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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.”

A Perfect Day for Bananafish

bananafishCulling an old folder just now, I ran across a copy of Time magazine dated July 10, 1939. On page six, there’s a letter written by my father, Martin R. Miller, dateline Fairport Harbor, where he lived before marrying my mom and moving to Canton. He was employed at the Painesville Telegraph then as the Fairport Harbor correspondent, a title I always found amusing. His letter, apparently a response to an earlier Time letter, will provide a nice break from my recent blog posts, so I’ll just quote the letter here verbatim. I believe J.D. Salinger owes a debt to my dad.

Sirs:

The superlatives used by Reader Lawrence Griswold [Time, June 26] in describing a bonefish (i.e., “world’s greatest gamefish,” “most elusive speedster”) called to mind a tropical piscatory phenomenon known as the “banana fish.”

The usual elaborate fish-catching methods all fail with the banana fish.

This is the way it is done. A banana is submerged half its length, vertically, by hand, from either beach or boat in any tropical waters.

The bright yellow of the banana and the almost metaphysical taste or smell it imparts to the water in its vicinity lures the banana fish, which strikes with lightning rapidity. As the fish flashes at the submerged half of the banana, the fisherman instantly pulls the fruit from the water. Now comes the time when the sportsman must outsmart this denizen of the sea.

The momentum of the fish hurtles it out of the water through the hole left by the banana. Quick as a note coming due, the fisherman plunges the banana back into the hole through which the fish has come, cutting off the only possible opening through which it could return to its native habitat.

My friend told me the trapping of banana fish on the surface of the water in this fashion is one of the most highly regarded skills in the South Seas.

Martin R. Miller

Fairport Harbor, Ohio

 

Reading this, my son somberly commented it sounded like something my sisters and I would find funny. “Well,” I responded, “that makes sense, doesn’t it?”

 

Father Dan on Grieving

Father Dan delivered this homily on Palm Sunday, March 23, 2009, the week after Bishop Richard Lennon announced the closing of his churches, St. Cecilia and Epiphany.

 

I think as we watch Jesus struggle, it affirms in us that grieving is natural and grieving is necessary in order to move forward.

maxresdefaultThe whole process of life is trying to get our minds and hearts and bodies in touch with what we know and feel. It’s trying to get what we can’t see in touch with what we can see. But this won’t happen just because we want it to. It doesn’t just happen. There’s a whole process that we have to go through—even Jesus himself had to go through—in this struggle that we call grieving, recognizing that in each moment of life something has died, something stays the same, and something is new. There’s this constant change going on. And each passing thing, good or bad, has to be reckoned with—that it was here, and now it’s not here. The child that was me is not here. He’s turned into the teenager that’s me. The teenager that’s me will turn into the young adult that’s me. Each stage of life passes on, and each stage needs to be recognized for what it is. Each dream needs its own time to call us forward.

As Jesus came into Jerusalem, he was not anxious to get there, because he knew when he got to Jerusalem, people were waiting to kill him. The apostles knew it, too, and didn’t understand why he wanted to go there in the first place. But then he got a message. The friends he hung out with in Bethany, where he used to kick up his heels, a nice place where he could get away from the crowds with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, sent word: Lazarus is sick. He needs you. Your friend needs you now.

And he didn’t go. I don’t know why he didn’t go. He didn’t go. That upset them, as we hear later on in the reading, but he didn’t go then. Two days later, Lazarus was already dead.

And then he went, and he came into Jerusalem, and there was all the triumph, and he said, “Unless a grain of wheat dies and falls to the earth it remains a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” He said this, and he knew it: part of him and his life and his message was about dying. This is what he said to his disciples over and over. He made three clear predictions in John. I am going to die. I am going to be lifted up. I am going to chase out the ruler of this world, and I am going to build a new world. They didn’t understand, and even he didn’t understand fully. He just said the words.

And finally when he got close to Jerusalem, what did he do? He wept. This wasn’t just a few tears. This was really weeping. He looked at Jerusalem and said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often I would have gathered you together like a mother hen gathers little chicks! But you stoned all those who came to you. Every solution I had you threw away.” And he mourned the loss of Jerusalem and mourned the death of his friend Lazarus.

Grief doesn’t come with just one thing to hurt about. It’s cumulative. It keeps building up. When it rains it pours. You lose somebody who’s significant in your family, and all of a sudden you lose your job. And then someone steals your car. It goes on and on.  We all have that experience over and over and over again.

We see Jesus going through the grieving experience. When he got close to Bethany, Martha, in her typical way, came running up to him like a child and said, “Lord, why didn’t you come? If you would have come, I know you could have done something.” She still had so much faith. She could still say the words: “I know he‘s going to raise up on the last day.” We see her whole struggle there. Jesus assured her, “Martha, put your trust in God. It will be okay. What is needed is trust, not fear.”

But both sisters were mad because he didn’t come. Mary hung back, seeming to say, “I ain’t getting up off my chair for him! He can come to me.” And he came to Mary and got into the same conversation. He told her that he is the life and the resurrection and that even if someone should die,  our life is life everlasting. So when he came to Mary and saw she was upset with him, he accepted her struggle, but he knew he wasn’t going to do things their way. They had a plan. They had a vision, and they had a confidence that was now was shaken, and in that moment they had nothing left to stand on.

Then Jesus said, “Where is he buried?” He went to the tomb, and what did he do? Once again he wept–wept uncontrollably at the tomb of Lazarus. All the people were saying, “What gives? Why is he crying? Surely he could have done something if he wanted to. What is wrong with him?” What was happening was that catching-up process. His flesh, his body, his human self was catching up with the divine message, a divine message of hope. That does not happen easily or quickly or the same in anybody’s life. It happens over and over in different ways for different people.

There’s a church in the Holy Land right above Jerusalem called Dominus Flevit, which means “The Lord wept.” They have a whole church built to say that Jesus wept. He wept several times. He wept in the Garden: “If it’s possible, take this cup away from me!” It was hard for him to deal with all the loss. All the losses–big and little. Sometimes you can have five big losses, and your pet canary will die and it will throw you over the edge. It just keeps building and building inside. I think we often don’t know what to do with grief.

We see what Jesus does: he calls everyone to a belief. He calls himself to believe. He calls himself to believe in the power to bring Lazarus forth from the tomb. He says, “Roll back the stone.” In the seminary, when we used to read the Scriptures in Latin, we’d read this expression, “Iam, iam fetet.” That’s what Martha said when Jesus asked to open the tomb. It means, “Surely he stinketh.” (Or, “she stinketh,” or “it stinketh.”) Well, we found that was a very useful phrase for a lot of life. “Iam, iam fetet!”  It became our mantra when a whole lot of bad things would happen, one after the other.

Martha, saying, “Iam, iam fetet,” was still stuck in her old way of thinking. She was saying, “It’s not going to be pretty. It’s not going to be the way that we want it. It’s not going to be something we want to deal with.”

But Jesus said, “Lazarus, come out.”

And we see Lazarus coming out. And Jesus said, “Untie him.” For a moment, just for a moment, they could celebrate that the power to bring life to those who were dead was in their midst, that Jesus was who he said he was. For a moment, they could see that there truly was something more to life.

But what you see doesn’t necessarily change your heart. Very soon, they had to deal with the crucifixion! Probably by the time of the crucifixion, Lazarus was dead all over again. Jesus had to mourn his apostles going different directions, as the Zealots were going one way and Judas another. He had to mourn all the people who hated him and wanted him dead. All of these things just kept piling on and piling on and piling on.

I think as we watch him struggle, it affirms in us that grieving is natural and necessary in order to move forward. Tears or rage or whatever it is–we need to share it. But there are some parameters. I don’t deal with grief a lot in our community, and I have been made aware that I can be a real pain in the butt when other people are trying to grieve. I can be so positive, and I can be so far ahead that I can’t deal with the reality of the present, and I know that.

I also know that over the last thirty years, especially, I have developed a terrible, terrible fear of grieving. I’ll tell you what my fear is. Grief should not make us change everything in our life and our way of thinking. We ought not to change what we know about  who we are and whose we are, regardless whether it’s easy, regardless of how angry we are with God. Whatever happens, we still know God is there. And we still know who we are, as people called in his name. I think that is so important.

What scares me is something I have watched over and over and over. A young man grieving the end of a relationship with his girlfriend went to her house and shot himself with a rifle and blew off his head. A young man who was having struggles with his family and lost his job hanged himself. I’ve known people to run their cars off the road, or punch their fists into walls so they damaged their hands permanently, or walk away from their jobs because things were so horrible. They complicate the lives of their family. I have seen grief act in these ways, because of the emotions of anger and depression, and so that makes me afraid.

And at the same time I’m afraid, I also know we need to call each other to a healthy grieving like Jesus, a grieving that catches up our body with our mind. I can tell you something about my own grieving process, something I haven’t developed easily. It’s been over the long haul. I can tell you that the way I am today is purely, absolutely purely, thanks to the elders of the African-American community, who showed me how to deal with the grieving that they went through in their lives.

One of the things they taught me is to repeat certain mantras no matter how bad you feel. Many of those mantras are songs, like “Blessed Assurance” and “Yes, God Is Real.” Many of those mantras are things like Harry Robinson used to tell me, from my very first day in this church: “Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.” And he would keep saying that to himself. Even in the nursing home, as his mind is fading, it doesn’t matter. He still says, “Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.”

They used mantras. They got together, and they sang and they prayed about who they were, and that carried them through. In that singing, in that praying, which came with weeping, which came with all kinds of different emotions for different kinds of people, as they came together, sometimes in the midst of the pain, as with Lazarus, there were glimpses of hope, glimpses of a vision of where we can go from here.

You know, I often shed tears when I’m talking. That’s happened to me a couple times at funerals this week, and it will happen over and over again. It will happen in all kinds of strange places. But the tears help me by reminding me to take time to grieve. If I can clear out one grief, at least for a moment, then I can move on to the next one, and one thing that helps me a lot is music. I’ll take songs like “The Way We Were,” the songs from Fiddler on the Roof, along with so many of the spirituals, like “Come Ye Disconsolate” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” so many of the spiritual songs, as well as songs that really bring up memories. That’s another one, “Memories.” I’ve been playing that a lot lately.

Anyhow, I’ll play a song until I can’t play it any more. Because I start crying, and that’s okay. And I try to let the loss sink into my life–what it means and what is lost. I try also to remember and to treasure what has been lost as a story that is finished. Every time a story is finished in my life, I try to look back and write that story, sometimes just for myself. Look at the story as it’s finished, and it can bring up whatever emotions it brings up.

There are times where I am overwhelmed and so unmotivated to answer the phone, to answer the door, to do any of the things I’m supposed to do. In those times, then I have to look to Jesus, and again I have to remember who I am and whose I am. Then I say, “There is a person out there at South Pointe or at Charity or at University Hospital that is dying. Waiting for somebody. And I can sit here in a snit or I can make a difference.” And so I ask him to use my sufferings, to let me take up that Cross and push me forward where I don’t even feel like going, and I go, and he’s always there.

Those are just a few thoughts today, as we move into Passion Week. The things that we’ve lost, the people that we’ve lost, the youth that some of us have lost, the figures we’ve lost…all of those, everything! It’s all important, what we lose along the way! But if we can find a way, then let our spirits speak, share the loss with one another, and take what we’ve lost, look at it, and keep it as a story, because it exists forever. Tell the story. Share the story, and maybe somewhere  in the midst of the sharing of the story, maybe somewhere in the midst of our tears, a smile comes out, because we know who we are and whose we are, and we know that, yes, our God is real.

Exuberance Is Beauty

Father Dan Begin and I never talked about William Blake, the English Romantic poet, which may sound pretentious, but we were two old English majors who enjoyed hauling out our tattered copies of the Norton Anthology of English Literature on occasion. T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” would make an appearance in Father Dan’s Epiphany sermons, and he enjoyed reading Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur” during the Easter season. So we probably could have talked about Blake. We just never got around to it.

William Blake

William Blake

Two lines keep bubbling up from my superficial acquaintanceship with Blake. One is this post’s title: Father Dan was nothing if not exuberant, and his exuberance created beauty everywhere among both plants and animals. The other line is “Damn braces. Bless relaxes.” You brace yourself against being damned, or even criticized, while blessing and acceptance put you at ease. Father Dan never condemned people. He could damn wars and racism, for sure, but not people. He chose them instead. He blessed them. He was unshockable. In a religion known for its rules, recriminations, and binding strictures, Father Dan pursued other priorities.

“My job,” he would say, “is to lead people to freedom.”

After St. Cecilia closed, Father Dan spent a few years at another urban parish, St. Philomena in East Cleveland. Soon after he started there, he told me this story.

Courtyard at St. Phil's

Courtyard at St. Phil’s

One day, after celebrating Mass and attending meetings at St. Phil’s, he decided to take a stroll around the neighborhood. He was, uncharacteristically, wearing his priest’s collar.

A mail truck pulled up next to him, and the carrier leaned out his door and asked, “Are you the priest at that church?”

“Not the priest, but a priest. I just started here,” Father Dan answered.

“Father,” the driver said, “I’ve been out of the church for a long time. I haven’t gone to Mass or had the sacraments for years, and I don’t know how to get back into it.”

Father Dan replied, “Well, do you want to get out of the truck, or do you want me to get in?”

The man hopped out of the truck, and Father Dan gave him absolution on the sidewalk. “There you go,” he said. “Now you can come back to church whenever you want.” Hugs were no doubt exchanged.

The mail carrier kept on laughing as he climbed back into his truck. Shaking his head, he said, “I didn’t know it was that simple! That was all I needed.”

“I didn’t tell him, of course, that he didn’t even need that,” Father Dan told me. “He could have come back to church any time. All I did was show him what was possible.”

How to Be Happy, Redux

4000 readers and counting have read Monday’s post about Father Dan. As I posted on Facebook, I can now conclude that people find Father Dan more interesting than borderline personality. Just to provide perspective: I might get around 50 hits on an ordinary blog post, especially when I share the link on Facebook. I’ve never experienced anything like this.

So in honor of Father Dan, laid to rest in a beautiful service yesterday, I’m reposting something from July, 2016. I was moved to share it back then because of Father Dan’s diagnosis with esophageal cancer, and I wanted to reach out to him and start passing around some of the things I’d written. He was having a lot of trouble eating, and this posting about hunger and choices seemed apropos. I think he himself saw it linked on Facebook and “liked.”

The hunger theme applies now as well, because Father Dan’s symptoms returned some weeks before his death. Being unable to eat was an especially harsh ordeal for someone who so loved good food (and the fellowship that goes with it) and good wine. This hard experience  added impetus to his plan at his Bedford parishes to expand their food pantry into a hunger center, offering both groceries and hot meals. He mentioned this objective in lots of his final conversations with people. His family’s obituary listed the St. Mary/Our Lady of Hope Hunger Center as a place to donate in his memory (300 Union, Bedford, OH 44146).

 

How To Be Happy

This is a transcription of a homily delivered on August 3, 2008, in which Dan explored the theme of choice, based on readings from Isaiah and from Matthew’s account of the loaves and fishes. I hope both believing and non-believing readers can find something to appreciate here.

I can tell you that whatever happens, there is a banquet set before me by a Parent who loves me.

 

loaves-fishesMost of us have never been really, really, really hungry. Most of us, even if we feel really hungry, have actually eaten very recently. Now here is an interesting thing. In the seminary we had a secret society. We would do subversive things, like read the Dutch catechism. We’d read Jean Paul Sartre.  We’d read terrible underground books. We were going to solve the problems of the world, though, as you can see, we haven’t quite accomplished that. To solve world hunger, we thought we had to feel what the people felt. So we went on a five-day fast.

After about the first hour on the first day, we were already hungry.  By three hours, we were starving, and by seven hours, our hunger was beyond imaginable. By the second day, we just felt blah. Then you develop a headache that you just cannot make go away. On the third day, you still have the headache, and you feel all-over dreadful. By the fourth day, the headache goes away, and you feel kind of high. You hardly think about food, and meal times pass by, and you don’t pay attention. And by the fifth day, it becomes really, really hard to eat, and so when it was time to start eating again, I couldn’t eat a whole piece of toast. It’s hard to get your system to eat again.

Now, this experiment was exciting, because the whole group of us was bound and determined to do this together. We were going to have an experience. Of course, the true reality of hunger is something much different, something we didn’t even get close to.

Around the same time I read an article. I can’t remember where it was or who wrote it, but the author was in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in World War II. He described real, true hunger much better that I ever could. He wrote that the prisoners got only two handfuls of rice every day. After awhile, he said, you lose all motivation. You are totally drained physically, and it’s probably worse to eat a little bit than nothing at all. Eating that little bit is just enough to keep you surviving. You lose all concern for anybody else. You lose the ability to believe in a God or anybody else. Day by day, you just wait for those handfuls of rice.

One day, this man did something that made the prison guard angry, and the guard dumped all his food on the ground. The prisoner just lay on the ground crying, as he describes it, thinking that handful of rice was everything for him, and now it was gone.

Then another man approached and gave him half of the rice he had, half a handful. In that half of a handful, all of a sudden everything came back. The man’s belief in God, his belief in love, his belief in life—everything came back with that gift of only half as much as he was getting regularly. Because of a moment of love, half a handful of rice was worth a whole life. What an amazing thing. Hunger calls us: the only way to survive and make sense out of life, the only way to survive and make sense out of God, is through that sharing of food.

In the Gospel today we hear the story of the feeding of the 20,000. That’s 5000 men plus women and children. You figure it had to be at least twenty thousand, maybe thirty. And notice that the evangelist makes sure to say there are significantly more people besides men in the world. Though the world counts only men, the evangelist says, look at all the women and children—they’re people, too. That was a very profound statement.

Here’s the situation. Jesus’s idol, the person who brought him to the beginning of his ministry, his cousin, John the Baptist, the one who got the whole ball rolling, the one who Jesus said is “greater than an angel,” not only was dead, but brutally murdered. He had his head cut off at a banquet. What a horrible, horrible thing.

And Jesus was so horrified, and he was so frustrated. He said to his disciples, “I have to get away. I can’t do this any more.” He needed to just be alone. He found his way to a deserted place, but by the time he got there, the crowds had already heard where he was going. Somebody leaked it. And there they were: 25,000 people. He said, “Oh, well. I guess it’s not time to mourn.” His heart was moved with pity. He was hungry for time alone with his God, but he gave up what little he had to share with others, with 25,000 others.

The apostles said, “Send them away. You’re in control. Tell them you’ve cured their sick. Tell them to go away.”

Jesus said, “There’s no need for them to go.” He didn’t want them to go. Though he didn’t want to see them at first, now he didn’t want them to go. He told the disciples to feed them. And the apostles got testy. Understandably so. They said, “What do you expect us to do? We have only five loaves and two fish and thousands of people.”

He said, “Give me what you have.” Now, this story is recorded in every Gospel. The multiplication of loaves is actually recorded six times, because there are other records of feeding the 2000 or 3000. Six times in four gospels, it’s recorded over and over. It was so significant  to the early Christians in the time of the Gospel writing that they made sure it was put in over and over and over again. No other story has six versions.

Jesus was telling them, “You with your very little bit can do anything if you believe. You with your very little bit can change the whole world if you choose. But if you choose to keep that little bit, you tie my hands.”

It was a little boy, as it’s recorded in Matthew, who gave his five loaves and two fish. He came forward, not the apostles. The apostles probably had stuff stashed away, but they weren’t going to tell anybody. A lot of people probably had stuff stashed away, but they weren’t going to tell anybody. Some commentators think maybe that’s what the real miracle was. People took out their stashes. First, they thought, “I’m not showing this to anybody,” and then some little boy embarrassed them and said, “Here’s what I have,” and all of a sudden people started pouring out what was in their pockets, and they had more than enough

But in that moment, something more significant than the food happened, just like with that half a handful of rice. Something happened that said to people, “Once again we can believe that our God takes care of our needs. Once again, we believe that together we can make things happen. Once again, we can believe that life is a banquet, even when we’re hungry. Once again, we can choose the life that’s set before us, knowing that our life is the banquet and the gift and the food. And knowing that even in the hunger we may find something so significant, something so much more powerful than anything we can find when we’re full.”

And the message just shouts out loud and clear. Jesus didn’t take a poll and say, “Who’s a sinner here? You need to get forgiven before you can get any food.” He didn’t take a poll to see who’s good and who’s bad. He just said these are people. It’s just like New Yorkers rushing to help at the World Trade Center. There were people in need. Run and meet those needs.

The first reading from Isaiah is also such a beautiful passage. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water. It still flows. Whether you think you see it or not, the water still flows. All you who have no money, come, receive grain and eat. Come, come without pain. Come without cost. Drink wine, and drink fresh milk. But don’t spend your money on what is not bread. Don’t spend your wages on what fails to satisfy.”

Institutions, no matter which institutions they are, over and over and over, want to take control of the meal. Institutions say, “You can eat because you’re one of us. You can’t eat because you’re not one of us. We’ll offer what we have to you over here, but not to you over there. Some people are the kind we want. You others are not.” But unlike institutions, families do not choose who is part of their life. Isaiah—and this is before Jesus—says that God has a family. God is this Mother who has our name written on the palm of her hand, and She will not stop being Mother.

Isaiah speaks of a God who says, “Come, come eat of my food, drink of my wine. Come, share the banquet of life.” This God does not make exceptions. This God does not say it’s only for this one and not for that one. Even if your mother should forget you, this God says, “I shall not forget you, because I am the perfect Parent. I am the one who knows you always and forever, who knows you inside and out.” In the last part of this chapter, Isaiah says, “Seek the Lord while He may be found. There’s still time. You can find God. Let the scoundrel turn away from those wicked ways. Let the wicked one repent from his sins and come back. Come back, and eat of the food that God presents to us.” And that banquet is laid out before us right here, right now.

Most of us wake up in the morning, and we look to our Parent who has presented us with a banquet, and we say, “I don’t like that. Get it away. That’s nasty. That’s bitter. That doesn’t appeal to me. It might be all right some other day, but today I want something else.”  And we want to give the Parent of the Universe the directions on what my banquet should be. And, of course, my banquet is all about me. My banquet is healthful. I have my medical covered.  I have my house in order. I have my banquet, and that banquet is the one I choose.

But what about the reality banquet? What about the real banquet? Whether I choose to accept it or not, I woke up today knowing that I’m going to have an eternal life. I woke up today knowing that I have a God who loves me. I woke up today knowing that I have people who love me. I can’t tell you how things are going to work out in my life, and I can’t tell you how things are going to work out today. I can’t tell you if I’m going to be breathing half an hour from now. It doesn’t matter. I can tell you that whatever happens, there is a banquet set before me by a Parent who loves me.

But there are those in the institutions who would try to take all that away from me.  In my mind, I can choose to believe them. Terrorists may make me afraid all the time. And if I choose to walk around being afraid all the time, well, that’s my problem, because they can only kill the body. They can’t kill the soul.

Churches would have me believe that unless I follow particular magic formulas or particular sets of laws, they can exclude me from the love of God.  But St. Paul says, “Who, who can separate me from the love of Christ? Who will separate us? Anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril or the sword? No, no, none of these. In all things we are conquerors, if we know whose hand we hold. We are conquerors if we know who we are. We are conquerors if we know what we inherit. We are conquerors if we know that we are sisters and brothers and heir to the same thing as Jesus Christ. We are more than conquerors.”

Instead of believing what others tell us, we need to go to the Somebody who knows, and that’s our Parent. We need to say that beautiful prayer that Jesus taught us: “Father, Abba, Daddy.” We need to recognize that nobody, but nobody, can take this away from us. Shame on us if we believe that they can.

We don’t need all of the things that our country provides for us. We don’t need all the things this church provides. We don’t need all the things that the world insists that we need. We don’t need a ten-year plan. We don’t need to go through our medical benefits. We don’t need to have insurance for this that and the other thing.

I was talking to someone the other day who works full-time and then 36 hours more. He said. “I just crave a day off.”

I said, “Quit one of your jobs.”

He said, “Oh, I can’t.”

“You’re working, and your wife’s… “

“No, to pay all the bills, we have to do this,” he insisted.

Well, I thought, if in your mind, you have to do this, you have to do it. It’s what you choose to control you. You choose what separates you from the love of Christ, from the love of life, from the experience that lies right before us.

And so, we’re challenged today by these readings. We’re challenged to ask, “What did I wake up with this morning? This is the food that God has presented to me. This is what God has given me.” I may seek other things and better ways, and that’s not a bad thing, but I can never say I don’t have enough unless I choose to say it. If I give away moments of joy, moments of peace, if I waste my time in moments of anguish and pain and suffering because things are not exactly the way I want them to be, well, then, that four-letter word “want” needs to get out of my vocabulary. “Want” will just destroy me. I need to choose: This is what I have, and this is what I can do with it.

And then I need to dream. Dream! What can I do with this marvelous gift I have? Perhaps I’m ninety-six years old and can’t do much. Maybe I can talk to some child and give her a little story from the past. I can use what I have.

How can I use who I am, what I have, the banquet that’s laid before me, and recognize that it’s a new banquet every day, that there is always enough, and that in God’s plenty I will never go wanting? In choosing that gift, we find that the kingdom is right here and right now.

 

 

Father Dan Once Again

Saturday morning my friend and pastor Dan Begin died at the home of his sister Donna. This is very hard for everyone who knew him, but he chose—and I emphasize chose—to ease the way for us all by his attitude of acceptance.

Father Dan was a glass-half-full sort of person. His sister Laura always said that Danny got up every morning looking to see how the Creator of the Universe had rearranged things for his entertainment. She also jokingly complained that he used up her family inheritance of serotonin. He was not, by any stretch, a depressive. So it makes sense, doesn’t it, that the day before he died he said, “I hope everyone is learning about dying from me. Don’t be afraid! It’s beautiful!”

And one of the last times I saw him, he asked me to pass on this wisdom: “We complicate life, but it’s really very simple.  It’s all about getting our basic needs met and seeing that others’ basic needs are met. Beyond that, all everyone really wants are family, a meal, playing some games, having fun. We complicate everything, we make wars, and we create drama. But it’s really all about finding joy in each other.”

Before you dismiss these attitudes as simplistic and Pollyanna-like, you need to understand how Father Dan spent his time, amidst more darkness and pain than most of us ever encounter. He sat by countless bedsides of people dying and performed hundreds of funerals—averaging three or four a week in recent years. In his large family, he witnessed debilitating illnesses and terrible accidents. Seven years ago, the diocese of Cleveland ripped away his church, his community, and his home of thirty years. He counseled victims of incest, rape, and other abuse.  He had a special ministry to people with addiction. He endured his own profound losses of parents, siblings, and friends. He himself suffered various ailments, even before the cancer that took his life. He knew and loved way too many people who died of gunshot wounds, suicide, and overdoses. He saw and confronted injustice everywhere.

No wonder that sometimes the good cheer gave way to dark humor and startling bluntness. I’ve heard more than one homily in which he said, “You know those people Jesus healed? They’re all dead now.” He meant that Jesus didn’t come to take away our problems. In fact, if you choose faith, you often choose a harder way. A few months ago, I heard him preach, “Our stories never end happily. It’s always a sad ending.” Of course, he had profound faith in an ultimate happy ending, but he was talking about the end of our lives on earth. “Life always has a tragic ending,” he said, and I thought then he was preparing us for what came on Saturday.

The astonishing thing about Father Dan is not his sunny optimism. It’s that it was so hard won. It’s true he was blessed with a sanguine temperament, but in order to deal with exhausting pain in his life and ministry he dived deep and prayed. He spent hours alone in nature, alone with Scripture, alone with music. He deliberately worked his way through grief and sadness. When I asked him once why he was so happy, he said, “It’s a decision. It’s conscious, and it’s a habit.” He didn’t avoid the dark tunnel. He chose it. He entered it willingly and suffered his way to the bright light at the end.

The Wiz

I’ve written a fair number of words about my friend Father Dan Begin and have decided for various reasons to begin sharing them now and then. This one was mostly written a few years back, when this adventure occurred.

    I just decide to give up control. That’s all you can do.

emerald cityFather Dan has purchased and distributed twenty tickets to see a production of The Wiz at Cleveland’s Near West Theatre. This is a small amateur program featuring regular kids from the city in high-quality productions. It’s my first visit to the theater, but Father Dan has taken people to Finian’s Rainbow and other shows in the past. Driving home afterwards, my friend Leanne and I count up all the ways Father Dan has done good in this one evening.

He’s supporting a small, independent arts organization which helps kids and their neighborhood and the city of Cleveland.

He’s encouraging the two young people we all know who are performing in the production.

He’s providing twenty parishioners and friends, a lovely multicultural group, a fun night out at his own expense.

He’s furnished a catered dinner (macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, fish, salad, peach cobbler) in the church rectory for everyone before the show, and in so doing patronizes another independent business.

He estimates that the evening costs him about $300. The show’s tickets are only $8.00, a bargain for what turns out to be a great production. Father Dan doesn’t earn much, but he saves for just such evenings as this, which he organizes periodically, and always has more fun than anyone else.

Not that the evening is without its stresses. While we’re eating in the rectory before the show, he fields at least five phone calls from people who are meeting us at the theater (hence not eating the abundant food he has purchased). They all require directions to the theater. It’s on Cleveland’s West Side, terra incognita to many of us East Siders. He cheerfully repeats the address and directions over and over, while he’s eating, to caller after caller, sometimes repeating them patiently many times to the same person.

He hopes to leave early so that he can pick up the tickets and meet everyone at the theater who’s coming, but first the food has to be put away. He calmly begins covering the containers himself before others catch on and begin to help. One of the people who’s riding in our car dawdles. Although anxious to get going, Father Dan–I’m watching him carefully–shows no impatience.

At the theater box office, he chats cheerfully with the staff while collecting his twenty tickets. He passes them out to us who rode in the first car with him and asks that we save places in the theater for those coming up behind. We find seats in the filling auditorium and save a couple around us, and then I move up higher to save some more seats. Our folks begin to arrive, but they don’t stay in the seats I’ve saved. They move to others in order to sit by friends. I’m feeling responsible and anxious. I can’t move, because what if our attendees arrive and there are no seats for them to sit together? I save some more seats, but our attendees continue to scatter hither and yon.

Just as the play is about to start, I move to my own seat, and Father Dan slides into his seat on the aisle. Frustrated with everyone–with their lateness and their darned independence about choosing their seats–I ask him if he ever gets annoyed about all the arranging.

“Yeah, I hate that part of it,” he says matter-of factly. “I just decide to give up control. That’s all you can do.” Then he laughs.

Right away, when the music begins, he turns and focuses completely on the stage. Every now and then throughout the evening, I glance to my left and see Father Dan grinning–not just for a moment or two, but almost continuously. Then, when the music turns serious, and a character is saying something wise, his face gets serious, too, and he actually nods. Unconsciously, automatically, he nods, completely immersed in the show, the music, and the moment.