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A few weeks ago I was driving back to The Basilica when I happened to get behind a car with a bumper sticker that read “Believe and Receive; Doubt and Do Without.” My immediate reaction to this bumper sticker was a strong sense of discomfort. It occurred to me that whoever came up with that saying must either have a very strong faith, or had learned to do without a lot of things they had prayed for. Not being very pleased with my initial response, I decided the idea suggested by the bumper sticker merited some prayer and reflection on my part.
As I reflected on the idea behind the bumper sticker, it struck me that the author of the sentiments behind the bumper sticker had a very different notion of what belief and faith are all about than I did. For me, faith is not about believing that we will get everything we want or need from God. Rather it is about believing that in our want or need, God will be with us.
As Christians, we believe that God is always with us. Because of and in God’s providential love we are constantly watched over and cared for. We are never abandoned or left to face the vagaries of life by ourselves. God is always with us, and in God’s love we are forever held firm. God’s abiding love and care for us—God’s ongoing presence in our lives—is the bedrock of our faith. In saying this, though, I want to be clear. Even though God loves and cares for us, this does not mean that God will give us everything we want or that God will grant our every prayer request, just because we ask for something in faith.
There have been numerous times in my life when I have prayed about something or prayed for something with great fervor and sincerity only to end up being disappointed because what I prayed for didn’t happen. I am not alone in this. I have known many good and holy people who have prayed and prayed for things, only to see their prayer go seemingly unanswered. In the face of this, what are we to say? An easy answer (and one suggested by the bumper sticker) would be to suggest that we didn’t pray hard enough or that our belief wasn’t strong enough. I have a great deal of difficulty with this. I have known too many people of strong faith, whose lives have been formed and shaped by their beliefs, and yet have suffered great disappointment and pain in their lives. To suggest that they did not believe enough is an affront to them. On the other hand, to suggest that God was somehow capricious in answering their prayers would be an affront to God.
When prayers go unanswered it is too simple to suggest that we are at fault for a weakness of faith, or that God is at fault because God failed to hear and respond to our prayers. To make these the only responses to unanswered prayers is, I believe, a great error. Rather, I think there are times when we have to settle for simply not knowing. Now certainly “not knowing” runs counter to our cultural and personal values. We have a deep and abiding human desire to know why something is the way it is. I believe though, that it may not be possible for us, as humans to ever know and understand the will, work and way of God. In this life, especially when we are dealing with God, we may have to settle for “not knowing.”
Now I realize that for many the above may not be a completely satisfying answer to the issue of unanswered prayers. In all honesty, though, I must admit that I am more comfortable with “not knowing” than I am with the idea that we need only believe to receive.
The character of our community is determined by the way we connect with one another. In our rich, as well as challenging relationships, we each contribute to the nature of our community by our actions. At a time when our local and world community experience deep division and tension, it is important for us to pay attention to the way we connect.
When considered through the lens of faith, our Christian Life offers three significant and distinct ways to connect with others. All three of these ways are important to building a community of hope, trust, and love. As people of faith, we are called to serve, to accompany, and to defend.
- Call to Serve: With our focus on the common good and a particular care for the most vulnerable, we are invited to recognize and meet the needs of our brothers and sisters. As we reach out to another, it is important that we recognize the times that we, also, need to be served. The words of the Servant Song, by Richard Guillard, seems particularly poignant: “Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you. Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.” Mutuality and humility are fruits of this service. We understand that everyone has something to teach and everyone has an important role to play in our community. Indeed, we get a glimpse of the community described in 1 Corinthians 12 when all rejoice and suffer together due to the inherent dignity of every part of the body.
- Call to Accompany: There are times when things cannot be fixed or people changed. Sometimes the most important and compassionate thing to do is to be present with another. Recognizing that God is with us, we can walk with another, practicing active listening. We can know that we are never alone. We can know a deep sense of belonging and a transforming experience of acceptance and love. The call to accompany is hard, as it often bucks against our deep desire to fix and change. Yet it is transforming in its non-judgmental hospitality and acceptance.
- Call to Defend: The call to defend is an important component to the way we connect in community. There are times when it is not enough to serve or accompany. There are times when we must defend. Pope Francis states that “True mercy, the mercy God gives to us and teaches us, demands justice, it demands that the poor find the way to be poor no longer. And it asks us to ensure that no one ever again stands in need of a soup-kitchen, of make-shift lodgings, of a service of legal assistance in order to have his legitimate right recognized to live and to work, to be fully a person..” Am I ready to speak the truth to power and defend the oppressed? Am I prepared to protect the victims of violence and injustice? Will I put myself in an inherently vulnerable position as I seek to defend the defenseless? These are important questions for each of us. We are called to get to the heart of any reservations or fears, freeing ourselves to defend and protect in love.
Let us attend to our relationship with God, practice humility, and listen with our heart. Together, as we serve, accompany, and defend, we can build a community of love and compassion. Our prayer and actions call on the Holy Spirit to transform and heal the nature of our local and global community.
A few months ago Fr. Greg Skrypek’s brother died. For those of you who don’t know, Greg has been a presence at The Basilica for many years, first as an associate, then as a resident in the rectory, and, most recently, for the past several years, as the presider at the 7:00am Mass on Thursday mornings. Since I was away at the time of his brother’s death, I stopped in the sacristy chapel before Mass one Thursday to express my sympathy. Since both of us have lost a brother, there was a certain comfort and empathy in our conversation. At one point, though, Greg said something that really struck me. Specifically, he said: “Grieving is the privilege that comes from loving someone.”
Now I had never thought of grieving as a privilege, but when he said these words, I knew their truth. We don’t experience grief unless we had some kind of loving relationship with the individual who has died. Certainly we can feel sadness and sorrow when someone dies, but I think grief is deeper than sadness and sorrow. Grief is a profound and deep sense of loss. It leaves a hole in our lives and hearts that had previously been filled by a particular person’s presence and love.
Grief also reminds us how important the individual was to us. It reminds us that even though they have died they continue to have a place in our lives and in our hearts. Grief calls us to remember that the love we had shared with someone is not ended with death, but continues. If we have never loved or been loved, we can feel sadness and sorrow certainly, but I don’t know that we can experience grief. Grief occurs when we experience the loss of someone with whom we have shared love. It is a privilege, because sadly, not everyone is given the opportunity to love and to be loved.
Grieving is also a privilege for us as Christians because it gives us the opportunity to remember and renew our faith. For it is our faith that tells us that despite the sadness and sorrow that accompany death, we believe there is more. For Christians, it is the promise of eternal life that gives us hope even in the face of death. Now, in saying this, I want to be clear. The promise and hope of eternal life doesn’t take away the grief we feel when someone we love has died. Rather it moderates and tempers that grief. It softens it so it is easier for us to hold and carry.
The pain we experience when someone we knew and loved has died is real. It is important that we acknowledge that pain. And shame on anyone who seeks to minimize it or take it away. We need to recognize and accept our grief, and remember that grief is only possible because we loved someone. Grieving is a privilege that comes from experiencing love.
Kao Kalia Yang, a Hmong American writer, joined the Fair Trade Market at The Basilica of Saint Mary on Sunday, December 7, 2014. Her interest in attending this annual event centered around helping people understand her father's song poetry. She has a new book, The Song Poet, being released in January 2015 by Metropolitan Books. Kalia expressed a deep understanding of her Hmong culture and continued journey. The interview helped me understand her feeling of love, growth and spiritual connection to Hmong traditions.
Many refugees search for a place to call home. In Yang’s first book, The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, she explores her personal journey to America. Her book is not just a refugee story. According to the author, her books are an exploration of “what is ever weighing on my heart.” She captures the human experience for each generation in her family. Primarily her first book is a tribute to her grandmother’s remarkable spiritual strength that kept them all together during the years from war-torn Laos to Ban Vinai, a Thai refugee camp, and finally to Minnesota.
Kao Kalia Yang has a sincere dedication to her family’s story. In her new book, The Song Poet, she tells the story of her father's struggle to find beauty in the war torn jungles of Loas and refugee camps of Thailand. The author noted that the poetry of her father, Npis Yai-Bee Yang, “carries Hmong words through a hard life, and distills from the sorrows, strength of heart, and appreciation of beauty.” Her father’s song poetry CD was made possible by a Minnesota Arts grant. His songs started developing years ago as he went from neighbor to neighbor in Laos to learn hope. Her father felt that one day all the words in his heart escaped and songs were born.
In one of his poetry songs, Npis Yai-Bee Yang concluded, “In our life time we have loved well and deep, let our love flourish far beyond us. Let us love into time. Let us love with no end, no goodbyes. The universal beauty of life is filled with a spiritual understanding that youth passes and wisdom enters.”
In addition to her books and promotion of her father’s song poetry, Yang created a lyric documentary. The Place Where We Were Born, uses photos from a physician who served in her refugee camp where she was born. The photos became very important to Yang because her birth place no longer exists. When she was six years old, Yang’s family immigrated to America. She is proud of her personal development, family, and Hmong culture. Her name, Kao Kalia, was a gift from her beloved grandmother and means “the girl with dimples.” Learning about Yang’s dreams, wisdom and traditions helps to build a sensitivity to the Hmong refugee experience.
During the months of December and January, The Basilica of Saint Mary focuses on global stewardship and the journey of refugees.
Linda Goldetsky has been an active parishioner since 2002. She co-chaired the Fair Trade Market, and has served on the Global Stewardship Team since 2009. She has also participated in JustFaith, our Mental Health Awareness ministry and been a Basilica Block Party volunteer.
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord and thus the Christmas season comes to an end. This might come as Christmas outside the church has been forcibly erased from our memories with the red and green of Christmas gradually being replaced by the red-only of the next commercial holiday, St. Valentine’s Day. In the church, though, the evergreens still stand and the poinsettias, though visibly tired, persist.
The two main liturgical celebrations of the church: Christmas and Easter have a time of preparation, respectively Advent and Lent, and a time of celebration, respectively Christmastide and Eastertide. The Christmas season is punctuated by a number of liturgical celebrations, in chronological succession: the Feast of the Holy Family on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s unless January 1 falls on a Sunday when it is celebrated on December 30; the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God on January 1; the Solemnity of the Epiphany mostly observed on the Sunday between January 2 and 8; and the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord celebrated on the Sunday after Epiphany unless Epiphany falls on January 7 or 8 when the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated the next day.
The more ancient of these celebrations, namely Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord, together with the Birth of the Lord, were originally celebrated as one big celebration of the Epiphany of God in Jesus Christ on January 6. This unified feast predates the separate celebration of Christmas on December 25. There is evidence of the celebration of the Epiphany by the end of the second century, while the earliest known reference to Christmas is no older than 354 AD.
The word Epiphany is the English transliteration of the Greek Epiphaneia, meaning appearance, revelation, and manifestation. The Feast of the Epiphany is thus the feast of the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God. It was also known as the Theophany or Theophaneia in Greek, meaning the revelation or appearance of God.
The original Feast of the Epiphany celebrated the four major epiphanic moments in the life of Jesus all bundled in one. The first epiphany being the revelation of Jesus as God to Israel symbolized by the announcement to the shepherds which we now celebrate on Christmas. The second is the revelation of Jesus as God to the gentiles symbolized by the Magi which is celebrated on Epiphany in the churches of the west. The third is the revelation of God as the Trinity which is now celebrated on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The fourth major revelation is God’s desire to make all things new which happened at Cana when Jesus changed water into wine. Though not accorded its own feast, the reading recounting this event is now read on the Sunday after Baptism of the Lord every third year, thus in close proximity to the other three celebrations.
The main theological reason why these epiphanic moments are now spread out over several celebrations is due to the importance of each one of them in its own right. The goal of each celebration is twofold: first, we celebrate each epiphany so we come to know God better, and second, we celebrate each epiphany so we may in turn lead lives that reveal God to the world.
As we conclude the rich celebration of the Christmas season let us re-commit ourselves to reveal to the world in deed and in word what has been revealed to us. May each epiphany of God inspire us to become ourselves an epiphany of God to the world.
Last fall I made my annual retreat at the Guest House at St. John’s Abbey. I arrived Sunday evening in time to join the monks for evening prayer and then returned to my room to spend some time reading and praying before going to bed. Despite my best efforts to sleep in, I awoke early on Monday, so I joined the monks for Morning Prayer and then had breakfast. After breakfast I decided to spend some time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Now, at the Abbey church the Blessed Sacrament is in a small room near the back of the church. It is one of my favorite spots. The chapel is quiet, intimate and warm and you don’t have to worry about being disturbed by individuals or groups touring the Abbey church.
Unfortunately, when I got to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel the doors of the Tabernacle were wide open and there was a sign that read: “Damage to the Tabernacle has required removal of the Blessed Sacrament.” As soon as I read the sign my heart sank. My first thought was: “I hope God isn’t trying to tell me something.” As it turns out I needn’t have worried. Actually the sign was a good reminder that God’s presence isn’t restricted to just the Tabernacle. The absence of the Blessed Sacrament challenged me to ask myself where and/or how God might be making God’s presence known to me in other ways.
I suspect there are times for all of us when we go to the place where we are used to feeling God’s presence—and we don’t feel it. There are dry spells in each of our prayer lives. Sometimes too, Mass is not the spiritual experience it usually is. And sometimes too, it is difficult, if not impossible to recognize God’s presence in our brothers and sisters. For all of us, there are times when despite our best efforts we have difficulty feeling God’s presence.
Whenever people tell me they are having difficulty feeling/experiencing God’s presence, I always suggest two things. First, I tell them to remember the last places they felt God’s presence and to spend some time in prayer with those memories. If we can remember where we have experienced God’s presence in our lives, that can help us believe that God is still with us, even though we are having difficulty experiencing his presence in the current moment. Our memories are a powerful guide when we have temporarily “lost touch” with God. They call us to remember that as God has been with us in the past, so God is with us now. We just need to keep looking for God’s presence and not give up the search.
The other thing I suggest to people who are having difficulty feeling/experiencing God’s presence is to look for God in new and unfamiliar places. Trying a different way of praying, or attending a different Mass, or volunteering in a new area, reading the Bible, or simply allowing ourselves to be caught up in the beauty of nature can be great ways of jump starting our spiritual lives and helping us to look for God in new or different places.
God doesn’t have to break into our world. God is always present to us and to our world. Sometimes, though, for whatever reason, we can have trouble recognizing God’s presence. When these times occur, we shouldn’t panic or feel that our spiritual life has gone off the rails. We simply need to remember that as God has been with us in the past, so God is with us now. We need to trust that God has not abandoned us, and we need to believe that if we continue our efforts, God will help us discover anew God’s abiding and grace-filled presence.
This past summer my best friend of almost 49 years passed away. He had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, and chemotherapy proved ineffective. In the weeks and days before he died we had a chance to share many memories of our friendship through the years. As we shared these memories, we also talked about the fact that there weren’t all that many people in our lives we could presume on and take for granted—people we knew would be there for us in a difficult situation or in time of need. Other than each other, our respective families, and a few others, there really weren’t all that many people in our lives we could count on absolutely.
I suspect the above is true for most of us. In each of our lives there are a limited number of people we can always rely on and trust, and know they will be there for us in our times of need. Usually these people are family members and/or friends who have seen the best and the worst in us, and who love us just the same.
We all need those people who are “there for us” no matter what happens. They might not be able to do anything to make a bad situation better, and they might not be able to solve any problems we have, but their presence, their care, their empathy, and their love help us to deal with or get through whatever difficulties or troubles we face. As I said, hopefully we all have these people in our lives. They are the people with whom we share love, and who enhance and nurture our lives.
Now in mentioning this, I also would like to suggest that God is present in our lives in a way similar to these special people. God is there for us at all times and moments of our lives—both good and bad. God never abandons us or leaves us to face the difficulties and trials of life alone. In and through our prayer, we can feel God’s presence and experience God’s grace. And as a result, we are strengthened and sustained as we go about our lives.
Sometimes, though, for a variety of reasons, we have difficulty recognizing God’s abiding presence with us. It is for this very reason that Christmas is such an important celebration for us. When we celebrate Christmas, we are reminded that God loved us so much that God gave form and flesh to that love in the human person of Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God has touched and continues to touch our world and our individual lives with God’s presence and grace. Jesus is the preeminent and enduring revelation of God’s love for us. He is the way God has chosen to dwell with us and abide with us always.
Clearly we do not always live with an awareness of God’s presence with us. But when we can attend to God in our prayer, when we can make room for God in our hearts, this can and will make a difference in our lives. For when we do this, we will come to realize that no matter what, we are never alone. God is with us and for us. And ultimately like other old and good friends, God’s abiding presence gives peace to our souls, life to our lives, and joy to our hearts.
My immediate response to this question is to name the people that live next door to me. But in scripture, Luke challenges us to look beyond the obvious in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and we are repeatedly called to love our neighbor as ourselves.
During December and January, we invite you to explore Global Stewardship and learn about the challenges faced by our neighbors who are refugees. Historically, Minnesota has been a place of welcome and safe haven and today, Minnesota is home to over 70,000 refugees.
Our neighbors now include the largest population of Somalis and some of the largest Liberian communities outside of that country. Sudanese, Hmong, Ethiopians, Cambodians, Bosnians, and people from the former Soviet Union now call Minnesota home. They are being joined by refugees from Burma, Bhutan, and Iraq.
You can hear some of their stories first hand by watching the short film, “Refugee’s Journey to Minnesota” here. Parishioner Dan Baluff embarked on his own journey to film interviews with refugees relocated to Minnesota. Through Dan’s work, you will be introduced to Mariam, Salim, Tha, Hakeem, Abdi, Ogang and others, all refugees who now call Minnesota home.[asset-672-0]
Their stories compel us to consider how blessed we are and their journeys share many consistent themes. Can you imagine having to flee for your life on foot with only the possessions you could carry? Flight from civil war and violence. Homes being burned to the ground. Separation of children from their parents, of husband from wife. Not knowing where beloved family members are, or even if they are still alive. Years of hard life in refugee camps, where finding food and fear of violence were daily concerns. Children born and growing up in the camps. Some compared these years in refugee camps to being in jail, with no work, no school, and constant uncertainty about the future.
As these new Minnesotans work to rebuild their lives and make new homes, courage, strength, determination and resilience are clearly in evidence. Like us, they are looking for opportunities and a little help along the way. Help learning English, how to ride the bus or find educational opportunities for their children and themselves, are some of the simple ways we can help make a difference as new refugees make their way in our community.
As we gather with our families to celebrate Christmas, take a moment to consider how we are called to welcome refugees. Are we ready to open our minds and hearts to the strangers in our midst? Are we afraid, or are we ready to help our new neighbors whose hopes and dreams much like our own, revolve around family, safety, education, and finding good jobs?
On more than one occasion, I have discovered that sometimes people assume that because we share the same religion, we share the same understanding of what our religion requires of us. While most of the time this is the case, it is not universally true. Within our church there are differences with regard to the acceptability of the death penalty and our obligations to the poor and marginalized. And if you really want to see differences, just bring up the issue of immigration among a group of Catholics.
Now I believe it is important that we not gloss over our differences or pretend they don’t exist. It is equally important, though, that we don’t allow our differences to be a source of division and anger. In this regard, Jesus is a good model for us. In the Scriptures, we often see him disagreeing with people—particularly the Scribes and the Pharisees. For his part, though, he never let these disagreements become a source of bitterness or hostility. Sadly, the same thing cannot be said of the Scribes and the Pharisees. Most often they were very antagonistic to Jesus. What accounts for the difference between Jesus and the Scribes and the Pharisees? Well, clearly it helped that Jesus was divine. I think, though, that as important, Jesus most often had recourse to prayer when he encountered difference and disagreements.
In my life, I have discovered that prayer changes things—and the thing it changes most is me. When I have a difference or a disagreement with someone, and I take it to prayer, this often helps me to see things from a different perspective or to take into account new information. Now as I say this, I need to be clear. I don’t always take differences and disagreements to prayer. There are times when I want to hold on to my anger and resentment. There are other times when I take them to prayer, and my prayer is more a monologue about why God should see things my way. When I am able to honestly and humbly take things to prayer, though, it does make a difference.
Prayer can help us understand that while our differences and disagreements are real, they don’t have to be a source of anger and division. Rather, with Jesus as our model, and prayer as our weapon of choice, we can remain in contact with each other and engage in a dialogue that is frank, honest, and ongoing.
We may share the same religion, but that doesn’t mean that we necessarily share the same understanding of what that religion requires of us. This doesn’t have to separate us, though. Through prayer and respectful dialogue we can challenge each other to hear anew, and strive to live out the challenge of Jesus to love our neighbor as our self.
The plight of refugees is one that should strike a chord with us as Catholics and as Minnesotans. After all, as Catholics we should understand the hardships of exile and persecution, for Christ and the Holy Family were persecuted and exiled from Jerusalem.
Our state of Minnesota is home to over 70,000 refugees from across the world, and that number is growing every year. Just this year, 268 individuals have arrived in Minnesota. It may seem odd that Minneapolis, with its harsh winters, is a popular location for refugee resettlement, but its strong advocate organizations and extensive social benefits make our city a great place for starting a new life. In fact, the Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis is the most diverse neighborhood in the United States, with over 100 ethnic groups represented.
However, the refugee community often remains fragmented from the greater Twin Cities community. Understanding the hardships of those who have faced persecution in other countries and have sought refuge in the Twin Cities strengthens the bonds of our diverse and thriving community.
A refugee is someone who has fled persecution in their home country for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and because of that fear seeks refuge in another country. Refugees do not choose where they will be located; they are assigned to a city by the U.S. government. Minneapolis, however, is a popular destination for assignment because of its strong network of volunteer agencies that help with resettlement. For that reason, Minneapolis has the largest Somali community in the United States and the largest Hmong community outside of Laos. There are also large Ethiopian, Cambodian, Bhutanese, Liberian and Vietnamese communities here.
Such a diverse community helps make the Twin Cities a true proverbial melting pot of citizens. Unfortunately, families that have sought refuge in Minneapolis struggle with a host of issues in integrating into our community. Language is often a visceral and difficult obstacle. To make matters more difficult, the current economic climate makes it difficult to find jobs, especially because skills and degrees often do not transfer to the United States. A recent study found two Iraqi refugees in Ohio with engineering degrees that were sweeping floors.
The Twin Cities’ volunteer agencies work hard to make this transition easier. Local organizations connect refugees with English as a Second Language courses, set up social security applications, find and furnish housing, and help access medical care, among other efforts. But there are limits to funding and opportunities.
As Catholics in the Twin Cities, it is imperative that we understand the hardships of the refugees in our community and strive to lessen them. Volunteer agencies can work hard, but we are called as a Catholic community to continue to make the Twin Cities welcoming and integrated.
Luke Olson is a Basilica parishioner, choir member, and member of the Global Stewardship team. Luke graduated from the U of MN Law School, was recently married, and has joined the firm of Dorsey and Whitney in Minneapolis.