Father Mark, Reflections

The Song of The Bird

Story by Anthony de Mello from The Song of the Bird.

Have you heard, really heard, the song of a Mockingbird lately?

The disciples were full of questions about God. Said the master, “God is the Unknown and the Unknowable. Every statement about him, every answer to your questions, is a distortion of the truth. “ The disciples were bewildered, “Then why do you speak about him at all? Why does the bird sing?” said the master.

Why indeed, does the bird sing? When is the last time you recall hearing a bird sing? When you hear the song of a bird, perhaps your favorite bird or a familiar one, what happens within you? A song, sung from the heart, awakens the heart of another.

When I hear a bird sing, I don’t get my cell phone on and attempt to track the song’s decibel level on the app. When I hear a bird sing, the song lifts me above what which is around me so that I can attend to the song. The Mockingbird has one of the most beautiful songs to me. It’s gentleness, rhythm and beauty cut through everything else and lifts me beyond my ability to understand. When I have worked with people in deep depression, I will often have them hum quietly a tune that might come to them. It isn’t long before the tune expands and begins to carry them, lifting them out of their malaise. When they begin to discover the song within them, they begin to heal.

The Holy Spirit also sings and is singing to you and to me….right now. What song is the Holy Spirit singing to and through us?

What song has the Creator placed within you? Listen for it as it resonates deep within your being. Holy Being sings through human being. Allow your song to come forth and to bless the world around you.

The world is waiting….

In Harmony,

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

Making Connections: Symbols-a Way to Knowing

The Gregg Window adorns the East Wall of our Sanctuary. I gaze at it often and prayerfully ask the Lord to speak to me through it. Symbols and images have long been used as a means of creating spiritual communion between our Creator and ourselves. A symbol is like a window the Light shines through, pointing beyond itself to God.

One of the things windows teach me is that I don’t always see what is there–right in front of me. How many times to I walk past God without seeing or hearing caught up in my own mind with my own agenda? One of the goals of the the spiritual life is to be aware of the Reality of God, the reality of self and the reality of one’s environment for the purposes of discernment. One of my favorite prayers by the late Rev. Martin Bell (his stories are wondrous!) is: “Help me to realize, with real eyes, where the Real lies.” I’ve been here almost four years now and it wasn’t until recently that I noticed the 7 stars encircling above the light of the lamp at the top of the vertical cross. The number 7 is a whole number in Hebrew numerology. I ponder what the 7 stars represented in the mind of the artist. When you observe the stars, quietly gaze and listen for what might be given to you through the image–how the Spirit might be speaking through it to you. Observe. Listen–in solitude. Sometimes the experience received isn’t found in a word, but more simply in a quiet Presence. The seven stars beg the question: How is God bringing wholeness to me? To our church? To our community?

I would think that the artist, along with Josephine Gregg, her husband, and the whole community were fed by the words of the Psalm 119: Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path….” Texas had recently suffered through the War Between the States followed by seven years of military occupation with the atrocities of Reconstruction and decades of poverty following. It kind of makes the COVID event look small in comparison. I imagine that the Spirit reached many through this window. The memorial to David Gregg on the North wall, former Sr. Warden and Sunday School Superintendent for 35 years grew up through the turmoil of that era.

Making connections: One has to look closely at the scroll else will miss The Gospel that is carried in (I will call her “Sophia” meaning “Wisdom”) Sophia’s right hand. The Psalms are part of what is know as the “Wisdom Literature” in the Old Testament. What comes to me through the images is that The Gospel in the right hand feeds the Wisdom and Light that Sophia brings to us elevated in her left hand, as she walks, approaching us. She is the bearer of Good News to us in the midst of easy times and hard times, joy and sorrow, birth and death… and resurrection.

Sit with the image of Sophia and the Good News she brings with all the details. Listen as you gaze upon the Lord calling you and what the Spirit’s Presence is bringing to you. Enjoy!

Peace be with you,

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

Sixty feet-Six Inches

There’s a difference between planning and living. Both are necessary. Planning is definitely easier than living. Planning can help with living but cannot replace it. One of the problems about planning is that it cannot foresee every instance that might arise. Living is much more on the edge than planning. I learned this when I tried to learn to hit a curve ball.

One of the ways baseball mimics the spiritual life is that from the time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand (60 feet 6 inches away) you have about a second to decide whether to respond and how to respond to the life he is giving you with a horsehide sphere 9.25 inches in circumference with 88 stitches holding it together. Studying the theories of how to hit: foot placement, hand placement, what the eye focuses, the location of where you want to put the ball in play if the pitch comes to a “friendly” place on and other things help to create a foundation. But integrating all of this into action, to me, takes a miracle. Once you step into the batter’s box, planning fades and living begins. You can guess, but unless your team is stealing the signals, you don’t know what’s coming. Even if your team is stealing the signals, you still don’t know where that little pill is going to go–hopefully not at your head.

It gets even more intricate than this. I can’t recall if it was St. Ted Williams or St. Stan Musial who taught me to watch the “spin” on the ball. The spin will tell you what the pitch is going to do. OK. I have one second to watch the spin on the ball and then react to it. Yeah, right.

Now if you’re still with me, (non-baseball lovers who don’t appreciate this most likely have stopped reading several paragraphs earlier) why am I telling you all of this?

It’s much easier to think, pray, reflect and study about the spiritual life in the dugout or at practice than to apply it at “Sixty Feet-Six Inches,” when life comes to you as a curve, a chaotic knuckle ball, screwball, slider or a plain vanilla fast ball that blows by you before you know it. Of course there’s always the passive-aggressive “change-up” that throws you off balance. But the following is the key point in this whole story.

Probably the best lesson I ever learned about baseball wasn’t really about baseball. I learned how to live at the feet of the late Benedictine, Fr. Thomas Keating who was the first of my many teachers in contemplative prayer. Why? Because the biggest challenge in the rectangle of life (batter’s box) you stand in is “What’s going on between your ears?” The mind easily goes on over drive, overheating and destroys our capacity to respond to what life gives us. Contemplative prayer, practiced over and over, empties the mind so that only the One Voice who directs all things in harmony, is heard. It is only when my mind is empty (OK, you can have some fun with this one), that I know how to respond to what life throws at me. In contemplative prayer, one stills the mind through the breath to empty the self (Thank you St. Paul Phil 2:7). Added to this is the science of focusing the attention between the eyebrows, above the frontal lobe that is busy doing all that thinking motivated by the emotional brain behind it. Leaving our racing thoughts behind, our minds chill out and we can hear and observe the reality of what is (really) going on and to spiritually receive the Divine Guidance from above who directs us.

This is why I usually avoid noise. Prolonged noise distracts and inhibits the human spirit from receiving Holy Spirit, making focusing much more difficult. Every person with whom I have ever worked with in spiritual direction or as a therapist has suffered from noise pollution whether the decibel kind or the evil messages given to them that have remained within them deteriorating their spirits and minds. Ball players, the great ones, have learned how to shut out the noise both outer and inner.

Welcome to life. Every day we enter the rectangular batters box to receive one of many pitches that life will throw at us. The spiritual life is like batting practice. How to still one’s mind, focus, listen and how to respond (or not).

We will strike out sometimes. But sooner or later we will come to the plate again–for another opportunity, another lesson, in God’s Field of Play.

Batter up!

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Sermons

Acceptance and Tolerance

Thanks Moms for feeding us in so many ways….

Happy Mother’s Day!  I was asked to address the subjects of acceptance and tolerance.  Mothers practice acceptance and tolerance a lot.  I will begin with a personal story.  God has a habit of playing tricks on us—not out of meanness but because God likes to reveal our inconsistencies to us so that we might be made whole.

During my venture into bi-vocational ministry, in 2001, my first employment outside of the church was with Child Protective Services in Ft. Worth.  I can’t begin to tell you how much I didn’t like it, but as all in experiences when you’re forced to swallow medicine we don’t like such as castor oil, we plug our noses, gulp and take it because it’s good for us.  It was good for me as I learned much. I also learned much about myself.  It doesn’t take long for a CPS caseworker to develop a sense of what we call being jaded, against those who abuse or neglect their children. 

My initial positive attitude to be accepting didn’t take long to wither into tolerance and then to border on intolerance.  We had to guard against intolerance because then we would no longer be able to offer enough acceptance to help parents who were abusive or neglectful.  Our first responsibility was to protect the child which for me involved many sleepless nights wondering if anything I was doing was making any difference.  

I didn’t last long at CPS—few do, looking to work at a place that was better suited for my gifts.  Problem solved.  So I thought.  Until years later in Tennessee. 

I worked with many abused children and adults as a therapist.  But for the first time, what walked through my door were a few adults who were perpetrators of child abuse or neglect.   Right there the dragon of my intolerance awakened from the grave. 

I hit the wall of my intolerance.  If I were to offer them any hope of recovery in their mental health, I had to see and accept the individual as a person.  Intolerance gets in the way of accepting others because we fear the threat of personal physical, emotional or spiritual injury. The stories of others remind us of our real or imagined counter-stories.

So God and I had a face to face about what was it within me that blocked my ability to accept these persons as human beings who could not accept themselves.  I had to come to terms with my belief that the source of the suffering was not redeemable as verified by statistics.   I came face to face with my doubt in God’s ability to heal the perpetrators.  If I were to accept God into this part of my life, I had to come face to face with my own beliefs and memories—to realize they were memories and they no longer had power in my life.  That wasn’t fun, nor was it easy.  But it freed me of many fears.

All of this to say is that acceptance and tolerance are totally dependent on the health of one’s spiritual life.  Acceptance and Tolerance are interrelated.

Acceptance is receptivity—a receptivity to God yields a life reflecting the nature of God.  God’s acceptance of us pays it forward to us accepting others as God accepts us. 

Tolerance, not found in Hebrew, has Latin origins meaning to bear, or to endure—more of a strained acceptance.   Intolerance indicates a personal reaction to something within ourselves triggered by another, making it difficult to accept the person. 

I learned that there was a difference in at least tolerating or at best accepting the person while not tolerating the act.   Jesus’ life modeled the saying: “hate the sin but love the sinner.   Jesus is the way to acceptance.  Paul Tillich summarized the gospel into three words:  You are accepted. 

Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except by me,” has been misunderstood and taken out of context into a legalistic frame of mind, similar to the Jewish leaders of his day.  

The words, “I am,” in Hebrew, ehyeh asher ehyeh, is the name of God, meaning, “I am that I am” or  “I am the cause of what is.”  We might also add: “I am what is happening to you,” as God is always moving about within us.

The Aramaic word, urha, means path, or way—with the image of the Father passing on to the son his nature of what he knows—his way of being, much like how a father would pass down a trade, to the son, who later passes it on to his son.   On Mother’s Day, think of all the loving care, values, teachings, skills and traditions you offer your children and that were offered to you by your mother.  The Father’s beloved nature, is passed to and through the son—to us.

Jesus is preparing a “place” for us.  My original images for a place as a child, were thinking of beautiful rooms in a magnificent manor.  Of course, the mansion about which Jesus speaks refers to his finding his home within us.   Life is a course in home remodeling—the rooms are within us.  We are constantly being reformed in the image of God.  We’re in a lifelong apprenticeship. 

The term, B’SHEMI means ‘in my name.’  To ask in Jesus’ name means “according to my method, my way of doing things.”  For example Jesus’ teaching and his way is modeled in the beatitudes—defined in the Aramaic:

“Blessed are the humble, those who long for healing, those who have softened their rigidity, those who hunger and thirst for spiritual stability, those who are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers; those who forgive and express loving kindness. 

We receive these qualities from God. We can’t just “act” this way.  Our will needs to be inspired—even transformed. 

Inspiration means to be breathed into—the same dynamic Jesus breathes into the disciples to receive Holy Spirit—the breath of God’s life coming into us while exhaling His life to others. We learn His breath, His method:  to inhale God and not hold our breath. His breath, his method instead of our breath, our method.  I learned that over 95% of the population do not breathe correctly when I learned contemplative prayer—due to breath restrictions. We were created to receive and offer the Breath of God—his life, way and Being.

God’s acceptance has always been here for us.  The same accepting Spirit moves though us with the acceptance of others.  Acceptance doesn’t mean we agree with what others do, condone it or do not distance ourselves from their actions.  

Acceptance reveals that the love of God moves through us as an offering to others—offering the Kingdom to others as Jesus makes his home within us.

May you know the acceptance of God and practice it this day more fully. Today, you moms especially.

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

The Narrow Gate

I occasionally hear the members of our community in periods of frustration saying something like, “No matter where you turn this COVID virus restricts me.” I have felt this “bind” before as we all have. Some days it seems that we’re able to negotiate our day better than others.

When I hear these complaints I recall Charlton Heston’s visitation by God in The Ten Commandments (Exodus 3): I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings. Sometimes it helps me to recall someone who has had a worse situation than me to learn from so that I can apply their learnings to my life. What first comes to mind is that God has heard. Secondly, God is going to act. If the Exodus doesn’t teach me anything else it’s that God will deliver us through any hell that we may be experience whether large or small, it doesn’t matter.

But the deliverance isn’t like the Glinda, the Good Witch of the North in the Wizard of Oz telling Dorothy to click the heels of her Ruby Slippers together three times, and voila!, you’re home free. That’s fairy tale land. This is life. And life is a day to day journey. So things are a little more complicated. But not to despair.

Jesus comes along and tells his disciples and the crowd, (Matt. 7): Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Enter by the narrow gate….think this gate is easy?

Jesus himself is the narrow gate. The reason his path is narrow is because everything I am carrying with me won’t fit in his world he wants to share with me. I have to let what doesn’t fit go. Ironically, once through the gate, the Life he offers is beyond wide and spacious, which happens to be the Old Testament experience of the word, “salvation:” to be delivered into a wide and open space.

Narrowing or being “narrowed” is a tedious process. It involves listening, discovering, hitting obstructions and letting go of things. So when we hit wall after wall with the COVID restrictions that get in our way, what do we do? Usually we get frustrated. Instead and first of all, link up to God asking for grace to release the frustration. God is our greatest need of all. We just tend to forget this and the link when things are going well. Re-linking to God, I liken to a coach who visits with me when I say, “what do I do now? ” Then the coach waits for me to listen to what he has to say.

Let me first say, being with Christ is enough, period. Even if we can’t find an answer to our question. We won’t know this until we experience him in this way. However, we are often given direction if we are able to hear it. We know what we can’t do. What can we do? If we focus on the can’t, we won’t. But if we allow the Spirit to lead us into a more narrow direction, saying, “what is it that I can do or that you wnat me to do, all of us sudden the narrow gate will look wider. Not because the gate has changed but because our vision has.

I try to narrow down to find a more micro vision of something I can do that wasn’t on my original agenda. Sometimes I have to let go of my original agenda else I will have the agenda but will remain stuck. Just being able to find one small item on which to focus and do can transport me into a more sound state of mind because I am creating what I am able to in the present situation which often turns out better than what I had previously planned. God can be found within the minutia of life. Sometimes more so. Children do this all the time.

So when you find yourself in a corner with no seemingly way out as all doors seem to be closed, look for a small crack to wiggle through, remembering to listen for God first because the Spirit will show you the way. I am only telling you what I have learned for myself. Victor Frankl learned this in in Auschwitz under much worse conditions than I could ever begin to imagine.

The narrow gate leads to life. Even if we don’t like it sometimes.

I am often surprised how the Spirit will find a way to squeeze us through the narrowest of places.

Discover the breath of God leading you one breath at a time.

Fr. Mark