Men and Women in Ministries Together

warning_former_altar_boy_t_shirt-p235163770846829727trdy_152So the recent uproar over the comments made by Cardinal Burke here and a San Francisco parish’s banning of female altar servers has caused a great disturbance in the force from where I sit.  Over 50 people responded to my question asking them for their opinion on this matter.  It brings up a number of issues regarding gender and the church.  I’d like to restrict this discussion to current eligible roles for women and male laypeople in the church at this time, so as not to get this discussion clouded by the issue of  priestly ordination.

An initial story to begin:

Not long ago, I walked into a sacristy and there was a need for lector at the mass. One of the Deacons saw me walk in and said “Oh, Mike’s here, he can do it.”

Almost immediately, a female pastoral associate replied, “We don’t need any more men up there!”

Now, I wasn’t all that offended by her remark and normally I would generally agree but, on this particular Sunday the second lector was a younger woman and all 7 eucharistic ministers were not only all women, but were all white middle-aged women!

And this was the case for the next 5 Sundays as well.

So, who really was the minority?  People of color (In fairness, that usually is not the case at this parish), lay men and younger people of both sexes.

But I also wondered if I were a young man in my 20s and had walked in and had been (or wanted to be trained as) a lector, what would that response have been?  Would he have felt as welcomed?  Would he have been invited into something more?  Would I have been so turned off by her remark that I would have dismissed the parish as being un-welcoming?

Unknown-1So while we certainly do want to invite women into our ministries and while we also want to invite young girls into the ministry of being altar servers, we also don’t want to do this to the exclusion of lay men and young boys and we should continue to look at just how diverse we really are.

It sometimes amazes me that quite a number of people who claim to speak for diversity and gender equality are quick to exclude others who are not part of their group.  I call this militantism and it has no place in Catholic circles.  Militant people are different from passionate people.  There are advocates for all kinds of groups that need someone to stand up for their needs or otherwise they will be excluded.   Most often, those people are indeed passionate.  However, too often, there are some who are so militant about their special interest group that they become exclusionary of others.  They become the very thing they hope to fight against.

Cardinal Burke, in his griping about female altar servers, is dangerously close to someone who aims to exclude here. Burke astutely sees his male priesthood shrinking and this is certainly cause for alarm.  He sees male altar servers as a link to seminarian candidates.  In short, he is trying to keep his species alive and sees male altar servers as a way to do procreate the priesthood. At heart, his intention is a good one and he is passionate about his cause.  But the end result, is exclusionary, because he sees girls as a barrier to young boys seeking a vocation. In fact, he has said that the girls are so good at being altar servers that the boys often quit!  Frankly, that means that the girls are not the problem! Perhaps the boys might need to try harder?  Perhaps more training is needed for both groups? Perhaps there are exclusionary scheduling issues going on (where only the girls serve at one mass and the boys at another and they never serve together!)? Or might this even be pure nostalgia?  Often you hear older priests talk about the “good old days” when only boys were serving at the altar.  Our nostalgia is often not what we remember, but rather is simply an experience of the past that we liked, but didn’t result in anything deeper.

The larger question is that if some see a link between male altar servers and entry into the priesthood, what link might they see between female altar servers and their religious practices?

There’s probably not a case to be made of a link between female altar servers and entry into women’s religious communities (even more dwindling numbers exist there), but there may be a case to be made for women entering into lay ministry fields (youth ministry, campus ministers, directors of religious education, pastoral associates, etc).  What about active parishioners, who run a good deal of programming in parishes and are often willing volunteers?  We need these people too!

The goal here should be to integrate people of both genders into the life of the church!  Jesus did not exclude anyone from his company and so we should follow in turn.  So here are four points that I’d like us to consider when we are looking to be more inclusive in ministries in general.

1)  Direct, personal invitation:  Do we invite people to serve as lectors or extraordinary ministers of holy communion?  Do we seek people out who we have come to know to try to engage them into the ministries of the altar more intentionally?  Almost all of our lectors were female here at the Campus, so I’ve tried hard to get more men involved.  I’ve invited two men in the last two weeks and both readily accepted and even came to the training on time.

2)  Balance in all things:   We only have male priests, so we should minimally start with inviting a woman to serve in some role at the altar.  Perhaps as a lector, cantor or eucharistic minister.  Then, the next person we should invite is another male.  Can we be mindful of diversity here?  Is there a younger woman or man who we could tap to balance the generational divides that too frequently separate us from one another?  Can those who have been doing things for ages, move into an administrative role, doing less and training and advising more, while still modeling what to do now and again?  Can everyone look beyond themselves and invite new and interested people into ministries for more participation each week?  Do we only invite the educated few, leaving out those who often feel unworthy or alienated?

3)  Altar Serving:  Are they well-trained?  Do they all have particular roles each week?  I can remember four roles I was taught as an altar server:

Acolyte (Book):  This server holds the book and assists at the offertory.  They place the chalice on the altar and when there is no deacon, they “set the table” for the priest.

Acolyte (bell):  In parishes where bells are rung, this server does this and also serves at the offertory.

Crosier:  This server carries the processional cross and at high masses, assists with the incense boat. (also assists with holy water when there is a sprinkling rite).

Thurifer:  This server is at high masses only and processes in with the Thurible.

And again, balance…can we schedule a boy and a girl to be the acolytes?  And then rotate the third role with with a boy or a girl weekly?  Maybe a more Senior member serves as the Crosier to oversee the younger servers who learn by doing?  And maybe trainees start by being the crosier so they can observe more and then jump in once they know what the heck they are doing?

4)   Create Called Community:  And in community, we hang out together!  If there’s one lesson to be learned here it is that people long to be together, to engage in conversation, to recreate together and to love one another.  If there’s one thing my students have taught me is that they have the desire to be together.

Do we do more than just serve at the altar? Can we move people from the altar into other ministries–where we go beyond the parochial bounds into a place where others are in need.

Someone on my Facebook page posted the following note:

Meanwhile as the Church debates keeping girls out of altar serving, 4 million kids went hungry, 500,000 people froze with out a home, cancer has taken millions of lives, prisoners did not have the opportunity to see the way truth and the light, 8,000 parishioners died, and we missed helping 20,000 pregnancies NOT end in abortion.

So we certainly have a need to awaken this community into a “called community” that seeks diversity and inclusion for itself.  And we do this not merely so things look “fair and balanced.”  No we do it so that we might also be called to see others that too often we think of as different.  We fail to see others sometimes as having our human dignity and we fail to claim responsibility for them. We too often continue to become exclusionary people and push those who we see as different to the margins.

And that is why we come to church, to remind ourselves not to do this.

And so we need to start modeling what this looks like this around our altars, to let all in our community see that God has not made us for division, but rather, for communion.

Can we constantly be seeking communion?  And that means Males and Females TOGETHER, not one at the exclusion of another.

So altar servers, past and present, know that we have been blessed by your service.  You mean more than you know.  Today, invite someone who does not look like you into joining your ministry and if they tell you that you can’t, tell them that they must and be a reminder of all that is good about our church–a church that calls everyone to not exclude the other.

Most especially, from Jesus.

What is a Godparent?

Jonathan and Marianne
Jonathan and Marianne

I joke with my friends Jonathan and Marianne who are expecting their second child often about the fact that they “owe” me because they met on one of my BustedHalo Retreats many years ago. In fact, the first time I met their son, Aiden, he looked deeply at me and this little wry smile came across his face.

I looked to his parents and said, “He knows!  And you’re welcome. I’m glad I could be a small part of you being here, Aiden!”

So, Marion and I were recently asked to be the Godparents of their soon-to-be-born child (any day now).  And we’re over-the-moon excited. Neither of us have ever been asked to be Godparents in a situation where it would be appropriate for us to do so.  We’re a bit on the young side for our cousins to have asked and our nieces and nephew are not Catholic, so we wouldn’t have had the opportunity there.  But Jonathan and Marianne are good friends and we’ve really enjoyed their company.

But it occurred to me, that none of this would be happening if it were not for Christ.

A retreat brought Jonathan and Mare together.  A retreat that Christ inspired us to start so many years ago.  A retreat where God’s love and grace allowed others to share openly, at deeper levels and brought them into a greater awareness of that love through each other.

And that love now gives new life, literally, to all of us and in many other ways as well.  It gives a new child to a loving couple, it gives a new experience to my wife and me and it gives new life to a community who witnesses it all.

Sometimes I am sad over the prospect of not having children of our own.  But I also know that God had and has other plans for me to be life giving.  He gives that opportunity to so many of us, including our priests and women religious.  Spiritual directees, students, retreatents, caring for parents and siblings, loving my nieces and nephew…all different experiences of giving life to another.

And it is more than enough.

It seems to me, that this is what a Godparent does best.  A Godparent points to the presence of God and takes responsibility for making sure that this actually happens in partnership with their parents who always have a lead role. The parents, you see, need to also have the maturity, do be the primary givers of faith.  It is the parents who choose to Baptize their child.  The Godparents, merely say “Amen” to what the parents wish FOR the child and promise to keep that kid true to try to honor the promises made on their behalf.  These parents are already good at this and treasure their faith.  Grandpa is also a Deacon, so this is an easy job for all of us.

As I pray today for the coming of Jonathan and Marianne’s new baby, may that child be filled with the love of Christ and may God continue to show me that indeed I am a giver of life in so many ways.

And a huge amount of gratitude to Jonathan and Marianne for honoring us so.

2014: Get Lost!

So the end of a crappy, crappy year is upon us. I spent today taking my beloved pet, Haze Hayes to the eye doctor who thankfully sent him home with meds and not with surgery plans.

Might as well end on a sort of an up note.

But the Holy Father noted today that the end of a year should be marked by gratefulness, for what has been and for what will be, but more importantly…

“…the Church teaches us to end the year, and in fact each day, with an examination of conscience. This devout practice leads us to thank God for the blessings and graces we have received, and to ask forgiveness for our weaknesses and sins.

The fundamental reason for our thanksgiving, the Pope explained, is that God has made us His children. It is true, he said, that we are all created by God – but sin has separated us from the Father, and has wounded our filial relationship with Him. And so “God sent His Son to redeem us at the price of His Blood.” We were children, the Pope continued, but we became slaves. It is precisely the coming of Jesus in history that redeems us and rescues us from slavery, and makes us free.”

This indeed is true. And so here’s a look back at some of the great things in 2014.

From the World of Medicine
My father survived a bout with colon cancer.
The dog went through a lot of surgery but lived despite it all.
Great doctors, great vets are a sure sign of thankfulness.
Two tough guys duked it out with illness and prevailed.

From the World of Vocation
3 semesters into being the director of Campus Ministry with ups and downs, joys and sorrows.
New initiatives taking hold as we move forward.
Appreciative students who make it all worthwhile and easy.
Good colleagues and friends continue to bring much joy and companionship, especially on tough days.
I’ve developed a greater appreciation for order, calmness and beauty.
That God-forsaken rickety ugly church sign is gone and replaced by a lovely smaller sign affixed to the outer church wall.
I will be editing/writing a new retreat manual for the U.S Pilgrims with two of my favorite colleagues.

From the World of Relationship
Marion and I have been together for 14 years, 12 of them married.
That girl, loves me, you know?!
And I love her more with each passing day.

So the year hasn’t been all bad.  And in the process, I will begin a new year of more focused blogging again.  So I am indeed grateful for much…and for you dear reader.

And so we pray…

Dear Lord, teach me to be grateful and patient.
Teach me to find you in all things, past, present and what will be.
In these things, remind me that I need to see the goodness in the world
Even when times are tough.
Mostly, Lord,
Teach me to find you in all things
For your love and grace are enough for me
If I but remember this all the year through.
Amen.

 

 

Do You Have the Time?

Time..don’t run out on me.

It’s a phrase that I’ve mentioned often in ministry as being an element that is essential to the development of faith. I challenge spiritual directees to prioritize their relationship with God by dedicating at least 20 minutes a day to prayer with the hopeful development that 20 minutes will turn into 40 and 40 will turn to 60 or more. What I find is that most people fall between two extremes: they don’t pray at all, or they find that they crave more prayer and end up exceeding my minimal requirement.

Prayer for me, is also a time-consuming matter. I need to brush out distractions and simply be–but also learn how to mix prayer into the rhythms of my day. For example, after lunch each day, I find myself energized by my colleagues in the student affairs division, who I often eat with close to daily. It’s the one time a day that our paths cross and it gives me insight from other seasoned directors and insight into the tone of the college. As I rise from the table each day, I say to myself, “Thank you, God for these people who fill me with joy.”

To become our prayers, to immerse ourselves in relationship with God, we need conversion–we need to be changed and to be constantly asking for change in our lives. But then also to have some constants that we remain dedicated to in order that they might call us to be critical of who we are becoming. For example, when I write I find myself more awakened to the joys in my life: the students I serve, the colleagues I enjoy, the wife I love, the dog warm on my lap, the sunshine on the water or a good hearty laugh. Writing for me is often a form of prayer and when I dedicate time to it, I find myself centered and relaxed and better able to get through the day–or better put, excel at work and be more open to relationships with others.

One of our graduate students, Matt Gorczyca on his blog, Gorc Meets World (which you should be reading if you are not) had a similar experience regarding writing that sums up my own feelings of getting back into the swing of blogging.

For the first time in a while I was fully immersed in my writing. I was filling pages with ink and typing blocks of text into blog posts. I felt like a machine – but not the kind that I have been the past few months. No, instead of being programmed by the day, with circumstances of an alarm clock, a boss and a pillow dictating how I spent my time, this time I was in control. It was as if I was a transformer. I’ve never seen the movie, but from what I’ve heard it’s basically when machines take over the world. Well I was my own writing machine taking back my world.

I felt revitalized and back to my old energized, creative self. It all came back to giving myself time. All I needed was a few hours in a coffee shop and I was back in my mode of writing. I didn’t have the distractions of a TV, a workload, chores or even people. I was retreating to a world that I could feel like myself again. And boy do I feel more alive than I have in a while.

Amen, brother! Thanks for waking me up as well. It is often difficult to dedicate some real time to all the things we want to do. But it is not impossible to dedicate regular time to the things that give you life. This is the Ignatian Examen at its finest–where we move towards consolation, all that brings us life and away from all that lands us in the dumper.

So some New School Year Resolutions are forming for me:
1) Write–just write. Often, if not daily.
2) Connect with someone new each day.
3) Invite people into opportunities with Campus Ministry often.
4) Exercise daily, even if I just stretch and then vigorously at least three times a week.
5) Rejoice in our retreats, spiritual direction and the things I get to do that bring me more life, bring to me the MAGIS.
5) Identify consolation intentionally twice a day, if not more often and write about it as much as possible.
6) Enjoy a good laugh, good times with friends and love and appreciate my wife better than I already do.
7) I’ll get killed for this but, write about the dog more. The Hazehayes blog may return!

And thanks Matt, for reminding me who I should be more often and what I am called to do.

Obsessed With Others…In Good and Bad Ways

Today’s NY Times has reporter Laurie Goodstein talking about Conservative Catholics (her term, not mine) being disenchanted with Pope Francis. One particular commenter stuck out for me.

Steve Skojec, the vice president of a real estate firm in Virginia and a blogger who has written for several conservative Catholic websites, wrote of Francis’ statements: “Are they explicitly heretical? No. Are they dangerously close? Absolutely. What kind of a Christian tells an atheist he has no intention to convert him? That alone should disturb Catholics everywhere.”

Should it? I’m not sure it should. Don’t get me wrong, I’d be gloriously happy if we had a bunch of new Catholics around, but I’m not sure I can MAKE anyone convert to our faith. I also think it would be haughty for me to think I could.

The truth is that we can’t control anyone and often, at least I find that there are many who are overly concerned about control. They need to have rigid rules and strict adherence to those rules–not merely for themselves, the one person that they actually have control over, but also for others. There seems to be a constant preoccupation with influencing others and their beliefs.

But shouldn’t we be obsessed with others? That’s the forthcoming question and my answer is a certain yes, but not with an eye towards controlling them and making them into who we hope they will be–any parent knows all too all well that this is a recipe for disaster. Rather, we need to be obsessed with people who are far too often left out. We need to be obsessed with those who face poverty, with those who can’t care for their children, with those who are elderly and lonely.

And by being obsessed and working closely to care for their needs and even more so, by changing the systems that keep people in vulnerable situations, we, in fact, convert others without controlling them or even saying a word.

We are most powerful when we are not merely living FOR others but also living WITH others. When we don’t exert our power over another but have the courage to be with people in solidarity. Giving people the freedom to be who they are and being humble enough to realize that we don’t always have all the answers.

A prime example: As the director of Campus Ministry there’s obviously a power imbalance between my students and myself. Less so, but still there, is a different kind of power imbalance between the campus ministry staff and myself.

I find that I’m a much more effective director with the campus ministry staff when I am open and honest with them. When I share my feelings with them. When I am able to be myself and allow them to see me as a person who cares for their professional needs and doesn’t just want them to complete tasks.

With students when I can care and empathize with their struggles and share a bit of my own, I find I can develop a deeper relationship with them. One based on mutual trust instead of my authority as an administrator. When I can treat each person as an individual instead of trying to get everyone to just get in line and do what I want, I find people are more willing to give me the benefit of the doubt most of the time, mostly because they know I have their best interests at heart.

When we are far too concerned about the results, we miss the person standing in front of us. We also keep people at an arm’s length–as if we only care about them as they relate to our success, our conversion rate, if you will, where numbers on converts trump caring for people despite what they believe and emphasizing that conversion lies in coercion instead of realizing that the conversion of souls lies in the person’s development in their relationship with God, not in their relationship with you.

We need to give people freedom and be obsessed with their lives, not with our own.

Can We Heal Wounds?

When the horror of September 11th came upon the United States my friends with children fought vigorously to keep their children away from the television screen. Others even fought to keep themselves away from the images we know all too well from that day. Many wondered what to tell their kids when they returned home from school and some even hoped that their teachers hadn’t spilled the beans.

I wondered to myself if this were a healthy approach? It makes sense that we don’t want people, never mind children to be exposed to horrible images that could have traumatic effects on their psyche. But what about telling them about what happened? It seems that many of my friends tried to seal the information from their kids for at least some time, usually before one of their friends remarked about the dreadful news.

I started to think about other things that people don’t tell their kids because they don’t want them to worry. Finances are hard. Mom’s got cancer. There was an accident. Your dog went to heaven. It seems anything that is bad is taboo for children at times and people only tell them things that they need to, only when absolutely necessary.

Slate had a great article today that got me thinking about this. They claim three real reasons that college students (and the rest of us, they claim) are more stressed out than ever before. I’ll riff on each here and add a fourth that stems from them and will add some thoughts about what I see amongst my own students and colleagues.

The first is a lack of community. One colleague of mine said: “I knew there was trouble when I found two student residents in their room arguing with one another–but they weren’t yelling at each other, they were TEXTING and IMing while in the same room! I put a stop to that and made them hash it out.”

Human contact and kinship help alleviate anxiety (our evolutionary ancestors, of course, were always safer in numbers), yet as we leave family behind to migrate all over the country, often settling in insular suburbs where our closest pal is our plasma-screen TV, we miss out on this all-important element of in-person connection. As fear researcher Michael Davis of Emory University told me: “If you’ve lost the extended family and lost the sense of community, you’re going to have fewer people you can depend on, and therefore you’ll be more anxious. Other cultures have much more social support and are better off psychologically because of it.” Another factor that adds to this problem—especially among young people—is our growing reliance on texting and social media for community, which many psychologists say is no substitute for real human interaction. When you’re feeling most dreadful, you don’t run to your Facebook profile for consolation; you run to a flesh-and-blood friend.

I think about my own students with this one. One of the most popular clubs on campus is our Christian Life Communities, a weekly prayer group of sorts that invites people to do a short form of the Ignatian examen in community. We discuss the highs and lows of the week and provide a meditation and a time for affirmations and prayer requests. It’s one of the times in my week that I feel I can really connect with our students and I start to hear just what people are carrying around with them. This is safe space and sometimes when I hear what people are dealing with I’m surprised they are walking and talking, never mind getting a degree. I feel the same way about the students I’ve seen in spiritual direction. And I often feel that they are unprepared for all that life is offering them and impressed that somehow they are still able to function at such high levels.

Professionally, I notice the texting more amongst outside younger colleagues than amongst my students at Canisius. I communicate with many people via text. And sometimes it’s inappropriate. There are some who try to conduct business via text when it would be faster and easier to call and have a conversation. Indeed texting is somehow more efficient but then again, it can lead to problems. My staff does this well. We text when necessary. When we need to get a message to someone quickly and think they are in a meeting or can’t talk. Or when the message is a quick one that requires some kind of action “Can you grab cider for the meeting?” would be an example.

The second is information overload which I discuss at length in my book, Googling God. There’s so much information out there that you can’t possibly consume it all. Our students often ask for bullet points and other quick soundbytes of information and I often give it to them because they just don’t need one more thing to read and information is bombarding them at high rates all the time. I don’t ever not recommend reading and I give them plenty to chew on when I think there’s a book or an article that is worth their time, but I also try to encourage that there’s not a rush to consume this information–to savor the reading process and to enjoy reading and gaining information. I often feel that college would be more enjoyable if we just let students finish when they finish. Now that’s an impossible business model to sustain, but from my own perspective I was able to work and do two graduate classes per semester and I enjoyed that immensely. I found it difficult to take 5 undergraduate classes and hold all that information together while working at the radio station and socializing and all of my campus ministry involvement.

I find my present students are great at balancing their time. Many are involved in much and have heavy duty science majors or are working on a big time business degree. I never knew how the medical students kept up at UB and the pre-meds are just as impressive at Canisius. But I do notice their anxiety. I do notice that it is not easy for them. And I do see them when they get overwhelmed by their to-do lists and the pressure of being good students and having a social life and trying to figure out what they would most like to be and do with their lives.

Some are brilliant: They’ve realized that they are never going to know everything that someone else thinks they should know. It took me years to get that idea through my thick skull.

Finally here’s the last major point:

Put simply, Americans have developed habits for dealing with anxiety and stress that actually make them far worse. We vilify our aversive emotions and fight them, rather than letting them run their own course. We avoid situations that make us nervous. We try to bury uncomfortable feelings like anxiety and stress with alcohol or entertainment or shopping sprees. Psychologist Steven Hayes, creator of a highly effective anxiety treatment formula called acceptance and commitment therapy, told me that we’ve fallen victim to “feel-goodism,” the false idea that “bad” feelings ought to be annihilated, controlled, or erased by a pill. This intolerance toward emotional pain puts us at loggerheads with a basic truth about being human: Sometimes we just feel bad, and there’s nothing wrong with that—which is why struggling too hard to control our anxiety and stress only makes things more difficult.

Amen! We protect ourselves way too much. And we protect others from our sadness and what we perceive is their sadness way too much.

Interestingly enough, comedian Louis CK hits the nail on the head with this: (warning: vulgar at times).

Perhaps our call is not to remove our student’s sadness or stress, but to help them more appropriately deal with that. We often do this in community on retreats, prayer groups, spiritual direction and on more than a few occasions by collaborating with our counseling center.

Our students need us and more importantly, they need community, they need time to chill to detox from information and they need to share their fears in a safe space where they can actually feel their emotions and be supported by peers and ministers.

In a world that is marked by terrorism all too often, anxiety is ever present globally and we have fewer resources to turn to because everyone is so busy that we have a hard time paying attention to those who need us. Older Americans might note that they were afraid of the Russians or of the bomb–but their community structure was much more intertwined with one another than our students’ lives are today.

This is our call as higher ed professionals and as Catholic Campus Ministers. As Pope Francis put it in the recent interview in America Magazine:

“I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.”

Heal the wounds… the wounds that are felt deeply and all too easily pushed away. Help people to feel their wounds and then to not be afraid to place your hands in the wounds of Jesus, like Thomas and allow the healing that God has to offer to take place through you, even in small and simple ways. This is ministry.

And it is where we always encounter God waiting for us and asking us to heal wounds.

First Day at School Memories

While many of my friends are sending their kids off to their first day of school and my wife heads in to her first day as the new after-school coordinator at her school, I’m filled with first day of school memories.

Of course, there’s nothing like that first day of school, for the first time. Mine was Kindergarten and my mother walked me to school which was one block from my house. We unexpectedly found my teacher in the hallway and my mother introduced me to her. Miss Suess took me by the hand and we walked to our classroom together and Mom went away. I was excited and anxious at the same time. What was going to happen next?

It was only a half day and I was in the afternoon class. I got switched to the morning class for some reason half way through the year and learned about getting up early.

Each year, we went school clothes shopping and I struggled to cover my books on that first day.

That first day though may very well have been my favorite memory of a first day at school, equalled only by a return to college each year.

Two worse first day memories come to mind:

The first was high school. I walked into my school and was excited. I was off to find my homeroom and was there pretty early. As I past the cafeteria smiling, I saw a group of Seniors sitting at a table. I sighed as I walked past and then I heard them:

“Duh…let’s see who I can make friends with! Stupid, freshman.”

Clearly high school was going to be a problem.

The second was middle school. I was coming into our parish school after going to public school from kindergarten until 6th grade. It started out well. I had come in three days late after a bout with some kind of illness. Mrs. Wasp my teacher, introduced herself and then looked to find me a seat.

Clearly, I was the new guy, but I was known to some in the school because I was an altar boy in the parish. One guy, Claudio, had began spreading rumors about me early and often. We had gotten into an altercation once after a bit of name calling. Apparently, he objected to me bringing up his mother in a foul way and this was his revenge.

Recess came and we played punchball–a kind of baseball game. Someone launched one far down the third base line and I raced over but it was well past me. The ball crawled under the fence before I could get to it. We weren’t allowed to climb over.

“HAYES!” Claudio yelled. “YOU OWE ME A NEW BALL!” He may have pushed me after that. What was worse was that he told all the girls that I stupidly let the ball roll under the fence. I saw someone passing by and got their attention and they retrieved the ball for us which Claudio took credit for later. But damage done. Worst two years of my life was that school and I didn’t look forward to a single day there.

But as I look to our freshman and see their excitement and yes, the jitters that still come with a new place, I recall my own college years as amazing. It fills me with much joy to be a small part of their experience and I hope that these years are a blessing to them.

Today, let’s be grateful for first day experiences, both good and bad. For even the bad ones make us more sensitive to others who may be struggling. The start of something new reminds me of God’s continual wiping away the slate of our sins and giving us a renewed chance to start again.

So as you start again…be grateful for the chance to start over and to make all that you can out of this, nothing more, but more importantly, nothing less. Amen.

Praying Through Baseball

images-1A recent article in the Christian Century tugged at my heartstrings because it brought up the strong connection many of us pastoral ministry types have with baseball. The author, John Buchanan, talks about the connection between having faith in both religion and the baseball team one follows:

The Pirates remain in my heart, of course, and I am in a near existential crisis when they play the Cubs. However the game turns out, I will both win and lose, rejoice and lament. The Pirates have won three World Series championships during my lifetime, most memorably in 1960 when Pittsburgh upset the heavily favored New York Yankees. The Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth to break a 9-9 tie and win the series. It was a moment I have never forgotten. The Cubs, on the other hand, have not won the World Series since 1908 and have created decades of frustration and despair for their followers, with high hopes inevitably crushed, only to be renewed again in the spring.

I sometimes wonder why I care about this game so much. In his new book, Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game, John Sexton (Blogger’s note: Sexton is NYU’s President and a three time Fordham graduate) reinforces my lifelong interest, commitment and enthusiasm. Sexton says that baseball, the only game without a clock, requires concentrated attention and teaches us to “live slow and notice.” He observes that fathers want to give their children something to love, something bigger than themselves to be part of. It is often a religion, and it is often baseball and a team. My parents, thanks be to God, gave me both.

These reflections mirror much of my own feelings about the grand, old game. Most people don’t realize that Baseball is as more about what is not happening than it is about what IS happening. (Will the runner steal? What will the pitcher throw him? Why is the shortstop so deep in the hole for this hitter? Should we bring in a reliever?) The minutia in the game is chock full of statistics and stories that have filled dozens of books and oral traditions. It’s amazing how many stories I have that surround baseball. I can remember moments during high school games, where I almost always rode the bench, but came away with amazing stories and life lessons that have stuck with me to this day. One in particular stands out:

Last inning and our pitcher Mike Rodak heads to the mound and has been masterful. If memory serves he’s throwing a two hitter and we’re up 2-0. Rodak walks the first batter bringing the tying run to the plate. He rears back and throws his best curve of the day to stun the hitter cold and there’s one out. The next batter hits a one hopper that our shortstop knocks down but can only get a force play at second on, but there’s two outs now.

We can smell victory.

Rodak looks spent. He’s all over the place and walks the next guy on four pitches. Now the tying run is on base.

“Mike,” Coach Prior bellows to me, the scorekeeper, “what did this guy do last time?”

“Lined out to straight away center.”

“OK I’m gonna go get Rodak before this guy hits another shot like that!”

“Coach, c’mon. There’s two outs. He also struck this guy out earlier. He’s come this far. Let’s see if he can finish it.”

I knew Mike would rather die than be taken out of this game and he pitched a beauty and thought he could get this guy out.

“Kid,” Coach Prior barked, “You have to win with your best. And right now, Vasquez gives us the best chance at an out.” And Coach trotted out and took the ball from Rodak and handed the ball to Tommy Vasquez, our ace pitcher.

Tommy was amazing. He indeed was our best pitcher on the squad. He even bounced around the minors a bit after he graduated. He was also a great guy, always taking time for guys like me who just didn’t have the talent, but who he saw loved the game and really wanted to just get a chance to contribute. He’d lobby to get me in the game as a pinch hitter and I’d always be grateful. He even let me pinch hit for him once.

So Tommy comes in and we’re feeling confident. “You got this, Tommy!” I yell. After his warm ups, Tommy looks in for the sign. He winds. He throws. Fastball, belt high…

And the batter hits one that I don’t think has landed yet.

There was no wall at this field so the ball just flew and by the time the ball had gotten back the batter has crossed home plate with a walk-off three run homer.

Rodak had been sitting next to me on the bench. He looked forlorn and said to me, “All that shit for nothing.”

It reminds me a bit of what the disciples must have felt like in the upper room. They had done everything right. Jesus, in fact, WAS the messiah and they followed Him, spending days and nights working with him and giving him every ounce of their dedication. Surely He was the one who would set them free from bondage.

And then they killed Him, hanging Him like a common criminal. It was all over in a short 24 hours.

Baseball reminds us, as does Good Friday, that even when we do everything right, sometimes things don’t go as we planned. This is not God playing torture games with us, rather it’s an opportunity for us to find God within the suffering experience.

That afternoon we boarded the bus and Tommy was dejected. Rodak just as angry, not at Tommy, just at the whole mess. We had a small rubber “Sigmund and the sea monsters” plastic hand puppet that was kind of a team mascot for the day. And so Luis Alvarez, our second baseman decided that someone had to break the silence.

“WOW!” he yelled, thrusting Sigmund’s mouth agape, “Tommy got taken REEEEEEEAL DEEP.” And on the word real, Sigmund’s mouth opened immensely.

We all looked at Tommy, who just smiled and then laughed a bit. It was over. There was nothing more to do or say. It was simply time to move on and get them next time. And the next time out Tommy stood a bit stronger for the journey. In fact, I don’t think Tommy or Mike lost again that year.

The themes of forgiveness, resurrection, mindfulness and even silence are intertwined within both baseball and our faith. Like Rev. Buchanan, I am proud that my parents gave me a rich opportunity to be familiar with my faith and to love it. And they also gave me a love for baseball. Together they both have remained with me and have taught me much about resiliency and sacrifice.

May they never leave me. Play ball.

For All That I Am, Lord

Written at the Collegeville Institute as our prayer to describe where the spirit is moving in our communities with regards to their own vocation:

Thank you God for calling me into this place
For the courage to be who you have made me to be
For the gifts I have that have gotten me to answer this call
For the strength to go on when I feel I cannot
And for those around me in this place
Who gather me up when I cannot move for myself.

Rekindle my soul; restore my enthusiasm
So I do not find my self saying
Who the hell signed me up for this?

When I am cranky and squeal like a first grader
Remind me of my first call
And place the cry of the psalmist on my lips
So I remember to call out to you in my deepest fears and lamentations
When I think even the dogs get the scraps that fall from the table
but here I feeling empty and alone.
In those dark times
Rekindle my passion and renew me into the person
You want me to become.

Finally, come Holy Spirit
Make me listen to the stirrings of my heart
call me into being while I am doing
And doing in my being
So that I might serve the world with all that I am
And be aware of the gift I am
Because of who you have made me to be.

Amen

To Find the Sunrise Amidst the Rain

So I just spent two glorious days at the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota, which is one of my all time favorite places. Whether the lovely setting, the St. John’s Abbey, the St. John’s Bible, the amazing people who work there and the groups they gathered to talk about Vocation in Communities, I can’t pick just one great experience.

We discuss how we are helping people discern their vocation in community during these conferences. I do this for instance with a small group of young adults and then some people individually and it’s what brings me life the most in my ministry.

Each time this group gathers to talk about projects we might consider doing in our parishes and communities I get very excited and see dozens of possibilities. Our group, an ecumenical one, meaning a diverse group of different Christian denominations, are simply a group of pastoral people who like to think about these things.

But it also leads us into deeper discernment as well for ourselves. One female Anglican priest was moving from full time to part time status, another person was simply questioning where her community was heading, another was preparing for ordination.

And I’m always considering what it is that I do and how I’m doing it and how I might do it better.

And so I decided to get up early and pray in the St John’s Abbey with the monks. But I also got up earlier because I wanted to see the sun rise over the abbey. In fact, when I woke up I had a strong desire and felt called to go see the sunrise. This has happened to me before on retreats and it has never disappointed.

If you’ve never seen St. John’s Abbey:

IMG_4107

Now imagine what it looks like when the sun hits the honeycombs on the wall! I can only imagine it because it rained this morning and there was no sun to be seen.

And so rather than wallow in disappointment in the rain-soaked morning I had dragged my behind out of bed for, I decided to take a moment of opportunity for silence inside the abbey, one of the most beautiful places I know.

The starkness of the Abbey always moves me into a deeper place of contemplation and today was no different. The small lighted altar gave me a perfect setting in the darkness of the morning:

2013-05-09 06.13.14

After about 15 minutes of silent prayer, i asked God to more intimately remind me of the times in my life this year where I really felt like I was engaged with my vocation. All of these moments involved working with students and young adults on questions of vocation. Whether in spiritual direction or a small group or an alternative break experience or even in the Medical School’s simulation center, I found myself deeply engaged with others talking about who they hope to become.

And when that clarity hit me, I felt much gratitude. And then this happened:

2013-05-09 06.27.50

Coincidence? Perhaps, but I remembered that I had longed to get up and see the sunlight—and here was a much more glorious picture than I had imagined. God always gives us what we need—not always what we expect.

And then…when I thought I could not find any more beauty in this:

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These monks really thought about this place. If you look closely, the lights hit the tiny wires they have attached and it looks like sunbeams emerging from the altar of God! God stretching Himself farther than I asked for to show me just a bit more of what God wants from me in my life, that is simply to be myself, nothing more, but most importantly nothing less.

As we prayed with the Monks I was introduced to a new favorite Psalm:

Psalm 143
Lord, hear my prayer,
listen to my cry for mercy;
in your faithfulness and righteousness
come to my relief.
2 Do not bring your servant into judgment,
for no one living is righteous before you.
3 The enemy pursues me,
he crushes me to the ground;
he makes me dwell in the darkness
like those long dead.
4 So my spirit grows faint within me;
my heart within me is dismayed.
5 I remember the days of long ago;
I meditate on all your works
and consider what your hands have done.
6 I spread out my hands to you;
I thirst for you like a parched land.[a]
7 Answer me quickly, Lord;
my spirit fails.
Do not hide your face from me
or I will be like those who go down to the pit.
8 Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love,
for I have put my trust in you.
Show me the way I should go,
for to you I entrust my life.
9 Rescue me from my enemies, Lord,
for I hide myself in you.
10 Teach me to do your will,
for you are my God;
may your good Spirit
lead me on level ground.
11 For your name’s sake, Lord, preserve my life;
in your righteousness, bring me out of trouble.
12 In your unfailing love, silence my enemies;
destroy all my foes,
for I am your servant.

I began the trek back from the Abbey to the Institute fully refreshed for the day ahead. But mostly, grateful for the opportunity to hear God’s voice speaking to me loudly in the silence of the Abbey, leading me to a deeper sense of my own vocation where I work with people in discernment. People who have deep decisions to make often turn to me to companion them. And that’s a special gift that I have for allowing people to more intimately see who they are becoming and who God has already made them to be.

And that is worth everything.

For God has made it so.