27 January 2006

Growing in faith, spreading it around...

3rd Week OT (Fri): 2 Sam 11.1-10, 13-17; Mark 4.26-34
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

Hear it!

How do you grow in faith? How do you multiply that faith?

Jesus tells those gathered around him that living the Way is like sowing seeds one day and harvesting the crop the next. Living in Christ is like scattering seeds—of trust, of mercy, of forgiveness—throwing out there to sprout the Word all those things of beatitude, of grace, that take root, crave our care, receive nourishment, and flower into sure signs of God’s love for us. Being a Christian working on our own little field of holiness is like being a farmer whose abundant crop sneaks across fences, spreads along the turn row, creeps into and over ditches, and roots itself—carefully, gently, but stubbornly—into the fertile ground of every field nearby. Anyone who has tended a garden or planted a field can tell you: containing a rich harvest is no easy task!

Our daily work of holiness is not a private labor. It is not work done in secret, work done in darkness or alone. Our daily work of holiness is the public work of farming the faith—broadcasting the seed, tending the sprouts, choking out the weeds, and harvesting the fruit.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course, there’s a deeply personal side to our walk in the Way. There is always that time and place when and where we meet Jesus alone and find ourselves confronted by our sin, comforted by his forgiveness, and energized to carry on despite the temptations to despair. These moments are essential to our growth, basic to the work of perfecting our natures. However, our faith cannot be merely private, merely personal. There is always that time and place when and where we meet Jesus in one another, in the stranger, in those cast aside and we find ourselves confronted by our dependence, comforted by our family ties in faith, and shown the way to the Kingdom together.

How do you grow in faith? How do you multiply that faith? Growing in faith requires attention to prayer and to service. And not just prayer and service. Growing in faith requires attention to studying the Word and living in communion—contemplating God’s Self-revelation in scripture and living within the reach and grasp of all those who seek to do God’s will. Prayer grounds us in an abiding, an enduring conversation with God that grows our awareness of our dependence on Him. Prayer unlocks the gates of our shut-up hearts to His will for us. And clears away the blighted weeds of sin. Service, done in His name and for His glory, radically reconnects us, that is, it attaches us again to the root of our lives together, bringing to mind again and again that we receive our salvation and prosper in it together, always together, never alone.

Is it enough to grow in faith? No, really, it isn’t. Jesus teaches us in parable that our growing faith is contagious, spreading, overlapping fence lines, and catching in the fertile fields all around us—friends, roommates, classmates, co-workers, family. That tiny mustard seed of faith is huge! It’s the germ of a mighty plant, the speck that sprouts a tree. And as we grow in our faith, we are responsible for scattering that faith, slinging it in every direction, blessing and prospering everyone we meet, nurturing to flower each seed we sow.

How do you grow in faith? Prayer, service, study, and community. How do you multiply that faith? Prayer, service, study, and community—all in His name, always for His glory!

26 January 2006

Put down the missalette! Hearing a Homily

I’ve written about some of the artsy elements of writing a homily and about some definitions of preaching. I’ve been challenged to write about how one should go about listening to a homily and getting the most out of it.

So, here’s my shot at answering the question: how do I listen to a homily for maximum benefit? The very first thing I want to say is that listening to a homily is and is not like listening to any other sort of performed text. All the skills you use to listen to a speech, an academic lecture, or a conversation are used in listening to a homily. However, the difference that makes the difference in listening to a homily is that in a homily, especially one preached in a liturgical context, you are listening to an extension of the Word proclaimed.

1. Put down the missalette, or as I prefer to call them Those Paper Destroyers of the Liturgy, or Those Menaces to the Word Proclaimed. Put them down. No, tear them in half, stick them in your pocket, and bury them near a soggy marsh. Do you take your Riverside Shakespeare with you when you go to see Hamlet? Ask yourself this question: if we were meant to read along with the lectionary readings, why do we bother training and appointing a Lector to proclaim the readings for us? Why don’t we just say, “OK. Let us take out our missalettes, turn to page forty-three, and spend a few minutes reading the Old Testament passage, etc.”? We don’t do this because we are called upon in the liturgy to LISTEN to the Word proclaimed. Not to read along, not to check the Lector for errors, not to fiddle with a little book during the Boring Parts When We Read the Bible Out Loud. Can you listen and read along? No. You can’t. Sorry, you can’t. The whole point of the proclamation is that the Word is sent out, projected, given a voice, made alive. You can’t get this if you’re fumbling with a missalette or fussing over a mispronounced word or a lame translation. Hear the Word Proclaimed. Don’t follow along with another text. And, yes, this means we need VERY well-prepared and trained Lectors who understand what they do as a ministry of the Church.

2. Pay attention to key words, images, phrases, ideas. If you can’t “hear” the whole homily, listen for prominent words or ideas that get repeated or emphasized. A good preacher will ask a question or make a statement or in some way call your attention to his point(s). When you hear this point, cling to it and then listen to the rest of the homily “through” this point, paying careful attention to how it is developed or used. So, for example, if the preacher starts by defining “conversion” or asking a question about conversion, then listen for images or words or some kind of repetition of conversion themes in the rest of the homily. He might preach about other things, but you’ve picked up on “conversion.” Now, of course, you can pick up on multiple points and follow them all. But you can’t do any of this while reading the bulletin, the missalette (Hack! Pooey!) or fiddling with your cell phone.

3. Repeat every word in your head. Yup, that’s what I said: repeat every word. I do this all the time. I have what the Buddhists call “Monkey Mind.” Just about the only way I can pay attention to a homily is to close my eyes (no visual distraction) and then repeat every word of the homily in my head. This is how I am able to stay on track, follow the homily’s “argument,” and not end up daydreaming about bread pudding, Battlestar Galactica, and the Pope’s new encyclical all at the same time.

4. Listen now, argue later. OK. Fr. Oprah is on and on and on about his latest trip to the therapist and he’s boring the snot out of you with tales of his evolving consciousness and how close he is to exploding into Cosmic Oneness with the Womb of Universal Is-ness. First, put down the missalette. Just put it down. Pay attention to key words and image and repeat every word in your head. Why? Because for better or worse, ugly or pretty, he’s the preacher and (however hard it is for us to understand why) the Church has seen fit to make him a priest. He has something you need to hear. Even if you need to hear in order to reject it. Listen now, argue later. If you start arguing when he launches into a description of his Naked Rebirthing Sweat Lodge Ritual with Richard Rohr and you tune out because you need to argue, then you can’t hear what it is you need to hear from him. You’re spending your homily time arguing with someone who can’t hear you argue and couldn’t care less if he could. So, don’t waste your homily time arguing with your version of Fr. Oprah’s homily. Hear him out and argue on his time later.

5. Pray! The proclamation and preaching of the Word is an extension of the Word into this time and this place. When we hear the Word proclaimed and preached, we are made larger to better receive God’s blessing; we are strengthened to labor in holiness; we are deepened to be fresher sources of living water for others; and we are excited, electrified to be bearers of the Word, apostles to our world. Pray constantly for our preachers. Ask God to set them on fire for His truth, to open their hearts and minds to His Word, to loosen their tongues, to free their gifts, and make them true workers in sowing the seed of faith. Since we know from the Tradition that the first beneficiary of prayer is the Prayer himself, praying for our preachers grows the capacity of the Prayer to hear, bear, and spread the Word he/she hears in a homily. Ears settled charitably in prayer will hear clearly the voice of God spoken by the preacher.

Well, those are my (somewhat cranky) suggestions for listening to and benefiting from a liturgical homily.

Anybody want to add anything?

25 January 2006

Are you ready to RUMBLE!!??

3rd Week OT (Wed): Act 9.1-22; Mark 16.15-18
The Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Apostle
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

Are you ready to be converted? To be converted is to be transformed, changed from one thing to another, from one condition to another. It is to be turned around, whirled about the other way, and made into that which one was not before. It is to be flipped over, tossed up, spun about, and left to crash, hard, on the ground. To be converted is to be made over, done-over, modified, and radically revised. It is newly given, freshly gifted life. New life given for a new purpose, a different way of traveling on the Way to Jesus.

To be converted is to be resurrected.

The murderous Saul is on his way to persecute the infant church in Damascus. He’s ready for war with letters from the synagogue authorizing him to root out these Jewish heretics who follow the Way, to chain them up, and drag them back to Jerusalem for trial. Absolutely sure of the righteousness of his cause and serenely confident in his ability to prosecute these looney fringe elements, Saul sets out with his fellow thugs. What he’s not ready for is the holy smackdown that the Lord brings his way. I mean, who is ever really prepared to be surrounded by the brilliance of God’s glory, knocked to the ground by the divine voice, and questioned—questioned!—by Christ himself?

You know the rest of the story. Saul is converted. Dramatically converted. The Living God reaches out to Saul, makes it clear to him that he is not merely chasing after heretics, but that he is chasing after Jesus Himself, persecuting the Lord of the Law and the Prophets, his God since the Word was breathed across the void. This encounter, this meeting of creature and Creator is a resurrection. From death to life. From stony Law to fleshy beatitude. From zeal for an Older Righteousness to zeal for a Newer Holiness. Saul is taken up, spun around, smacked about, dropped on his head, blinded, and sent like a naughty child to the church for instruction. He is brought down and risen up; he is, in the language of the business world, “re-purposed.”

Are you ready to be converted? Are you ready for your resurrection? You might object and say that you are already converted, already turned around and headed to God. No doubt. But a life of holiness, the universal call to live a holy life, is always about the day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute work of turning to face the Lord, of being ready to meet Him face-to-face, and to hear a new plan for your life. Are you ready for that? Are you ready to be sent out? Ready to find yourself walking into a task blinded, guided by someone you don’t know? Ready to be a child for a while, taught and disciplined by a stranger? Are you ready for the Holy Spirit to grab you, smack you around a bit, and put you on a path diametrically opposed to anything you’ve ever thought of before? In other words, are you ready to be resurrected? Are you ready to be changed beyond recognition and given an entirely new purpose?

If you are, then here’s your job description: go out into the world, the whole world, and declare with clarity and confidence that Jesus is the Anointed One of the Father. Anyone who believes this Good News and is washed with water in his name will be saved from final death. Anyone who does not believe will be condemned in their unbelief. Witness to what you know about the Lord, tell your story of resurrection, make the fantastic plausible, make the implausible real, and be the one for us who stands up, speaks out, boldly declares the love, the mercy, the forgiveness of the Lord. And never fail in announcing the freely given, abundantly stocked, no-waiting-in-line offer to start over, to repent and believe the Gospel.

22 January 2006

An urgent faith...

3rd Sunday OT: Jon 3.1-5, 10; 1 Cor 7.29-31; Mark 1.14-20
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Paul’s Hospital, Dallas and Church of the Incarnation, Irving, TX

I first came to Jesus as a child living in Slidell, LA way back in the 1970’s. A Baptist friend of mine drew me into his faith by telling me about the Last Days. I was fascinated by the idea that no one would be able to kill himself during the Tribulations and that the world would be covered with blood as high as a horse’s bridle and that army after army would march against The Beast and his doomed troops. It was too much for my ten-year old imagination, but I took it in and it all came together with images of helicopters, tanks, artillery, and the frantic push to defeat an Enemy, the panicked drive to win against the devil’s agent and vindicate the Biblical prophecy: watching Satan and his minions be thrown into the pit by the Lord’s terrible angels. I asked for that story over and over again. And found myself hypnotized again and again by the chaos of a righteous war against Evil, the Final Battle where Jesus thumps Satan for the last time. And those of us who knew Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior would be feasted endlessly in Heaven, victorious soldiers for holiness and purity.

It was too much. But it got me here. I hadn’t read Lord of the Rings or Narnia. Nor had I thought much about the longer job of holiness. What grabbed me then was the exhilaration, the urgency of history crashing to its end in this apocalyptic battle, the near-panic I felt to be on the right side, to be among the winners and to feel a part of something much, much bigger than my ten-year old life in Slidell. It was vital that I be involved, that I had a side, that I fought for a cause and that that cause was Right. I believed! And my conviction was electric.

Is there an urgency to your faith? Is there something vitally compelling about your trust in God that pushes you, drives you along? Maybe a better way to ask the question is this: what gets you up every morning, in the shower, dressed, and on the road? This isn’t a question about loyalty or priory? It is a question about how you understand and live out your promise to God to be His today, all day, and tomorrow, forever. Does your faith juice you up? Hurry you to holiness? Speed you to prayer, to service in His name? Is there an urgency to your faith?

Paul says there needs to be: “I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out […] For the world in its present form is passing away.” If you’re weeping, he says, stop. There’s no time. If you are married, no time! If you are rejoicing, no time! Living in the world like there’s no tomorrow? Well, there isn’t! Everything is passing away, cinders and fumes, dust and wind, everything is going and there is an urgency to making your life right, getting the house of your faith in order. Of course, Paul and his readers are expecting Christ to come again at any moment. Just any day soon. But urgency is urgency when we’re talking about the quality of our trust, the strength of our faith.

John the Baptist has been arrested and in Galilee Jesus preaches: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Several centuries earlier the people of Nineveh heard the same exhortation and they believed God; they took Him at His word, repented, called a fast, and put on sackcloth to show their humility. Jesus’ declaration of the time of fulfillment is the declaration of his advent in the world, his coming into human history to open the way for the Kingdom of God, to clear our way to that Kingdom, and to give us the Good News of his salvation. If this world is passing away and now is the time of fulfillment and the Kingdom of God is at hand, then I ask you again: is there an urgency to your faith? Are you pushed, driven into the world daily by your trust in God?

If not, what pushes you, what drives you? One of the usual things, I would guess: career, school, success, money, personal loyalty, an imaginative story, an ideology, a political agenda, a need for recognition…none of these are bad, of course, but they will pass away. Cinders and fumes, dust and wind. Gone. And soon enough. And what’s left for you? What’s left for any of us when the things we so eagerly invest in—the projects, the ideas, the people—what do we do when everything we pour ourselves into do what all impermanent things do: die and fade away? We mourn, of course. But our lives can’t be about mourning loss.

The very heart of the gospel is that we are saved, healed, made whole on the cross by the love Jesus has for us. The urgency of our faith is the urgency of the cross, the imperative love of Christ’s sacrifice, the vitality of his hope for us—that we will welcome the Holy Spirit among us, dwell lovingly with each one another in his Spirit, grow steadily in his Truth, hand on the faith to family to community to state to empire, and, finally, come back to him, to his beauty, his glory, and be with him without end. This is not a gospel of loss, of grief and mourning, of dust and fumes, or apocalypse and righteous battle. This is a gospel of lasting goodness and everlasting life, permanent mercy and all-pervading grace; a gospel of ceaseless vitality and living strength. And it is our gospel! Our story! Our work in the world and our dare, our charge—to be with Christ in here and to be Christ out there.

Is there an urgency to your faith? If not, maybe this will help: we are nothing without God. Literally, nothing. We are given life, given being by the Father. Without Him, we are nothing; we are no-thing. We are made to be creatures of praise and thanksgiving, rational animals made to grow and flourish knowing that we will return to Him. Give Him thanks for your creation. Offer him as a gift the gift He has given you: your life. Simply say, “Thank you, Lord, for my life and I give it back to you.” With conviction and longing to live with Him forever, your gratitude will produce humility and your humility will make prayer easier and easier, and you will see, with time and commitment, that being thankful to God adds an urgency to your trust in Him, a hurry to speak His Word to others, a holy panic (if you will!) to follow Him and collect others with you. You will leak out joy, seep out the good news, and scatter the tiny seeds of a holy trust on every kind of soil.

Is there an urgency to your faith? Forty days to destruction. Time is running out. The present world is passing. This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe! “Come after me,” Jesus says, “I will make you fishers of men.”

I will make you preachers of my Good News!