Posted in Images, Words!

“Wild Kingdom” or “Chance of Reign 100%”

English: Fallopia japonica, Polygonaceae, Japa...
English: Fallopia japonica, Polygonaceae, Japanese Knotweed, inflorescence; Karlsruhe, Germany. Deutsch: Fallopia japonica, Polygonaceae, Japanischer Staudenknöterich, Zugespitzter Knöterich, Spieß-Knöterich, Japanischer Flügelknöterich, Japanischer Rhabarber, Japanischer Buchweizen, Japanischer Schirmknöterich, Infloreszenz; Karlsruhe, Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Texts: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 and Mark 4:26-34]


For three months of the summer of 2005 I lived with the Benedictine monks in the community of Glenstal Abbey 9-miles outside the city of Limerick in Ireland.  In that region known as the Golden Vail, sharing the day-to-day life and routine of the almost fifty members of the monastery community, it was for me a powerful and golden summer.

The simple and profound way of life that Benedict bequeathed to his brothers and sisters 1500 years ago is often summed up in the short phrase, “Ora et labora.”  “Prayer and work.”  At Glenstal we gathered together in the abbey church several times every day, beginning at morning’s first light and ending with night prayer in the early evening before bed.  The brothers are doing the same today, and have done so every day since I was there, and for decades before.  And each member of the community, in turn, had one or more areas of work that were his sole or sometimes shared responsibility.  One was the cook.  One was the infirmarian.  One was the guestmaster.  One was the head of the school Glenstal runs.  One was the Abbot, and so on.  I worked in the library.  I helped wash the dishes every evening after dinner (though that was just because I liked to!).  And I was given the task of dealing, in one small section of the monastery’s many acres, with the dreaded Japanese Knotweed.

Fallopia japonica,” to give the plant its official moniker, was carried into Ireland some years ago because someone thought it was decorative, and easy to grow.  At least the second of these has proven to be uproariously true.  There are now laws against the plant.  It is plant enemy number 1, or thereabouts.  It has no natural enemies to contain it, and it is the enemy of all.  Native species of plant are undone by it, pushed out of the way, and gone.

As one Irish website reports it now: “Japanese knotweed is a tall perennial plant, an aggressive, invasive weed which is found along river corridors, road verges, railway embankments, gardens and on waste ground. It spreads very quickly and often becomes a serious problem in the areas that it invades, causing environmental damage and costing public and private organizations large amounts of money to contain. Tarmac and concrete often do not stop the spread of Japanese knotweed. It has been known to push up through foundations.”  Fallopia japonica is frighteningly aggressive, grows so fast that you can almost watch it, and had come to live at Glenstal Abbey.

So Brother Anthony elected to send the neophyte lily-white American out to do battle with this dreaded plant form.  I was armed with a spade, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow.  Anthony brought me to the current battleground, introduced me to the foe, and withdrew.  I started digging.  And digging.  And digging.  You have to get the d- (blessed!) thing out by the root, without breaking the root, or it will come up again by morning.  I was both amazed and horrified to find that the Japanese knotweed root-system has runners that spread way out underground from what you see above-ground.   I followed them 8 and 10 feet from where the plant appeared, pulling them up as I went, and carefully placing them in the wheelbarrow.  If any fell to the ground they would take root again and start to repopulate each tiny square foot that I freed at great personal cost.  I will tell you: I wish I had half the energy that plant has!

Each evening at vespers I was happy to sink into the chapel’s hard seating, lean back, sigh, and let the singing of the psalmody wash away that day’s struggle with fallopia japonica.

As much as I grew to detest that plant (with all due respect to the Creator!), at least as much was I shocked to find the spirit of Japanese Knotweed described by Jesus in the parable in Mark’s Gospel as being the spirit of the reign of God.  The kingdom of God is like seed that is dropped on the ground; it sounds almost accidental.  There’s little sense of purpose and intent in it.  But it grows, without care, all by itself, until the harvest is ready.  The kingdom of God is like mustard seed.  Mustard seed is not only a modest little seed, as Jesus notes, but it is also one with a voracious appetite.  Place it in the earth and it grows crazy, as Jesus no doubt knew.  It’s hard to control.  It makes a mess.  It gets all over the place and is likely to compromise whatever else you may have had in mind for your garden.

The scholar John Dominic Crossan illuminates what those of us who are not up-to-date on all things plant-life might miss in Jesus’ choice of starring plants in his parable: “The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like.”

What?  Let’s make sure we have this straight.  Jesus is telling us that the kingdom of God is invasive, uncontrollable, and basically a nuisance.  Let it in and nothing will ever be the same.  And, it must follow that if the Kingdom of God is described fittingly in this way, well then so must be the Ruler of that Kingdom.  It’s just as we’ve always feared, by Jesus’ own testimony.  Let God in, and you’ve given away the farm.  Nothing will ever be the same.  Set any limits you want.  God will overrun them, sooner or later.  Assert your control all you want.  It won’t work.

It’s kind of like the reverse of the story about a man who bought a house with an overgrown garden. The weeds had long since taken over the garden and it was a mess. But slowly the man began to clear the weeds, till the soil, and plant the seeds. Finally, he had made it into a showcase garden. One day the minister from church came to visit, and when he saw the beautiful flowers and plants, he said to the man, “Well, friend, you and God have done a marvelous job on this garden.” To which the homeowner replied, “You should have seen it when God had it by himself.”

The Kingdom starts small and quiet, but it doesn’t end there.  It might be nearly invisible for years at a time.  So you might look at your life, or at the state of the world, or at what we do here from week to week as we gather, and wonder if anything is changing at all?  Is anything growing – in me or around me?  Has the reign of God taken root?  The answer is a definitive yes according to today’s Scripture.

It’s like the little guy – just over 5 feet tall – who showed up to try out for a lumberjack job in Alaska.  The man in charge wanted to take care of this quickly and discourage the little man to go elsewhere.  So he gave him the heaviest, largest ax, brought him to a tree hundreds of feet tall, and yards in diameter, and told him to chop it down. Within minutes the tree had been felled. The amazed foreman asked him where he’d learned to chop trees so powerfully. The little fellow replied, “When I worked in the Sahara forest.” “You mean, the Sahara desert.” Said the little lumberjack: “That was after I got there.”  He may have been small – like the mustard seed, like the innocent knotweed when it arrived first as an immigrant to Ireland, like the reign of God when it is first announced – but once he came, everything changed.

Where can we see the kingdom of God growing, the reign of God being revealed?  It may be in the most unlikely messes, practically unimaginable.  I hear Jesus’ parable today, his yes subversive speech, and my imagination is engaged in new ways.  Perhaps yours as well?  Is the Kingdom of God being birthed in the suffering streets of Syria?  Somehow, in that clash of power and yearning, somewhere in that bloodbath of the innocent, somehow . . . could God’s own Kingdom be coming about?  Could the end of that story be something dramatically other than sorrow and pain?  In the political tensions so obvious in the United States in this election year, could the reign of God be evident here?  In the dueling speeches on the economy, in the diametrically opposed takes on what is self-evident in the immigration crisis, in the dearth of truly civil discourse, somewhere deep within this muddle is the fallopia japonica of God’s Kingdom taking root?  Is it sending runners underneath our lives, connecting our deep sorrows, our losses and grief, with the plentiful support and relief that others have been strengthened to provide?  Is it running wild in the background of our church’s life, bringing new things to happen in ways unforeseen, attitudes, methods and approaches that will bear new fruit in a future we cannot yet see or hear or touch?

If Jesus is right (how is that for a preacher’s phrase?) – if Jesus is right, then the answer to all of this is yes, in a manner we’d best not strive to define or limit.  The God who took the eighth and youngest son of a small-town sheep-owner and anointed him King of Israel, David the Great, can do it.  Is doing it.  Through Samuel God chose David, gave him the Spirit, and then to all appearances walked away to see what would happen.  “In this corner, the sitting King of Israel with no desire to give up his seat, Saul!  In this corner, the pretender to the throne, a teenage shepherd with beautiful eyes, David.  And offering no further guidance or assistance that anyone could measure for the longest time: the God of Israel or anyone who spoke in his name.”  It looked like a recipe for disaster, and it really was.  But it was also, and no less truly, another planting of God’s seditious, destabilizing, and sanctifying mustard seed.   That seed is still being scattered on the ground. We are still sleeping and rising and paying it little heed.  But the seed is sprouting and growing.  And the good harvest will come about, in its time.  In its own time.

Jean-François Millet: The Sower, 1851


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29 Years

ImageTwenty-nine years ago this morning, on June 11, 1983, Cardinal Humberto Medeiros ordained our class of eleven to the service of Christ’s Church as priests.  It is, as one might expect, difficult to believe that almost three decades have passed since that day.  Those years have been chock-full of many moments of blessing, of deep friendships forged, of unforeseen moments of profound learning at the depth level of the heart. 


Not surprisingly, that span of time also embraces difficult moments, hard decisions, and changes that wouldn’t have been even considered on that ordination day.


Including service as a deacon, I have been privileged to serve communities full-time in six places stretching from Edinburgh, Scotland to my hometown of Lynn, Massachusetts, and onward to Brooklyn Heights, New York.  In addition I have served weekends or part-time in three other parishes.  Every one of these have been communities of real faith where real people live lives open to the Gospel of Jesus and the grace of God.  I haven’t met anybody perfect yet – nor have they in meeting me!  But I have had the inestimable privilege of coming to know so many men and women of kindness, faith, sincerity, and love.  I have received the astounding gift of being invited into their lives, to share life with them, often at moments of the most intense pain and in seasons of joy and accomplishment. 


For six years I had the onus and the honor of helping prepare others for priesthood at Saint John’s, the archdiocesan seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts.  This is the place where I first found nurture, support, wisdom and love in my own search to find the way I am called to serve.  The years have flown.  Some of the significant characters – and there were characters – from my first years in Brighton have left this world and look on us (if they care to!) from the perspective only God’s love can perfect.  Others are still here, still working, still ministering, and all of them I hold high as exemplars of what it means to live life for others.  Again, not perfectly, but truly.


My own years of teaching at Saint John’s were good and challenging years.  Good in that they forced me to clarify what I know and believe to the point where I could (I hoped!) share it with others both with clarity and with an edge that could open their own pondering on the questions and the wonders of the faith.  Challenging in that I saw in our system a tendency to allow, at the least, some of the good men who came to us to hide those parts of their persons most in need of change, of growth, of transformation.  They hid because they feared that admission of imperfection could lead to being unable to continue to follow the call they felt.  But again, the system itself was imperfect.  So were we all within it.  But rarely did we open up widely enough to acknowledge this truth.  And to fail to have the strength to do so, a failure I recognized in myself, challenged me profoundly.


We all share a time in the life of the church in which so much has radically changed and continues to change.   That change has been the one constant in my entire lived consciousness of church.  I refer not only to the changes that grew from the texts and interpretation of the sixteen documents of the second Vatican Council, but in addition all the profound shifts in the society and culture, in the USA and elsewhere around the world, within which the whole church lives and breathes.  My entire experience of church, from one perspective, can be viewed as one of diminishment: fewer people in church, fewer priests and sisters, fewer parishes, fewer dollars, fewer resources.  But of course that is not the only way it can be seen.  Nor is that the whole story.  At Sacred Heart in Lynn, thanks to the faithful love and ingenuity of parishioners, we were able to work together looking to find new ways to use the resources we had, and to challenge one another – as needed – to do more with less.  From there in Lynn and elsewhere, I can close my eyes and see the faces and hear the voices of disciples of Jesus of every living generation who committed themselves to being the church. 


The rich blessing and experience of sabbatical at Glenstal Abbey in County Limerick, Ireland in 2005 and of the long Ignatian retreat at Eastern Point, Gloucester, Massachusetts in 2007 combined to move me further than I ever would have conceived possible, never mind likely.  The three months of prayer and community life with the Benedictines at Glenstal will remain until the end of my days as one of the most profound experiences of a lifetime.  A constant intention to remain entirely open to the voice and will of God led me, like the meandering roads of Limerick and Tipperary that I walked that summer, to the difficult decision to leave the pastorate at Sacred Heart in Lynn and to seek a leave from active ministry.  Two summers later, the surprises of grace on the beautiful border of land and sea at Eastern Point gave me strength to decide to move back toward ministry in another part of God’s vineyard.


Between those two moments, and stretching beyond the latter of them for three years, I was profoundly blessed to be able to work at Boston College, first at the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry, and then at The Church in the 21st Century Center.  I have lasting deep respect and love for those two pieces of that great university on the Heights, and for the whole of B.C. and its people.  I feel gratitude to that institution and to its leadership for inviting me to come on-board, to contribute to the life of the church in a new way, and to feel untried capabilities in myself begin to open up and to grow during those years.  The Ignatian and Jesuit way is one of greatest gifts to the entire church that we have been given by God in the past five hundred years. 


As happy as I was there at Chestnut Hill, there lingered in me – and not only lingered but sang out within me – the desire to answer again the original and first call to priestly ministry.  Cardinal Sean O’Malley was generous and open in allowing me to begin to minister on weekends at an archdiocesan parish.  There again I found joy in the people of that place, in serving them, in the preaching task, and in the experience of that lively juncture where the sacraments touch life.  But something also wasn’t right.  I knew, almost from the beginning, that I could not stay, that it didn’t feel right.


It is to this moment not easy to express what did not seem right.  It has to do with the change that is ongoing in the life of Christ’s Church.   In the Catholic Church of my childhood and youth I was happy to experience a community of hope, of confidence in God even among diverse problems, engaged with the world.  I experienced it as outward-looking, oriented toward the world with the gift and the treasure of Jesus Christ.  Under the impact of the abuse scandals whose revelations began this millennium, a further change began to be apparent.  With a concern that ranged from Vatican II’s seen as being misunderstood, to Vatican II being seen as an aberration and the seat of all present problems, for me an ecclesiological difficulty asserted itself. 


In the aftermath of the abuse crisis it was both logical and necessary that the church expend some energy attending to itself, to healing its wounds, to addressing what went wrong.  But in its essence no reality worthy of the name of ‘church’ is called to remain focused inwardly.  Our structures are developed and in-place in the service of the church’s mission.  By its nature the church is as Jesus of Nazareth was when he walked among us: oriented to others, to their needs, to their healing, to their hearing God’s freeing and saving Word. 


In conversation with the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston last year, I shared my perception that we are at risk in our time of misinterpreting the words of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: “. . . we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves” (4:7).  The treasure is not we ourselves.  The treasure is not even the church, as precious as it is.  The treasure is the gracious presence of God made flesh in Jesus Christ, his Word, and his invitation to real life. 


If we make the ‘earthen vessel’ to be the treasure; if our tender care and our stalwart energies are given more to the vessel than to the precious gift it carries to the world, then we have missed the mark.  Yes, we are responsible in every generation to assure that the vessel is sound and able.  It is our duty to repair cracks in its structure, precisely to assure that the vessel can continue to accomplish the mission of carrying the treasure within.  But the treasure is the treasure and the vessel is the vessel.  One is more primary than the other.


For me the Christian tradition that flows from that Christic treasure is of inestimable value.  Precisely because this is so, it is painful to see the tradition mistaken for the treasure itself.  It too is part of that which carries the treasure to the world.  Tradition is the current that carries the vessel through the seas of time.  The worst thing we can do to tradition, living thing that it is, is to petrify it, to turn this living pathway into concrete. 


An appeal to tradition is an appeal to the living, loving, believing, thinking church throughout the centuries.  It is not simply an appeal to what others in the past have said.  It is an appeal to the same faithfulness, the same liveliness, the same application of the treasure of Christ’s Gospel to our era and circumstances that they applied to theirs.  To do any less, to simply say: this is the way it was and therefore this is the way it always will be, is ultimately to betray the tradition and those who have lived it before us.


In ways inchoate and mysterious, open to misunderstanding and certainly to disagreement by good people, these are the ways that have led me to continue ministry in another branch of what I have come to see and love and praise God for as the one church.   I have experienced here a welcome as warm as God’s own love and a renewed call from the community to service.  My gratitude to the Episcopal Church, to the Diocese of Long Island, to its Bishop and people, and to the Rector and people of Grace Church in Brooklyn Heights is real and living, and entirely inadequate to their goodness in embracing this stranger.  This branch of the church has more than its own share of problems, like and unlike those I have known before.   The whole church in this era, I have come to believe, is called to a radical willingness to let go of anything we have held onto until now, if we must for the sake of the original mission: bringing the treasure to the people of the world.  That we all hold in common.


For twenty-nine years today, I have been richly blessed by God to work with others to do just that.  I have done it imperfectly.  I have done it quite badly, actually.  There are those who would say that I have betrayed the original calling from God.  Perhaps they see more clearly than I do.  My call, on this day as on any other, is not to my own defense.  Even if I am wrong in the paths my life has taken thus far, I hear a call to value the treasure of Christ above all else and to share it gently with everyone God brings me to meet.


To all of you who have shared any part of these years: loving thanks! God bless and keep you.  I look forward with confidence, hope, excitement and faith to the future in your company, and in the Lord’s.

Is this man weak enough to be a priest?  Is this man deficient enough so that he cannot ward off significant suffering from his life, so that he lives with a certain amount of failure, so that he feels what it is to be an average man?  Is there any history of confusion, of self-doubt, of interior anguish?  Has he had to deal with fear, come to terms with frustrations, or accept deflated expectations?  These are critical questions and they probe for weakness.  Why weakness?  Because, according to [the Letter to the] Hebrews, it is in this deficiency, in this interior lack, in this weakness, that the efficacy of the ministry and priesthood of Jesus Christ lies.”

~ Michael J. Buckley, S.J.