Friday, May 30, 2008

Of Labyrinths and Sandwiches

I walked the outdoor labyrinth at Grace Cathedral , San Francisco, this week. It was a significant moment for me, as it was a priest on staff at this cathedral who pioneered the modern use of the labyrinth. It has been an important tool for me personally and for the brothers' ministry at Little Portion Friary where we built an enormous turf labyrinth that attracts hundreds of visitors. I think it was Rev. Lauren Artress of Grace Cathedral who first said that the labyrinth is an externalized archetype of life's journey. I often tell people my ministry as Minister General is a pilgrimage for me. Following the twisting paths I thought about all the different experiences I have had; trust and acceptance is the message I got from this important walk. I have to trust in the leading of the Holy Spirit (and the goodwill and love of the people around me: the world is full of grace and love!) and accept the struggles I have as part of my learning curve as I seek to live into the journey I am on.

It is weird taking your own picture, but there wasn't anybody around to snap it for me...

Fortunately most of the difficulties I face can be classified as "luxury" problems: scheduling flights, making meetings, solving problems and meeting publication deadlines. I was reminded that many people have much more basic and difficult problems, and I wonder how I would face them; the brothers in the San Francisco area are deeply involved in ministry with the hungry and homeless.
While I was staying with the brothers at St. Clare's House in Berkeley, we went out after dinner one night to distribute peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the people on the streets. Some weren't interested in the sandwiches, but wanted to talk, others only wanted the sandwiches and to be left alone. Brothers Eric, Christopher Paul and Max share this ministry and at least two of them go out once a week. We met many people, some obviously looked out for the brothers and greeted them warmly. We all agreed that it might only be a band-aid to a huge social problem but getting out sure beat sitting around the house wondering what we could do to help. The experience forms a basis for reflection, and the conversations with people who are homeless or at risk on the streets challenge any prejudice we might have. I also think it gives authority to any advocacy work we will do in the future. I remember Dorothy Day writing about a young man who came to see her on his way to Washington DC where he'd landed a job that he expected would eradicate poverty. I think she felt a bit patronized by him as she showed him around the New York soup kitchen. After he left, she mused, "I wonder how many poor people he knows?"

Later in the week I went with Br. Simon to St. Anthony's Dining Room in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. Simon volunteers there every Thursday, serving lunch. We were there from 10:30 until 1:30 and served over 2500 meals: gumbo, rice, green salad, bread, oranges and cake. I was really tired afterwards. The more experienced volunteers (there were about 15 volunteers and 10 staff) nodded knowingly, saying, "the first day can be real hard. Its kind of emotional." Indeed.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Corpus Christi Sermon

Preached at Church of the Advent, San Francisco

May 22, 2008

Thank you for the invitation to preach tonight. It is a great pleasure to be here. This is a marvelous parish. From 1982 until 1985 I worked at The Church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York City; I am not totally unfamiliar with the tradition of parishes like this! The Anglo-Catholic movement within the Episcopal Church has been all about celebrating the Holy Eucharist—often every day—and especially on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, with reverence. We celebrate Corpus Christi with great splendor as a day to pause and acknowledge the centrality of the Eucharist to our Christian life. We are also celebrating the 150th anniversary of beautiful, reverent, Eucharistic worship and social ministry in this parish.

The Scriptures for tonight highlight two aspects of sacramental worship that I believe are very important for us tonight. First, from Deuteronomy, is the statement that we depend on everything the Lord says. It is not just about food, but a deep sense of dependence on, and interdependence with, God. And the lesson for the Israelites is that when they depend on God, keeping close to the vision and mission he has set before them they will be given the Promised Land. It is not a sign of weakness to be dependent on God; it is an essential strength of an inner vision. Our Christian faith is clear that all that we do comes from God and we offer it back to God. The second scriptural aspect is that Jesus is the living bread, the source of our power, the One we come back to over and over. Everything we do here is to call us deeper into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Jesus is the source of our vitality—our food, if you will. In his book The New Friars Scott Bessenecker characterizes these qualities of dependence on God and relationship with Jesus Christ as they might look in the lives of men and women seeking to live them out. In his words, what we are talking about is Incarnational, devotional, missional and marginal.

As a Franciscan, I am reminded by our Principals (our Rule) that the Eucharist is the very center of our lives. (And I know it is part of your identity here) Brothers and sisters gather as often as possible to celebrate the Eucharist. In some of our houses there is no priest, so the brothers set the sacrament on the Altar for devotional prayer. You haven’t lived til you’ve knelt on the dirt floor of a palm thatched church at 6:00 a.m. sweating in the 85 degree heat, mosquitoes swarming around you, malaria, diarrhea, and prickly heat rash calling to mind your mortal nature, PRAYING the divine praises with 15 or 20 young brothers. I have to admit there was a tiny voice (clamorous actually) asking: “What am I doing?” I realized I had to answer that question for myself or I wouldn’t be able to persevere the whole half hour. What does it mean that the Eucharist is the center of my life when it is so inconvenient, or I feel so poorly, so weak and tired?

What it means is that God is fully present to me and all of us. The Eucharist is Jesus. Our celebration is about God’s transforming power and love dwelling among us. Incarnational. All that is ordinary (not to mention miserable) can be imbued with meaning touched by grace and that which we rebelled against can become sweet through our devotions (just like Francis and the lepers). I can be glib and facetious about physical discomfort in remote tropical friaries—but I am serious when I say those early morning devotions are sweet. Bread and wine changed by faith and grace into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Ordinary elements, ordinary people, become instruments of God’s power: working for peace and offering a reconciling ministry in the world. Those Solomon Island Franciscan Brothers then went out from 1999 until 2002, between warring guerrilla bands, and together with the Melanesian Brotherhood over the course of many months meeting the militants for prayer and conversation, forced them to put their guns down. Then they poured salt water on the guns and holy water on the militants. Depend on God and great things can happen; Jesus’ death on the Cross can break open our hearts to love even our enemies. This is the source of so-called politics of meaning.

Our mission as Christians is chartered by our sacramental Eucharistic encounter. If the Eucharist is the center of our lives, Jesus Christ dwelling in us and we live in him, we have the power! We’ve got the power to forgive, to heal and to absorb the slings and arrows of the world, to shine light into the dark places, to tolerate misunderstandings, to make love the guiding and governing operative principal of our life and mission. We adore the Blessed Sacrament or celebrate the Holy Eucharist because these sacramental encounters create in us the open space God needs in order to incorporate us into the ministry of Jesus Christ. This is our Promised Land.

This idea of adoration and devotion is a real spiritual discipline. It is about cultivating in ourselves an inner disposition to see God in all situations, to let go of the sense of our own importance and ground ourselves in God’s will, God’s way shown to us in Jesus Christ. When Dorothy Day was asked how she managed to do so much and give so much of herself, she replied that when she was faced with a really hectic day she would take twice as much time in the morning meditating before the Blessed Sacrament.

It is significant that we celebrate the 150th Anniversary of this parish tonight: over a century and a half of transformative ministry in the heart of San Francisco. That is why the bishop and other church and civic leaders are here. The sacramental life and worship at Church of the Advent has given birth to many different initiatives on behalf of the poor, the lonely, the outcast in this city. By making your home in the City Center, you are making a strong statement about where the Gospel hope and values belong: in the gritty heart of the city.

Of course we in this parish don’t under-gird the city all by ourselves. It would be arrogant to think so. But in collaboration with other churches, people of other faiths and people of good will and courage and integrity like Harvey Milk whose bust is being unveiled this evening, the offering of the people in this parish is taken up and used by God in ways that I am sure you are not fully aware of. It is important to remember and reflect on this interdependence, it is one of the most important insights of the Scriptures for tonight and Christian sacramental theology (as Teilhard de Chardin teaches): the wheat and the grape, with human beings and God become the Body and Blood of Christ; the Body of Christ is the Earth itself, it is every human being, every living creature, the vitality of life. The Blood of Christ is the blood of martyrs, every wounded victim of war and crime and accidents, every drop of dew, every stream of water, the oceans themselves the Chalice cleansing and renewing the world through it’s many life forms. Through interconnectedness our smallness becomes one of the greatest gifts God has given us. Franciscans, at least, love marginality or minority, we call it. I think it is liberating: you can experiment with different ministries. Yeast is small, but the impact of its leavening power is great. You can innovate. You can work with different people to make a larger impact on the neighborhood. You live by different priorities than the world’s and bring love where it is most needed. Eucharistic spirituality is not disheartened by the seeming smallness of things. We know that it is in the hidden corners of the world that God was pleased to come among us—long ago and still today. It is usually that part of yourself you feel most conflicted about, where you feel the most marginal, there is the source of the most grace and blessing when you suddenly realize nothing is beyond the transforming love of God. The wheat and grape must first be crushed to become the stuff of the Sacred Elements.

Tonight we celebrate the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, devote ourselves to live in gratitude and thanksgiving for it, and pledge ourselves to go out into the world to seek out and serve the least, last, lost of Jesus brothers and sisters in the world: hall marks of Christian authenticity and optimism: what the world needs most, what people seeking Christian community long for most. The Eucharist is the way we relate to God and the world. Thank God for parishes like this that have consistently offered the means of grace we need to live the Gospel life.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Vegan food in a Berkeley garret

The brothers have taken up residence in an old building in Berkeley, CA. They were short of bedrooms at San Damiano, so the Order of the Holy Cross is renting part of their old priory to SSF. Three of the brothers have moved there, and begun very creative ministries to students at the university and seminaries there. Our needs have outstripped our resources, and a lot of the conversation was about who had to go to San Francisco (it is a $7.00 trip), and how much food costs. Much of their food (mostly vegan I gather) is scrounged, "but perfectly fine" (they insist). We brainstormed ways to get involved with people in the area and to build relationships. Nobody is particularly worried about the lack of money (God will provide), though neither do they just sit around. The three who live there are full of chutzpah and enthusiasm. Br. Max has an old fashioned printing press, and he prints cards to sell; Br. Eric Michael works full time as a counselor (night shift) and Br. Christopher Paul serves several people as a spiritual director and hopes to find paid work as an adjunct professor. The brothers have asked me to move in with these guys, and so I brought my stuff from Little Portion in New York. The move was a sad thing for me, but I am now looking forward to being part of this edgy Franciscan scene. My travels are going to keep me away a lot of the time; I wont even unpack until Christmas.

While e-mail is still the best way to reach me, if you want to write me or support the brothers, the address there is:

St. Clare's House
1601 Oxford Street
Berkely, CA 94709

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Earth is our Mother, we must take care of her.

Br. Cezar and I spent part of yesterday afternoon picking up the trash which gets thrown out of cars onto the side of the road passing along in front of Little Portion Friary. I see this trash when I go for my run in the mornings, and usually pick up several bottles on the way home. But there was an unusually large amount: we filled two bags. Mostly the trash seems to be liquor bottles: beer and vodka being the most popular. Plus empty cigarette packages and fast food containers. Cezar was surprised by the litter. "I thought we only had this in Sao Paulo" he told me. "It's everywhere!" I replied. I applaud the abolition of plastic bags in several places around the world. Picking up trash is a very small step in addressing the global environmental crisis, but it is necessary. I do not think it is possible to call oneself an environmental activist and ignore litter.
Trying not to fall into the trap of aggrieved self-righteousness picking up other people's rubbish, I noticed that the things which are worst for our bodies as any doctor will tell me, alcohol, tobacco and fast food are the things which people pitch out of their cars (are we feeling guilty, or simply oblivious to the additional damage to the environment?). Also these things can have a powerfully negative impact on the way we interact: drunkenness, secondhand smoke being obvious dangers.

Just as pollution and physical and social disease all seem to be interrelated, my time along the road on a warm, sunny spring afternoon, helped me to reflect on the beauty and interrelatedness of all creation: humans with plants, animals and the living organism of the earth. St. francis claimed kinship with all creation.

Franciscan Initiations

The religious life is not dying. The Society of St. Francis is growing. At our Chapter meeting for the Province of the Americas in New York earlier this month we welcomed two men: Br. Jailton from Brazil became a novice, taking the name Br. James(pictured at left), and Br. Eric Michael made his first profession of vows(pictured below). the liturgies were fairly low key affairs, but emotional nonetheless. I kept re-living my novicing ceremony (early Morning Prayer on Holy Saturday in a completely stripped chapel in 1990), and later witnessing Eric's Profession I remembered kneeling in front of Br. Justus, hands sweating, stammering out my vows. I have no regrets and I pray that these two men will find life with the friars as challenging and ultimately as rewarding as I have found Franciscan life to be. To be a friar is very counter cultural, as Br. Richard Jonathan reminded us. He is the novice guardian who preached at now Br. James novicing. There is much that is difficult, but no more difficult than married life seems to be. And there are tremendous rewards, namely doing what you feel called to do. Many people seemed perplexed when they have a friend who chooses to test a vocation to religious life. There are often well-meant questions like: are you sure you know what you are doing? Fortunately none of us really knows what is in store for us no matter what our choices early in life. But as a member of this community I have found tremendous love and acceptance, great opportunities for service and witnessing to the Gospel. Few if any of these things have been anything like what I imagined/hoped they might be 20 years ago.

At right Br. Jude the Minister provincial is receiving Br. Eric Michael's First profession of vows, May 7, 2008

As St. Francis said: "God is so good in the Brothers he gives to us."

Friday, May 2, 2008

Back at Little Portion

Home sweet home. It is a joy to be back in my old room even if it is only for a few weeks. Spring is in all its glory at Little Portion Friary on Long Island. The brothers are working hard: today we baked bread, in the bakery (120 loaves) and served lunch to 28 people. We are preparing dinner for another 28 (different group) who will be with us over the weekend. The Brothers at Little Portion have an extensive ministry of hospitality and social justice.

The difference one person can make

During my stay in New Zealand I had a terrific day out with my friend David Moxon, and we went to visit the grave of Tarore. As I remember the story as he told me, she was a 12 year old Maori girl who studied with a pakeha (white) woman who taught her the Gospel in Maori .She learned to read it, and shared it with her family. They were so impressed by hearing her read in Maori of events from the Gospel of St. Luke which were so extraordinary to them, yet deeply compelling, that they accepted the Gospel. Tarore went around and read the Gospel to neighboring tribes. It was after one of these meetings that she was murdered during a raid by a rival tribe. She was asleep with her head resting on the Gospel book. The book was taken as a prize, but unappreciated because the warrior couldn't read. It turned up later for sale, it was recognized as the Gospel Tarore used, and it was read again. This time the warrior who killed her heard the story and was so filled with remorse that he converted to Christianity and then went to her family and asked for their forgiveness. They forgave him. Christianity spread throughout this region of the Northern Island of New Zealand; the first white missionaries were amazed to discover these Christian Maori's. Here, Wairere Falls, where Tarore was martyred, marked by a rainbow on the day of our visit. Both her place of martyrdom and her grave are places of pilgrimage and continue to inspire all Christians. It is extraordinary to think about the impact one young woman had in sharing the Gospel story.