Monday, September 28, 2015

Remembering Bill

I just finished reading “Tuesdays with Morrie.” I know, I know, it’s almost 20 years old, and why didn’t I ever read it before? I read it out of desperation: my Kindle is kaput and there aren’t too many English language books in the friary library here in Gangchon. I think I held off from reading it because I remember so vividly the vehement way it was recommended: “You HAVE to read this book!” So, just to prove everybody wrong, I didn’t.

But now in the fullness of time I have read it. I think that I wasn’t ready before, it maybe would have been an intellectual thing: a guy hears an old professor is dying of ALS so he goes to visit him. Their teacher/student relationship is revived and the young guy goes to see the old prof every Tuesday until he dies. The old guy is a bit of an Obi-Wan Kenobi.

But reading it these past two days, I am seeing my Dad in the book, remembering his life, and the last times I saw him--at Christmas and then for the celebration of my parent’s 60th Wedding Anniversary in May this year. We talked on the phone the night before he died. So Morrie got to me like he finally got to Mitch, got me to cry.

My Dad didn’t have aphorisms, he wasn’t a professor. But he had some real strong ideas about what was important. I think I would rank his priorities as family, Church and business. As a rash adolescent I’d probably have said “business, business, business.” But I’m getting over that now.

He always looked at the bright side of things. He counselled graciousness when the pain and confusion was making hackles rise all around him. “Now is the time to be gracious,” he said. He never gave up on people, even when he didn’t understand. He was quick to forgive. And he wanted to share what he had; he went to meetings, tried to “get the word out” about the things that were important to him--a new product, or the Third Order, or The Episcopal Church, whatever his wife and children were up to now. He was willing to change. I think he voted Republican his whole life, until he read “Dreams of my Father,” and “The Audacity of Hope.” Then he said, I believe everything this guy is saying, and voted for Barack Obama.

At the end, what I knew of him was his gentleness, his acceptance of life. Yes, he struggled with what seemed to him the totally counter intuitive advice to stop drinking water, especially when he had raging thirst. Yes, he hated not being able to speak clearly and every comment getting the same puzzled “What? Sorry, I didn’t get that, Bill.” But many times he simply sat at the head of the dinner table, smiling and listening while everybody else ate and drank and talked. He wanted to be in the family circle as much as he could possibly be. Sometimes he would wave at me to sit at the place at the table I always believed was his. I felt too uncomfortable to sit there. I wanted him to go on sitting there, offering his endless prayers before dinner, telling his hilarious stories, urging people to eat more, re-fill their glasses.

Every blog entry for the last few months has been about acceptance. Saying “yes” to the next thing that happens living life on life’s terms. For Morrie and my Dad that was accepting death. By accepting that, they were able to live with gentleness and peacefulness. For me, my Dad’s death means in a way I’m now the Older Generation. Though I don’t think I am going to die anytime soon, I want to live so that at the end of each day I can say “Amen.” I have no way of knowing what will cross my path (Jung says the thing that crosses our path is God). I think I can discern the temptations from the calling by applying a simple test: does it bring healing? more happiness? On second thought it’s not such a simple test once you start playing out different scenarios.

I remember asking my therapist: “How do I know what is the right thing to do?”

“The loving thing,” he answered. But more than that he wouldn’t say, only smiling enigmatically as I tried to push him to specifics. Like Morrie, like my Dad, he knew the best teaching doesn’t come from canned advice or textbooks. It is taught from experience.

I pray to be shown the loving thing in all the predicaments of my life.

So here is when I cried, thinking of my Dad: Mitch is saying goodbye to Morrie for the last time “I leaned in and kissed him closely, my face against his, whiskers on whiskers, skin on skin, holding it there, longer than normal, in case it gave him even a split second of pleasure. “Okay then?” I said, pulling away. I blinked back the tears, and he smacked his lips together and raised his eyebrows at the sight of my face” (page 185).

Fathers and sons.

Love always wins in one way or another; “Tuesday’s with Morrie” ends: “The teaching goes on.”

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Post from Canterbury

I arrived in Canterbury almost the same day the Archbishop of Canterbury's invitation to the Primates went out, and the articles started appearing in the newspapers about the different “sleeping arrangements” for the partners in the Anglican Communion.

No crowds hit the streets, no tear gas, nothing happened.

Actually I think there was a sigh of relief.

Certainly I felt relief. The Archbishop's comments seemed honest, grounded in reality and compassion. It seems to be the true expression of the prayer that all might be free of hatred and strife. With the burden of having to accept the theological differences of the other provinces removed, or the fear of taint, different churches and groups within the different national churches can pick up the pace in working together to fight poverty, to work for the healing of the planet, to work to bring peace in the war-torn places of the earth.

Of course I might be jumping the gun here, we'll have to see what comes out of the Primate's meeting next year.

I also feel sadness. We have not been able to work through our differences. They are irreconcilable.

And yet the determination of the fact of our real and lasting differences has brought us full circle--perhaps to a new beginning. Letting go of the past will require great courage. We can let go of a colonial past and work to create a Christian witness in the world. Collaborating where it is possible. It will take time to discover how we can best help each other. Actually there has been collaboration among the different churches all along, even the ones who disagree most vociferously. People have travelled back and forth, resources shared. Sometimes aid had to go through the back door, but helping people as Christians has remained a foundational idea. Now perhaps the toxic cloud of rhetoric can lift so that the beauty of what already happens and could happen to a greater extent in all places, can be celebrated.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this big story is to ask myself where this story is reflected in my story. We do not have to read the news just for information about outside events most of us have little or nothing to do with in a daily way. When we approach the world with a contemplative eye and a renewed heart, we can take the news story as an entry into our own story. Thus: what might I need to let go of to find health and hope? A new start?

This is how the proposal to sell Little Portion was framed for Chapter members: “What are you willing to let go of for the good of the order?” After an agonized silence I said I’d be willing to let go of Little Portion. I was to shed many tears about that later, and now I am waiting to see what good might come out of it for me and for the Order. Already we are grateful the buildings are being used in a way that continues some of our most treasured values, caring for young people struggling with addiction and/or who need a new start. But beyond this, what will be the gift for us re-grouping in California? I believe with all might heart good will come out of it for my brothers, for me. But what that might be, I am not sure.

For this time of discovery and discernment I remind myself of my power to say “yes” to what might happen (I keep saying this, over and over!). I am not helpless, I have skills and saying “yes” gives me an edge over the naysayers—in the other parts of my mind and around the table—it’s about having a fundamentally positive outlook on life and trust that what is unimaginable is not necessarily the worst case scenario.

Faith, patience, and courage. Trusting in that which is unseen, which is hope.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Friary handed over to Hope House Ministries

We had an emotional day today. We said farewell to Little Portion in a big liturgical service--over 80 folks came, our friends and supporters and those from Hope House. It was wonderful to see so many people, and we have firm intentions of staying in touch.

Sermon for Handing-over of Little Portion Friary
September 3, 2015
Br. Clark Berge, SSF

Good morning! We are at the moment of truth: the “handing over.” Today, Little Portion becomes home to Hope House Academy. I’d like to start us off this morning by singing together “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God” as a round. [sing together]

The text for this song is from the Gospel chosen for today, and it captures the Christian vision shared by the friars and the De Montfort fathers. We are not to worry, to trust in God and to love as God loves us. It’s a tall order. But underlying it all is the knowledge that God provides for us in our comings and goings, in all that we do. This moment of coming together is unique. It is the perfect example of a liminal moment. We all occupy Little Portion Friary. So the proclamation of the Good News has to be shared by us all. The Occupy Movement has come to Old Post Road, Mount Sinai. So every time I raise my hand [like this] everybody say: “God provides.”

God provides us what we need. 86 years ago God provided the brothers with a home on Long Island through the generosity of the Sims family, the family of Brother Stephen. Through their hard work the brothers transformed a small cabin into a welcoming place of formation, hospitality and ministry to many people longing for God’s love. [God provides]

Father Joseph led a group of men determined to follow the radical example of St. Francis, to reignite the Franciscan life in the Episcopal Church after the Society of the Atonement’s pioneering efforts resulted in them becoming Roman Catholic. Fr. Joseph’s vision for the Order of the Poor Brethren of St. Francis of Assisi was about prayer, liturgy, teaching and proclamation among much more besides. Fr. Joseph’s work on the Anglican Missal was historic and claimed the Catholic heritage of the Episcopal Church, enriching the spirituality of many people. It was formative for our entire denomination. There is much that can be said about the conventual life of the brothers in those early days. They lived by their lights, full of faith and determination. Men came to join them as brothers. We are blessed still to have Br. Dunstan who lived here with Father Joseph, and Dominic and others who came and were part of that life. [God provides]

The brothers prayed, they shared their lives and reached out. In the 1960’s we joined up with, and became the American Province of The Society of St. Francis, the Franciscan movement grew in numbers and impact throughout the world. Yet it was a constant scramble to find ways to support the life financially. At the height of the Order’s membership in the United States, at the time of the Vietnam War, there were over 40 men. In the early 70’s somebody had the bright idea to bake bread. They applied to Trinity Church Wall Street and ovens were purchased, and all the other things needed for the bakery. [God provides]

In the early 80’s the brothers experimented with a less formal family life, moving out of these buildings to the guest houses of the Poor Clares of Reparation next door, down the hill. They became active in recovery ministry, and they reached out to parishes and institutions all over Long Island and beyond. Mary Haven took over these buildings for a school then administrative offices for their expanding work. A young priest with a vision for nurturing and supporting young men struggling in their lives started Hope House Ministries in the friar’s guest house, Wayside House. [God provides]

By 1991 the brothers were ready to come back up the hill. They re-imagined the use of the buildings, creating unprecedented access and welcome to guests in a Franciscan ministry of hospitality. In 1997, after a retreat in Missouri, I came home and we built the labyrinth. When Newsday published a full page photo of the labyrinth on the cover of Part II with an accompanying article, literally hundreds of people started to come to Little Portion. We were astounded by the spiritual hunger and need for loving community life. When we decided to have a labyrinth walk, potluck dinner and Taize prayer service on the night of the monthly full moon. We started having days of reflection: days of conversation, prayer, exploration, with wholesome food and a nourishing taste of the Sacrament for everybody. The friary bulged with people, we danced and we sang and we ate in the desert of modern consumerist culture of Long Island. People came home to God, to themselves, to their right minds here at Little Portion Friary [God provides].

Brothers fanned out from Little Portion. We taught all over the country, we served in different institutions: seminaries, universities, and schools; clinics, hospitals, and parishes. We opened our doors to migrant day laborers, gave love and money to them while the County Executive threatened to take away our tax exempt status for aiding and abetting illegal aliens and called us the lunatic religious fringe in a memorable statement to Newsday.

For these and all God’s many, many blessings, for the incredible life and ministry of the Society of St. Francis that continues to this day in this country and around the world, we give God most heartfelt thanks. [God provides]

But the world changes, as have our circumstances. What have we learned from the past 86 years? I want to mention three things out of 5000 that I could mention today.

First, nothing is forever. Impermanence is part of human life. Things change. This is not a curse or a setback. It is reality. [God provides]

Secondly our core values of love and compassion are transmutable. The friars are leaving these buildings (we’re staying on in the cemetery), but lives will continue be touched and transformed by God’s grace. The work of Hope House Ministries is exciting, it is necessary. If ever the notion that buildings have a soul made sense it is in the ongoing use of these buildings for the healing of lives, for the consecration of this property as a place of refuge and renewal. [God provides]

To say good-bye, to entrust the vision for this little piece of land and these buildings to others is absolutely necessary for our life and ministry as a community of Franciscans. The challenge before us is to embrace with courage whatever comes next. This “yes” to the future is the third great learning our sojourn on Long Island can teach us. As our brother Derek prepares himself for the next stage of his journey in Christ, we do too. It is not a failure or a defeat that we are acknowledging here today. It is the moment of Francis, stripped down naked in the public square before the astonished gaze of his family and neighbors. He handed his property to his father, saying “I no longer have a father here on earth, but only my Father Who art in heaven.” Nobody ever said God failed Francis. God’s power was demonstrated in the extraordinary letting go of Francis; Francis was empowered to give to the world a new vision of religious life through his trust. What better way do we have to help the church go deeper into the mystery of God’s love than to leap into those loving arms ourselves? How much more eloquently can we preach the joys of poverty and faith to a materialistic, power crazy world than to let it go ourselves? The friars are not becoming homeless, but we are moving on to God-knows-what, and countless numbers of young men seeking a new start in life, a place of compassion and challenge, have found a new home [God provides].

So it is with all of you, and all those who love us and care for us throughout the world (and who are remembering us in their prayers at this moment), we seek the deepest consolation of our faith and recall with sober joy the words that Jesus speaks to us and all who live and minister in the crossroads of the world: “. . . be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and with what he requires of you, and he will provide you with all these other things.”

Yes, God does indeed provide. In Godly ways, with holy timing. Blessed be God.

These are the men who will be living at Hope House Academy at Little Portion Friary in the future, after necessary repairs and upgrades. Fr. Frank says they will be doing the work! They are singing "We never walk alone" if I remember right.