Central Idea: The Lord often calls us from the familiar and comfortable to change so that we may be a blessing for the world.
Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.
A sampling of my fan mail:
“Father Kevin, you are the worst pastor we’ve ever had here.”
“Father Kevin, you are only doing this project to feed your own vanity.”
“Father Kevin, why don’t you just spit on the graves of our ancestors.”
Now I know what a lot of you are thinking: he’s only been at Holy for eight months, he can’t be THAT bad. Let me put your minds at ease, somewhat: these comments were written fourteen years ago and I have made my peace with the three individuals who wrote these things. The experience that prompted such venom was a decision I made to demolish a 114 year old historic building at St. Joseph’s Neier. So yes, in a metaphorical sense, I did kinda spit on their ancestors graves.
Let me give you the Reader’s Digest version of this.
St. Joseph’s Neier school in rural Franklin County, where I served for 18 years, was built in 1893. Each family living in the parish at that time were asked to bring 300 bricks from Washington MO to complete the process. That was no small task in the wilderness of Franklin County, MO in the late nineteenth century. The school was completed and then they added on an auditorium in 1950 to create a hybrid kind of building. By the time I arrived 48 years later, in 1998, the place was an absolute mess. The bathrooms – the unheated bathrooms – were covered in mold. The wheezy heating system for the rest of the building was in dire need of replacement. The whole musty place needed a deep overhaul. So, why Fr. Kevin, didn’t you just SAVE this precious beloved historic edifice and remodel it. Well…glad you asked that.
In 1893 and again in 1950, the people who lived in the area were hardy souls, resilient men, tough women. They didn’t need no stinkin’ Americans With Disabilities Act. “I can do this on my own, don’t you even dare try to help me.” But by 2006, things had changed. You could not legally refurbish the building without making it handicapped accessible. And behold, making that building even remotely accessible was incredibly costly… if it were possible at all. There were six different levels to the building. It didn’t seem like it when you looked at it from the outside, but there were. I counted them. Used TWO hands!
So, this historic, beloved building had to go. And there was a group of parishioners who hated me, HATED me, because of that. One woman even threatened to chain herself to the front doors. Not making that up.
Why all the emotion, why the rancor, why the bitterness, why the spite? Simple
People really do not like change.
For many of the people we were destroying their childhood, we were removing the memories of their parents and grandparents, their teachers and friends. No more memories of wedding receptions and dances, fish fries and parish homecomings and dinners. Believe it or not, I understood. This was not an easy decision to make.
We had to leave so much behind and especially leave behind the three things we cherish the most: the familiar, the comfortable and the easy. Building a new building would be hard, costly. It would require vision and funds and effort and debt. There would be new problems, problems we could never even imagined. And success was far from a sure thing. We would much rather stay where we are at Fr. Kevin, thank you very much. And yet. . .
There is a little bitty line left out of our first reading which I believe makes all the difference in the world, and may even change the way we think about change. Our reading from Genesis is about the call of our forefather Abraham. God called him out of Mesopotamia, out of his hometown of Ur, to a new land to be the father of a new people, a people God has chosen for his own. The line that missing from our reading today is this: “And Abram was seventy-five years old when God called him.” Now in the Bible age is a rather problematic and relative thing, especially in the book of Genesis, but nonetheless, the point is clear: Abram is not a spring chicken.
It was one of my students who pointed this neglected fact to me, and it got me thinking about the amazing faith it took for Abram to follow the Lord. The faith to leave home, family, history and that which is comfortable, that which is familiar, the comfort zone of Ur, and to trust in the promise of God. And it reminded me that this is really what the call of Lent is for us. It calls us away from that which we know, the familiar, the comfortable, the easy, into something new, something different, something more difficult and demanding, and something better.
This is not to say that we need to be constantly in the state of flux and instability, changing our lives as often as some of my students used to change their hairstyles. There are some things that will and should remain constant in our lives. But I wonder why we we stay in our sin, stay in our ruts, stay in our familiar comfortable easy decrepit lives, when God may be calling us to something more, something better, something which will bring his amazing grace to us.
The St. Joseph’s old school is actually a good symbol of this. Yes it was cherished, yes it was a place of fond memories, but it was also in decay and was falling apart. The bathrooms – the unheated bathrooms – were the worst bathrooms in Christendom. You know it is bad when the very first thing I did when I got to St. Joseph’s was to clean the walls with bleach. When we finally did demolish the old place, an event that only two people witnessed – myself and the demolition man – the place crumbled into dust. It was an accident waiting to happen. We dodged the proverbial bullet.
Maybe in our lives there is a beloved, yet decrepit place which needs to be demolished. Maybe in our lives there is somewhere we need to move away from. Maybe in our lives there is a need for a difficult, yet necessary change.
The new hall at Neier is beautiful. Spacious, clean, accessible. In my humble opinion, the best wedding reception hall in Franklin County. And the bathrooms, the heated bathrooms are “Casino Quality.” And best of all and most important of all, it is named, appropriately, after me, SCHMITTGENS HALL.
I guess it really was a vanity project, after all.
God is continually calling us to conversion, to something new, something better, something more. And God calls us to something which will bring blessing and hope to others, if we only have the courage, the vision, the faith, the trust and the hope to follow in the footsteps of Father Abraham. No matter what our age, no matter how set in our ways we think we are. That is what the Lenten season is all about.
And please, keep that fan mail coming!