Archive for October, 2013

Clergy Conference 1

Posted in Doing Church, Reflection with tags , on October 25, 2013 by timtrue
Location map of the Episcopal Diocese of West ...

Location map of the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I attended my first ever clergy conference as an Episcopalian this week.  It’s an annual conference for all the active Episcopal clergy working in the Diocese of West Texas, a geographical area of more than 69,000 square miles, larger than the state of Florida; and which includes more than a hundred active clergy.  Some highlights and reflection follow.

A first highlight was the weather.  In a word, it was perfectly beautiful.  Okay, that was two words, I know.  But one word could not express it.  Seventy-five degree days, forty-five degree nights, dry air, bright sun, clear stars, evening campfires to offer a liminal balance between painful cold and heat to shorts-wearing folks like me, and two delightful rides on my motorcycle, there (to quote Bilbo) and back again.

A second highlight was an impromptu kayaking trip.  Yeah, at the clergy conference!  You see, we met at Camp Capers, a diocesan facility.  And by no common providence we, as in the Diocese of West Texas, just closed on a property deal that adds 108 acres to the campus.  The new piece of undeveloped land includes some riverfront some distance up the Guadalupe River from the original property’s riverfront.  So, while most of the clergy were obediently submitting to the yoke of Safeguarding God’s People, a half-day course required of all clergy to be updated every five years (which I didn’t have to do since I endured this yoke in Sewanee just two years ago), two of the camp staff and I scouted the river.  Someone had to after all.  Anyway, in a word, perfectly beautiful.  Okay, that was two words, but see the previous paragraph if you need clarification.  The water was high enough that I got hung up only twice–hangs ups that were remedied easily enough–and again I experieced that liminal balance between cold and hot: this time from the sun on my head and the water on my tail.

A third highlight was the collegiality.  Admittedly, I entered this conference knowing only a handful of clergy in the diocese.  That is, I could tell you the names of and a significant detail about maybe twenty of the clergy present.  (So that’s actually two handfuls and two footfuls, I suppose.)  I therefore made a conscious decision to spend every meal and other opportune time, when we broke into small groups for instance, with a different person or group.  The result is that I now know the names of and a significant detail about more than half of the clergy who were present.  And, just so you know, these are bright, talented, thoughful, enjoyable people all of whom I’m glad to call colleagues and friends.

A fourth highlight was the keynote speaker, Laura Ahrens, Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Connecticut.  She was right in the middle of the aftermath of the tragic Sandy Hook school shooting, a visible representation of Christ for the world to see.  Man, does she have a story to tell!

As for reflection, I’m thinking a lot these days about the main purpose of the Church, and how we Christians have largely lost sight of that.  This is the subject matter for many a lengthy post, a book, or even several books, so look for more in the future.  But suffice that I heard clergy say all sorts of different things that miss the mark to some degree or another: “The Church is dying; how do we resurrect it?” or “It’s all about hospitality,” or “The most important thing for us [clergy] to know is how to deal with dysfunction,” or “We must make everything we do relevant.”  What about offering Christ’s love and bringing the kingdom of heaven to a needy world?  Point is, clergy are apparently all over the map when it comes to discerning the Church’s purpose (and if clergy are, what does this suggest about laypeople?); and I hope to bring greater clarity here during my priestly career.

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Benefits of Prayer

Posted in Homilies with tags , on October 20, 2013 by timtrue

Luke 18:1-8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

Okay!  I get it.  Persistent, disciplined prayer is effective.  God wants us to pray.  We’re supposed to pray.  A lot!  Like this widow.

So I try.

In good Puritan fashion, I set aside time, I go into my figurative closet—wherever that may be—and I close my eyes and reflect on God, his blessings, my needs, and the needs of those I care about.

Or I utilize one of those ancient methods: centering prayer; lectio divina; the rosary.

Or I keep the discipline of the daily offices: morning and evening prayer.

Or I might even be fortunate enough to live in a community where others keep the daily offices with me: near a seminary maybe; or a school chapel (like here, where we hold Morning Prayer five days a week—during the school year anyway).

Yes!  Persistent, disciplined prayer is indeed effective.  God indeed wants us to pray.  Indeed, we’re supposed to pray.

Okay!  I get it!

But the truth of the matter is, it’s tricky.  Maintaining a consistent, God-honoring prayer life isn’t easy.

We live in a busy world, don’t we?  We balance heavy schedules and workloads—whether it involves getting the kids out of the door and to school on time each morning, closing some deal via skype with a business partner nine time zones away, or simply making the daily commute through San Antonio traffic—we can often feel that it took everything we had just to get through the day.  Who has time left to pray?

Jesus tells us we need to pray always, yes.  But, as the Gospel of Luke acknowledges, we “lose heart.”

And speaking of the Gospel, there’s a disconnection here.

Jesus told the disciples a parable, the text says, about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.  But then the parable itself is about a widow who persistently brings her case before an unjust judge.  He neither fears God nor respects people.  Nevertheless, the widow’s persistence pays off.  The judge craters and gives her what she asks for—not out of any ethical concern, but simply to get her off his back!

Is this what it means to pray always and not to lose heart?  Are we to be like this widow: so persistent in our prayers that we don’t let up until we get our way?

For that matter, is God even anything like this unjust judge?  This judge neither feared God nor respected people.  Surely that’s not how we are to understand the god to whom we pray!

Another problem is that the widow is not even praying here.  Instead, she’s pleading a case, persuading and persisting, in dialog with another human being, not God, until she’s heard.

How, then, is this a parable about our need to pray always and not to lose heart?  How does this parable motivate me, a disciple of Christ, to be consistent in my own prayer life? to persevere in this spiritual discipline?

Truth be told, there are a lot of reasons why maintaining a consistent, disciplined prayer life is difficult.  But, at the same time, there are many benefits that come to you when you do observe prayer as a spiritual discipline.  Every one of these benefits is spiritual in nature, sure.  But in many cases these benefits have pragmatic value too.  Here are four from today’s passage.

First: Alignment.  Disciplined prayer lines you up with God’s will, not the other way around.

Notice what the widow prays for: justice.  No doubt, widows in Jesus’s day weren’t treated fairly.  Society was patriarchal.  There were no systems in place like we have today to take care of widows—no medical plan, pension, or social security.  Care for widows fell largely to extended family members and synagogues.  Even then, family members and synagogues didn’t have to do anything about widows if they didn’t want to: there were no laws to help widows out.

Such treatment was a social injustice.  Jesus knew it.  His disciples knew it.  The widow of his parable knew it.  The unjust judge knew it.  God knew it too—and he listened to the widow’s prayer.

By contrast, let’s just say you think it’s God’s will that you find a million dollars.  So, according to this parable, you begin to pray day and night that you might find a million dollars somewhere.  But after a while, you don’t find that million dollars.  If you are persistent about prayer, practicing it day and night, reflecting on the word of God, conversing with others about God’s will, and so on, then you will probably begin to see—hopefully—that it is not necessarily God’s will that you should find a million dollars.

God, in other words, has begun to change your mind.  Through your persistently unanswered prayers you have begun to realize that you’re not really aligned with God’s will in your prayer life after all.

Disciplined prayer aligns you with God’s will, not the other way around.

A second benefit of disciplined prayer: Awareness.  Disciplined prayer develops within you an increased awareness of God’s omnipresence—his everywhere-presence.

God is everywhere around you all the time.  You may know this in your head from passages like Psalm 139: “O LORD, you have searched me and known me.  You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. . . .”  But do you live this out, from the heart?

Today’s passage says always: “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always.”  Too, Jesus explains that the widow cried out to God day and night.  She wasn’t crying out to the judge day and night, but only when she could get the judge’s ear.  But she cried out to God around the clock—whether she was in the act of standing before the judge or not.

Always!  Day and night!  It’s not just in your closets at home!  It’s not just using ancient aids like lectio divina!  It’s not just in the daily offices!  But always!

Think of it as an open ended conversation.  God is everywhere around you all the time.  Beyond that, God knows even your thoughts.  Whether you like it or not, then, to God your life is an open book!  You’re not going to hide anything from him.  Why not therefore be in an attitude of constant conversation with him?

You know what will happen then?  Your awareness of God will increase.

The third benefit: Action.  Disciplined prayer leads to action.

The widow knew that social injustices were happening all around her.  She prayed to God about these day and night.  But it wasn’t enough for her to sit at home in her closet and simply pray.  Rather, she did something about it!  Namely, she went to the judge and pleaded her case.

Go thou and do likewise!

Now, I am in no way discounting the examples of prayer I keep mentioning.  Yes, do pray in your closet!  Yes, do utilize the ancient prayer aids like lectio divina!  Yes, do participate in the daily offices—by yourself if necessary!  But then get out there and do something about what you pray for.

And finally, the fourth benefit: Astonishment.  God will astonish you through disciplined prayer.

Do you think the widow expected the judge to give in to her requests?  He was an unjust man, the text says, who had no fear of God and no respect for persons.  Yet she prayed day and night.  And she kept coming, persistently, pleading her case.  And God heard her.  Despite all expectations, the judge gave in to her requests.  Not because he feared God!  Not because he was ethical!  According to his thinking it was because he wanted her to stop bothering him!  But the bigger reason, which we know from Luke, is because she prayed consistently and according to God’s will.  And then, without knowing how God would answer, she acted on it.  No doubt she was astonished by his answer.

Pray then.  Align yourself to God’s will.  Increase your awareness of God’s omnipresence.  Act on your prayers.  And God will astonish you with his answers.

A Funkless Week

Posted in Doing Church with tags , , , on October 18, 2013 by timtrue

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I don’t know, something about settling in distracts me, I suppose.

I’ve been in my position four months now as of yesterday.  Not too long a time, I know; but long enough to have settled into something of a routine.  I’ve preached the last five Sundays in a row, with a sixth facing me; and adjusted to the constant weekly barrage of preparing and teaching other various lessons or preaching sundry sermons.  Then there are the daily greetings of students with their comings and goings from school.  Not to mention the good fellowship with my colleagues.  I have a great job.

But this is easy to forget.  The initial concentration of compliments on my preaching and teaching has been diluted.  The novelty has passed.  The honeymoon is over.  The parishioners are used to me.

But the criticisms persist.  They have become even more concentrated–perhaps an inversely proportional relationship to the compliments–showing up in subtle and not so subtle ways.  I’m thin-skinned.  So when they do show up–and they always do–I need to recognize them for what they are, take them with a grain of salt, whatever.  But my thin skin wants to make more of them than it should.  I slip into a funk.

It’s a balancing act, being a public figure, like walking a tightrope.

Well, this week has been one of those funkless weeks, on the happier side of things, where I realize just how great my job–no, my vocation–is, where criticisms can’t seem to permeate my thin skin, no matter how they try.  Blessings are seemingly without number.

One of my daughters will study abroad next semester in Italy.  I’m tacitly jealous, sure, for I’ve never been to Italy, let alone Europe!  But I’d do it lickety-split in her shoes.  And Florence of all cities!

My son is showing real signs of musical prodigy.  As a musician myself, and as he is child number five, I’ve known all along that he shows a lot of promise.  But this week I had a professional, world-class music director say the same thing.  Now, what to do with it?

My wife has been posting old family photos on Facebook, reminding me of incredible times we’ve shared as a family these last twenty years.  No one teaches you this in college, but day-to-day family life is more valuable than most things.

Friends and colleagues are boosting my confidence: despite the fact that I’m a new priest, something of a newborn really, my previous experience indeed matters to them.  Of course, the challenge now is discerning my place in the Episcopal Church before my curacy comes to fruition.

Then there’s my friend Tim, a college professor.  I’ve always looked at college professors with something of an envy.  It’s a great job!  They create their own curriculum and get to teach it.  How cool is that!  Also, they get to research and write about things they are truly interested in.  Again, cool!  And as for summers!  Who wouldn’t want to travel to various parts of the world on grant funding to research and study, and have a little time left over to take in some incredible sites?

But this week Tim took an interest in my vocation.  “Now that you’re a curate,” he asked, “what’s next?  Will you be appointed somewhere else?”

“No,” I answered.  “In the Episcopal Church, or at least in this part of it, priests are typically assigned to their first position, a curacy.  But after that they can pick and choose, like most other jobs.”

“I see,” he said.  “Does that mean you could theoretically go anywhere in the country?”

“Yeah, and even a lot of places in the world.  There’s a global Anglican communion.”

“That is really awesome.”

“Yeah, it is.”

So, in the same way I can sometimes cast an envious eye upon the professorial profession, it seems so the professor has cast an eye toward me.  Which reminds me of how good I have it.

Anyway, enough said.  This too–the happier side of things, that is–will pass, I know.  Still, it’s been good to have a funkless week.

A Leper’s Tale

Posted in Homilies with tags on October 13, 2013 by timtrue

Luke 17:11-19

 

My name’s Tig. And this is my story.

You’ve heard of Samaria, right?  It’s that town in Palestine about halfway between Jerusalem and Nazareth.  The thing about Samaria is that it is filled with foreigners.  We’re strangers to most people who live around here.  The people of Nazareth and Jerusalem avoid my people and town at all costs.  They don’t like us Samaritans because we’re different.

A few years back I did what all Samaritan boys try to do when they become men: I began to work.  Each day I faced what you’d probably think was a hard life: I arose with the sun to dig by hand, sow, till, weed, plant, mend, and otherwise care for my tiny farm, always sweating a lot by mid-morning.  In the heat of the day I’d retire to the house I was building, a work in progress, to complete what I could before sundown.  After dark I’d milk the goat and take care of other sundry chores by lamplight.  Finally, at the end of each day, exhausted, I’d lay my head down on my pillow until morning.  Then I’d repeat the process.  Day after day.

But I slept well every night.  And I arose each day with an ear-to-ear grin.  For I was to be married in early summer to Aravis, the delight of my eyes and joy of my heart.

That’s when I got sick.

“I’m afraid your worst fears have been realized,” the doctor told me one miserable afternoon.  “You’ve got leprosy.  You must leave Samaria at once and go to the colony.  It’s just outside the third village to the north.  There you will find companionship with the other lepers.  I will come to you in a month to check on your deterioration.”

He said “deterioration” because, unfortunately, leprosy is like that: it gets worse, not better.

So, miserable, sad, dejected, and rejected, I, out of concern for my fellow Samaritans—I didn’t want to infect them!—I left for the colony.

Then I met Sam.

“I’m Sam,” he said, “and if it’s all the same with you I’d like to be your friend.”

“Sure,” I said, “but aren’t you from Galilee?”

“Yeah,” Sam replied, “and so are most of the other lepers here.  What of it?”

“Oh, yes,” I said, “I see.  But all my life I’ve been treated poorly by people from Galilee.  They say my skin’s too dark, that I talk with a funny accent, and that I smell of curry.”

“Yes,” Sam admitted, “I’ve heard it.  In fact, I used to join in with that rabble, especially when I was younger.  But it’s kind of hard not to when everyone else is doing it, you know?”

“Oh,” I said, “I see.”

Well, despite our differences—in skin color, accent, and odor—Sam and I became fast friends.  No one from the outside world wanted anything to do with us, sadly.  This helped us bond.  But beyond that, within the leper community itself, Sam stuck by me when no one else did.  For even in this ostracized colony there was a sort of pecking order.  And I was at the bottom of it.

One day Sam and I were walking together around the perimeter of the colony, something we did most days.  But on this particular day a question nagged me.  So I said, “You know, Sam, you don’t have to be all nice to me and stuff.  I know you’ve got other friends here.  And I know they don’t really want anything to do with me.  You can go spend time with them if you like.  I can manage okay on my own.  It’s not like I’m a charity case or something.”

Sam just looked at me and smiled for a time.  Then he put his arm around me and said, “Oh, but you are.  We both are!”  And he began to laugh.

Realizing what I’d just said, I began laughing too.

“But that’s just it,” Sam said after a few moments.  “Don’t you see?  The folly of it all!  I grew up picking on people—excluding people—for being different than me.  I don’t know.  I guess it made me feel better than them or something.  But I just can’t do that anymore.  No, Tig, especially now, when all of us out here in this crazy colony are outcasts, far be it from me to cast you out further!  I’m your friend.  You can count on me.”

Just then we heard a shout from behind us.  One of the lepers was standing on the bluff overlooking the main road, pointing and shouting a name.  “Jesus, everyone!  It’s Jesus!”

Jesus, I thought; where had I heard that name before—some sort of healer from Galilee maybe?

Sam and I ran to join the yelling man.  So did a handful of others.  From here we could see a group of maybe a dozen travelers on the road.  They had come to a stop and were gazing up at us.

The same leper then shouted again—this time at the travelers!  “Jesus of Nazareth,” he yelled, “Master, have mercy on us!”

“What’s he doing?” I asked Sam, concerned.  “Doesn’t he fear the guard?  Let’s bolt!”

But before we could, this Jesus character did something curious.  Rather than turn around and walk back, to summon a Roman guard or whatever, he answered the one who’d shouted—or all of us really—with these words: “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”  And he continued on his way past us, heading south.

Now, whether Jesus meant to mock us—for what priest would want to touch a leper?—or merely to quiet us down, I don’t know.  But after only a short time, another one of the lepers gasped.  And then he shouted, looking this way and that and patting himself all over, “I’m clean!  Ha!”  And he broke into a flat run north, towards Galilee, away from Jesus.

Then so did the others.  One by one, as each of them realized that they were no longer infected by the deadly disease, that they were in effect no longer outcasts, they shouted for joy and broke into a run, north, away from Jesus, who had apparently healed their malady.  Each of them ran, including Sam.

Until at last I stood there alone.  What else was I to do?  I ran not north but straight to Jesus, laid myself face-down on the ground in front of him, and said, merely, “Thank you.”

He whispered something to those who were with him.  Then he looked at me and said, “Go home, Tig, to your life, to your family, and to Aravis, your wife to be.  Go home to Samaria, Tig.  Your faith has made you well.”

“Thank you, Lord,” I said again.  “But what will become of my friend Sam?”

“Let us hope,” Jesus said, “that he will come visit you one day in Samaria.  He has shown you great loyalty while here in the colony, and great courage.  But now, suddenly healed, his heart has returned to his former life and ways, just as yours has to yours.  Still, he has learned a great lesson here—as have you, my friend.  Go in peace.”

All Creatures Great and Small

Posted in Doing Church with tags , , on October 8, 2013 by timtrue

pet blessing

Pet blessings.  Have you ever seen one?  Have you ever participated in one, perhaps bringing your own dog or cat to be the object of such a blessing?

Each year in the Episcopal Church, at least in this part of the Episcopal Church, meaning in south Texas, numerous beloved pets are blessed by clergy in honor of St. Francis.  Yes, St. Francis of Assisi, who was known to preach to birds and call various creatures of God’s creation his brothers and sisters.  I got to participate in the active part of this activitiy–I was a blesser–for the first time ever.  And it was, for lack of a better term, a zoo.

The church where I serve has a school.  There are 340 students.  On Monday, we offered a pet blessing to the entire school community first thing in the morning.  This means that not only every student and teacher made their collective way to the front lawn at 8:00 a. m., and not only parents (and sometimes siblings and grandparents and even some family friends) gathered there too, but there were also more than a hundred dogs, cats, guinea pigs, guppies, and bunnies present, wagging their tails, purring, mewing, barking, sometimes hissing, some even sleeping, awaiting excitedly, fearfully, or apathetically some sort of blessing.  And if that weren’t enough, the pre-Kers brought their favorite stuffed animal friends to get in on the action.  The above photo captures the scene well.

I have to say, however, at first I was skeptical.  What in the world, I wondered?  There is no service for this in the Episcopal prayer book, nor in its supplements.  The whole thing seemed a little hokey to me.  Besides, this was technically my day off.  I didn’t want to be here, getting dog slobber on my clericals, cat dander up my nose, and guinea pig poop on my shoes.  C’mon!

And at one point, admittedly, when a group of boys from the middle school presented their obviously hastily decorated pet rocks to me, I thought, yep, we’re cheapening the Gospel.  Especially when one boy waited through the line a second time and said, “My pet Clarence didn’t get enough blessings the first time around.”  I’ll bless you, I thought, all the way to the principal’s office!

But, middle school boys notwithstanding, overall it was an absolute blast.  Especially when the pre-K-4 teacher beckoned me over to her class, to bless their animals.  Most of them were of the stuffed variety, true enough.  But each was certainly special, a friend to the owner.  But perhaps the coolest moment of all was blessing the class pet, a hedgehog!  I’d never seen one of these up close before, let alone touched one.  Its name was Archie.

So, despite the slobber, dander, and poop, or maybe in some strange way because of it, the pets were blessed, the pet owners were blessed, and in turn I too was blessed.

Overwhelming Faith

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on October 6, 2013 by timtrue

Luke 17:5-10

Why the mulberry tree?

Apparently Jesus is trying to quantify faith here—to place some concrete, tangible measurement on it.  “Increase our faith!” the apostles pleaded.  And Jesus likens their faith to a tiny mustard seed in contrast to a mulberry tree:

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus says, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

But if size were the main issue at hand, wouldn’t it be better to use the same contrast found in St. Matthew’s Gospel?  There Jesus said, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move” (Mt. 17:20).

As for sheer volume, without a doubt the mountain wins over the mulberry.  So, why didn’t Jesus say mountain here in Luke’s Gospel?  Why the mulberry tree?  Something other than sheer volume must lie behind this contrast.

The mulberry is a strong, hardy tree indigenous to the Mediterranean region.  It grows near bodies of water—along the banks of rivers and lakes, even along sea beaches.  In fact, it is arguably the most durable tree of the Mediterranean region: mulberries are the oldest trees as well as some of the hardest and tallest.  Even their big leaves convey strength and sturdiness.

The plant that grows from the mustard seed, on quite the other hand, looks small, fragile, and by all appearances temporary.  Birds nest in its branches, Christ tells us.  But this is only so that they can eat the seeds, and only at a certain time of the year: just before the plant dies and falls to the earth.  Mustard plants are annuals.

Yet somehow our faith, when it is as fickle as a mustard seed, is actually more durable than a mulberry tree.

But how?  Another example from biology illustrates.

Are you familiar with the aspen tree—sometimes called the quaking aspen?  It is a tall, thin, straight, and somewhat delicate-looking tree.  It grows abundantly in parts of North America, including the Rocky Mountains, where there is a well know ski town named after it.  Its paper-thin leaves rustle in the slightest breeze, offering a sort of shimmery, surreal appearance and sound—a “quaking” experience, if you will.

I used to do a lot of backpacking.  One of my favorite things to do on a backpacking trip was to find a grove of aspens on a sunny afternoon—after setting up camp, of course, and taking care of chores in preparation for the darkness to come.  There, beneath the canopy and the warm sun, I’d stretch out to the sound of aspen leaves rustling in the breeze and the sight of shady light dancing on the backs of my eyelids—an activity that almost always resulted in a nap.

Anyway, what a contrast to the mulberry!  For the outward appearance of the aspen suggests tender youth, softness, and fragility; not the gnarly durability of the mulberry.

But if we were to look beneath the forest floor, we’d see an entirely different story.  For underneath an aspen grove there is an ever-growing and spreading root system.  And as the root system spreads, baby aspen trees spring up at the system’s edge.  In fact, this is how the trees propagate.  Or I should say, rather, this is how the tree propagates.  For that grove of aspens I napped under when backpacking was actually a single organism.

That’s right!  Those beautiful, shimmering, delicate-looking trees are really just part of the same, single, much larger organism.  If a forest fire decimates a grove of aspens, no matter!  Saplings will soon emerge from the root system.  That’s why, too, when you’re in the middle of an aspen grove, you’ll see no other trees, only grass and ferns with short root systems that are not choked out by the much larger (and deeper) aspen root system.

In fact, it is thought that an aspen grove named Pando, found in Fishlake National Forest in Utah, is the most voluminous—the heaviest—living organism on the planet, weighing in at over 6,500 tons.

So much for Utah.  Let’s now return to the ancient Mediterranean.

In 66 BCE a certain Roman leader was given a charge to rid the Mediterranean Sea of pirates.  He was also given a charge to protect the eastern borders of the Empire, not far from Judea.  This leader’s name was Pompey.

Because of internal unrest in Jerusalem, in 63 BCE Pompey besieged the city for three months, eventually capturing the Temple.  He then put the Jewish factions to rest and essentially let Jerusalem get back to business as usual.  Point is, Pompey figured prominently into the recent Jewish history of Jesus’ day.

During Pompey’s campaign to end piracy—which he succeeded in doing rather quickly—he built new harbors in the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Galilee, and the Black Sea.  His engineering crews faced the challenge of digging away rugged, difficult terrain—tall, durable cliffs lined with mulberry trees, for instance.  But a certain engineer discovered a plant with a root system like that of the aspen.  It planted easily, spread invasively, and grew quickly, sucking nutrients and moisture from the soil.  So effective was this plant that occasionally an entire hillside, mulberry trees and all, would simply crumble and fall into the water.  Building Pompey’s harbors came easily after that plant had done its work.  That plant, by the way, was mustard.

Do you see now how mustard contrasts with mulberry?  No doubt, with Pompey’s infamy, Jesus’ apostles saw the contrast too.  Easily!  With enough faith—as Pompey’s engineer showed—even a tiny mustard seed can overwhelm the mighty mulberry tree.

Are you like the apostles?  Do you want the Lord to increase your faith?  Faith starts out small.  But in time it can grow into something that seemed impossible only a short time ago.

Monthly Reflection: September, 2013

Posted in Reflection with tags , , on October 2, 2013 by timtrue

Some friends play at friendship but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin.  —Proverbs 18:24

A fellow priest asked me this month if I had any good friends.  “Your wife, kids, and extended family–relatives–don’t count either,” he said.

This question got me thinking.  Good friends are easily made when one is young, or so it seems.  I can remember a friend I made in kindergarten.  Just the fact that we were kindergarteners alone gave us an instant bond: we were both leaving Mom and home for good chunks of the day for the first time; we both had to tackle the tasks of each day, perhaps independently but also in some sense together, as comrades; we explored the world of recess together; we endured the rigors of quiet/nap time, struggling together to acquire something of the self-discipline required of us to keep quiet; etc.  So, by the end of the first day, John and I had become fast friends.  I would have risked my life for that guy!  But, alas, at the end of the year his dad transferred to another part of the country and John moved away.  I’ve never seen him since.

As I grew into junior high and high school, new and good friends still came along, but not as easily, and certainly not as quickly.  Still, there was no shortage.

But in college, a sort of adolescent renaissance for me, friendships took on new meaning.  That is, I began to see them falling into at least three categories.  The first of these is acquaintances: people I interact with socially not by choice but because they are there.  You know, like fellow students (or colleagues at work), people you might come across out of necessity but whom, in reality, you know you’ll never keep in touch with beyond the breakroom.

The second category of friendships is what some have referred to as fair-weather.  These are the people who come into your life and find some interesting things in common: you hang out on the occasional weekend, taking in a movie or a game, a coffee or a beer; smalltalk comes easily.  But really the relationship will never go too deep, you realize in time; for you just don’t quite share the same understandings of things that matter at deep levels: matters of life, death, the universe, humanity, and so on.

Only the third category is where the deep friendships are found, those that will last regardless of however many miles come between.  The bonds here are similar in many ways to family.  But they’re not familial at all.  Rather, they’ve developed organically and become stronger and stronger, better and better after time, like a good Chianti table red.

So then, I took my friend’s question–a friend in Category 2, mind you (which could develop over time, granted, into a Category 3 friendship)–really to mean, “Do you have any Category 3 friends?”

“Not locally,” I answered.

Other than my wife and kids–who couldn’t factor into this question–I can think of only several Category 3 friends I’ve made in my life since college.  Most of these have morphed back into Category 2 over time, by the way.  Nevertheless, a few remain to this day.  Unfortunately they are spread all over the country.  Unfortunately none of them is local.

So, at the end of September, 2013, not yet four months into my vocation as a parish priest, I’ve taken something of a pessimistic turn and am wondering how lonely this calling will be.

I’ve recently spent three years far away from San Antonio, in seminary.  Three years is long enough to see old Category 3 friends morph into Category 2, but not quite long enough to establish new Category 3 friends.  And now my present curacy is only a two-year appointment, again making the prospects of new Category 3 friends bleak.  And can a pastor ever become Category-3-close to parishioners?  I am dubious.

There are other clergy, I suppose.  But I feel something of a misfit in that group. . . .

Then I think of my kids.  With our frequent moves and my relationship to the parish, will this calling of mine similarly prevent them from establishing and keeping Category 3 friends?  May it never be!

“What about you?” I asked, turning the tables on my priest friend.  “Do you have any close friends locally?”

“No,” he replied candidly, “and I’ve been here for nine years.”

Does the priesthood have to be a lonely calling?  Now that the wave of my curacy has crested and broken and I’ve come up for air and taken my first real breath and looked around, this question stands out.  No doubt I will be thinking about it a lot in the remaining twenty months of my curacy–and beyond.