Memento mori.

Sonny’s yearbook from high school
Is down from the shelf
And he idly thumbs through the pages
Some have died
Some have fled from themselves
Or struggled from here to get there
Sonny wanders beyond his interior walls
Runs his hand through his thinning brown hair

~ Paul Simon, “The Obvious Child”

How is it that some days, some hours, some periods of time seem to carry with them an obvious theme, sometimes even a theme song?  These can be happy and light themes or heavier and deeper.

This morning we prayed at our church the funeral of a 29-year old man, Eric, son of gracious parents, oldest of four children, smart, funny, interested in the times we live in, creative and talented, dead of a heroin overdose.  A life too short, one of all too many being ended daily now by the vise of this particular addiction.  Outside after the Mass I watched friends embrace his just-younger sister, literally hold her up as she sobbed in their arms.  I watched his parents lean heavy on each other; faces tired; their son’s whole life and all his love outlined in them.

This afternoon I made my way into Brooklyn, passed through Canarsie, parked and walked through double doors into a school hall and to the front of that hall past people who sat in groups talking.  I stood in front of a casket and prayed over the body of one of my classmates from the North American College in Rome, Monsignor John Brown. Those days, featuring us in our 20’s, John strong and tall, serious and brilliant: they seem only weeks ago.  And they are.  Many many many weeks ago.  We have not been in one another’s company, perhaps since the mid-80’s.  Today, I had to go there.  I had simply to be there for a moment and to pray, in thanksgiving and in hope.  I knew no one there except the deceased.  I prayed, signed the visitors’ book, picked up a prayer card, and left.

As I drove away I thought of both of these men, gone in their own time and in their own way, into the mystery that I can only believe is a love stronger and deeper than most of us ever even intuit here.  My life has intersected with each of theirs in vastly different ways and degrees.  Now they know one another in ways I cannot begin to imagine.  And there is solace.  And there is fullness.

Here we carry on, and we wonder the strangest things.  As I drove away from that school hall where John’s body lay in the midst of his people, a thought unbidden began repeating in my mind like a mantra: “John, I hope they loved you.  Did they love you?  I hope they loved you.  Did they love you?”  I’ve no reason to think they didn’t, that in fact a mutual love joined priest and people in God’s sight.  But still, the question rang.

I carried both of them with me in thought and prayer here to the pond.  I cried for them. It carries more meaning than words,  And then Paul Simon sang in the car on I-684 of Sonny, his ‘obvious child,’ who sits with his high school yearbook and realizes

Some have died
Some have fled from themselves
Or struggled from here to get there.

And as the late winter woods, dry and bare, rush by on either side I realize that each of us, Eric, John, and me, we all appear in those few words.

 

Neighbors

A word by way of introduction.

This afternoon I have embarked upon the beginning of what might be expected to be somewhat straightforward – spring cleaning.  

But when you have moved 11 times in 10 years, and counting; when you have moved from priestly ministry in the Roman Catholic Church to a once-in-a-lifetime position at Boston College, and then to priestly ministry in the Episcopal Church in another metropolitan area; when you begin to unearth boxes and folders that have traveled with you from a grand old parish in West Lynn MA to Glenstal Abbey in County Limerick to BC to Brooklyn to Mercer School of Theology in Garden City NY; when you find snippets of conversations and good wishes and prayers and questions answered and unanswered . . . then spring cleaning becomes something worth beginning that may never be ended.

Every inch of that landscape is marked both by the compassion of God, made flesh in great people, and by my own strivings, needs, half-understood yearnings, and throughout a faith that is the foundation of all.   Absolutely all.

I can only do this work for so many hours at a time.  I have to stop then, return to the present place and time, and consider well.  There may be some things I deem worthy of sharing as they are (re)discovered.  You may not find much in them, but for me they are worth transposing into another key, with hope and a tear or two, a smile, and a grateful heart.

This prose poem – without skill or guile that I can see! –  bears the date of 6/6/06.  That was the period of time between Sacred Heart in Lynn (hi guys!) and Boston College’s Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry (a beautiful reality, now tucked into BC’s School of Theology and Ministry).  I believe I was at the time of that writing staying in a condo in the beautiful town of Newburyport, a condo owned by a friend from Sacred Heart.  I was upheld entirely and without want by the love of friends and strangers, and the Lord whom I could see standing between them. God bless those generous friends, every moment and always.

I have no idea almost a decade later who the ‘neighbors’ are as they are mentioned here.  I hope they weren’t put off by a neighbor between them who was thinking a lot, as is still and always true, about the meaning of our lives together.

A porch to either side

on a sunny June afternoon;

one seen from an upstairs window

an infant carefully placed in a carriage asleep,

one unmoving hand visible,

and in it the potentials of a lifetime.

Another seen from a kitchen window

an old woman, still, in a rocker,

breathing in another June

old dog by her side,

each hand lain on a rocker arm

and in them the history of a lifetime.

 

Young mother comes with care in quiet,

raises the young one to her cheek

and enters the house.

The old woman lifts herself with care

as the dog rises too,

no ease for either,

and enters the house.

 

Neighbors, infancy and age,

Between them is life

shared,

held in common,

valued,

as neighbors.

(J. McGinty 6/6/06)

old woman and baby
Greatgrandmother and child (NY Daily News 4/1/15) 

 

 

 

 

http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/life-dad-social-network-deluged-elderly-baby-photos-article-1.2168459

You build a society one life at a time.

Society is built on each individual life.

Each society is built on the worth accorded to every life.

Every life highly valued and supported in tangible and intangible ways builds the strength of the society.

Child and border officer
Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

Every life devalued and judged unworthy of support robs the society of strength and merit and worth in itself.

‘Society’ is not equivalent to nation.

The borders of a society are set not by law nor by stone or metal walls, but by culture, by what is shared among people, by what is given value and ultimate value by individual and shared human lives.

If the life of a poor family is of less worth than that of a wealthy, then the society is not richer, but poorer.

If the life of a child on the way to birth is worth less than that of a child already born, then society’s understanding of what it is to be human is wounded.

If the life of a child on one side of a humanly-determined border is judged worthy of food and shelter, possibility and education and future, and the child on the other side is judged only as refugee or invader, then the society is on the run from the beliefs that make life together possible.

The society that judges against individual human lives judges itself.

The society that embraces each individual life as worthy of effort and cost and discussion, of time and money and inconvenience, of stopping to think through the law to the human depths beyond, is built up and becomes more truly itself, more truly human, more completely home for every human life.

Prophecy, Faith, Division, and Love

Image

Photo from the chapel of the Monastery of St John the Evangelist, Cambridge, MA

August 18, 2013 Preached at St John’s Church, Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, New York (founded 1834)

Scriptures: Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18, Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2, Luke 12: 49-56

 

The voice of a prophet is never well-accepted in his or her own time.  The content of a prophet’s message is never without controversy when it is first heard. 

Ten days from now will mark the 50th anniversary of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech on the Mall during the March on Washington.  Although the words of that address ring together like the bells of a church tower so perfectly tuned are they, it was by no means everyone in the nation who heard his words with openness or with pleasure.  King might have hoped that his words would inspire a more just nation when it came to matters of race and of equality.  They did.  But they also inspired, only weeks later on September 15th, 1963 the Sunday morning bombing of the mostly black congregation of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham (Alabama) where dozens were injured and four girls, ages 11 to 14, were killed.  With twenty-two others they were walking into the church basement to hear the Sunday School lesson for that day.  The  theme for that lesson was ‘the love that forgives.’

The prophet Isaiah sings a song this morning for us in the fifth chapter of his prophecy.  It is, according to his own testimony, a love song.  It concerns the love his at first unnamed friend had for his vineyard; all the loving work and care he showed in preparing that vineyard to yield good grapes for fine wine.  Instead, the grapes are bitter; there is no wine, and Isaiah’s friend announces his intention to undo all the good he had done for that vineyard, now that it provided not justice but bloodshed, and a cry rather than righteousness.

At first the words of this prophetic song might have sounded harmless enough to its first hearers.  But when the prophet identifies the disappointing vineyard as God’s own people, all of that changed.  They heard words of judgment.  They heard threatening words.  They recognized a challenge that likely made them want to put their hands over their ears.  That’s what it’s like when  true prophet speaks true prophecy.  Prophecy always asks more of the hearers than they (we!) are willing to give.

Jesus, on his way toward death in Jerusalem according to the 12th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, speaks like a prophet today.  Words hard to hear.  Words that don’t sound like the Jesus we are comfortable with, the Jesus who promises comfort and peace and who brings healing.  On this occasion, Jesus speaks words literally full of fire.  “I came to bring fire.  What stress I am under!  Have I come bringing peace?  No, I tell you, but rather division!”  And this firey Jesus makes explicit that this division he brings will even enter deeply into families, dividing homes into opposing camps.  This is Jesus fired up about his mission, carrying the heavy weight of his own suffering and death, which he knows he is walking towards.  This is Jesus cutting no corners and taking no prisoners.  This is Jesus, passionate and challenging, as this Sunday’s gospel ends with the words, “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

There’s the key question.  This is exactly what a prophet does: he interprets the present time.  She looks at the realities of the day and understands, sees deeper than most people, and speaks out of that understanding and out of that seeing.  Speaks, as noted, words that no one is comfortable hearing.

In other words, Jesus, in his closing question, is asking those who first heard him that day, and we who gather here this morning: why are you not a prophet?  Why do not see what is going on around you and understand?  Why is your perspective limited and focused so narrowly?  Why can’t you see?  It’s as clear as a heavy raincloud and as obvious as a hot south wind.  Why can’t you see?

This challenge in turn makes clear why Jesus describes himself as bringing division.  The division is between those – even in a single family – who really hear Jesus and respond with everything they have on one side, and those for whom Jesus’ voice is a ho-hum, and Jesus himself not really much of an attraction on the other. 

Where is unity then?  Where is peace? Here are two possible answers.  First, we can say that unity and peace are found in faith.  If we trust Jesus, if we put our faith squarely in him above all others, then we will see as he sees.  We will see through the eyes of Jesus Christ.  This is possible.  This is real.  If we don’t think that it is, then I don’t know what we’re doing here this morning, or any other morning for that matter.  Secondly, we can say that unity and peace come in our agreeing – and it is risky – to become part of a band of prophets who look at the present reality as Isaiah did and as Jesus did, and then dare to speak what we see.  Is there injustice?  Is there lack of charity?  Are there people being forgotten by society, dropping out of sight into extreme poverty, into unchecked alcoholism or other addiction?  Is there war where there could be peace, hatred where God wills love?

A prophet sees these things and understands and speaks – no matter who is bothered by the hearing. 

If we are a community of faith in Christ, and if we are bound together as prophets in his company, then there will be a new unity and a new peace among us, deeper and more lasting than any we have yet known or experienced. 

You see?  Isaiah’s words really are a love song.  The prophet’s words express the love of a God who, if only we will respond to his gifts, is willing to restore the vineyard in which we live and work and hope; to make it more than it ever was before.  And Jesus’ seemingly harsh words are actually an invitation: like Martin Luther King Jr we too are invited to dream.