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Because He Lives

I have some tapes from Masses at St. Cecilia’s, my old church. Tonight I felt like hearing a random sermon from Father Dan. I guess you can’t say picking out an Easter Mass qualifies as random, exactly, but let’s say the choice was relatively unpremeditated.

Wow.

photo by Ted Henry

photo by Ted Henry

The words not only reverberate all around Father Dan and our loss of him, but also the recent news events in Charlottesville and its ramifications. You may not agree with Father Dan’s take, but there’s no doubt what he says here would also be his take today. Let me know how it strikes you.

There was also, by the way, a good deal of laughter during the sermon. As when, for example, he assures the kids he’s about to baptize that he’s not going to hold them under water.

Explanatory notes. As an Easter Mass (2008, to be exact), baptisms were the order of the day, and so Father Dan at times seems to be addressing the four children about to be baptized. The readings for the day were Acts 10:34-43, Colossians 3:1-4, and John 20:1-8.

 

I was thinking about how much we talk about rising from the dead. I think sometimes it’s important to stop and say, “What is ‘dead’?”  Is “dead” only when the breath of our body has stopped, and the heart stops beating, and the brain stops functioning? Or is “dead” when change is not going on anymore, when we’re stuck, when we have no more forward motion?

And I was thinking that the kind of death that Jesus endured gave meaning to all of his life. If his life had been nothing but coming down and healing people and walking on water and multiplying loaves and fishes and then ascending into heaven, it would have been a story that meant nothing to us. We couldn’t relate to it. It doesn’t connect, because our lives are a struggle. Our lives have difficulties. Our world has all kinds of ugly in it. There’s all kinds of violence. There’s all kinds of hatred. There’s all kinds of difficulties, even with things that are natural, whether it be floods or storms or snow or ice or whatever it is. There are so many difficult things. It’s like an obstacle course.

When Jesus comes, he comes not to say, “I’m going to pull you out of that obstacle course.” But rather, he says, “I am going to show you the way through it, so that every struggle, every suffering, every difficulty that you go through is going to have a meaning now, because it’s all leading to this eternal life.” And because he lives, we see him coming to a way of life. He came though all the difficulties, including death and then his resurrection.

I think this is such an interesting resurrection story, as you think about him in the tomb. The cloth that was on his head, he folded it up separately. And I thought, when I rise from the dead, I’m not going to fold up the cloth. But I think I would also be thinking, “What am I going to wear?” All those things—those are the things that keep us dead. We worry about all this stuff that’s earthly. Our minds are held captive to the struggles of life. Our minds are not allowed to fly free.

The second reading today has such a challenge for all of us. It says, “Seek what is above,” where Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father. Think of what is above, not what is here on earth.  Die to yourself, and let your life that is hidden with God come to light.

Our life is going to have struggles. We have to face our children and tell them. That’s what baptism means. Baptism means we go down into the waters of death. In a sense, think about someone holding you under water. The longer they hold you under water, pretty soon you forget about everything else. You don’t care whether you made your bed this morning. You don’t care whether your clothes are clean. You don’t care whether you did your homework. All you want is AIR! Give me air! That’s what you want.

We’re not going to do that! We’re going to pour water over the top of your head. That water symbolizes that going down and forgetting about everything, dying to the self that would keep us focusing on the things below, the things that would get us lost in our meanness, lost in our violence, lost in our greed, lost in all that is negative. Baptism challenges us to breathe in that spirit that focuses our minds on what is above, so that we may have a positive hope that our God loves us, that our Savior has risen to show that this struggle that we’re going though is only temporary, and that we will be freed to experience the new life.

And I think coming to that understanding means that our life is not going to be a joy binge and God’s not going to solve all of our problems along the way. That’s not why we come to church. We don’t come to church so that God will fix everything today, take away all of our diseases, take away all of our struggles, make us never die. It’s not going to happen. We come to church to find the guidance of one who knew what life was about, lived that life fully, lived that life in the face of all that would attack him, and then in the midst of it, changed the lives of all who would follow him.

And then, his followers! Even more powerful to me sometimes than Jesus rising from the dead is that people believed he rose from the dead so much that they gave up everything to follow him. They gave up all their wealth. They gave up their homes. Their whole lives became focused on building a world of love. They put aside all of their weapons. They no longer could choose violence in their life. Their response to violence from now on was love. Their response to meanness was forgiveness. Their response to everything was, “I will love until I die, like my Savior loved until he died. I will keep on loving, and you can’t make me stop.”

When I was a kid, I had lots of older brothers and sisters, and they’d tease me by saying things like this: “Don’t you laugh. Don’t you smile. Don’t you let me see those teeth.” Of course, I would always laugh and smile. At last I swore I would come to the point where I would never have to do that.  They couldn’t make me do those things, and they can’t. They would tickle me, and I came to the point where I no longer am ticklish.

You have to play a game with it! You go out in the world, and you say, “Nobody can make me stop loving! Nobody can make me act ugly. No matter how ugly they act, I’m not going to act ugly. Nobody can make me mean or nasty, because no matter what they do, I can do better, because I have a Savior who lives in me who shows me another way, a better way.  And even if no one goes with me, still, I will follow Him.” It is that Savior whom we choose.

It’s not always going to feel good. But we have these Easter moments. Some of them just happen to us. So it’s exciting to have four children to baptize this morning. That is lovely. Last night it was so exciting to have eight adults to baptize and a couple to bring into the church. That is lovely. That is an Easter moment. There are moments when suddenly we find out we have a healing or somebody we love has a healing. Easter moments call us above life.

The good news is that we’re called to keep sharing those good moments, not to get lost in the negative. We have a world that is so bent on the negative! A world that focuses on what’s wrong with people, what’s wrong with our country, what’s wrong with the politicians, what’s wrong with the Church, and all of it’s true. All of those things are wrong, but it doesn’t mean that we have to dwell there. We have died to that. We’re challenged to rise above, so we can bring the people and the country and the Church above, so we can bring them to a life that is filled with Easter moments–Easter moments that don’t depend on whether I suffer or not, Easter moments that know for certain that because he lives, I can face tomorrow. Because he lives, all fear is gone. Because he lives, life is worth the living all the time.

 

You may recognize these last lines as coming from the old hymn “Because He Lives,” which the choir immediately broke into at the sermon’s close. You can find all the lyrics here;  the last verse goes like this:

And then one day
I’ll cross the river
I’ll fight life’s final war with pain
And then as death
Gives way to victory
I’ll see the lights
Of glory and
I’ll know He lives

This Bears Repeating

Donald Trump’s election – and Hillary Clinton’s defeat – was about gender, race and decades of sexist, anti-Hillary hate: Kathy Ewing (Opinion)

Clinton gets assist from LeBron, J.R.  CLINTON  Democrat returns to Cleveland in push for votes in final stretch  from A1
Hillary speaks at the Hillary Clinton and LeBron James get out the vote rally at Cleveland Public Hall Sunday, November 6, 2016, in Cleveland. (David Petkiewicz/cleveland.com)
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Kathy Ewing is an author and teaches Latin at Cleveland State University (Kathy Ewing)

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS — Throughout the election season, I’ve enjoyed watching Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, who appeared throughout PBS-TV coverage of the presidential debates and at least once a week on the PBS Newshour to provide background on the campaign. She’s articulate, frank, and good-humored. As so often happens, though, I never wrote her a fan letter. Instead, I’m moved to write because of a particular, profound disagreement with her and other pundits.

As the presidential election results between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton came in, Walter asserted, with the unassailable confidence of a person with numbers at her finger tips, that this election was about “populism” and not about racism and sexism.

The exit polls, she said, were showing that Clinton “underperformed” Barack Obama with minorities and with women, who, though they supported Clinton in large numbers, did not “come out for her” as expected.

Some African-Americans and Latinos even voted for Trump.

Therefore, according to Walter (and David Brooks as well), the race was about economic and social issues, not race or gender.

Numbers really can lie.

Consider these facts: At Trump rallies people shouted, “Trump That Bitch.” They screamed the “n” word and “Sieg Heil!” They yelled “Kill her!” They actually yelled, “Kill her!” and no one interrupted them or left the rally in protest.

They all stayed and listened as Trump disparaged Clinton’s looks and her “stamina,” as he insulted other women and egged the crowd on.

But these recent phenomena are only part of the story. For three decades, people have criticized Hillary Clinton, sometimes with good reason, but often for ridiculous and sexist ones: She wears a headband. She wears glasses. She’s old and wrinkled. She looks like she’s had a face lift. She dyes her hair. She’s shrill. She yells too much. She’s a lesbian and a shrew. She’s pushy. She’s elitist. She’s weak and also brazenly ambitious. She dresses funny. She killed Vince Foster.

Much of the current dislike of Clinton is founded on longstanding sexist arguments and attitudes.

Donald Trump said Wednesday he was shocked to see Hillary Clinton’s latest hairdo, calling it “massive.”

To assert now that none of this relentless vitriol has had any effect on the electorate is foolish.

People voted for a man who literally made his political career by asserting the Big Lie that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. He courted racists by undermining the legitimacy of America’s first African-American president. The Klan has praised Donald Trump, and David Duke is rejoicing today.

As a voter, I would always, automatically, reject a candidate supported by the KKK.

I would never vote for a person who has groped women, called them “bitches” or worse, and made fun of their looks, or for a candidate who has disparaged Mexicans, Arab-Americans, African-Americans, and other groups.

I would not vote for a candidate who advocated the execution of young black men accused of rape in New York City and recently again insisted on their guilt long after they were exonerated. I would always deliberately distance myself from such a candidate.

That so many other Americans made a different choice means that they feel different about gender and race issues than I do. They either embrace racist and sexist language and ideas, or they’re subliminally accepting of them. Calling names and hurling accusations are not helpful, but neither is avoiding painful truths. Racism and sexism underlie Donald Trump’s life and candidacy, and Americans elected him president.

Kathy Ewing, author of “Missing: Coming to Terms with a Borderline Mother,” teaches Latin at Cleveland State University.

*******

http://www.cleveland.com/opinion/index.ssf/2016/11/donald_trumps_election_-_and_h.html

Father Dan’s Funeral Sermon

Father Paul

Father Paul

When I mention that Father Dan wrote the sermon for his own funeral Mass, people are sometimes taken aback–people, that is, who didn’t know him. “Wouldn’t somebody else have liked to say something?” one of them asked me, implying that Father Dan was presumptuous or egotistical. Well, someone else did speak: his friend Father Paul Rosing’s remarks were beautiful and funny, as were his brother Father Bob Begin’s. But the one person everyone ached to hear from was Father Dan himself. He met our need, as he did so often during life.

Father Bob

Father Bob

When Father Bob stepped to the lectern, he pulled out a folder (about 29:45) and said, “He did write it out for me,” and everyone laughed. Bob first said a few words of his own and ended with a moving reflection, but in between, he read the sermon that Dan himself had written last summer, when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

 

       

 

             Since my ordination, it has always been my duty and my privilege to preach family funerals. So much so, that family members have been particularly nice to me because they were afraid I would get the last word in if they met their demise before me. Consequently, I prepared this, trusting that I could depend on someone to read it as my funeral sermon. Then they can go on with their own comments, and I will be at peace.

            The author of the Book of Wisdom speaks so confidently of an afterlife in today’s reading, long before Jesus came and long before most of his contemporaries knew there was something more after this life. I suspect he or she was a keen observer of nature and saw beyond the present to the past and the future.

            Where we came from–the miracle of life’s beginning–is maybe the most profound miracle of all. Think of it! Two gametes or half-cells come together in quite a violent collision, and an impenetrable wall surrounds them. Then both die as gametes and become a one-celled human. That dies and becomes two-celled; two become four, four become eight, eight sixteen. Each moment something dies, each moment something is new, and each moment somebody remains the same. Everything that will ever be in us other than food, water, and time (and the many parts and pieces that doctors implant) is in our life at each stage. Each of us can look at every stage of life and say, “That is me.”

            From conception, we are programmed to be something that none of us will ever see on earth! Going back to that very first stage, it must be like heaven on earth! In those early stages, the womb must be a very beautiful place and plenty big. Floating with no pressure on any part of the body in this lovely personal lake, we don’t even have to breathe. Mom can be hungry or thirsty, but we will have what we need. The temperature is always perfect! No one to bother us, because we are the only creature in the world.

            Then it starts to get a little tight, and the head finds its way into the birth canal. When the labor begins, the constant pressure on the little creature’s head that never before felt pressure must be interpreted as dying, which lasts for varying amounts of time. The head presents itself, the baby comes out, and, with that first breath, it dies as a water creature and begins life as a land creature. Its pond now gone, air surrounds and supports this new stage of life, and the journey continues. Each moment something dies, each moment something is new, and each moment somebody answers to the same name.

            Let your mind wander back over those stages of life. It is clear how in each of them we have our own treasures that we can’t imagine living without and patterns of life that we consider essential for happiness. At each stage, we have to let go of things, like the bottle, the binky, the dolly, people we love, and so on. Experiences like being fed, carried, and supported have to give way to new experiences of independence. Often these stages of total dependence come back as an unwelcome guest to minds accustomed to freedom. With each stage, dying gives way to a new stage, while we feel very much the same.

            I believe death is a new stage with a profound transformation into a new way of being . . .what we were programmed to be from the start. As the first breath marks our death as a water creature and our birth as an earth creature, so our last breath marks our death as a corporeal creature and our birth as a spiritual creature. As air sustained us on earth, perhaps grace and light sustain us in our final form. I will let you know as soon as I find out.

            This process, though terrifying in some ways and certainly difficult in many ways, also borders on the thrill of the possibility of what is coming. Like our first time leaving home, getting married, getting ordained, or doing anything that demands a letting go of the past and an embracing of the future, this process demands fear, doubt, questions, and hesitations. There is also the dream of potential beyond our imagining, which calls us forth to this Creator who is leading us to fulfillment and entrance to the eternal life ordained for us in love from the beginning.

            Briefly, I would like to say in my own life’s journey, I have been blessed beyond imagining. Born into a huge family filled with love and with a mother filled with wisdom and unconditional love, I was surrounded by people of every age in just about every kind of circumstance available—good and bad. I learned much about the world I entered right in the confines of my own home. Our faith as a family was one that was strong, and that belief bonded us together.

            My forty-one years as a priest helped me to continue to build and extend this family, as others invited me to be intimately involved in their families. They truly have become my family, too, from various races and cultures and ways of life. Generations of joys and struggles and victories, dreams and fears, fill my head with stories and bring me joy.

            The privilege of sharing my parenting skills with my sons and my daughter, shared with their biological parents and families, has enriched my life. Grandchildren are a gift that needs no explanation for those who have them. Who would have guessed that as a priest I might have such a privilege?

            Each of my assignments has filled my life with not only parishioners, but friends and more extended family, who have made my journey what it is.

            As I become whatever I become, I take all of this with me, and my heart will stay bonded with you until we meet again. I part with only gratitude, as I say, “Thank God, thank you, and I will love you. Please love one another as I have loved you!”

 

 

 

Moving Mountains

St. Cecilia, Cleveland

St. Cecilia, Cleveland

Because Father Dan wasn’t the formal celebrant on St. Cecilia’s last day, he couldn’t deliver the homily. That’s a rule. According to canon law, the Bishop says the last Mass and gives the homily.

Father Dan was leaving his neighborhood, his life, and his job of over 30 years. He, like us, was losing his community. He felt sometimes that the Church was telling him that his efforts in the city had been worthless, vain, something to toss aside. He had put on a good face for all of us, but I heard later from friends and family that he was so depressed they were worried about him. “It was worse for him than facing his death,” his sister Donna told me.

No doubt at that final Mass he felt bereaved and angry. This was the end, and he had no choice. On Sunday, April 25, 2010, he was entitled to only a short statement at the end of Mass. This is a transcription of his remarks (which you can watch here).

 

Let me tell you something I’ve noticed about my opinions. (Pause. Raised eyebrows. Laughter from the congregation.) I had a friend, Jerry, a brother really, who lived out in Las Vegas. I was raising kids here, and I brought them out there to stay at his house where they’d see a family working together. A fine gentleman, he was fun to be with and healthy and had all kinds of good things going for him. (Father Dan leaned forward and stage whispered conspiratorially.) He was a Republican. I said, “Jerry, how can you be such a fine human being and be so messed up politically?” And he said, “I was going to ask you the same thing!”

Along the line, I’ve noticed that the authors who write the things I believe in are the smartest authors in the world. The greatest artists paint the things I like. It’s so easy to get caught up in our own opinion. Sometimes in time, working together, we can see what was the right decision. Sometimes we can’t. Our life is a process of moving on. We are called as Christians and we are called as Catholics to be a pilgrim people. A pilgrim people, we’re called to build a world that is worthwhile, and that world is everywhere. That world is in your place of employment. That world is in your school, in your home, in your neighborhood, in your community, and then we need to look a little farther out, because the Word has to be brought there, too.

As you go forward from here today, I know you’re sad. I’m sad, too.  But don’t embarrass me by being a Sunday-go-to-meetin’, sit-in-the-back-of-the-church, don’t-bother-me-because-I’m-hurt kind of Catholic. We don’t need those! The world needs, I need, we all need for you to go out there and join parish councils, join liturgy committees, and look out for the social justice activities going on. Don’t forget this neighborhood. Don’t forget the plight of the people who are suffering from so many things. Yesterday they marched from here to Luke Easter Park praying for peace, for justice, for empowerment. We can make a difference wherever we go.

Go. Go with a spirit of joy. Go with the Spirit in your heart. Go with the belief that we are seeds just waiting for potential to be unlocked. Grow and bloom where you are planted. Grow by nourishing yourself with the sacrament of Eucharist. Go with the strength of the Word. Go with the power of all you are and all you know, and go with the power of all we have been for each other. As we go forward, as we grow, we can trust that our God is going with us.

Our life is too short to be bothered with resentment, with negativity, with any of that kind of stuff. Shake the dust. Shake, shake, shake it off!

And if there’s anything you’ve learned from me, I hope you’ve learned that in all circumstances we are called to be the Christians we are, and we are all ambassadors, and where we go we bring healing. We bring His Word, and when they see us, they ought to see Him.

I’ve picked the songs for today, so they would be my real sermon. Take those songs home. Sing them. Sing them at the top of your voice. Listen to those words. The words will speak a message to you of what we need to do and where we need to go and how we need to get there.

There’s one other song I always like.

 

Father Dan broke into song. The choir and congregation joined in, and so did JT’s saxophone. The clapping started, and the people rose. This was the song.

 

Now, Lord, don’t move my mountain

But give me the strength to climb

And, Lord, don’t take away my stumbling blocks

But lead me all around

 

Oh Lord, you don’t have to move the mountain

But give me the strength to climb

And, Lord, don’t take away my stumbling blocks

But lead me all around

 

Lord, I don’t bother nobody

I try to treat everybody the same

But every time I turn my back

They scandalize my name

 

But, oh, Jesus, you don’t have to move my mountain

But give me the strength to climb

And, Lord, don’t take away my stumbling blocks

But lead me all around

 

Now when my folks would slay me

 These things they will try to do

But, Lord, don’t touch ’em

But within their heart

Make ’em give their life to you

 

Oh, Master, you don’t have to move my mountain

But give me the strength to climb

And, Lord, don’t take away my stumbling blocks

But lead me all around

If Nothing Ever Changed . . .

Google proved a goldmine of information for Father Dan’s homilies. On Epiphany, he would explain the Star of Bethlehem this way: the astronomical conjunction of planets in about 6 BCE lined up in Pisces, a constellation special to the Hebrews, sparking the Magi’s trip to the manger. Discussing the Good Samaritan, he’d provide a lengthy historical explanation of the enmity between the Jews and Samaritans. I always figured Google was behind his frequent references to caterpillars, butterflies, and imaginal discs, but it turns out he heard about them from his sister Laura.

Laura remembers describing this process to her brother while walking the Towpath Trail a few years ago, one of his favorite hikes. “He looked it up online later. He always double-checked whatever you told him,” she says drily. The metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies was one of Father Dan’s favorite metaphors, and it frequently came up in eulogies. Someone who heard one of these gave Father Dan a chrysalis, so he could observe the whole process.

Everyone knows that caterpillars transform into butterflies, but you may not know that the caterpillar digests itself into a goopy mess first, by exuding enzymes to dissolve its tissues. Resilient cells hiding in that mess grow into adult butterfly body parts. These cells, called imaginal discs, form the eyes, legs, wings, and all the other structures a butterfly needs. A perfect analogy for death and resurrection.

“At every moment,” Father Dan would say at funerals, “something dies, something changes, and something stays the same.”

Last summer, when Father Dan told me about his cancer and the tough times ahead of him, he found comfort in this image. The caterpillar goes away. It dies. A butterfly arises in its place. He described the whole process to me once again. It’s a dramatic illustration of death, transformation, and hope.

no butterfliesSoon after this conversation, I went to Nashville for my daughter’s wedding and in a little gift shop found this tiny framed quotation: “If nothing ever changed,” it says, “there would be no butterflies.” Wiping away tears, I bought it, packed it in my suitcase, and stopped in at Father Dan’s when I returned to Cleveland.

He was just pulling in at his rectory and asked me to help carry some bags into the house for him. They were light, but he had not eaten much in weeks and was already suffering the effects of chemo. He looked at my gift, smiled, and said, “Ah. That’s great.” Then he set it on a table and changed the subject. Giving Father Dan gifts was never very satisfying. He liked reading Atticus, the novel by Ron Hansen I’d given him years before, but we never got around to talking about the great ending, evocative of the Prodigal Son story, which was why I wanted him to read it in the first place. When I gave him a cd of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, I hoped he’d listen as he drove to his home in West Salem, but then learned he didn’t have a cd player in his car. I never heard what he thought of the music. Material items, even cds of great music, were not what he wanted.

We sat in his living room for awhile talking. He gestured to his dining room table piled high with food and books and comfortable clothes and every other manner of gift. After learning about his illness, everyone wanted to give him something. “What do I do with all that stuff?” he asked. “I can’t even sort through it. All I can do right now is sit in this recliner and nap.”

“I knew you wouldn’t want my little thing,” I said. “Too bad. I wanted to give it to you.” In the months following, I often thought of it sitting in his living room, and it reminded me of the hope of rebirth. My friend Anita, who works at St. Mary, rescued it from the rectory the other day and returned it to me. It was always really more a gift for me than for him, as he could have told me a year ago.

The Power of the Spirit

maxresdefault        That power of the Spirit is what transforms our goals from the things that are here today and gone tomorrow to the things that last forever.

 

Father Dan delivered this homily in May, 2009. The quotes are from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.

 

Think about everything the apostles and the disciples went through with Jesus. They probably hated him a lot of the time! They must have thought sometimes, “What are you doing to us?” Think of all that happened to them in the short span of three years!

Most of them were minding their own business. Peter and Andrew and James and John were just fishing. Matthew was collecting his taxes. They were all simple people, minding their own business. They didn’t come looking for Jesus. Jesus came looking for them and said, “Come and follow me. See what I have to offer.”

What did they find? At first, it was great. It was wonderful. He changed water into wine. He walked on water. He healed people. He made the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk. It was the greatest thing in the world to be a friend of Jesus. People would probably say, “Hey, can you get me a quick audience with this guy?” They had thousands of people coming from all over to meet Jesus.

Now, that sounds like it might be a good thing at first. But it’s not a good thing. Probably every movie star, every famous rock musician would tell you that at first it’s really exciting when the crowds come. Later on, the crowds are a nightmare, because you no longer have a personal life anymore. You’ve lost it all.

Jesus said, “Peter, I’m going to stay at your house.” How exciting! Jesus is going to live in my house! Oh, my! His wife and children and mother-in-law didn’t know what was in store! The crowds came. They cut a hole in Peter’s roof. They dropped a man down to get healed. What crazy things went on! There were even crazier things. The authorities told Peter and the other disciples, “You’re no longer one of us. You’re not welcome to be with us. You’re following a man of sin.” Jesus had started breaking laws. He cured people on the Sabbath. He didn’t respect their eating habits and kosher laws. Now, they were in trouble, trouble, trouble, and more trouble.

All of a sudden, the disciples were filled with questions. Just like all of us — in our early days what we’re taught about God, about faith, about the laws we’re supposed to follow, about what’s right and wrong, imprints in our head. When what we’ve learned seems to change, there’s a shock to our system. I can tell you one of those shocks to my system was when I found that every word in the Bible wasn’t exactly like it’s written — to find out that the story of Jonah was a story, meant to teach a message. Jonah wasn’t really swallowed by a whale. God didn’t create the world in exactly seven days. This was a poem. What do you mean, that’s a poem?  I didn’t like that! I had enough trouble losing Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, and now all of a sudden I had to deal with my Scriptures going away.

The apostles had the same struggle. Everything they learned, they had to unlearn because of this new guy who came into their life and said, “It’s not about that. It’s about loving your God with everything that’s in you and loving your neighbor as yourself. And the goals you seek are very short-sighted, and they’re not leading you to anything but a bubble in the air. The things you want with everything that’s in you are just things that are here today and gone tomorrow and in the long run very meaningless.”

It was as difficult as it is to explain to a little child that someday you won’t need that dolly anymore or someday you won’t need that binky anymore or you won’t need that thumb anymore, that someday you can live in a different way. You might not even need that cigarette anymore! That’s a hard thing to learn for us! It’s hard to learn that there really is happiness when you’ve let go of that very short-sighted thing that makes you happy, the short-sighted thing that fills you with wants, the short-sighted thing that makes you want to go back to the way it used to be. When you start to discover this exciting and vibrant thing that’s right before your face, you choose each moment as a moment to be alive, to celebrate God’s presence, and to just look at everything as God does. Then you go out to share the message. The message comes from the Spirit, enters inside you, and then it goes out.

In the meantime, the disciples were struggling to unlearn what they thought they knew. As Jesus was getting ready to ascend into heaven, they asked him questions. Was He was going to restore the reign to Israel? They were still caught up in political systems.

They doubted. They came with him, they did what he said, but they doubted. They came filled with all kinds of questions and doubts. They asked him their questions, and he said, “You don’t need to know about that. Don’t worry about that.” Their people were oppressed! How could it not be their problem? They were taught forever that they would be the rulers of the world. How could it not be their problem? Unless there was something more. And Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Spirit comes.”

That power of the Spirit is what moves our “short sight” into “insight.” That power of the Spirit is what transforms our goals from the things that are here today and gone tomorrow to the things that last forever. That power of the Spirit broadens our understanding of what happiness is about, so we gradually begin to assume, “I’m happy and I’m going to be happy using whatever I have because God has already given me enough.” That power of the Spirit says to me that my power is not what I can personally do on my own, but my power comes from the One Who can do all things and invites me to be a part of God’s life and love and Kingdom.

Some of this happens naturally. The older we get – at least I’ve found — the fewer things seem important. I think back and wonder why I let myself get so excited about so many things. After fifty, life got much easier in a way. Before that, one of my kids would tell me about a traumatic experience, and I would worry about it all night while they were partying with their friends or playing basketball. I would worry about it day and night, week after week. They were done with it; they had dumped it on me. After I turned fifty, they could tell me about their trauma, and I would say, “That’s a fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into. What are you going to do about it?” I would explain what I could realistically do for them and then go to bed. What a marvelous transition. We move into these stages of life.

What God is calling us all to is to do everything with prayer. So Jesus told the disciples, Stay in Jerusalem together. Pray, and seek, seek what is God’s will for you. Seek what is the gift you have to give to the world. Seek this Christ, not looking up in the sky. Seek this Christ within, challenging you and calling you to recognize that you have all that you need right now. When we start doing that, then Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians becomes a prayer for us: “May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of Him.”

Wisdom allows us to look at what we have and figure out what we can do with it, rather than thinking of what more we want. Wisdom gives us direction to use and treasure all the experiences of life. Wisdom and revelation  allow us to understand that God’s picture and God’s purpose are so much bigger than ours. Gods’ eternity is  bigger than each single moment of time.

And Paul’s prayer for us goes on. This is such a beautiful phrase: “May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened.” Think of your heart having eyes.  Your real eyes can only see so much. What we see now, every time we turn around, is different. Every time you turn around, it’s a different day, it’s a different moment. The eyes of the heart see beyond the physical to something, beyond time and space, that is so much deeper. And the eyes of the heart, even when the heart is sad, can bring the light and the peace that we need.

“So may those eyes of your heart be enlightened,  so that you will know the hope that belongs to God’s call.”  It’s a hope! It’s not a reality yet! Heaven is coming! The hoping and the anticipation should be as exciting as the reality. “Pray that you may also know what are the riches of God’s glory.” What do we have to do for the riches of God’s glory? You don’t have to do a thing. He says, Come to the water, come with open hearts, and come let Me love you.

Paul goes on, “We know what is his inheritance among the holy ones. And may we know what his surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe in the exercise of his great might. This is the God who worked in Christ, and He raised Him from the dead.”

Whatever the evil is, it’s not a threat to us, because even death is not a threat. Because Jesus showed us that death has no power over God’s way and God’s will.

“Above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, every name that is named, not only in this age but the ones to come, He put all things under His feet and gave Him over as head of the church.”

This is the Jesus that we claim. This is the Spirit that brings that Jesus to us. This is the Jesus that we’re not going to find up there. But the eyes of our hearts will be able to seek Him, to find Him, and to bring us peace.

A Funeral

I posted this essay about seven years ago, when the Diocese of Cleveland was in the process of closing St. Cecilia and Epiphany churches in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. I don’t know why I didn’t name Father Dan Begin back then, but I still like it this way. 

 

Today I attended a funeral mass celebrated by a priest who has lived and worked in the same neighborhood for over thirty years. Four generations of the family were present, and the priest knew them all. He knew the great-grandmother who was being buried at the age of 92, her daughter who’s been disabled by a stroke, her granddaughter, and her great-granddaughter, a lovely girl of college age.

He had spent the preceding days visiting the hospital and sitting with the family as they decided to remove the ventilator that was keeping the woman alive. He was there and prayed with them when the ventilator was removed. He met with the family to plan the funeral. And he had met with the elderly woman more than once, discussing illness and end-of-life matters, but mostly joking and cheering up and telling stories.

In his homily, the priest referred directly to the great-granddaughter’s birth, saying that he knew the family before she was around. Everyone had been so excited, he said, anticipating her birth and wondering what she would be like. Her great-grandmother’s death was a little like that, he said. It was a great labor, like the labor of giving birth. It was a labor that all of us, even the men, would have to undergo. And it was similar to birth in this way, too:  in our final labor we give birth to our true selves, our spiritual selves.

At the end of the homily, he hesitated for a moment and then commented on the travails of several generations living in the same house, as this family had done for many years. He himself had grown up in his grandparents’ house. Sometimes he would hear other kids talking about the fun they had visiting their grandparents for holidays, and he would smile ruefully. Not quite the same thing, when your grandfather had yelled at you that very morning for stepping on his well-manicured lawn. Such a living arrangement creates inevitable tensions, and the priest knew that this family had endured some of these tensions. So, he advised, let all those grievances go, if any are still nagging at you. The person who has passed has let them go, so we should do the same.

All these gentle remarks the priest was able to make because he knew the family and had known them for decades.

Now, as the Cleveland Diocese reorganizes, this priest may be removed from the neighborhood where he knows dozens and dozens of families, their family stories, the relations, the histories, the tragedies, and all the rest. He may be moved so far away that he’ll be unable even to attend the weddings and funerals and baptisms in this neighborhood.

Instead, the families will probably have to rely on strangers,  unfamiliar priests, no doubt kind and well-intentioned, who will administer the sacraments and perform the rituals as well as they are able. But they won’t be able to say they baptized your mother, or that they married your parents and your aunts and uncles, or that they sat by your great-grandmother’s deathbed and remembered the day you were born.

 

Love the One You’re With

Whenever I asked Father Dan for advice, I’d feel some sympathy for Jesus’s disciples, because I usually had no idea what he was talking about until much later.

Once, many years ago, I sought his advice about my high-school-aged daughter, who was doing something I thoughtdan preaching dangerous. I wanted to know how to stop her. Instead of answering my question, Father Dan started talking about me. He said my kids’ growing up was unsettling but could really be an exciting change in my life. I thought he must not have heard my actual question.

So I repeated it, this time emphasizing my child, and in response he began laughing about some of his own kids’ misadventures. That’s not reassuring, I thought. That’s exactly what I want to avoid.

I asked a third time (like the boneheaded disciples), and at last he offered some concrete suggestions. I could ask my daughter why she was doing what she was doing, which, to be honest, I had never thought of. I could also share my worries with her as I had just done with him. He quickly returned to talking about the empty nest and feeling bereft and dealing with changes in your life.

I left the rectory more confused than when I went in. Where was my foolproof solution? I thought, “Oh, well. Father Dan’s not perfect. He must not have understood what I needed.”

Only after days and weeks of pondering did I finally begin to understand. He was saying what he consistently said—that we can’t change other people. We lose control, eventually, even of our children, and we have to accept their choices. This is part of their growing up and our growing older.  What I could address and needed to address was my own confusion and fear. My daughter wasn’t in the rectory seeking his advice, so instead he gently counseled the person sitting front of him, who had a few blind spots.

Review

Thanks to Ethan Boatner for this very nice review of Missing in Lavender, a Twin Cities publication addressing LGBTQ issues.

 

Missing: Coming to Terms with a Borderline Mother
Kathy Ewing
Red Giant Books
$14.95

If you didn’t grow up with a Borderline mom, you’ll find Ewing’s narrative hard to believe; if you did, it will be painfully accurate. The word “missing” is the key. Someone you love — or want to love — just isn’t there, yet is all too painfully a family presence. Ewing inserts just enough scientific and professional information on Borderline Personality Disorder to ground the reader and to give him or her a firm footing on which to stand and observe, while avoiding making Missing what she terms a “jargon-laden tome.” The already-chaotic family dynamic was deeply affected by her father’s illness and paraplegia. Ewing’s long journey, which she is still traveling, is told vibrantly and intimately, and can help others directly or indirectly affected by BPD.

Welcoming the Stranger

One of the most noteworthy things about Father Dan Begin was that his words and his actions were almost perfectly in sync. This quality made his sermons especially powerful; if you knew him, you could hear his advice and immediately think of in-the-flesh-examples from the speaker himself. You would think, “Oh, yes. I see. That’s exactly what you do.”

My minister friend Roger (see the comments here) has recently put me on to Phillips Brooks, a 19th century preacher, who espoused the idea of preaching as “truth through personality.” Christianity. Brooks said, was not essentially based on a text or on ideas but on interaction with others. By this light, Jesus converted the disciples and followers not (or not merely) by his teachings but by his actions. Father Dan was, first and foremost, a follower of Jesus, so it makes sense that he would pursue the same model. His prime purpose was to, as he frequently said, “fix himself,” not others. He saw himself as a lifelong project—to morph into something more like Jesus all the time.

So when at Mass Father Dan preached about carrying the Gospel message with you, bringing Jesus to every situation, trying to bring a smile and lighten the load of others, you could observe him after Mass doing these very things.

welcome3I’m thinking back to a recent sermon, I think from last fall, which spoke to me explicitly about the current politics of immigration, with indignation seething just underneath the words. Father Dan was talking about the unequivocal teaching of Scripture about welcoming the stranger. There are no sub-clauses about looking out for one’s well-being, no vetting, extreme or otherwise, no hesitation or moralizing. If someone is in need you let them in. That’s it. That message is throughout Scripture.

As I listened, and pondering later, I tried to count the ways I had observed Father Dan welcoming the stranger. There are too many examples, but I’ll give it a start.

First, from my own selfish perspective. When I began attending St. Cecilia, I was in effect a church refugee. I had previously attended the Hallinan Center, the Newman center at Case Western Reserve, with a bunch of other (not to put too fine a point on it) white people. My cohort had all happened into Hallinan from varying directions. Some had an actual affiliation with CWRU, and some with the hospitals in the neighborhood. Others like me had followed friends there and found a congenial, activist, liberal congregation, mixed up with the students who attended regularly. The Diocese of Cleveland looked askance at this little outpost and felt we should instead invest ourselves in a normal Catholic parish. So they canceled our Sunday Mass, non-renewed the regular staff there, including the priest, and made it clear we weren’t a church and shouldn’t act like one.

A large group of us decided to go find ourselves another church and so began the Summer Church Tour. We visited parishes that were convenient for most of us or that friends and relatives had recommended. Apparently some pastors found this an arrogant enterprise (as I learned later from Father Dan). How dare we visit and evaluate their Masses? Anyway, St. Cecilia wasn’t even on our original list, but one of our number had tried it and liked it and suggested we add it.

At most of the churches we visited, we were unacknowledged. At a couple, the priest hung around afterward and chatted with us. At St. Cecilia, Father Dan welcomed us from the pulpit, saying something like, “Our visitors today from Case’s Hallinan Center remind us that we are all pilgrims. All of us are on a journey.” I remember tears stinging my eyes as he spoke. At the sign of peace halfway through the Mass—a perfunctory hand shake at most Catholic churches—the parishioners, mostly African-American, poured out of the pews and shook hands with or hugged almost everyone else in the church, including us. I had never felt so welcome in a church.

So that’s my first example. Father Dan welcomed us strangers to St. Cecilia, as did the congregation.

Father Dan also welcomed visiting priests. African priests frequently stayed in the rectory. He befriended them and gave them jobs and served them meals and laughed with them. More recently, a young priest named Chris worked with Father Dan at his first post-St. Cecilia assignment, and when Father Dan moved to his own churches in Bedford, he invited Chris there, too, hoping to give him a better educational and spiritual experience.

Examples back at St. Cecilia and Epiphany abound. He helped institute an annual Community Fair so that the neighborhood could stop by and get food and play games. He spoke often about the doors of our church going both ways—opening out for us to become part of the city neighborhood and opening in to welcome the neighbors in.

A Narcotics Anonymous group met in our parish basement once a month. Sometimes, our members would gripe about the dirty ashtrays and messy sinks they left behind. Father Dan would resist any suggestion that we disinvite the group. At one Parish Council meeting, he became stern. “As long as I’m here,” he said, “we’re going to have that NA meeting in our basement. No more discussion.”

Father Dan had learned the welcoming habit from his family– known for taking in outcasts, having them for dinner, and inviting them to stay for awhile. His mother encouraged her children to bring over friends who were different from them. “How much can you learn from someone who’s exactly like you?” she would ask. “Make friends with people who are different so they can teach you something!” His friend Father Paul Rosing said of the Begin home on Cleveland’s West side, “Everyone, everyone was welcome there.”

Most tellingly, Father Dan adopted and fostered children in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. They became his own children, though he would be quick to say he co-parented them with their biological parents. Their children became his treasured grandchildren. When St. Cecilia’s was closing, his fellow priests slyly cautioned him, “When you get to your new assignment, don’t start talking about your kids and grandkids right off the bat! The parishioners won’t know what to make of it!” When kids had to escape abuse or an uncomfortable or unsupportive home, or needed things an overwhelmed single mother couldn’t provide, they came to stay at St. Cecilia. Father Dan took them to school, bought their food and uniforms, interceded with the law when necessary, cooked their meals, and provided a happy home life.

The stranger, the outsider, was the exact person Father Dan was drawn to. I observed it over and over. Sometimes he’d even leave off talking to me (me!) in order to attend to someone standing alone and looking forlorn. As a Christian, he took the words of Scripture seriously, and his actions illustrated the words of Leviticus: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”