The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Reflection: Volunteer (Ministry) Appreciation Day

Yesterday our parish celebrated those parishioners who take part in the parish's many ministries. We invited them all to join us at Lake Yale, a large conference and retreat center run by the Southern Baptist Church. Lake Yale is a huge facility located on almost 300 lakefront acres.

More than 200 parishioners attended. We began the day in the auditorium with a welcoming talk by our pastor, Fr. Peter. After the introductions he went on to speak about Pope Francis and the role of the new evangelization at the parish level.

Afterwards we had some free time to wander about the lovely grounds and then enjoyed a hearty lunch in the center's cafeteria. After lunch we returned to the auditorium, where I exposed the Blessed Sacrament for an hour of adoration. During this hour I gave the following reflection on the spirituality of our parish ministries.


Today I intend to reflect briefly on "the spirituality of volunteerism." Actually, I'm not exactly sure what that means, but it seemed like a good subject when I had to tell Father Peter what I planned to talk we'll see how it goes.

Fortunately we're in the presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and where Jesus is, so too is the Holy Spirit. And so we turn to the Spirit in the certain hope He’ll inspire and guide all of us gathered here today.

I'd like to begin, then, with a prayer, one written by one of our 20th century saints, Blessed Charles de Foucauld. I'll talk about him in a moment, but first his prayer...
Abba, Father
I abandon myself into Your hands.
Do with me what You will.
Whatever You may do,
I thank You.
I am ready for all,
I accept all.
Let only Your will be done in me
and in all Your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into Your hands
I commend my soul.
I offer it to You
with all the love of my heart.
For, I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into Your hands
without reserve
and with boundless confidence.
For You, Abba, are my Father. Amen.
Blessed Charles de Foucauld
Blessed Charles was a remarkable man. After a stint in the French Army, a dramatic conversion, and his ordination to the priesthood, he spent the remainder of his life as a Trappist monk in the Holy Land and finally as a hermit in the deserts of North Africa. It was there, on December 1, 1916, that he was martyred, killed by the Taureg people whom he loved. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

I once read that during his life Charles never converted a single person, but in his death God brought into being several religious orders devoted to the spirituality he championed. As you can see by his prayer, it's a spirituality of abandonment, the sort of spirituality not practiced much in today's world. We’ll come back to this later.

Now, as you all know, today is our parish's Volunteer Appreciation Day. And I'm going to begin by doing something that's not very nice. I’m going to attack and undermine the very word itself, the word "volunteer" that is.

"Volunteer" is a very active word. It's one of those nouns that describes someone who acts, one of those words ending in "er", like leader, or teacher, or lawyer, or minister, or doctor...OK, doctor ends in "or", but you know what I mean. Volunteer is a word that emphasizes the person it describes. A volunteer is someone who takes the initiative and does something.

And I suppose that's fine if we're talking about a volunteer in a second grade classroom or someone who helps direct golf carts at a Villages polo match. Volunteering to do these things, and other similar work, is by no means a bad thing, but it all relates to man's work, the work of the world.

The work of the world isn't what we're celebrating here today. We're not celebrating volunteer work; we're celebrating ministry. Believe me, to be a volunteer is not the same as being a minister. And the difference is not trivial. A volunteer decides to do something, which places the credit almost wholly on the volunteer. But a minister responds to a call, a call that originates with God, and so the credit, all the glory, must go to God.

In ministry it is God who takes the initiative. Understanding this leads us to the first truth we must accept as we reflect on our calling within this parish community. Quite simply, you and I are not simply volunteers doing man's work in the world.

Here’s our first truth: We are ministers called to do God's work to change the world. And it's this truth that must define our spirituality.

Yes, it's good for the parish to show its appreciation, for without its ministers, without all of you who have responded to God's call, our parish would be an empty vessel. But it's even more important that you and I thank God for calling us to our ministries. And because ministry is God's work, by its very nature it is work beyond our capabilities. We can't do it alone.

This leads us to our second truth: We need God's help to accomplish His work, His ministry.

What have we discovered so far? As ministers we’re called to do God's work, not ours, and we can't do it alone.

This is harder to accept than you might think. We tend to think of ministry as “our ministry” rather than God’s. We get very possessive about it all, forgetting that it’s not us but God’s work that’s important.

Do you ever get that way? Do you ever find yourself grasping a ministry as if it’s some cherished possession, forgetting that it belongs to God not to you? God’s work must be done, but who does it really doesn’t matter.

Indeed, if we’re unresponsive or indifferent to God’s call, He’ll just call someone else, and quite likely call them from their weakness. It’s as if He’s reminding us, “You see. I found someone else. I found someone who didn’t resist my call, someone who’s willing to let me form them, to fill their emptiness with my love, someone with faith.”

“…to fill their emptiness…”

There’s a wonderful Greek word, kenosis. We encounter it as a verb, ekenosen, in Philippians 2:7 in the midst of St. Paul’s beautiful hymn on the wonder of the Incarnation: “…he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

In this emptying, Jesus Christ, the Son of God impoverished Himself by taking on our humanity. In the same way, as His disciples, we’re called to kenosis, to an emptying of self so that He may form us and fill us with His love. You see, brothers and sisters, in His emptying Jesus takes all that is within Him and offers it to us. This is His gift to us. We need only accept it.

But you and I cannot fully accept God’s love in our lives if our minds and hearts are filled with ourselves.  For we, too, must experience kenosis; we must first empty ourselves. How did Blessed Charles put it in his prayer of abandonment?
I abandon myself into Your hands.
Do with me what You will.
Whatever You may do,
I thank You.
I am ready for all,
I accept all.
This prayer of abandonment, this prayer of openness to God’s will – is this our prayer as ministers? Or do we insist instead on telling God what He wants us to do.

This helps us define our third truth: To accept fully God’s call to ministry, we must first empty ourselves of ourselves. Kenosis, therefore, is fundamental to ministry, an essential companion to God’s call.

How does God call us? How does He speak to us? And how can we hear His call?

First if all, God speaks in silence, just as He did with Elijah on the mountainside [1 Kings 19:11-13]. There in the midst of all the noise and tumult and disruptions of the world -- amidst wind, and quake, and fire -- God came to His prophet and spoke in a "still, small voice."  And God still speaks to us that way today. He comes to us in the silence.

Indeed, how blessed we are, for God has left us the gift of Himself in the Eucharist, the gift of His very Presence, so we can exclaim "Emmanuel" -- "God with us." The Eucharist means God in us, God with us, God increasingly giving himself to us. We can escape all the noise and disruption of the world and kneel in His presence. We can answer in the silence of adoration which waits in patient, expectant stillness. We can wait for God, just like the servant in Psalm 123 who waits patiently, watching for the signal from master or mistress [Ps. 123:2].  We need, then, only respond in that silence, to that silence: "Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will" [Heb. 10:7].

And of one thing we can be certain: God's will for us always includes His will for others, His will for the others in our lives, especially for those least brothers and sisters of the Lord. Listen again to Blessed Charles. Toward the end of his life, speaking of Jesus’ description of the last judgment in Matthew 25, he wrote:
"I think there is no passage of the Gospel that has made a deeper impression on me or changed my life more than this one: 'Whatever you do to one of these little ones, you do to me.' Just think, these are the words of Uncreated Truth, words from the mouth that said, 'This is my body... this is my blood...' How forcefully we are impelled to seek Jesus and love him in the 'little ones'."
That’s right, brothers and sisters, it is to these least ones we are called to minister, for together with them we are the Body of Christ. And so we carry them all with us today in this celebration of our ministry. We carry them into God's presence here.

Are you connected to those with whom You share a little piece of this world? Do you carry them with you today? Have you carried the hungry the Jesus? The sick, the dying, the addicted, the angry, the hurt, the lonely? Have you brought them here with you, spiritually, so you can offer them to Our Lord, here in His presence? God wants to hear your prayer for them.

But God will not be limited. He won’t be constrained. And so He speaks to us beyond the silence. He speaks to us in and through the words of others. He might speak through the writings of a saint, or the letter of a bishop, or even the words of a homily, or the chance remark of a friend, or the comment of someone who’s not at all friendly.  And, of course, He speaks to us especially through the Word of His Revelation, through Holy Scripture. Yes, God will not be constrained.

But do you and I listen? Do we recognize God’s Word when it comes to us? It’s all the doing of the Holy Spirit who accomplishes God’s work in the world, His work within us. Listen to Him! And through the Holy Spirit your Father, or Jesus, your brother, will speak directly to you!

And when we hear God’s Word, nothing is more natural than to answer. You need not answer immediately, for it’s good to take some time to reflect on what God is asking of you. Like our Blessed Mother, you might need time to treasure these things and ponder them in your heart [Lk. 2:19].

And when you answer, keep it short. God really doesn’t need our prayer to be cluttered with words; but you and I need the discipline of a specific answer so we can’t hide from it later.

I even suggest that you write it down. For example, my own journal entry for yesterday included only this verse from First Corinthians:
"What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?" [1 Cor 4;7]
…and a brief reflective comment:
Father, let me always be thankful for everything and everybody you send into my life.
God speaks and we respond.

I’ve only scratched the surface of our spirituality as God’s ministers, but I hope you might find some little piece of it to be helpful as you respond to God’s call to ministry.

And we should never forget that Jesus began His ministry with the words: “Repent and believe in the Gospel” [Mk 1:14]. With that in mind, I'll finish by once again turning to the words of Blessed Charles:
"Our entire existence, our whole being must shout the Gospel from the rooftops. Our entire person must breathe Jesus, all our actions. Our whole life must cry out that we belong to Jesus, must reflect a Gospel way of living. Our whole being must be a living proclamation, a reflection of Jesus Christ."
God love you, and thank you for your ministry.

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