Sacrifice is an act of love

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ash20wednesday

People make sacrifices every day. Sometimes the sacrifices are minor: a momentary suppression of desire. Sometimes the sacrifices take everything we have, even our own lives. We are born with wants and needs that sometimes exert a powerful control over our actions, and yet, we also exhibit this powerful capacity to ignore those wants and needs if we perceive a greater need or a greater good. Parents do this all the time. Parents go without sleep, without food and without many of the opportunities that they might otherwise have had, because they find in their children a love and a joy greater than their own desires. For the average parent, the desire to see your children safe and happy far outweighs your own individual needs. You have found something more precious than your own sleep or hunger.

 

Sacrifice isn’t just about losing something, it is about finding something. It is about finding something more precious to you than your own wants and needs. It is about finding something that you love so much, that you are willing to let go of everything else just to hold onto it. Sacrifice is a natural byproduct of loving deeply.

 

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, who when he discovers the finest pearl in all the world, sells everything that he has in order to obtain it. In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul stated that he regarded everything else as loss in comparison with the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus. Both the merchant in Jesus’s parable and the Apostle Paul had to sacrifice much, but those sacrifices were nothing compared to what was found by each of them. It is much easier to let go of the things you like once you have found something that you truly love.

 

For us as Christians, the Kingdom of Heaven, living in relationship with our creator and our redeemer, is the finest pearl. It is the thing in our lives which should bring us such unrestrained joy, that we gladly sacrifice our lesser wants and needs just to possess it. The story of Christ is, in part, a story about how much God is willing to sacrifice in order to hold on to us. The story of Christians, on the other hand, is often about how much we are willing to sacrifice in order to hold onto him.

 

As we enter the holy season of Lent and as we contemplate making small sacrifices in our daily lives to draw us nearer to Christ, and a deeper understanding of his supreme sacrifice, let us bear in mind that at its root, sacrifice is an act of love. Sacrifice is not about punishment or penance; it is not about creating needless pain or suffering. Sacrifice is simply about finding one thing of supreme value and letting everything else go.

 

The Sacrifices of Lent

 

Lent is a time for growing deeper in our faith and in our relationship with Christ. It is a time for making intentional sacrifices: letting go of things that harm us, distract us, or on some level draw us further away from communion with God. Some of these sacrifices are very traditional: abstaining from flesh-meat on Fridays is an ancient Christian practice. While some people may try abstaining from things that would have been completely unknown to our ancestors (e.g., Television or Facebook). Either way, the point is that we do something to set this time apart to serve as a reminder to us that we should be focusing our thoughts and energies on our relationship with God and not allow ourselves to be distracted by all the busyness of everyday life. Take some time before Ash Wednesday and consider the ways in which you might observe Lent this year.

 

Here are some suggestions:

 

Prayer: Consider saying Morning or Evening Prayer as a regular part of your Lenten discipline. Join the Society of Mary on the 3rd Sunday of the month to recite the rosary, or perhaps say the rosary at home on your own.

 

Fasting: Abstain from meat on Fridays. Consider skipping one or two meals a week and using the money for buying food for those in need or some other good purpose. Try abstaining from a particular food which you may indulge in too often.

 

Almsgiving: Make regular donations to our food pantry collection. Consider cutting some of your expenses during Lent and giving the money to charity or directly to an individual in need.

 

Study: Try joining either our Sunday morning book discussion group or our Tuesday morning or Wednesday evening bible study groups. Considering reading the Bible at home, or try some other spiritually edifying book.

 

The sacrifices that we make during Lent are things that we do willingly as a sign of our love and devotion, not because we are told that we have to; therefore, the preceding list should be seen as recommendations for ways to begin a Holy Lent. Many will doubtless find ways to observe this holy season that are more reflective of their personal faith journey. May it be a blessed time to all, however it is observed.

Guardians of the Sacred Story: Living the Great Commission

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Great-Commission

In last week’s gospel for Trinity Sunday, we heard Christ’s last words (according to Matthew) as he gave his disciples ‘The Great Commission:’

 

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. 

 

Jesus did NOT tell his disciples to go out and be nice to everyone, making sure that they always feel good about themselves, although to see the church in action sometimes you might think that. Some people may say that the church is just about telling people that God loves them. While God’s love for us may be a great truth, frankly, I have always found myself needing more. Specifically, I want to know why we think God loves us; I want to know what that love has compelled God to do for us in the past; I want to know what significance that love has for my life here and now. In short, I need God’s love to be more than some abstract sentiment that passed about like an insincere compliment or a “have a nice day.” I need God’s love to be a real story, that really affects me.

 

Christ’s command is to make more disciples; to go out into the whole world telling people his story. We exist as disciples of Christ, not for our own sake, not for making ourselves feel good, but for the sake of telling the story of Christ to the world. The story of Christ is indeed the story of God’s love, but it isn’t some vague idea, it is a flesh and bone history of what God’s love has done in the world, not just in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, but in each and every disciple that has been baptized into his body.

 

Throughout history the story of Christ has transformed people. It transforms people by making God’s love a concrete reality, not just an abstract sentiment. If we want to teach people the importance of Christ’s commandments, perhaps we should start by teaching them first the importance of Christ. Making disciples is about more than people learning the power of Christ’s commandments; it is about people learning the power of the one giving the commandments. We are here to convert people to a life lived in Christ, which is more about making them holy than it is about making them nice.

 

We are the guardians of the sacred story. We are here to make sure that this story is transmitted to those who have not received it yet. In this sense the primary task of the church, the entire church, is youth ministry, but not (I hasten to add) youth ministry as we normally conceive of it. We are here for the sake of those who are young in the faith (regardless of their age). Our mission is to raise up people to be lovers and followers of Christ. We do this, first and foremost, by telling people the sacred story of Christ. The fact that we are able to speak of Christ’s commandments, or that we have sacred scriptures, or that we even talk about Jesus at all, we owe completely to our ancestors in the faith, who found in Christ’s story something sacred and precious that needed to be preserved and handed down.

 

We are guardians of the sacred story, not because it belongs to us, but specifically because it doesn’t. The story of Christ is always more for those who haven’t received it yet, than it is for those who have. We are not here for ourselves, we are here for those who are young in the faith. The ‘Great Commission’ of our Lord to go out and make disciples, to baptize and to teach, should be a reminder to us that the church exists solely to tell his story.

 

What are we doing to make sure that Christ’s story is told to those who have not heard it yet? I am not just referring to our children or non-Christians; I am referring to future generations. It isn’t about whether our children will have faith; it is about whether our children’s children’s children will have faith. What are we doing to ensure that the sacred story of Christ will be alive and well for them? Are we effectively teaching Christ’s story to our own children? Are we creating adult disciples of Christ that understand how God’s love has manifested itself in the world? As older adults are we being faithful stewards of the facilities and resources that we have? Does our liturgy serve to help people increase in holiness, or does it merely congratulate them for being nice?

 

We are entering into Ordinary Time, the time of the church year when much of the pomp and circumstance of the big liturgies take a back seat, and we go about the day-in day out business of the church, but as our Lord reminds us: the day-in day-out business of the church is making disciples. Now is the time for us to take that sacred story of Christ which we have just retold from Christmas to Pentecost, out into the world and to share it with those who either have not received it, or who are as yet, young in the faith. Now is the time for each and every one of us to evaluate how we are serving Christ as guardians of his story: are we carrying it out into the world? Are we making sure that it will be told to future generations?

 

The future of the church is not in any one ministry to any one demographic: it isn’t in Sunday school or pastoral care to the elderly; it won’t be found by merely changing the liturgy or moving the furniture; nor does the secret lie in starting up new community service organizations. The future of the church lies in reclaiming its original raison d’être: telling the story of Christ to everyone, everywhere, all the time. It may not seem like a very easy task, but at least we have our Lord’s added promise that he will be with us as we try to undertake it…even to the end of the ages.

The Witness November 2012

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It took one falling tree to send me 150 years back in time! As I write this I am surrounded by candles and curled up next to the fireplace. As much as a month ago I can recall saying that the rectory fireplace was meant to be decorative, not practical. How wrong could I be! Right now if it weren’t for the fireplace, the gas stove, the grill and some candles my life would be very dark indeed. We have such great technology in the 21st century, but we often forget how much of it relies upon the thin little wire hanging outside your house. Take away the electricity and we might as well all be Victorians. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

 

It is frustrating living without electricity simply because we aren’t used to it. We have learned to rely upon the tools in our life to keep us informed, to keep us warm, and to keep us entertained, and when those tools fail what are we left with? We are left with the stark realization that for most of human history, our own life has been dependent upon other living things.

 

We depend upon fire, which is a living thing that must be kindled, controlled and fed. We depend upon animals, which don’t come frozen or wrapped in cellophane. We depend upon vegetables, which must be picked and prepared. Most importantly, we depend upon other people, which can’t be turned on or off like the television.

 

The good thing about natural disasters, is that they remind us of how much we still need each other. Technology is great, and I’m all for using it, but if we center our lives around it and if it becomes the primary object of our affection and attention, then we are in for a brutal shock when it ceases to function. No microwave or florescent light will ever be able to fully replace an actual living flame and no television set or radio will ever be able to replace an actual living person. We need to periodically refocus ourselves on the things that God has given us, and not on the things that we have created.

 

This month we are dedicating a new votive candle stand to be used by parishioners in their private prayer devotions. There has been a move by some churches to begin using electric votive stands. You pay a dollar, push a button and on comes a little light for an allotted amount of time. They are neat and tidy, but they are also completely artificial. When you think about it, do you really want there to be anything artificial about our worship of God? Of course not. Our votive stand is meant for real people to say real prayers and light real candles to a real God. It might be a little more work, but on the plus side you can still say your prayers when the lights go out. Hopefully it will remind us that the most important light we have comes from God, and not from the electric company.

 

In all fairness, I will be quite glad when the lights come back on at the rectory. I will be thankful for life to begin to return to normal again. But I am far more thankful to have people in my life that are always there for me, even when the lights go out.

 

Blessings, Fr. Kevin

The Witness June 2013

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In 814 AD, a Spanish hermit named Pelagius noticed a strange light shining from a nearby field. As Pelagius tried to investigate the light, he discovered a tomb, hundreds of years old, perhaps from Roman times. When the local bishop was called out to inspect this new discovery he confirmed that this was no ordinary tomb; this was the gravesite of James, son of Zebede, one of the Apostles of Jesus Christ.

 

Instantly this tomb became a place of importance and people from far and wide began traveling to the site to see the relics of Saint James and to pray before them. In 1075 a great cathedral was built to house the relics and to accommodate the many pilgrims coming to see them. This cathedral, which still stands today, would become the third holiest site in all of Christendom and one of the world’s greatest pilgrimage destinations.

 

We don’t really know how the bones of one of the followers of Jesus Christ wound up forgotten in a field in Galicia, a distant Northwestern province of Spain; Much of the tale is legendary and it is doubtful that one could ever prove that these are in fact the bones of Saint James. So be it. Sometimes we need to put our modern cynicism aside for a bit to allow ourselves to be moved by the true power of a story; and the power of this story is this: for over a thousand years people from all walks of life have left everything behind, gotten up from their daily routine and walked. They walked for possibly hundreds of miles, just to be close to the remains of someone who was close to Jesus.

 

In the Gospel of Luke, we may recall the story of a woman who longed to be near Jesus so much that she was satisfied with merely touching the hem of his cloak. She didn’t have to touch Jesus; she just had to reach out to him, and it was enough for her just to touch something that had been close to him. At the heart of it, that is what pilgrimage is really all about: reaching out across years and across miles to touch something that was close to Jesus. In the Gospel story, Jesus turns to the woman and says to her: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” There is power to be found in reaching out to God in faith: there is power to heal, power to forgive, power to renew and power to transform. God honored the act of faith made by this woman, just as he has honored acts of faith performed by individuals throughout the generations.

 

The world is often skeptical about things like relics and shrines, but I am convinced that they still have great power; if for nothing else, relics and shrines serve as a reminder that these saints that we hear about in tales and legends, these superheros of the Christian world, were actually real people: they had flesh and bones just like you and me and in a few special places throughout the world, those bones are present to us as a reminder of how faith can transform the lives of ordinary individuals; people just like you and me. We all can aspire to the same holiness that those saints displayed. We all can reach out to Christ in faith as the woman in the Gospel story did. As another famous Saint James wrote in his epistle: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” Perhaps the greatest question for any pilgrim is not whether or not the bones in the shrine before them could actually be those of a saint; it is whether the bones in the mirror before them could be.

 

 

Blessings,

 

Fr. Kevin

The Witness May 2013

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De mortuis nihil nisi bonum

Do not speak ill of the dead

 

On Wednesday, April the 10th, Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was laid to rest from Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. In the midst of the beautiful service, the Bishop of London delivered a moving sermon in which he stated:

 

This, at Lady Thatcher’s personal request, is a funeral service, not a Memorial Service with the customary eulogies. At such a time, the parson should not aspire to the judgments which are proper to the politician; instead, this is a place for ordinary human compassion of the kind that is reconciling. It is also the place for the simple truths which transcend political debate. Above all it is the place for hope.

 

Despite the fact that the Bishop stated that this was “neither the time nor the place” for debating the merits of Lady Thatcher’s political career, there were still protestors at many stages along the funeral procession outside the cathedral. Many of the demonstrators expressing their contempt for the former Prime Minister hadn’t even been born when Margaret Thatcher was in power, and yet they still felt compelled to protest (loudly) at a Christian funeral.

 

As the Bishop wisely noted in the beginning of his sermon, there is a time and a place for debate and discourse and disagreement in a free society where individuals are entitled to their own opinions and free speech, but there is also a time when such disagreements need to be put aside out of respect for the humanity of others. There is a time when our individual opinions need to be put aside so that we can remember that the person we are arguing with is just as much a human as we are. We forget that at our own great peril.

 

The same week that Margaret Thatcher was buried, we in our own country were in the midst of a furious manhunt, looking for two individuals that planted homemade bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The human lives of the individuals standing at the finish line mattered little to these men; they didn’t care about the victims’ hopes or their dreams, or what struggles the victims may have overcome in their own lives. The two men that committed this heinous crime only cared about their own opinions and taking an opportunity to make a political statement.

 

Showing respect to others, whether living or dead, is not just about creating a polite and genteel society anymore: it is about life and death itself. Once you have refused to recognize the humanity of another person it is a pretty short road to refusing to recognize any of their human rights, including their right to live. Protesting a funeral, and taking a life are clearly not the same thing, but they do both share a similar disrespect for the life of another. Both actions attempt to turn a human life into nothing but a political agenda.

 

The great truth of the Incarnation and the life of Jesus Christ, is that God refuses to be made into an abstraction or an idea or an agenda. God invites us to see him as a person. He invites us to see each other as people too. Sometimes we may have to put compassion ahead of our own individual opinions, so that we don’t fail to see the humanity of the one standing before us. In Britain and in America we enjoy the right to free speech and to make public demonstrations, things which are to be treasured and valued, but we should also never forget that sometimes it may be more valuable to exercise that other important right that we have: the right to remain silent.

 

Blessings,

Fr. Kevin

 

The Witness April 2013

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If you lived during the middle ages, not only would you have given up meat for all of Lent (not just on Fridays), you would have also given up eggs and dairy as well. To this day, many in the Eastern Orthodox tradition abstain from eating all meat and animal by-products during Lent, but in the West it has been a long time since we routinely gave up eggs or dairy. It is no wonder then that the tradition of Easter Eggs may seem a bit odd to us. For years I have observed people fumble around trying to explain the significance of Easter Eggs to their children or to other adults (Christian and non-Christian alike). Most of the time the best answer we can come up with is that “eggs symbolize new life,” and are therefore a symbol of resurrection and of spring. This is partially true, but in order to appreciate the true significance of the Easter Egg we also need to remember that for most of Christian history, the faithful had given up eggs for all of Lent. The eggs that were decorated and celebrated on Easter Sunday morning, were done so by people that had lost them for a time. This wonderful and nutritious food had been forbidden to them during Lent, and now at last they could feast on them again, along with everything else that they had given up.

 

Easter Eggs are symbolic of life, but they symbolize life that has been lost and regained. They represent a natural gift of God, that because of our sinfulness and broken human nature we have had to give up for a time (during the penitential fasting of Lent), but now because of the grace and forgiveness of God has been restored to us. The Christian celebration of Easter is not about new-birth; it is about re-birth. It is not about the discovery of something new; it is about the recovery of something that was lost.

 

We have a tendency to lose things in this world: we lose our innocence, we lose our joy; we lose our sense of wonder. Sometimes we lose things because they are actually taken from us: like our loved ones, or even perhaps, our health or our own lives. Easter is a festival when we as Christians proclaim that we have a God who restores things that have been lost. Because of what we witnessed at Christ’s tomb, we believe that God has the power and the will to restore life, even to our mortal bodies. This is our unique hope as Christians: finding that which was lost.

 

This year we will, like many churches, have an Easter Egg hunt in the garden following the Easter Sunday Mass. We will have a special visit that morning from the Easter Bunny as well. Despite what many people say about the Easter Bunny, there really is no evidence that rabbits or bunnies ever had anything to do with ancient pagan customs. The same is true of the Christmas Tree. Historians and theologians are equally reluctant to admit when they do not know something, but when it comes to the origins of the Christmas Tree and the Easter Bunny, the real truth is: we just don’t know. What we do know, is that for the past few hundred years, Christians have used both the Tree and the Bunny to inject a bit of joy into their lives. They have used them to inspire their children to wonder and marvel at a world that is sometimes magical and mysterious.

 

On that first Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene found what she was looking for, but it wasn’t in the tomb. May our celebration of Easter help us to find what we are looking for too: our hope, our joy, our innocence, our loved ones, our childhood or even our own lives. May we too discover that what once was dead, through God’s grace, is now alive and well.

 

Blessings,

 

Fr. Kevin

The Witness February 2013

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As we approach the holy season of Lent, I am reminded of a line from Joy Davidman’s book “Smoke on the Mountain”:

 

How does one keep a day holy? By making it unpleasant, and restrictive, and boring – or by making it joyous? By making it as much as possible like hell, or as much as possible like heaven?

 

We don’t usually think of Lent as a joyous season: Our church services are more somber, we refrain from using the joyous expression “Alleluia,” and we are encouraged to be more mindful of our sinfulness and or mortality. But the Spartan and penitential nature of Lent, need not remove all joy from our lives every February. In fact, when understood properly, our Lenten journey can actually help us to find and hold onto the true source of joy in our lives.

 

Life has a way of distracting us from what is really important. We are always tempted to put our faith (and our time, energy and resources) into things other than God. Maybe our desire for food controls us more than it should. Maybe our television habits are poisoning our view of humanity. Perhaps we need to spend less time chasing after life and more time just living it. The world always wants us to believe that joy is to be found in more stuff, but our faith is always calling us to remember that sometimes true joy is to be found in less.

 

Less drama, less noise, less clutter, less dessert: Lent can be the spiritual and emotional equivalent of cleaning out the basement, the attic and the garage. The austerity of Lent is not meant to be an arbitrary punishment for our sins; it is there to focus our attention on those things that are truly important. It is there to remind us of how much the world tries to distract us from the love of God.

 

We worship the same God during Lent that we do during Christmas and Easter. The God that we celebrate feasting on pancakes on Shrove Tuesday is the same God that calls us to fasting with ashes on Ash Wednesday. The God that confronts us with sin and death on Good Friday is the same God that offers us forgiveness and life on Easter Sunday. We need both, and God knows it.

 

Now we are come to the beginning of Lent. We are all given the opportunity to make this season truly holy, not by giving up joy, but by focusing ourselves on what the true source of our joy really is. We may put aside some things for a while, not because they are necessarily bad, but because we recognize that we don’t need them as much as we need God.

 

Joy Davidman (that author I quoted above) was the wife of C.S. Lewis. When she died prematurely of bone cancer in 1960 he had the following epitaph placed on her grave:

 

Here the whole world (stars, water, air,


And field, and forest, as they were


Reflected in a single mind)


Like cast off clothes was left behind


In ashes, yet with hopes that she,


Re-born from holy poverty,


In lenten lands, hereafter may


Resume them on her Easter Day.

 

The ashes that we are anointed with this Ash Wednesday are a reminder of our mortality and all that we must let go of, but they are also a sign of hope: Hope that no matter how much we have to let go of in this world, there is so much joy waiting for us in the next.

 

Blessings,

 

Fr. Kevin