Thursday, October 10, 2019

Sunday, October 6, 2019


"I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God that you 
have. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, 
but rather of power and love and self-control." 
II Timothy 1:6-7

Here is a handy word you need to remember - entropy!  Entropy is that natural, spontaneous and unremitting process of decline, decay and disorder unless there is an opposing force working against it.

Anyone who owns a home knows that it will fall into ruin pretty quickly without regular maintenance and constant upkeep.  One of the hardest points to get across in marriage preparation programs is the point that just because you are "in love" today and promise to "be true to you in good times and bad," does not mean your marriage will survive without constant care and maintenance. Most marriages that fall apart, fall apart because of neglect. America has a major problem with obesity, but many have not figured out yet that weight cannot be managed in our culture without constant attention to diet and exercise. Many people just "let themselves go" until there is a health crisis or it's too late.  Gardens need weeding! Friendships needs cultivating! Professionals need continuing education! Even our faith, unattended, is subject to withering on the vine!   Entropy is that natural, spontaneous and unremitting process of decline, decay and disorder unless there is an opposing force working against it.

This what Paul was talking about when he was writing to his young fellow missionary Timothy. Paul is in prison when he writes to a very discouraged young Timothy. It was Paul who had ordained an enthusiastic young Timothy. Now he writes to a young man overwhelmed and drowning in discouragement in his ministry. Things were falling apart. Timothy wants to give it up and come home. The "fire" he once had in him was going out.  Paul tells Timothy to "fan into flame once again that gift that God gave you when I ordained you."  

Paul tells Timothy that God does not give us a spirit of cowardice, where we back off from life's challenges, give into our lazy streaks, take the easy way out and wimp out when things get tough.

I was so moved by Paul’s advice to Timothy that I decided to write an autobiographical book last year tracking the decisions I have made from about age six to the present and how they made me who I am today – for good or for bad! The book is called Between Courage and Cowardice: Choosing to Hard Things for My Own Good.  Writing it was one huge eye-opening spiritual experience! In the words of Winnie the Pooh, looking back, I have been braver than I believed, stronger that I seemed and smarter than I thought.

Rather than a spirit of cowardice, Paul tells Timothy that God gives us three qualities that enable us to face danger, fear or setbacks with self-possession, confidence and resolution. Those qualities are: dunymis, agape and sophronismos.

Paul prays that the Spirit will give Timothy dunymis. Dunymis should be translated as strength.  Here it means strength in the sense of adequacy to meet life effectively, the strength to do well what needs to be done. Parents, doctors and priests need this quality. They need integrity, discipline, courage and confidence – and the ability to inspire it in others. Wimpish parents are a menace to their children. Wimpish doctors are a menace to their patients. Wimpish priests are a menace to their parishioners. Anyone in leadership or service professions need strength to do their jobs well.  

Paul prays that the Spirit will give Timothy agape. Agape, translated as love, is not merely a sentimental feeling toward people. It means practical helpfulness. Good will and warm feelings are not enough for those who would raise children, warm feelings are not enough for children taking care of elderly parents or priests who would pastor today’s parishes. More is required than sentimental feelings. Practical helpfulness, competence if you will, is the loving service that people need from those who would lead others.  

Sophronismos, an untranslatable Greek word, means self-control, prudence, temperance or moderation. This is the name of my little publishing organization – Sophronismos Press. It can be translated as “keeping one’s cool” or “knowing what to do in the face of panic. A na├»ve “loose cannon,” especially under pressure, is a menacing quality in a parent, a spouse or a pastoral leader. Unable to control himself in trying times, how can he possibly be able to guide others through their moments of panic and trial? Being “calm, cool and collected,” maintaining grace under pressure, are qualities that will be called on many times in marriage, parenting and pastoral ministry.  A flight attendant who runs up and down the isle of a plane in flames, screaming “we’re going to crash, we’re going to crash” is not very helpful. She needs to be able to tell the passengers, “remain calm, tighten your seat belts, we will be landing soon” no matter how she feels inside!

My best example of what Paul meant by sophronismos happened to me when I was pastor here during this renovation. One morning someone came running into the rectory yelling, “the cathedral is falling!” Not knowing what they meant, I went outside where they were digging around the foundation to prepare for building the addition on the back for the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, sacristy and dining room for the homeless. As I stood out on Muhammad Ali, sure enough the wall was cracking around the big window. I was paralyzed with fear, thinking it would all come crashing down in a rubble. As I stood there watching, I wanted to run away, but I remember hearing my own voice say, “Ron, you don’t have the luxury of coming unglued! You will be the pastor of that parish next weekend whether that building falls down or not! The parishioners are going to need you more than ever, so get a grip on yourself!” That, my friends, is what sophronismos means! It’s the ability to “keep one’s cool in the face of panic!”

It has been one of the most helpful words in my 50 years as a priest! That’s why I named my little publishing company Sophronismos Press. When I was ordained fifty years ago, I didn't really know what I was getting into, but I did know that I would be serving the church during a very tumultuous time in its history - maybe not the most tumultuous time in history, but certainly one of the most tumultuous times in recent memory.  Even though I could not foresee all that would happen, I knew that my priesthood would be more like shooting the rapids of the Colorado River in the dark than floating on some serene mountain lake on a sunny afternoon. To help me keep my focus, I selected a Quaker hymn to be sung at my first mass and every anniversary since - "How Can I Keep From Singing?"  Like Peter walking on water, it reminds me that when I keep my eyes fixed on Jesus, I can keep on keeping on, but when  I take my eyes off what is most important and begin to focus on the storms and how deep the water is, I begin to sink!  I used this story of Peter’s walk on water for my 25th anniversary as a priest.
Brothers and sisters, I pray in the words of Saint Paul today, that no matter your position in life that you be given the strength to do what needs to be done, the ability to offer practical helpfulness to those under your care and the grace to remain calm under pressure. If you don’t keep “fanning those three gifts into flame” you could reach a point of “just not giving a dam” which is deadly.

The word used by fourth century monks for this sad state of mind was acedia.  Acedia is something much stronger than just feeling a little bored discontented, although it can begin this way. It is less extreme, and more in our control, than a major clinical depression. Its spiritual overtones make it related to, but arguably distinct from depression.

Acedia is not a disease, it’s a temptation – to disconnect, to stop caring, to stop making an effort. It is a temptation that can grow and harden into a persistent attitude of apathy and cynicism which is deadly to any kind of personal or spiritual growth.

I find it fascinating that acedia, in its root, means negligence - a negligence that leads to a state of listlessness, a lack of attention to daily tasks and an overall dissatisfaction with life, of not caring (not giving a damn, if you will) or not being concerned with one’s position or condition in the world. In other words, unlike clinical depression, it can be resisted. The sooner it is confronted, the more success one has in that confrontation.

We all know priests, married couples and parents who woke up one day and found themselves in precisely this spot – with feelings of being stuck with few options and little hope. Maybe we are even one of them! If we were to be honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that we didn’t get there overnight. It happened because of extended neglect. We didn’t take the time to nourish ourselves from the inside out. We didn’t stop to “fan into flame” the gift that God gave us - no matter whether we are a parent, partner or priest!