She's really squirmy today.”
“Which way is she turning her head?”
“Away from me.”
“Good, that means she's not hungry yet. If she was hungry she would turn toward you.”
I'm glad she isn't hungry yet. That means I can keep her a little longer. Her smallness amazes me. She has tiny old man's hands. Her skin is incredibly soft and she has a great abundance of hair. Her eyes are blue.
Still moments of fear crop up. Have you ever watched the Supernanny? Apparently anything can happen when children are involved. And don't even get me started on all the possible complications or the things a pregnant mom is “supposed to do.”
     We just try to shower our love down on “little C”. A little blessing for the baby at prayer times. Eat right and act with common sense. Sara and I love each other more every day making the most of these months. I guess there isn't anything else to do. Just trust, have faith, and enjoy each moment.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Lock Down: Do you believe...

“They think you are crazy because you want to have sex with a woman. You know the priesthood is the only place in the world where that could occur,” snorted my therapist with partially closed eyes.
I sat speechless watching the snow begin to fall. My shell of self blame loosened slightly, but it worried me that his idea felt like a nice easy way to explain being sent to dual diagnosis inpatient facility.
I smiled remembering a meeting at the seminary where the staff officially decided that women would not be allowed on the residential floors.
As a community we discussed the question about mothers and sisters coming to see what our rooms looked like. Fairly universally everyone wanted their family to be able to see “where they lived” and it was decided that some allowance for this would be made for them. I ticked off in my mind the straight class mates who had left over the years. Most of the men remaining would be completely safe from the sinister temptation of a woman in their room.
“Don't you think we are being naive to assume that women visiting the floors where we live would be the problem,” I asked. Stony stares and silence were my only response.
Telling lies starts small so that it gets easier.
My classmates took me with them to the local gay bar a couple of times. Only my closest friends admitted to me that they were gay. The others just went because it was a “fun place” and “a little quieter than the other bars.” In workshops, they discussed how they would “take a cold shower” after seeing an attractive girl.
Other lies are easier to say if they would be true spoken by someone else.
“You know they have done studies tracking the psychological health of african-american students who attended white schools. They found significant psychological stresses for those students that had long lasting effects. You were that minority student for nearly a third of your adult life. Protective rules, belief in God, and your vocation didn't stand a chance protecting your spirit and psyche.”
The broken pieces of my mind still moved slowly despite the months of therapy and medicine. I pushed back against his suggestion. The seminary had been a hospital for many wounds of my soul. For years, each month brought happiness greater than the one before. A retreat at the Trappist monastery lit your heart on fire. A class about the Gospel of John blew out the boundaries of your mind with Greek literary pyrotechnics. Thousands of recitations of the psalm and thousands of masses allowed God's small still voice to penetrate.
My godfather had pointedly asked, “Were you ever abused? Are you doing this because you promised God you'd become a priest if he let your mother live?”
Damn they were good questions, but he asked too early. He asked before I knew all the forms abuse could take and before I knew the strength of unconscious promises that you make when God touches your soul. Real contact with God. The kind that allows psychiatrists to diagnose you as mentally ill and makes priests jealous. In prayer God's fingers touched me and it wasn't faith anymore. My fingers trembled and speaking became difficult. My voice cracked. Now I know voice cracking is one of the danger signs for psychosis in adults.
Under God's touch, colors sharpened and time slowed. I didn't do it or earn it. God came to me. I saw things outside and under the world. It took hours for the smell of paradise to fade and for the world to resume its normal colors.
We used to joke that those that left were “dead to us.” I didn't want to be “dead to them” and I certainly didn't want to break my vows or go to hell. How could anyone choose ostracization or hell?
A realization crept over me that those were not my choices. Mine was simpler. It was this: “Do you believe God wants you to survive?”

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Welcome to Melchior's Vision

I huddled close to the ground with my eyes just rising over the roof.  Moss and bark completed the faux cave.  The roof hid the figurines huddled close around the manger. The motley troop of shepherds stood expectantly on the hill formed by my yellow comforter. The frayed fabric ends stood grass-like around the flock.
                Far in the distance, another group of figures huddled. They paused beyond the television and beyond the stand alone record player.  Between the towering wall of the recliner and the magazine rack they canyon sheltered them.  Kings and their retinues paused in their quest to follow the star which dangled from the plastic evergreen.
                Tomorrow, they would move closer, perhaps, past the record player.  The journey had been so long. Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar traveled slowly with their gifts.  Melchior’s white beard hung ragged and limp. He set his jaw leaving the mouth partially open.  He moved slowly.
                That night at bedtime, I laid down the kings.  Each one sheltered in the lee of his camel.  Plastic hands clutched gifts protectively. They needed rest. Only a few more days separated them from the location appointed by the appearance of the new light.
  The smell of animals surrounded them.  Threatening savagery lay beyond the small circle lit by their fire. His body ached from another day traveling on his camel, Ania.  Melchior’s eyes closed. His breathing deepened and soon dreams enveloped his mind.  His aged foot moved with preternatural speed re-crossing the distance of his quest. The months fled the dreamer in a second and his eyes grew dimmer and dimmer but his expectation grew clearer.
I slept and tried to find Melchior in the land between the recliner and magazine rack. Dark threats hovered just beyond clarity. The subtle smell of camel guided me forward toward the towering walls.

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