Remembering

On June 17, I lost my best friend. The cadence of his voice, the singularity of his texts, the attentiveness in the way he listened. The chuckle and the comments, the word smithing. He was, after all, a wordsmith (disguised as a carpenter) who was an avid reader and loved the weight and willingness of words, the want for clarity and the wiggle room of meaning. He was calm and gentle, incredibly respectful and consistent, shouldered all his own burdens and assumed full responsibility for actions. In some ways, his quiet made him hard to know; in others, it was intensely revealing of the man he was. He had a warm and tender sense of concern for others, all others, and he chose to help wherever he could. He possessed the courage to name his own insecurities and frame their sources, challenge their existence. He celebrated his friendships and harbored the strongest of feelings for his children. But just after a series of kind and reassuring texts, he was gone. His absence from my life has been a grief of unanticipated depth and breadth. Sleepless nights have blended with loss of appetite and floods of memories. I had always assumed those would be of the best variety since our conversations and time shared was so much a reflection of the home that exists between friends. Instead, so much of it is torturous, resting as it does with the finality of loss and the sense of “never again”. Still, his ideas, his thinking and words, even his gestures, come alive in unexpected moments, in unlikely places, and somehow bring a measure of sanity to the abyss of this grief.

Loss, bereavement, punctuates lives with a cruelty unparalleled, but it also humbles and reframes lives. What once seemed to matter pales in the face of such loss; what can and should matter somehow re-emerge with a deeper awareness and fuller conviction. The truth of who we are and who we can be is neither hidden nor elusive. Loss reminds us of the frailty of life, the shortness of it and too, the possibilities that still somehow are within grasp for the survivors.

In this Eighteenth Week of Ordinary Time, the readings are a reminder of finding home within the mysteries of human existence. In the first reading, amid the anger and angst of a people crossing the desert, there is the sustenance of quail and manna. It is provided by a loving God in the story, a testimony to commitment and purpose. The second reading urges trust in the teachings of Jesus, to open to the new possibilities that change can bring. There is an emphasis on moving forward from the past, trying something new. The Gospel completes the cycle with the final lines,

“For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven
and gives life to the world.”

All of these point to the richness of home in relationship. Within all the struggles that humans confront, with the weight of grief and loss, confusion and frustration, it is easy to forget the source of life, to fail to acknowledge that there is so much beyond self. Human lives are entangled in the mysteries of the Universe, the inexplicable gifts of connections and joy and the equally incomprehensible losses. Remembering gives life to what was; remembering gives birth to re-emergence, to becoming who we really are in this new world so marked by loss and change.

Loaves

The Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. But these are far from ordinary times. Suffering underscores even the triumphs of the spirit like the empty stadium seats surround the Olympic athletes. And there are the very simple needs to take care of everyday: physical, mental, emotional in a world chirping with change. Still there is an inherent beauty in the most simple aspects of life: the rich plopping of raindrops on windshields, listening as a choice of kindness, gentleness in interaction with self and others. The miracle of the loaves and fishes in today’s Gospel acknowledges both the challenge of suffering and then possibilities and the importance of re-emerging in each generation, every stage of life.

The latter is visible in connecting with the first reading. Ezekiel captures the story of the manna in the desert. The Israelites at a loss, and the manna appearing to sustain and fortify. It is from a gentle, compassionate God looking at a people struggling through the desert. And centuries later, there is the Gospel account of Jesus looking out at a crowd on a very different type of journey. Gathering to hear Him speak, they are tired and hungry. He sees what is real in them, the basic needs in a very different setting. Interestingly, He inquires first of the apostles about how to manage this moment. They are perplexed by the numbers of people, the practical costs of feeding a crowd. It is a child who comes to the fore, a child as the sign of Hope, of a new generation and possibility. Five loaves and fishes. Baskets to share. A miracle unanticipated but invested in the wealth of fragile humans who were unaware of what could happen, did happen. Into the desert of human need comes the generosity of creation…and so the baskets are filled with remnants of a meal savored and enjoyed. And once again a gentle and compassionate God tenderly holds people close and empowers a moment that is more than what is even imaginable for people. It is not grandiose in either instance; it is simply food, a necessary nurturing. But it speaks of the even more critical and essential human need: love. The truth of that is incredibly easy to miss but both stories echo the human need to be loved and then to love in turn and carry it all forward.

There is the not-so-very secret. As persons, we stand at the gathering place too. And just as Teresa of Avila spoke of being the Hands and Heart of Christ, there is an adjacent reality: we can choose to be less. We can inflict damage and pain and allow ourselves to hurt, humiliate and destroy others. Or we can choose the kindness and gentleness of a compassionate God. The harshness of life is undeniable; the journey seems impossibly challenging at so many points. In those moments of hunger for a release from the grief and challenges, there is opportunity to share manna, to know the taste of the loaves, to take the leap towards trust and put others in front of self and really share the journey.

Companions

The pen was about the size of a small playground. That’s because it was actually a play yard, and it was adjacent to a pre-school. Half a dozen sheep lounged there, soft and cuddly white wool, rich dark eyes and a quiet malaise near melancholy as they chomped on the grass. They were temporary residents, and I had a perch on the fence to observe their goings on and occasionally refill the water trough. I was simply watching their world, not part of it, and wondering a thousand things about how the natural and human worlds are intertwined, how connections are formed between and among us, and how choices are made from the most mundane (what to eat and when) to the most complicated (what to do with the time and the lives we have). Into that reverie, unfolding a story, were the sheep who simply seemed to exist, to satisfy their needs and to get along with one another in a way that was neither competitive nor denying of each other. Enter the readings for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. It is all about the Good Shepherd. But this time, when I looked more closely, something else stood out. In this liminal space of life, this is really all about connections and perceptions, trust and confidence in one another, a sense of belonging, and the hope that enables survival in a world and life that offers both joys and suffering.

Each reading offers a different dimension of that theme. The first displays the presence of a gentle caring God calling us to be conscious of one another, aware of Him. The second gives the cozy comfort of Psalm 23, a God who truly loves and a people who are fully confident in His love and protection throughout the challenges of life. There is a tenor to the lines that confides the emotional roller coaster that life can be, the traumas that life can present. And there is the steadiness of a tone of survival, even of becoming, as the challenges are navigated one by one.

He guides me in right paths
    for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
    I fear no evil; for you are at my side
with your rod and your staff that give me courage….

Only goodness and kindness follow me
    all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
    for years to come.  

The second reading is a reassurance of all that, that Jesus himself is the live wire connection among us. Finally, there is the Gospel that clearly defines Jesus’ mission and relationship to people: he is the caretaker, the teacher, the empathetic and compassionate one. He mentors, connects, challenges and explores with the sheep. There is a kindness undergirding it all, the sense that each of us is more than our flaws, more than our grief and better than our limitations.

Remembering those moments perched on the fence above the pen, the questions that surfaced and the ease with which the sheep adjusted to the play yard, reminds me that life is both mysterious and memorable, but having that trust in and companionship of a Shepherd makes all the difference.

Choosing

This week, in four days, two memorials and a funeral. The pandemic conspired to make it all possible, but there is still an unavoidable sense of loss, the kind of loss that needs to be named and known, suffered and then moved past, always with full acknowledgement. And so it is with life, with relationships and friendships, careers and choices: moments of joy and moments of loss juxtaposed, explored, exited. What matters is the dash between the dates on a tombstone, and how we live out the circumstances we confront. Essentially, that makes the Gospel for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time even more meaningful. It is a quintessential message that applies to so much in life. The words are often quoted and are simple and direct:

“Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave. 
Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you,
leave there and shake the dust off your feet
in testimony against them.”

Life affords thousands of scenarios where the words are relevant. They hint at a clarity of understanding, a keen awareness of what is happening in exchanges and interactions, an understanding of truths, a commitment to honesty and a willingness to make choices. Jesus sent the apostles out on a mission, but even he realized the capricious nature of human beings, the way we respond to situations and information, and what we choose to accept and reject. What is most significant there is that sense of acceptance of who humans are. And so we are invited to be deeply conscious of one another, keenly attentive to what is really happening in each situation encountered. In a sense, it is easy to live in a cocoon insulated from the realities of our strengths and weaknesses and those of others as well. This invites humans to real consciousness of one another.

Behind all that are the building blocks of lifelong, healthy relationships: truth, honesty and love. These companions first challenge the individual personally and then allow attentiveness to relationship, sometimes even partnerships or coupling. Each occurs in the context of clear communication, an openness that finds spark and energy in confidences and observations, the exhange of the mundane and the sharing of tragedies and upheavals, disruptions and joys. To share truth means knowing self and daring to assess reality, to name and tame what is happening and to clearly articulate thoughts and ideas. Honesty demands seeing past illusions and perceptions to the core values that motivate and animate human behavior. It allows for the pain that could inflict and for the expansion of understanding. It is fearless and hope-filled, non-judgemental, and it generates light. Love breaths life into acceptance and understanding of one another. It is the strength to hear what hurts, acknowledge what could change and fully participate in re-designing new spaces in the world. Love does not give up whan the obstacles and road bumps appear; with truth and honesty, love enables the articulation of something new, strong and dynamic.

On the other hand, there is the second choice: recognizing that nothing can happen in a place and literally shaking the dust from your feet. Here, too truth, honesty and love come in handy. Truth means facing what is going on, no matter what it is. Honesty means viewing human responsibility, personal perspectives and others’ responsibilities clearly and purposefully. Love here means doing the right thing, choosing the best option for self and others. Love puts the truth and honesty into action.

The Gospels were written milleniums ago, but humans were no less and no more than what we are today. There were challenges and issues, differences and suffering, caring and cost. The idea of choice about what to do and how to do it was as much a gift then as it is now.

 

Home

Morning sun filters through the humidity. Congregants slip from their vehicles into the cool darkness of the parish church. Eight am, and the few gather in quiet. The Gospel is about Jesus seated with the sinners and berated by the righteous. And there lies the truth of who we are: the presence of God neither abandons nor condemns. People do that to one another, but that Gospel clearly indicates that God’s ways are not our ways. And this Sunday inscribes that lesson with a tenacious alacrity.

It is easy to subscribe to a world of black and white where clarity dwells with one side or the other. It is more challenging to realize that human life belongs to gradients, shades of color, that both shape our lives and decisions and enable us to become whole persons, alive to the wonders and intricacies of the universe. The readings for this week suggest that simply being mindful of rules and subject to norms does not necessarily generate either wholeness or holiness. Instead, it is all about personal relationships and attentiveness to the presence of God in the world, in our lives, and the human capcacity to see that and to accurately perceive who we are as individuals.

Truth and honesty are the key elements in a relationship of love. And in the first reading, from the prophet Ezekiel that is made most clear:

As the LORD spoke to me, the spirit entered into me
    and set me on my feet,
    and I heard the one who was speaking say to me:
    Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites

In simplicity, Ezekiel acknowledges the movement of the Spirit and the urging of conscience, thinking outside the box. But that is followed by the Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 123, which echoes one of the intimacies of human relationship: fixing our eyes on another. But it is in the stirring words from Paul’s letter to the Romans that the honesty and interdependence relationships generate:

“My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.” 
I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses,
in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. 
Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults,
hardships, persecutions, and constraints,
for the sake of Christ;
for when I am weak, then I am strong.

There are the echoes of being able to manage in life because of that personal relationship with a God who is completely Other, unlimited by human finiteness or infirmities, callusness or cruelties. This is a God who dares to go far beyond human understandings. And so it is in the Gospel. Jesus is present to the people, but somehow they dare not enter into a connection or a relationship. In full understanding, he moves on. There is no retribution, no cruelty or rejection, just the sense that human limitations actually prohibited a full experience of who Jesus was and what He could do.

Thousands of years later, we wrestle daily with so many of the same things. We negate the possibilities of a Universe bursting with the miracles of life. We adhere to judgemental and costly discriminations; we chose bitter cruelty in communications and attempt to destroy persons in the name of fairness. But here, in these readings, lingers a message far more meaningful. There is no room for malicious actions against one another. There is no place for conspiracies of cruelty or bitter retributions, vengeful purposes. Instead, there is a harbor for the suffering, for those broken by circumstance or even by loved ones. It is not a home built by rules and laws, but one framed by the laws of love founded in truth and honesty where unconditionality is alive and well, where reality has merit and actions have kind purpose and healing is more than a hope.