Father Mark, Reflections

Waiting . . . . . . . . . is anything but . . . passive

Kathy and I have a ritual late in every Advent season to watch the movie, “The Star,” about the events leading up to the birth of Jesus. The reason I like it is because the sentimentality factor that sugar coats the Birth of Jesus is almost non-existent. The story is earthy, bringing to life as much as can be possibly imagined about the human element that the Divine led Mary and then Joseph through in order that we might read, “And it came to pass….”

Mary’s response to Gabriel, “Let it be done to me according to your word,” later becomes Joseph’s response as both of them work together attempting to follow the vision of God. While waiting for the child to be born they are centering their attention on the presence and direction of God. Like Mary and Joseph is not our challenge the same: centering our attention on God in the midst of all the surprises that come our way. Here we find out how God works: waiting is an individual experience and yet it can be shared corporately.

Mary’s visitation by Gabriel: a solitary experience. Whom would she tell? Waiting to see her cousin Elizabeth 65 miles away near Jerusalem. Who is the person you would trust most with your innermost important secret? Then the family. No one would understand. Have you ever been blamed and misunderstood for something you didn’t do and had no way to prove it?

Then there’s Joseph: How to trust Mary’s word in spite of evidence against all odds? Then the dreams. Have you ever had a dream vivid enough that you remembered it? Did the dream mean anything? How did Joseph trust his dream? Does God still speak to us in dreams or are dreams superstitions of the old ways?

So much to be attentive to. But then the government takes its turn. Just weeks to delivery and Mary and Joseph must journey on foot and the backside of a donkey to Bethlehem 70 miles away. Rocky, dry terrain, filled with highwaymen. No exits for fast food on the way. No Motel 6 meant camping out. Vulnerability of the highest order.

So many details and diversions during the waiting period. How did Mary and Joseph maintain their attention on their highest purpose of all: The birth of the Chosen One? What could have happened within them that they risked everything – their very lives to give birth to the Holy Mystery within Mary’s womb? Surely the words of Psalm 137 crossed their memories: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” ‘Foreign’ can also mean people, places, experiences, situations and challenges that are foreign.

Christmas back then and Christmas now are different. Back then, the birth was manifested to the world. Now, the birth of Jesus is waiting to be born within us. We are waiting to be born. Something within us is yearning to be born. I have a hunch that that “something” is Some One.
How do we pay attention to the presence of God during the harried moments of our daily lives? How is it that we are able to hear, read, see or feel God’s signals? Do we act on
impulse, thought or do we wait for direction?

Waiting with awareness is extremely active, demanding our full attention.

Wait well, my friends.

May the Peace from Above be planted within you.

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Sermons

Christ The King Sunday; Last Sunday of Pentecost; John 18:33 ff. November 25, 2018

Today is the last Sunday of the Church Year otherwise known as Christ the King.  Saturday night in a sense is New Year’s Eve.                                  

I ponder why did the Standing Liturgical Commission chose the Jesus-Pilate narrative before Jesus’ crucifixion for the last Sunday of the Church Year?   The movement from death, resurrection to the Holy Spirit creating apostles out of disciples and then the time warp back to the crucifixion.                                                

And so what does all of this have to do with anything, especially on Monday morning?  Plenty.

Jesus’ last words to Pilate were: Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.   Confused, Pilate asks Jesus:  What is truth?  Jesus remains silent.  If Pilate had to ask, he didn’t get it.  

What is truth?   Truth is like gravity—an unchanging reality.  I remember in my younger years, the term, defy gravity, was used a lot, as it was during the early NASA days and previously in the Wright Brothers era.  

Gravity is a part of the human condition.  By flying, some are duped to think that gravity has been defied.  

Gravity is still in force.  As long as the engine and wings work within the gravitational field to lift the craft off the ground, it flies.  Once it doesn’t, as my Marine Corps veteran friend in Tennessee always used to say: You’re running out of airspeed, altitude and ideas.   

Gravity is still gravity.  We are a part of it.  Just as gravity is not abstract, neither is truth abstract, but is grounded in Reality. 

Truth is much the same thing.  Truth is something we belong to.   Truth in the Biblical understanding is defined as firm, solid, reliable, faithful, tested and a reality that is firm and unchanging.  I am reminded of the collect in Compline which prays for us to rest in God’s eternal changelessness.  Changeless doesn’t mean static but the identity of God’s being which is consistent and intact—like the sun shining whether we see it or not.  

Truth designates the quality of God’s nature and will.  Truth is living in the presence of God’s Being—in the words of Paul: In him we live, move and have our being.  We are animated by the presence of God in a holy mystical union in a way that can only be known and not explained. The intrinsic being of God moves through us and creation.  Like gravity, we belong to this whether we are conscious of it or not.  We may choose to walk out of step with this presence but the presence always remains present.  

Truth is not arbitrary nor is it limited by pragmatic sensory experience.  A philosopher may dabble in the subject and place truth on a dualistic continuum with falsehood.  The Biblical understanding of the opposite of truth is not falsehood but fickleness—not being true—not aligning oneself with reality.  Dostoevsky wrote from his Marxist prison cell:  “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” 

Truth contains and establishes fact yet transcends it.  Truth is a Dynamic living energy pervading all who receive its presence that shapes the receiver into the same traits and character of being as the sources of that energy.  It is like when you see yourself as spontaneously and automatically acting in similar ways as your mother or father—you just pick up on the mannerisms, as ways of being. 

Summing up:  Truth is the movement of Divinity moving through creation and its people. We belong to this living truth, this Spirit moving over and through the creation and created.  God is truth simply Being Himself.  

Back to Jesus’ statement: Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. When Pilate then asked Jesus, What is truth?  Jesus could not verbalize what Pilate could not see.  Pilate was looking at truth incarnate in Jesus and did not realize it.  

Truth is not a proposition but a divine impulse which is realized directing and working through us.  Truth is not impulsive.  Impulsivity comes from a lack of rootedness in truth. 

Perhaps the whole purpose of the church year can be summarized in learning how to allow the Source of our being to be the source of our being—receiving the Divine Impulse and living in the heartbeat of God.

Listen for the heartbeat of God within you this week.  

Saint Thomas Aquinas
Father Mark, Sermons

Proper 28B; Joshua 2; 11/18/18

Proper 28B; Joshua 2; 11/18/18

Saint Thomas AquinasThere was a philosopher who visited a monastery and conversed with a monk.  In the context of the conversation, the philosopher challenged the monk: “Why are you so wary of thought?  Thought is the one tool we have for organizing the world.”  The monk responded, “True. But thought can organize the world so well that you are no longer able to see it.”   

A thought is a screen, not a mirror; that is why it is easy to live in a thought envelope, untouched by Reality.”

Three questions:  What has influenced our lives in the past?  What is influencing our lives now?

What influences are we able to choose and are there influences where we lack the ability to choose?   

Past influences have shaped us to be who we are now.   Our pathways of perceiving, thinking and acting can be so normalized that we are hardly aware of their influence over us.   

What has influence over our lives is a combination of external and internal forces that are presently acting upon us without our always realizing this.  

How much of what we approach or avoid comes from our own choices or by outside influences?   

All of this may sound rather tedious but the spiritual leaders of the Old Testament including Jesus were very specific about directing us in the choosing of our influences—when to interact and when to withdraw.  

Our reading from Judges might have us questioning if what Joshua heard was really from God.  Joshua is very specific: Do not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars…because they will become traps for you, and their gods will become snares to you.

This seems a bit harsh to the multicultural experience of our present day and the cultural value of tolerance. Yet the Old Testament writers throughout history make it very clear that when the people co-mingled with the peoples, religions and practices of other cultures, their moral fiber began to disintegrate and their culture fell apart.  

Jesus further instructs his disciples: Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.  What influences give us life and which influences pretend –the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing—to break us down?  When livestock veer from the path, often they become vulnerable. Amish culture has maintained their practices within a closed community and they still appear to prosper.  There may be some downsides to the Amish way of life but their culture has remained intact for several centuries.  

Influences consist of people, places and things.  What are the people, places and things that manifest the presence of God’s image and likeness within us that bear the fruits of peace, love and joy?   What are the influences of people, places and things that inhibit, detract or deteriorate our souls?  

Jesus himself modeled this in his own life.  He went about the people, teaching and healing.  But at the day’s end, he would withdraw to be alone or with his own.  Jesus gave warnings beginning using the word, beware.  Beware of the Scribes and Pharisees.  Jesus would begin a sentence: “You have heard it said that…” followed by old influence and then add “But I say….” giving a new influence.

We’ve left the altar red since Pentecost to emphasize the Season of the Spirit given to the disciples, creating the church, and us.   This season is quickly coming to the end of another year.  The Season of the Spirit is a period of continual discernment of listening for direction of the Spirit’s influence—bypassing discordant influences. 

Spiritual discernment is an intricate process.  Everything we encounter we have some level of relationship with.  Withdrawing is an important part of the spiritual life.  Withdrawing is not passive but active.  We withdraw from the distractions which inhibit our focusing on the presence of God.

Withdrawing is an Advent practice. 

The other item that the Book of Judges addresses is that fact that Joshua’s generation remained faithful in their spiritual covenant and intact as a people.  

But the generation that followed did not and the culture atrophied.   

Throughout scripture there is a pattern of spiritual practice, intimacy with God and cultural harmony in one generation which becomes lax and later abandoned in later generations resulting in cultural depravity and suffering.   The church itself has a history of thriving and decay.  History reveals that the act of withdrawing from and choosing spiritual influences not a once in a lifetime choice but a daily lifestyle.  

We are preparing for a New Year: assessing the influences in our lives and which ones we should approach and from which ones to withdraw.  Advent is a season originally intended to give us the opportunity to withdraw and listen for the Spirit’s direction so we are able to fully receive the Christ coming into the world.   

What are the influences that will shape our Advent?  Do they mirror in any way the intent of original purpose of the season?  

Influences—to withdraw or attach.   Where are we being led?  What is God doing in this time and place? 

The Path Bible Study

Walking “The Path”

May God give you the dew of heaven… -Genesis 27:28

One of the benefits of Bible study is the rediscovery of our roots. Most of society’s ills come from the disconnection from our spiritual and family roots and the lack of reconciliation thereof. During our “Path” Bible Study, we were reminded of the words above from Isaac’s blessing of Jacob. But is this relevant for us today?

“Dew,” for the Hebrew, is a metaphor of abundance and reinvigoration, a symbol of God’s beneficence. Throughout most of the rainless summer months, dew provides a major source of irrigation for crops in many places in Israel.

One of the practices that Christendom has lost from our Hebrew ancestors is the “ritual” blessing of children. The ritual blessing of children is more than saying “have a nice day!” when they go off to school. A ritual blessing is when we take a few moments to be still, hold them by the hand, look them in the eye (at eye level), and give them a verbal ritual blessing such as Isaac gave to Jacob. Of course, Isaac’s blessing to Jacob was near the end of his life signifying the transfer of the family inheritance and status in the family. But there are numerous ritual prayers and blessings that can be tailored for a simple ritual blessing on a daily basis. If we do not plant the ritual of blessing as the foundation of the lives of our children, what other choices and influences will they place their life upon? A vacuum is only  too quickly filled. I wonder what the level of spiritual invigoration a child receives from “have a nice day” compared to a ritual blessing and/or prayer as they head off to school?

All of this has to be intentional. And it is not easy. I know only too well what happens in my own mind as I become preoccupied with my own inner world of how I will prepare for the challenges, known and unknown, of the coming day. I too often allow the external noise of chaos attract my attention away from what is most important: a soul centered on God.

This intentional practice involves more than children. At the home level, knowing the difficult challenges that Kathy faces in her  work places, I attempt to remember to anoint her with oil and pray for the Spirit to be ever in her awareness as she faces her challenges during the day. A ritual blessing can be taken from any Word of scripture such as the Aaronic Blessing: “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace, now and forever.” Of course the words can be simplified depending on the age of a child.

I think that most of us go off during the day forgetting the incredible presence of God who waits for us to call upon the Spirit to transform us from our human nature  alone to our divine nature in Him. Studying “The Path” together in a group helps to remind me of God’s Presence and incredible transforming Power of Divine acceptance and love. I find myself wanting to put Moses in the Book of Exodus on hold in order to go back and reflect more on the Genesis stories. I feel like Genesis isn’t finished with me yet. For some reason I feel like the Spirit is saying that there is more to be revealed through them.

“The Path:” Sundays at 3:30 and Wednesdays at 12:05 at Mom’s Front Porch. Real timeless food for these transitory times.

Fr. Mark


Father Mark, Sermons

Stewardship in 2018

As children, we are like sponges, soaking up everything from our environment. Our experiences form our perceptions, beliefs and shapes our behavior. Parents, relatives, neighbors, teachers, peers, the media, environmental events all influence us so that our basic understanding of the world and our habits are formed by the end of our 7th year. In the meantime, life begins to rub up against us and challenge our perceptions and beliefs. We usually resist incongruent experiences before we examine our beliefs and behavior because changing our life perspective and habits for the unknown can be uncomfortable—unless over time our original beliefs and behavior create a level of unpleasantness where we realize a change is in order. We learn faith partially by allowing ourselves to walk through the fear holding us to our attachments to people, places, objects and beliefs that hinder us—and Then let go of beliefs and behaviors which no longer serve us to embrace a new way of seeing, believing and acting in the world.

I may have mentioned some of my experience of stewardship before. I was reminded at clergy conference that sometimes we have to hear something 20 times for us to remember and integrate it into our lives. Stewardship of my time and talent has never been a problem for me. I was blessed with a hunger for learning and sharing what I learn. After my graduation from high school I have been involved for at least 24 years in formal education: learning amassing various knowledge and skill sets to enhance my life as a priest and a human being to be able to serve humanity. Sharing time and talents has been a joy and relatively easy for me. Part of my stewardship of treasure has involved investing thousands in these educational endeavors of self-development. In other ways, stewardship of treasure has been more challenging for me.

Church was an early influence that shaped my perceptions, beliefs and behavior. Church was like my second home, a place where I belonged. My dad took me there often and I helped him with various chores around the church. We had a living creche in Advent where we constructed the frame and built walls with bales of straw. We also had to catch the animals for the creche which was a whole lot of fun. Then we took turns dressing up as Mary, Joseph, and shepherds standing in the creche under the evening lights. Sunday evening of the 4th Sunday of Advent we would sing carols and listened to Luke’s birth narrative. I have many warm memories of my childhood. We were given small children’s envelopes with our very own number on them. We put our quarter into them every Sunday that our parents gave us. It was fun giving my offering—I felt a part of the community of giving. During all these wonderful formation experiences there was another environmental current affecting me.

I will preface this with the fact that no one is perfect, including parents: and this has no effect on how much I love and respect my parents. My mother was a product of the Great Depression of the 1930’s and my brother heard numerous stories over and over such as how they scraped by eating beans and wearing hand me down clothes. I didn’t like Brussel Sprouts at that time and I was constantly reminded of the poor starving people in China who had nothing to eat. There were other incidents woven though my early years which transmitted my mother’s anxiety and belief of scarcity into my mind and life’s outlook. Since then, my studies have revealed that anxiety is transmuted from parent to child—even in utero and children absorb our emotional states because they have no identity to differentiate from their parents.

After leaving home, I began to make my own money and my own bills. It had been easy to put the quarter in the envelope as a child because my parents gave it to me. But now, I had to figure out how much went where. Stewardship at the time was a low key endeavor. One gave to the church to keep the doors open. There was a disconnect between stewardship and faith formation. Then came marriage, children, and the increased fiscal challenges that come with it. The following is a fact of life and not a complaint: While in suburbia, I learned that one of the challenges of running a clergy household is that most church members have a much higher income. It was difficult to participate in some activities because we couldn’t afford to keep up with the level of their lifestyle and there were many times where we overspent our budget in order to participate. Relocating to another church can also be costly. When we sold the first home we bought, we lost all the equity we put into it due to a slump in the housing market. By this time the church began to teach about stewardship as proportionate giving, working toward the tithe.

There were many years when I had a lump in my throat due to the fear of how could I manage to be faithful without going into debt. This is when we learned to set priorities. During those few difficult years, we still looked at our income and stewardship proportionately and had to back up our percentage of giving a couple of times. But each year we’d bump it up another percentage point. However, the core issue for me throughout was the parental infused anxiety birthed in my belief in scarcity and fear that God would not provide. My head knew the theology of God granting us abundance. But my mind and feelings feared that we just might not have enough. Relocating to Luling was a blessing. Fiscal changes involved higher taxes and real estate costs, going from no mortgage to having one, Kathy moving from full time to part time work and my change from two income sources to one.

What’s really important to me in this is not the money itself but transcending the fear that plagued my life in the past to be given a heart of gratitude in its place. So this year we will step up a percentage point to 8.2%. The fear still raises its head periodically, but the decision to move through the fear by acting in faith has helped to dissolve it. Peter walked on the water toward Jesus until he began thinking too much and sank due to his fear. Reviewing the salvation of history of God working in my life has also helped me realize that we have been carried this far and God has never let us down. Reviewing one’s salvation history is a powerful antidote to fear. Being delivered from fear into freedom is a part of salvation. I have learned that I need to give in order to discover my identity as a child of God and as a co-creator with God—in order to know in the words of St. Paul: “whose love and service is perfect freedom.”

Will you join me in walking the path of stewardship as a spiritual practice?