10 February 2007

In praise of curses

6th Sunday OT: Jer 17.5-8; 1 Cor 15.12, 16-20; Luke 6.17, 20-26
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Luke’s Parish, St. Paul’s Hospital, Church of the Incarnation


Praedicator primum sibi praedicet!

How can we be cursed? Let’s count the ways! We can be cursed with an inattentive spouse, rebellious children, busybody in-laws, impatient creditors, sickly and lazy co-workers, an over-stuffed schedule, a small salary, bad insurance coverage, no retirement plan, insomnia, depression, binge-eating, binge-drinking, another form of emotional illness, another form of addiction, repair bills, tax bills, grocery bills, tuition bills, car payments, house payments, and so on and so on. We can also be cursed with spiritual apathy, a hard heart, a weak will, an easily fooled intellect, a bag of vices and not many virtues, a love of money and all the seven cardinal sins. So, we can be cursed physically, spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, financially, and domestically. And how does this happen? How do we end up cursed? Jeremiah says, “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the Lord.” When we expect our blessings to come from the flesh—other people, other flesh—we, in effect, turn from God and look to a creature to give us what only the Father can give: abundant, fertile blessings, everything we need to live and thrive. Blessings may come through other flesh, but they always originate with God—He is the only source, even if one of us might do the heavy lifting.

If I were to ask you to name your blessings, to call out the great things that God has done for you, how many here I wonder would call out: God has blessed me with poverty! God has blessed me with hunger! God has blessed me with mourning and tears! God has blessed me with hateful neighbors who exclude and insult me! How many here could lift up their curses in thanksgiving and praise God for their troubles? Are you prepared to give God thanks for your failures, your diseases, your daily crashes and crippled faith? It is no easy thing to celebrate weakness, destitution, illness, emptiness, and despair. It is no easy thing to lift your eyes to heaven and say, “Thank you for my trials, Lord, thank you for my suffering!”

No doubt you are thinking about now: Father is cracked! He’s gone off the rail and is running on his last rim! Not at all. I’m preaching the gospel. And sometimes that means starting with the strange and racing head-long into the stranger still. Jesus teaches the Twelve that all those we routinely think of as cursed—the poor, the hungry, the mournful, the despised—all of them are, in fact, blessed with riches, satisfaction, laughter, blessed by the Christ of the Father and made holy in their imperfection. Jesus plainly teaches his apostles that on the day we are excluded and insulted and denounced for his name’s sake, we are blessed. And so, on that day we must “rejoice and leap for joy…!” In other words, we must give God praise and thanksgiving for how we have suffered, how we have failed, how we have been injured and diseased. And not only that—we must thank Him for our enemies, for those who made us suffer, for those who injured us or dis-eased us.

This is the Way of Perfection: to surrender to God wholly, entirely, now and forever, your curses and blessings, your health and your death, your goods and all your debts; to submit your strength, your courage, your stamina and grace, all of your mistakes, successes, your warts and your shiny smile, your wallet or purse and checkbooks, your children, grandchildren, and anyone else you love: place them and place yourself under the eternal strength and sheltering love of the Father, trusting and hoping in His Word to us—Christ Jesus—that we are freed in His grace, perfected in His love, and brought to Him in His power and glory. And that no VISA bill, car payment, nosey mother-in-law, surgery, or toothache possesses the power to poison the blessings that come from His hand to your heart, if (if!) you love…and love excessively, wastefully, painfully all that and those you have willed (up to now) not to love. Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is in the Lord!

Defending to the Corinthians the truth of Christ’s resurrection, Paul writes, “If for this life only have we hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” In other words, by saying that Christ did not rise from the dead on the third day, they are saying that they do not believe in a life with Christ in heaven. Paul says that this is a pitiable waste of hope if this life is all we get. Why hope at all? Why trust? Paul’s question is powerful. If all we get is what we have and the few years left, then hope and trust are pointless existential exercises in self-delusion. They serve merely to numb our twitchy consciences with promises of pie-in-the-sky. Religious distraction and empty P.R. for Church, Inc. But Paul reasserts what he knows to be true: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” To trust that this is true defines us; I mean, to hold that Christ was resurrected from the dead is an investment we make into helping God shape us, giving us form and function and planting ahead of us a seductive end, an attractive goal. We trust and we flourish. We hope and we shine. When we trust and hope to the end, we live with Him forever, rejoicing and leaping for joy!

On easy days, trust and hope are, well, easy—sometimes doing as little as avoiding distrust and hopelessness is enough. And that may be enough for awhile. But at some point that spiritual sloth will have to erupt into an apostolic purpose, an evangelical movement toward actively praising God and giving Him thanks for your blessings and then going out to use your gifts, your blessings to help someone else, to bless someone else with what you yourself have been blessed with! Jeremiah tells us that those so blessed will be like trees planted next to a stream: evergreen leaves, carefree blossoms and fruit—even in drought years the leaves and blossoms and fruit will come abundantly! This tree’s beauty and bounty are best shared not hoarded, put into service not left to rot. It is the cursed bush, the barren desert shrub that stands in a lava waste—a salty, empty soil—that dries, cracks, stands without blossom or leaf or fruit: this is the heart that has turned from God!

Keep your hearts rich and pliable, strong and generous by surrendering to the Lord with joy and rejoicing. Give thanks for blessings and curses. Yes, even curses! How else will you turn that which threatens your heart into a benefit, a salve? Do you imagine yourself fighting the realities of day to day misfortune and willful failure by yourself? How will you fight? Willpower? Your personal goodness? Good luck. The longest spiritual tradition of our catholic church tells us that total surrender to the will of the Father—complete obedience—, a prayer life of constant thanksgiving in praise, and persistence in making a sacrifice of our service for others will transform what curses us into what blesses us. Fight the curse without God and feed it. Give thanks to God for the curse and starve it.

One last question: will you suffer those curses in silence, or will you open your lips, proclaim the Lord’s praise, and give Him thanks for everything you have and everything are?

09 February 2007

Walk while you talk or just shut up

5th Week OT(Fri): Gen 3.1-8 and Mark 7.31-37
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory and Church of the Incarnation


Praedicator primum sibi praedicet!

We are made to become God. But we cannot become God on our own. That which is imperfect cannot bring imperfection to perfection. Only perfection can draw the imperfect to its completion. In other words, if we are going to become God, we must do so with God. This is the lesson Adam and Eve missed when they disobeyed God in the garden and gave in to the serpent’s temptation to become gods without God. They believed the lie that it is possible for that which is incomplete to bring itself to completion. They ended up naked, exiled, in pain, and eventually dead. And yet we are daily tempted to throw our spiritual well-being into the boxing ring of ridiculous theories and practices in order to achieve our perfection without resorting to Perfection Himself.

Daily visited by the serpent, we have our ears tickled by the sibilant promises of obtaining divinity w/o obedience, w/o sacrifice, w/o suffering, w/o our dark nights. We know, however, that to become Christ, we must take up his cross and follow him. The credibility of your witness rests squarely on the degree to which you are willing to surrender your imperfection to His perfecting love, and to the degree to which you are willing to share the good news of his perfecting love by behaving in the world like one who is being polished to reflect the Father’s glory. There is a road to walk, a Way to travel, and there is a difference btw talking about walking that road and getting on your feet and walking it.

Why does Jesus order the healed man to silence if he is trying to spread the Good News? It is highly ironic that Jesus would heal the poor man’s tongue and then tell him not to use it! Why? Here’s my guess: what does this man know about Jesus and his ministry? Little to nothing. He knows that Jesus can heal. He knows that Jesus is compassionate. Jesus heals him and the man becomes a walking, talking witness to the power of the Word Made Flesh. But again, what does the man know? Does he know the source of Jesus’ power? Does he know why Jesus heals? In other words, does he know Jesus at all? Perhaps the worry here is that the man healed and those who saw him healed are not prepared to adequately witness to the fullest knowable truth about who and what Jesus is. What will they tell others about what happened? Will the message of mercy and forgiveness get lost in the drama of the miracle? When does the evangelizing miracle of healing become the circus act, the magician’s trick? And perhaps most importantly, describing a gospel act of healing is not the same as performing one. Jesus knows that his best gospel witnesses can speak the Word and do the Word; they can witness to healing and they can heal. Talking about walking the Way is not the same as walking the Way.

Despite Jesus’ orders to the contrary, those who saw the man healed spread the news around. Perhaps some took the whole gospel with them and converted themselves into servants for love’s sake. Most, I would guess, gossiped about the incident and returned to their lives, letting the miracle’s power dissipate into rumor, conflicting facts, foggy memories. And some few, we know, not only saw and heard the whole gospel that day, but took it in, fed on it, drank from it, lived in it, surrendered themselves to its perfection and grew in obedience. They heard Christ speak to them when he spoke to the deaf man: “Be opened!” And they were. If we will be opened to speaking and doing the Word in the world, then we must surrender to God’s will and obey: hear and comply, listen and do what we are asked to do in Christ’s name.

If you cannot or will not be Christ in the world—healing, feeding, visiting, teaching—then heed his order to be silent about his gospel. Your silence is a better witness than your hypocrisy. When you are ready, however, “Be Opened!”, and join the prophets, preaching the fullness of his Good News.

05 February 2007

Martyrs and Fools Attend!

St. Agatha: 1 Cor 1.26-31 and Luke 9.23-26
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX


How wise is it to be killed for a belief? Most would say that no belief is worth one’s life. How could something as fickle and fragile as a proposition about what I think about a given issue equal my life? And even if I found an issue so deeply important to me that my belief about it was worth defending with my life, who would ask me to do such a thing? I mean, who would challenge my belief so aggressively, so violently that I would find myself having to decide whether or not to die to defend it? We know that our soldiers frequently cite “freedom” and “democracy” as the abstract reasons for willingly fighting in foreign wars. These concepts carry enough juice still to motivate the young to pick arms and kill the enemy. But war-time is extraordinary.

Let me ask you: what would you die for? An idea? A cause? And let’s say there was a who you would die for…let’s say you answered: “Christ. I would die for Christ.” What does that mean? Christ has died for you! What does it mean for you to die for him? How will you carry out your baptismal vows if you’re dead? You could argue that by dying for Christ rather than renouncing him or denying him is a radical form of witness and that it satisfies your vows at baptism to preach the gospel. Possibly. But then I would have to go back to my original question: who’s going to put you in a situation that requires your life for your belief? Seriously now, who here is threatened with martyrdom? No one! Bloody martyrdom is as far from Irving, TX as the moon is for glowworms.

So why do we celebrate these martyrs? They are supposed to be examples, but examples of what? Stubbornness? Foolishness? Extremism? Wouldn’t they and we be better served by examples of productive compromise and accommodation? Wouldn’t everyone just get along better if we weren’t so insistent on phrasing our beliefs so aggressively, you know, talking about the truth of the faith so plainly, so convincingly? It might serve us best to tone down the fervor a little, cut the joy and praising with a little prudent grumpiness. All this red draws unwelcomed attention to the fact that some few objected to the faith of Agatha and killed her for that faith. Really now, who could be offended if we thanked Agatha for her life and witness and turned today into an Interfaith Celebration of Spiritual Tolerance and Diversity? Agatha would understand.

Well, all of that might be wise by human standards but it is foolishness in the sight of God. God chose us to become His fools. We are not the fools of the world, but Holy Fools who do foolish things like die for our beliefs. We are not ashamed of Christ. We do our best to follow Christ by denying ourselves—prayer, fasting, penance, service. We do this b/c we hope to gain an everlasting life. This means being weak in order to be strong, being lowly in order to be lifted up, to be counted nothing in the world so that we might be counted worthy before God.

Consider your calling, brothers and sisters, if you want to follow Christ—an extraordinarily foolish thing to want to do!—then you must do what he did: preach, teach the truth of the faith; serve the poor, the sick, the forgotten, the put-out; heal, heal, heal; pray fervently, sacrifice often, be with the church; suffer for the rest of us; and die friendless on a cross. And if we aren’t too busy tolerating our diversity down here, we might remember to remember you once in a while.

If you wish to follow Christ you will lose your lives. Take up his cross daily then and follow him. Foolishness awaits!

04 February 2007

Fish as if the Church depended on it!

5th Sunday OT: Isa 6.1-8; 1 Cor 15.1-11; Luke 5.1-11
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Paul Hospital and Church of the Incarnation


How easy it is for Jesus to show his disciples-to-be how to fish. All you need is Christ’s presence! Lower the nets. Reel in the fish. Where Christ abides, there is abundance. All you need do is be prepared to collect what his presence draws near. To be prepared you will need a partner or several partners to share the work, deep water, strong nets, sturdy boats, and a real sense of humility before the generosity of the Lord! Manage all this and you have an all-you-can-eat fried fish buffet with hushpuppies, fries, and cornbread before you know it! And really now, what more do you need to recruit strong fishermen than hot hushpuppies and Jesus?

I hear the question all the time: “Father, what can we do to get more priests? Is it allowing priests to marry? Ordaining women? What do we do?” Yesterday, I spent the whole day with the UD Serra Club on retreat. We read sections of JPII’s Pastores dabo vobis, his document on priestly formation. Our Holy Father accurately diagnosed the vocations crisis as both a cultural disease and an ecclesial malaise. In the culture, we are more apt to hear the gospels of corporate marketing, faux individualism, narcissistic prattle, relativist and subjectivist gibberish, hyper-sexed panting, the near-fundamentalist gospel of scientism and rationalism, and the always destructive and fear-mongering extremes of feminism. Each of these, just as dark spirits always do, specialize in digging under the faith of those called to serve and weakening the foundations of trust and the desire to sacrifice.

Corporate marketing begs us to worship mass produced objects by convincing us that each of us is a unique consumer, all the while shaping us into a corporate eater, a corporate buyer—just like millions of others. Narcissistic individualism preaches the power of ME, the source and summit for MY universe, a universe where I select my sounds, my tastes, my textures, my flavors, my images and a universe where I am ME and you are (if you in fact exist) you are here to mirror me to me. Relativism and subjectivism are routine postures for those who know that the truth of the matter doesn’t report what they want to hear. There is no argument here, only a sly redefinition what “truth” is and the casual dismissal of anything so medieval. Rationalism, and its religion scientism, work to kill the supernatural so that the bond btw Creator and creature is broken. And feminism in its extreme forms adopts most of these other “ism’s” and undermines the natural, created order of sexual differences. To even utter such a sentence is blasphemy in most churches and universities these days!

These are the dark spirits that are tearing our vocation nets; these are the demons of the age that turn our young men’s heads and whisper fear and loathing in their ears. How do you say yes to sacrificial service to the people of God when on a daily basis for 18, 22, 28 years you have heard that you, as you are, you are the center of the universe; powerful as a purchaser, truly unique as a consumer; virile as a man only to the degree that you are sexual; educated only to the degree that you are committed to scientific-rational inquiry; and deeply afraid of saying anything remotely critical of the feminist dogma that “to be equal” is “to be the same.” With all of that riding on your back, you’d strain the vocations net too!

In his document, PDV, our Holy Father, JPII, offers the cure to the vocations crisis offered by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians: hold to the faith in sacrificial obedience! You have heard the gospel! Hold to it. You stand in the gospel: lift it up. It is through the gospel that we are saved. So why sell our salvation to our Jack and the Beanstalk culture of death, fashion, promiscuity, disease, infidelity, superficial spirituality, and cults of ME. For priestly vocations to flourish, that is, for us to establish an atmosphere, a culture of service, in which young men might hear and see and taste the call to serve and answer “YES!” we must begin the arduous task of reclaiming the historic faith of the church for the church and placing at the center of our lives the gospel imperatives of love, trust, and hope.

And I don’t mean to rattle these three words off like a Bingo caller. There’s nothing shy or retiring or pretty about love, trust, and hope. Each is terrifying in its way, each is an awesome delight lightly flavored with dread. How so? What do you think love, trust, and hope require of you? A mumbled amen? The occasional dollar in the plate? An hour on Sunday morning? Hardly. All three require your soul; signed over, freely given. You’ve been baptized! Dead, buried, and risen again with Christ. Neatly, cleanly, conveniently, no doubt. But you’re signed now. Claimed for Christ and his forever. To love him, to trust him, and to hope in him is what you do now. Everything must start there. No “ism,” no theory—but with him who died for you.

With him here in the boat, the catch is full and those nets do not tear. There’s help—other fishermen, other boats, other hands to do the work, but the job in front of you is yours. Let me ask you two very difficult questions: 1) would your life in Christ lead a young man to say “yes” to the priesthood? and 2) would your life in Christ send a young man yelling and into the arms of our culture of death? I wish I could tell you that it’s not your job to stir up vocations. But young men called to priesthood are often demoralized by the national sex scandals, status seeking parents, oversexed friends, spirits of rebellion and entitlement, and priests, bishops, DRE’s, sisters who allow junk to pollute the faith if not kill it outright. The witness of the lay faithful is needed now more than ever! If the faith is to center our vocation efforts, then we need daily witnesses, daily teachers, and the everyday faithful. That’s you, folks! Ask one young man this week to consider the priesthood. Just one. Tell him he is needed. With Christ on board, put your nets into deep water and pull for all you’re worth. And do not be afraid! They are waiting to hear your word of encouragement, your invitation. Trust me! They are waiting to be caught. Fish long and hard and fish faithfully. But whatever you do: FISH!