Category Archives: service

Martha and diaconal service

And Martha served
καὶ ἡ Μάρθα διηκόνει
John 12:2

Martha all too often is seen as being less holy than her sister Martha, based mostly on an interpretation of the account of Mary and Martha in Luke’s Gospel (10: 38-42).

I, however, see that the problem is not that Martha’s serving of the Lord is less holy than Mary’s sitting as a disciple at the feet of Jesus; the problem might be that Martha was preoccupied with her tasks and failed to just sit, at times, at the feet of Jesus and listen as a disciple.

But in the Gospel of John (11: 19-27), Martha is the one who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and professes her belief in the resurrection.

Shortly after, there is a dinner at the house of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary – just six days before the Passover, before Jesus would give His life up. Lazarus sits at the table; Mary anoints the feet of Jesus; “and Martha serves.”

Here there is no disparaging remark about Martha’s insistence on hospitality and service. It is stated as a fact.

In a sermon (103), Saint Augustine notes that Martha’s privilege can be ours:

Mary received Jesus as a guest…. But do not say. “How blest they who received Christ in their own home.” Be not saddened that you live in an age when the Lord is no longer to be seen in the flesh. He has not deprived you of Martha’s privilege: “when you did it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to Me.”

We can all be deacons, servants of the Lord.

Make us great – servants and slaves

Whoever wishes to be great among you
must be your servant.
Matthew 20:26

In today’s Gospel for the feast of St. James, we hear the mother of James and John asking Jesus to give them seats of honor. Jesus explains what this would mean to her sons but the other apostles are a bit taken aback and complain.

In response, Jesus tells them:

but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20: 26-28)

I have heard many calling to “make America [really just the US] great again,” but is it the greatness of Jesus? Or is it the temptation to greatness that Jesus experienced in the desert – being acclaimed by all and having power over all? (Matthew 4: 1-11)

Many years ago I was introduced to Martin Luther King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon which he preached in 1968 on one of the parallel texts of today’s Gospel. It gives us an idea of what Jesus means by greatness.

… Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.  That’s a new definition of greatness.
And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

Greatness is not power; greatness is not having the seats of honor; greatness is not being looked up to; greatness is not being over and above others.

Greatness is service; greatness is sitting at the feet of the poor and ill, washing their feet; greatness is looking up into the eyes of those one is serving; greatness is loving, being with others, accompanying them.

The words Jesus uses in the passage cited above are significant for me as a newly ordained permanent deacon.

Whoever wishes to be great must be your servant, your deacon – διάκονος;
whoever wishes to be first must be your slave – δοῦλος.

This is who Jesus calls us to be and, pointedly, he noted that this is not the way of the rulers of this world, even those who claim the mantle of Christianity.

And so today I meditate on my calling to be servant – and God keeps giving me opportunities to be a servant.

As I was writing this blog, a neighbor came to the door and asked me to take communion to her sister who just came back from the hospital after a stroke. With great joy I have been given a little way to serve.


The full text of Martin Luther King’s “Drum Major Instinct Sermon” can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A heart full of grace

In today’s Gospel, Matthew 20: 17-28, James and John ask Jesus for positions of power in his Kingdom.

It would have been easy for Jesus to just dismiss them as being power-hungry, but he doesn’t.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., noted in his sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct,” Jesus recognized in them the drive that is in all of us, the drive to be recognized, the drive to be important.

This morning, after reading the Gospel, I sat, listened to, and read King’s sermon, available here.

I had heard it first in the mid-eighties and been struck by its call to the greatness we are all capable of – the greatness of love and of service.

Here are a few excerpts that touch me:

[Jesus] said in substance, “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” But he reordered priorities. And he said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”

…Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

Take some time today to read or listen to this sermon. It changed my life. What is important is to love, to serve. And so today I want to recall these important words of King and carry them with me all day:

You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

Called to serve

A few days ago Padre German asked me what reading from the New Testament I would like for today’s Mass. He will be installed as pastor of the Dulce Nombre de María parish and I will be accepted as a candidate for the diaconate.

The one he had thought of was 1 Timothy 3: 8-11 which lists the requisites for the deacon: “deacons must be dignified, not deceitful, not addicted to drink, not greedy for sordid gain, holding fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.”

It’s a good passage – and a good guide for an examination of conscience for a potential deacon. But I asked Padre German to use another reading.

First of all, if that reading were used some might think that was being ordained a deacon at this Mass. That is about a year down the road – God willing.

I prefer Philippians 2: 5-11, Paul’s hymn to the self-emptying Christ.

For me, the self-emptying of Christ and his becoming a slave are central to my understanding of what it would mean for me to be a deacon.

The deacon is, as I see him, the person in the shadows, looking at the needs of others and bringing them to the People of God.

The deacon is the one who empties self of all that keeps one self-centered and self-contained. The deacon allows one’s self to be emptied so that God and God’s people might find a place there.

As I write these words I recall the event that moved me to come here to Honduras, to “serve those most in need.”

During a service trip to New Orleans with one resident and fourteen students parishioners from St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames, we emptied out the house of an African-American grandmother as she stood by.

As we emptied out that house, something was emptied out of me so that I could open myself to a new calling – serving God and the People of God, especially the poor, in Honduras.

And so today I ask God to give me the grace to be emptied of all that keeps me from being open and available for God and God’s people.

Washing feet – diaconal service

If I, therefore, the master and teacher,
have washed your feet,
you ought to wash one another’s feet.
I have given you a model to follow,
so that as I have done for you,
you should also do.
John 13: 14-15

 DSC01489Central to the Holy Thursday liturgy is the washing of the feet. In many ways, this rite is central to my sense of mission.

When I was discerning about coming to Honduras as a lay missionary, my spiritual director asked me why. My immediate response was “to serve those most in need.”

Once a campus ministry colleague noted that my approach to ministry reflected Avery Dulles’ model of the church as servant, reflecting Christ as servant:

“just as Christ came into the world not to be served but to serve, so the Church, carrying on the mission of Christ, seeks to serve the world by fostering the brotherhood of all men.”

Palm Sunday’s reading from Philippians is one that has shaped my life for many years:

 …he emptied himself, taking the nature of a slave…

Serving is central to who I am, central to my ministry, central to my following of Christ.

I am not always as “servicial” as I should be. I tend to do things as I want them to be done. As an introverted intellectual, I tend to retreat into ideas about service, rather than getting my hands dirty. I do not, as Pope Francis has advised us, smell like the sheep.

But it is the vision that impels me, that moves me, that gives me life. It is the spark that keeps me going.

Thus it was perhaps not surprising that last October our bishop, Monseñor Darwin Andino asked me if I would consider becoming a deacon.

I had my doubts and concerns – and I still have them. I will share some of them later. But after much prayer and study, after discussion with several close friends and spiritual advisers, after a month of discernment, I told the bishop that I was willing to go forward as a candidate for the diaconate in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras.

As I read about the diaconate two things struck me.

First of all, the modern initiative for the diaconate as a permanent order began with discussions of priests in the Dachau concentration camp during World War II. Struck by the failure of the church to respond to the evil of Nazism, several priests began to discuss how to enable the church to be more responsive. One of their ideas was to involve laymen involved in the world as deacons, ordained members of the Church.

Secondly, the Vatican decree on the mission activity of the Church, Ad Gentes, paragraph 16, provided one rationale for the reinstitution of the diaconate as not merely a transition to the priesthood:

Where episcopal conferences deem it opportune, the order of the diaconate should be restored as a permanent state of life according to the norms of the Constitution “De Ecclesia.”(23) For there are men who actually carry out the functions of the deacon’s office, either preaching the word of God as catechists, or presiding over scattered Christian communities in the name of the pastor and the bishop, or practicing charity in social or relief work. It is only right to strengthen them by the imposition of hands which has come down from the Apostles, and to bind them more closely to the altar, that they may carry out their ministry more effectively because of the sacramental grace of the diaconate.

When I read that I saw something of myself in the person described. I am already carrying out many of the functions of a deacon – the ministry of the Word, of the altar, and of charity. The diaconate would add the sacramental grace of the diaconate and might aid me to be an animator of charity and justice.

And so, God willing, on Saturday, May 16, I will be received as a candidate for the diaconate. May God make me worthy to serve God, the Church, and the poor – with the love of Christ.

Please pray for me.

Driving forces for service

Two months before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr., preached a sermon on Mark’s version of today’s Gospel (Matthew 20: 17-28). He based it on a 1952 sermon of the Methodist preacher J. Wallace Hamilton.

In the 1980s two fellow campus ministers and I ran across a recording of that sermon, The Drum Major Instinct. You can read it and listen to it here. We found that it offered a vision that could appeal to our human desire to be outstanding and our calling by God to serve.

King does not despise the desire for greatness but situates that desire in the call to serve.

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important — wonderful. If you want to be recognized — wonderful. If you want to be great — wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.

That new definition of greatness undercuts our usual ways of looking at greatness – being greater than others, lording it over them by our wisdom or power or wealth. But, as King went on to preach,

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

To be great, to serve, as the Lord asks we need “a heart full of grace” and a “soul generated by love.”

I have been reading a lot about the permanent diaconate in the Catholic Church the past few months. What I find most intriguing is that the diaconate really is about the service of charity. Yes the deacon reads the Gospel; he can preach; he serves at the altar. But he is called to make the connection between what we do at the altar and what we do with those at the margins of society. He is called, in the words of Pope Paul VI, to be the “animator of service” in the community.

That’s what all of us are called to be – to be driving forces of service to witness a church that serves.

This is the greatness to which we are all called.

Simon’s mother-in-law

Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed
with a fever…
Jesus took her by the hand
and raised her up…
she served them
Mark 1: 30-31

 Last Friday we had a meeting of about thirty base community leaders in one of the zones of the parish.

The base communities meet once a week. About a year ago we began a monthly cycle of four different types of meetings. The third we are having the people read a section of the Gospels using their imagination, in the style of St. Ignatius’ contemplative method. We initiated this since most people here read the scriptures for a message, whereas we want to encourage them to encounter Jesus when they read the Gospels.

First they sit in silence, breathing deeply. Then the Gospel passage is read. The facilitator then encourages them to imagine themselves in the scene, perhaps as one of the persons mentioned in the text. The leader encourages them to pay attention to what they feel, see, hear, smell, experience. After ten or more minutes, they share their experience to the persons beside them and then there is a sharing with the whole group.

Last Friday, to help them know better how to lead this type of meeting, we used a part of today’s Gospel, specifically Mark 1, 29-34.

There was a deep silence in the room while they contemplated the passage.

Then I had them share with people next to them. Some were a little reluctant, but two young men were having an animated conversation – so animated that I had to prolong the time for the sharing in small groups.

Then we shared together.

The one young man had identified himself with Peter’s mother-in-law.

Stuck in bed, with a fever, frustrated because people were coming and she couldn’t get up to help them. Here is this great teacher her son is following and she can’t prepare the meal.

But then Jesus comes, takes her by the hand and lifts her up.

The touch of Jesus gives her strength and he pulls her up.

And what does she do first of all? She begins to serve – to do what she has been accustomed to doing all her life.

She serves. (The Greek work used here – διηκόνει – has the same root as the word used for deacons.)

Jesus took her by the hand and raised her up from her bed to restore her to what she saw as her calling – to serve.

May we let Jesus raise us from our beds of lethargy, fear, timidity, and self-centeredness so that we too might serve as Peter’s mother-in-law did.

The school of the Lord’s service

Today is the feast of St. Benedict, the founder of western monasticism.

Though the spirituality of St. Francis is central to my life and work, I have a tender spot in my heart for Benedict and monasticism.

Benedict was a realist. Though he began his spiritual quest in a cave in Subiaco, he began to see the importance of community life, lived in moderation. He subsequently wrote a Rule – and moved to Monte Cassino, possibly after someone tried to poison him.

Benedict’s rule moves away from the ascetic seeking heaven by mortification to a life lived with others in prayer and work – not only prayer –  in a school of the Lord’s service.

Benedict’s original idea was real equality among the monks, where everyone served:

The brethren should serve one another. Consequently, none will be excused from kitchen service unless they are sick or engaged in some important business of the monastery, for such service increases reward and fosters love. . . . Let all the rest serve one another in love.

However, there later arose the distinction between the choir monks and the lay brothers who did the manual work.

This happened in other religious orders, even among the Franciscans where priests assumed the superior positions.

In some ways this is being rectified.

I remember the story of a friend who was seeking a change in life and had decided to seek it at Mount Saviour Monastery. He saw a monk working the garden and asked him where he could find the prior, Fr. Martin. The working monk was Fr. Martin.

This example of serving one another is central not only for religious life but for all of us.

As St.  Benedict also wrote:

This then is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: “They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other” (Romans 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, ad earnestly competing in obedience to one another.

A good admonition for all of us..

 

 

Not as the rulers of the nations

Today on the feast of St. James the Greater, celebrated with special devotion at Santiago de Compostela en Galicia, Spain, the Gospel is Matthew 20: 20-28, one of my favorites and a text that Martin Luther King, Jr., preached on in his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon.

The mother of James and John (in Mark’s Gospel, James and John) approaches Jesus to ask Him to give them a favored spot in His Reign.

Jesus asks them if they are willing to suffer as He will. They say yes. The word reaches the other apostles who are upset, thinking that James and John are being favored by Jesus.

But Jesus remarks that “the rulers of the nations lord it over them…But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant… The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life for the ransom of the multitude.”

The political authorities want power to lord it over others, but the followers of the true Reign, the true Kingdom, seek to serve. Service is the way to be great.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., said:

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Amen) That’s a new definition of greatness.

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, (Everybody) because everybody can serve. (Amen) You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. (All right) You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. (Amen) You only need a heart full of grace, (Yes, sir, Amen) a soul generated by love. (Yes) And you can be that servant.

We can be great by serving and in such a way work for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Today is also the anniversary of the death of Walter Rauschenbach in 1918. This Protestant minister was a major proponent of what we call “the Social Gospel.” He saw the centrality of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ preaching and the importance of service, seeking to respond to the social sin in the world.

His realism as well as his hope are clear in this quote:

We shall never have a perfect life. Yet we must seek it with faith…. At best there is always but an approximation to a perfect social order. The kingdom of God is always but coming. But every approximation to it is worthwhile.

And so, seeking the kingdom of God, living as servants, we work for and hope for God’s Reign. And that is not the way of the rulers of the nations.

 

Five years of mission

On June 13, 2007, I arrived in Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, to begin my ministry with the diocese. Five years later, I can say that it was one of the best things that ever happened to me in my life.

It “happened” to me.

I did not plan to be here in Honduras, but God has a way of calling us out of our complacency and challenging us.

I was content with my ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center in Ames, Iowa. I loved working with students in campus ministry and with the whole parish in the social justice ministry. I had some connection with the poor and even with the third world poor, through yearly visits to El Salvador.

But a 2006 spring break trip to New Orleans with St. Thomas folks shook all that up.

We were cleaning out houses damaged by hurricane Katrina.

At one house we met the owner, Sondra, an African-American woman in her early sixties. She had raised her children and grandchildren in the house which had been under more than three feet of water for weeks. Everything was devastated by mold. As we brought all her possessions out to the curb to be hauled away, she stood there – serene, tranquil, sustained by her faith.

Later I reflected that as we emptied out her house, something was emptied out in me and I was opened to the possibility of a real change.

I returned from New Orleans and began looking into the possibilities of offering myself to the diocese of Santa Rosa, where a good friend – Sister Nancy Meyerhofer – was working.

A visit in May 2006 with the bishop, Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos, opened up the possibilities and  within a  year I arrived here.

Since arriving what I’ve been doing keeps changing, but what really gives me life is my work with people in the countryside – visiting their villages, helping in the formation programs for the pastoral workers, praying and celebrating with them.

It has been a gift to me  and has given me great joy. I feel this is where God wants me.

I am often asked by people here how long I’ll be here. My response is “hasta que Dios quiera” which is my translation of “until God calls me somewhere else.”

And so I continue here – with joy, with a renewed sense of commitment, with hopes of being “good news to the poor.”

I came with the sense of being called to be of service to those most in need. May this vision sustain me and my I become even more a servant of the poor.