31 December 2009

A New Year

Less than an hour til the new year here on the West Coast. Not the new decade. I'm one of those sticklers who insist that counting begins with ONE, so the 20teens don't start til 2011. But I've been thinking about 1999 and what a great turn of the annual odometer that was. I loved watching the New Year's celebrations every hour from around the world. I spent a lot of time the last three months of 1999 dealing with Y2K, the computers will fail, planes will crash, and oh yeah, maybe the locks will be open at the prison that day.

Lots of New Years since then, more yet to come. And no, I'm not worried about 2012, though I suppose come the fall of 2012, I'll have to spend some time on it. That poor guy who was startled to find out Catholics, as a whole, don't believe in the rapture, he may have to come back to get another dose of reality then.

But I opened my work email tonight to find sad news. One of our long-term residents killed himself today. There's a memorial service to be done on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Another new year. Still the sadness and heartache, the unimaginable, the big questions. Still a place that needs some light. I go back to work on Sunday. What has God been up to while I was gone?

28 December 2009

Yoo hoo! We're ready! Where are you?

Eight in the morning and the ground is frosty. We move the altar away from the wall and into its celebration spot. Someone moves the pulpit and sets up the crib scene on a small table in front of it. Worship sheets are out and so are the song sheets (swiped from a Lutheran Bell Choir service that happened last week). New candles are lit, bread and wine on the altar. I even remembered the sacramentary and opened it to the appropriate page. All the readings have been claimed by volunteers. We are ready.

Almost. Even as the clock points to eight-fifteen, we are looking for Fr. Joe. He's not here yet.

The officer at the front desk calls the officer at the entrance to the prison: Any sign of Fr. Joe? Not yet.

The first rule of prison life, among many, be ready to punt.

So we sing the opening carol, "O Come, All Ye Faithful." We bless ourselves, pray the Gloria for the first time in weeks, and settle in for the readings. Fr. Joe will join us.

We listen through all the readings. I homilize. "Don't be afraid. Shepherds got the word first, not the governor, not the emperor, not the high priest. Shepherds. They were afraid, much like we are, afraid to believe that this grand message was for them." Then I tell them the story about Baby Jesus getting stolen from our manger scene a few years ago, and coming back to us with inked tattoos. They laugh at the story, but there is some keen recognition in their eyes: God became like us.

We pray. We exchange Peace. We share communion (thanks, St. Leo parish for being such a steady connection for us) and we go out singing, "Joy to the World."

Fr. Joe will celebrate Epiphany with us. We'll have a chance to be a bit counter-cultural. I'm betting the lights and trees will be down before next Sunday, but we'll still be celebrating Christmas. This is the feast I get to celebrate every day: the immense gift of human life that God chooses to inhabit.

24 December 2009

"We are as ready as we're going to get."

That was Fr. Jim at the beginning of the fourth Sunday of Advent Mass last Saturday night in my home parish. As soon as he said it I thought, "You're right!" and felt the worry and concern dissipate. No matter how much I prepare, comes a time to say, "Enough is enough."

This Advent, a purple cloth covered whatever table stood in for our altars: a typewriter table, a recycled table in a classroom, a steel dining table bolted to the floor with seats that do considerable damage to the unsuspecting knees. Four white French Vanilla candles in frosted glass holders brought new scents to each room. A strand of fake holly (nothing too pointed to be considered a weapon) was fashioned into a circle for three weeks and then straightened with the candles lined up across the table. We sang "O Come Emmanuel" in English and Spanish each week.

Everything is mobile, temporary. It can all be put away in a few minutes. Not unlike our lives.

The more permanent things: the heartbreak and longing in voices and on faces of men missing their kids, wishing they'd made other choices. There were last minute requests to be part of the Angel Tree Program (part of Prison Fellowship, they connect local churches with the children of incarcerated parents to provide presents for the kids). It's a great program, but it has become so popular that their deadline for signing up was September 1st, when many of the men I see today were still sitting in county jail waiting to go to court.

Today we logged the 104th death notification for 2009. Three of them came yesterday.

There were two Christmas plays presented by the men in one unit last Monday. Lots of laughter and cheerful faces as people left the chapel--and discovered we had some Christmas cards for them to include in letters home.

We Catholics will celebrate Christmas on our traditional day: the Sunday after Christmas, another chance to make the point that it really is a season, not a day.

"We are as ready as we're going to get," Fr. Jim said. "Now we just have to be ready to recognize Jesus however he comes to us." He comes to me in prison and I can't think of a better place to be.

Happy Christmas, everyone.