Happy 50th Anniversary, Star Trek!

ds9-uniformLike many people, today I’m celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the premier of Star Trek.  I’ve been reflecting lately on why this particular cultural phenomenon has had such a grip on me for so long.  I started watching when I was about 11 years old— only two years after Star Trek ended its three-year run on NBC, and long before its many movies and subsequent series were produced.  At that young age, something about Star Trek captivated my imagination in a way that few things have. Honestly, apart from my Catholic faith, I can’t imagine any single thing that has so influenced my outlook on life, my thinking, and my hopes and dreams.
During this anniversary year many people have documented the influence of Star Trek on our culture. From the design of our mobile phones to the very language we speak (actor Brent Spiner is the reason we commonly say DAY-ta, not DAT-a), Star Trek has been a driving force behind invention, innovation, and cultural shifts, particularly in the area of civil rights. In the 1960s the multicultural crew of the Enterprise simply presumed the equal rights and dignity of all people. And they managed to do it without the dismissive sneering about “political correctness” that such progressive ideas would be met with today.
Mostly, Star Trek has been about hope. It maintained a vision of the future that was confident in humanity’s ability to transcend our conflicts, celebrate our diversity, eliminate poverty and disease, and venture forth into the galaxy in a genuine spirit of exploration.  Not to exploit resources or conquer other planets, but to increase our knowledge and understanding. The official motto of Starfleet Academy is Ex Astris Scientia: From the stars, knowledge.  At a time when virtually all speculative fiction in popular culture is about the end of the world (by natural disasters, zombies, alien invasion, or sharknados), Star Trek projected a future we could believe in, and work toward.
And for those of us more deeply involved in Star Trek fandom, that hopeful future isn’t far away. This August I attended the Official 50th Anniversary Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas, a gathering of some 7000 fans, with presentations and panels from more that 100 actors, writers, producers, musicians, and other production artists.  Fans traveled from literally all over the world to this gathering. We were people of every shape, color, size, and age, all united in our desire for a hopeful future.  I was delighted to see that everyone got along, treated each other with respect, and readily engaged in discussion of Star Trek not just as our favorite entertainment, but as a source of inspiration and hope.
I saw women and people of color testify that Nichelle Nichol’s portrayal of Lt. Uhura influenced them to pursue careers in science and engineering. I saw a young man with an autism spectrum disorder explain that Jeri Ryan’s portrayal of Seven of Nine (the human rescued from the cybernetic hybrids, the Borg) helped him in his struggles to understand human communications.  I saw hundreds of people in various Starfleet uniforms; not just because it’s fun to dress up, but because those uniforms represent some important ideals for them.
I was reminded of my first Star Trek convention, in 1976. I was thrilled to find that all these adults were interested in the same things I was, and were willing to engage in serious conversations, even though I was only 15 years old.  At that first convention I attended, while awaiting the start of a panel discussion on the future of robotics and artificial intelligence, I had a fascinating conversation with an older gentlemen sitting next to me.  When the panel was introduced, the man stood up and walked on stage.  I had been conversing with Isaac Asimov!
Last year while meeting with a vocation prospect— I was then the Paulist Fathers’ Vocation Director—  I described what I liked about being in a religious community like the Paulists:  We are a hierarchically-organized group, drawing on the gifts, talents and abilities of each of our members, pursuing our shared mission, with an essentially optimistic outlook and a recognizable uniform, and with hope for a brighter future.  I paused for a moment, and realized that metaphorically-speaking, I’d joined Starfleet!
I have three Starfleet uniforms.  On the wall of my office are nearly 300 autographed Star Trek game cards. I’ve won national Star Trek trivia contests.  I’ve taken a Star Trek cruise. I was responsible for the first liturgical use of the Klingon language in the Catholic Church (long story….). My daily conversation is littered with Star trek quotes that most of my interlocutors don’t notice.
Star Trek has brought me some of my deepest and most lasting friendships. It has given me insight into leadership (thank, Jean-Luc Picard!). It has taught me ethics and morals, and helped me believe in the goodness of people, even as we struggle to survive so many crises. I’m a Trekkie, and on this 50th anniversary I can honestly say I’m proud of that designation.

Why You Should Come & See

Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.”

But Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” John 1:45-46

There’s something about seeing– experiencing– a thing first-hand that is more compelling than having someone tell you about it. Philip was prepared to tell his brother Nathanael all about Jesus, but this wasn’t enough to overcome his brother’s suspicion or cynicism.  Philip’s response was an invitation to come and see for himself.Cloud Quote

When a man is contemplating a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, most of the discernment is internal work: prayer, reading, prayer, spiritual direction, and prayer.  This is a good and necessary process.  But it can also feel a bit isolating, as if no one else is wrestling with these issues and questions. And it can also take on a hypothetical and imaginative quality.  What will life in the novitiate be like? Is the seminary a strange place where I’ll feel uncomfortable?  Will I be out of place, surrounded by people who are so much holier than I am? Can anything good come from Nazareth?

Come and see.  That’s the invitation that the Paulist Fathers make three times each year.  Come for a visit.  See and experience our common life.  Pray with us.  Dine with us. Come to class. Come to the chapel. Have a soda or a beer, and ask your questions.

These come and see weekends (and the annual Paulist Plunge at St. Mary’s on the Lake in Lake George NY) are a chance for prospective vocations to get an extended look at the community, and see if they feel like we’re a good fit. (And, of course, they are an opportunity for the Paulists to make the same assessment!)  Fears about what the seminary might be like can be replaced with facts and informed perspectives.  Relationships can be forged with seminarians and other inquirers.  And through all this, the Holy Spirit can work to deepen one’s insight into the nature of vocational discernment.

Inevitably at the conclusion of these visits, some participants will tell me, “This was a great experience for me, and I’m so grateful for the Paulists’ hospitality.  I feel like I’m being drawn in other directions, but I’m glad I came.”  This is good news: it means the process of discernment is working to bring clarity!  To realize, “this isn’t for me,” is fine, and we thank God for the clarity.

But there are also men who tell me at the end of the visit that they’d like to continue the conversation, and work toward applying to the Paulist novitiate. This is also cause for rejoicing!

In either case, I know that those who come and see are drawing closer to God and deepening their discipleship.

If you (or someone you know) would like to attend the next Paulist Fathers Come & See Weekend or Paulist Plunge, please contact me, and we’ll set it up.  If you’d like to help support Paulist Vocations by underwriting the cost of these events or sponsoring a prospect’s visit, contact the Paulist Fathers’ Development Office— they’ll be glad to assist you.

Homily for the 15th Sunday, July 14, 2013

Why is it so hard for us to do the right thing? Sure, there are occasionally situations where we’re faced with some moral ambiguity, but most of the time, we make it harder than it is. If you ever listen to those founts of all modern wisdom, Dr. Laura Schlesinger on the radio or Judge Judy on TV, you know what I mean. Dr. Laura and Judge Judy take no prisoners. People will call up Dr. Laura, or appear befor Judge Judy, and explain their problems, and Dr. Laura of Judge Judy will say, “This is your mess, clean it up.” Or, “you promised to do this, now do it.” These people are complicating their own lives, because they either don’t take responsibility for their own lives and choices, or they’re not honest with themselves or their partners. It’s not moral complexity that trips people up most of the time, it’s our own sinfulness and weakness.

This is what Moses is trying to explain to his people in our first reading from Deuteronomy. He has told them in plain terms what God wants them to do, and not to do. There are no secrets. There’s no mystery. God himself has revealed the Law, and it’s as plain as can be. It’s easy. Of course, we know the history. The Israelites found that they couldn’t keep the Law. They followed other gods. They murdered the prophets. They build idols. Was there some nuanced moral argument that let them believe that these things were OK? I don’t think so. They knew it was wrong. And they did it anyway.

St. Paul wrote about this. He said, “the good that I intend to do, I don’t do, and the evil that I don’t intend, I do.” It’s human sinfulness, and we all suffer from it. We all suffer because of it. So, it’s not really surprising that Jesus had to confront it when he was teaching.

It starts with this lawyer. Insert lawyer joke here. He asks Jesus what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds by saying, “You know what’s in the Law. Do that.” It’s perfectly clear. Love God with your whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. It’s that simple. But wait! The lawyer wants to make it more complicated. Let’s narrow down who’s a neighbor.

And look at the response Jesus makes! It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan. Does this literary form sound at all familiar? Take off the pious glasses for a moment, and what is the parable of the Good Samaritan? It’s a joke! It’s one of the oldest joke forms in the world. You know: A priest, a minister, and a rabbi are out playing golf. An American, a Frenchman, and a Polish guy are up in an airplane with only one parachute. A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan are walking down the road. You know how the joke’s gonna end, even before the punch line. And all of Jesus’ listeners know how it’s going to end, too. The point of the joke is to make the Samaritan look foolish. The Jews of that time hated the Samaritans. They wanted nothing to do with them. And you can bet that they used ethnic jokes to poke at them, just as people do today.

But what happens? The same thing that happens in all the parables. Jesus turns their expectations upside down. Remember, this began with the question, “Who is my neighbor.” Everybody seems to think that the poor guy by the side of the road is the “neighbor.” So when Jesus asks, “who was the neighbor to him,” and the answer came back, “the one who showed compassion.” There’s the real answer: The Samaritan is your neighbor. It’s not about the guy who was robbed. It’s about the hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans.

This is the point that Jesus is making. “My neighbor” cannot any longer be limited to my family, my ethnic group, my country, my sexual orientation, or my anything. If there’s anyone we’re still feuding with, or excluding, or reserving just a little hatred for, then we haven’t heard the message of the Gospel, and brought it into our hearts. As St. Paul writes to the Colossians, “It pleased God [by means of Christ] to reconcile everything in his person—everything, I say, both on earth and in heaven.” If there is anyone we’re willing to leave unreconciled, then we are still not loving God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.

The difficulty, of course, is that we want to make this complicated. We have very good reasons for hating, or excluding, or avoiding the people that we do. We can construct elaborate rationalizations, and find arguments for extending God’s reconciling love to less than everyone. Most of those reasons and rationalizations have to do with our own perceived victimization, our fears, or our need for revenge. But where does that get us? Ask the good Christians of Kosovo, or Northern Ireland, or Rwanda. or Sudan. No, it’s really simple. God’s love is unbounded. God’s desire for reconciliation isn’t limited. And our responsibility as followers of Christ is to love in the same way. Do this and you shall live.

Magic to do!

So last night I went to see the revival of Pippin at the. Music Box theater. A reworking of the 1970s classic, this version is directed by Diane Paulus (Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess). I’ve always been a huge fan of Pippin, coming as it did at a time in my life when the character Pippin’s search for an “extraordinary” life appealed very strongly to my high school sensibilities. “Corner of the Sky” virtually got me through my first two years of high school, including a move from New York to Pennsylvania. I never saw the original production with Ben Vereen and Bob Fosse’s choreography, but to say that I had it playing in heavy rotation would be something of an understatement.

This new reimagining of Pippin pays significant tribute to Fosse’s choreography. But there is so much more! Paulus has collaborated with some very talented acrobats, jugglers, and magicians to bring to life a Pippin that is sort-of Fosse-meets-Cirque-du-Soleil. The result is a production filled with incredible acrobatics, trapeze work, stage magic, knife throwing, and hysterical quick-change routines.

Guiding the cast through the pandemonium is Patina Miller (Sister Act) as the Leading Player. Her adaptation of Ben Vereen’s iconic role is gleeful, sharp, and at times even menacing. As Pippin works his way through war, politics, revolution, lust, and ordinary life, she’s hovering around him like an evil hummingbird, egging him on to try new experiences he hopes will fulfill him, but which only leave him feeling vacant.

Another standout in the cast is Andrea Martin, who, as Pippin’s grandmother encourages him to live in the moment, taking what joy he can from life’s simple pleasures. “Time to Start Living” sails way, way over the top with Martin leading the entire audience in the song’s rousing chorus, then finishing while performing a languid trapeze routine with Player Yannick Thomas. This number’s standing ovation was well-deserved.

Coincidently, Pippin was nominated yesterday for 10 Tony Awards, including best revival of a musical, best director, best actress in a musical (Miller), best featured actress in a musical (Martin), and best featured actor (Terence Mann as Charles).

I loved Pippin, even more than I thought I would. Diane Paulus and her phenomenal cast have brought us a Pippin for the 21st century, with plenty of magic yet to do.

Homily for Oct. 21, 2012

Dome of the Church of the Transfiguration, Mt. Tabor

Our language is full of expressions that reward individual initiative, and see that as a model of leadership.  The early bird catches the worm.  Take the bull by the horns. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.  God helps those who help themselves.  (That last one isn’t in the Bible, by the way.  It’s from Benjamin Franklin.)  Our culture values the go-getter, the entrepreneur, and the self-starter.  These are the sorts of people you want it charge, right?  But our Christian faith asks us to consider a different set of values, and a different kind of leadership.

You may remember—at least I hope you remember—last week’s Gospel, with the Rich Young Man, who found it difficult to follow Jesus, because he had many possessions, and couldn’t let them go.  This week’s Gospel presents a different obstacle to discipleship:  the desire for power and authority.  Like the Rich Young Man last week, who ran right up to Jesus to find out how to get his share of God’s Kingdom, James and John approach Jesus to ask a little favor.  Remember, along with Peter, these two were on the inside track with Jesus.  Often when something important was going to happen, Jesus would take along Peter, James, and John.  They were clearly his favorites.  So, they probably felt like they had a unique opportunity to position themselves for whatever kind of revolution was in the offing.  So they ask for the front-row seats, on the right and left.  You may remember this story from Luke’s Gospel, which puts the question in the mouth of their mother, kind of letting them off the hook.

This scene of the banquet of God’s Kingdom reminds me of another banquet this past week:  the annual Al Smith Dinner in New York, which raises funds for Catholic charities.  Power and authority were very much in evidence, with Cardinal Dolan in the center, and President Obama and Mitt Romney on his right and his left. Although it got virtually no coverage in the secular media, I think the most important speech of the evening was Cardinal Dolan’s.  After the good-natured jibes and self-deprecating humor from the candidates, the cardinal reminded them both not to forget the marginalized and powerless:  the unemployed, the uninsured, unwanted, unwed, unborn, the undocumented, unhoused, unhealthy, unfed, and under educated. It was a great moment; reminding the two candidates of their ultimate responsibility as leaders. It was a great moment; reminding the two candidates of their ultimate responsibility as leaders.

In the Gospel, James and John fundamentally misunderstand both what they’re asking for, and what it’s going to cost them.  The very fact that they’re seeking power means that they don’t understand what Jesus has been trying to teach them.  They are apparently expecting that God’s reign, when it comes, is going to be like every other empire, but with themselves in the driver’s seat.

Unfortunately, that’s what most people expect.  Whenever we’re in the disadvantaged position, instead of imagining a world that is significantly re-structured to eliminate the injustice we’ve experienced, we simply want to be in charge, and to mistreat someone else.  History is full of examples of this:  When the pilgrims came to America to escape religious persecution in England, the first thing they did was prohibit any religious practice different from their own.  Think of how the Israelis treat the Palestinians.  Once we’re in charge, we tend to have a very short memory for what persecution feels like.

Jesus challenges his disciples to see the Reign of God in a different way.  The last will be first, and the first will be last.  The one who is the ruler of all is the one who is the servant of all.  All our expectations of power and authority will be overturned when God’s justice is established.

James and John do, indeed, have the inside track.  But it doesn’t lead to those nice chairs on the right and the left.  Their inside track leads to the cross.  They’ll get to drink of the same cup that Jesus drinks.  For the people of ancient Israel, a full cup was a symbol of abundance and blessing.  That this particular cup would be filled with suffering would be another overturning of their expectations.  But when God’s reign restructures the world, those who suffer will find fulfillment and joy.

Don’t be alarmed if this leaves you feeling somewhat uneasy. But don’t worry.  Every one of us has ample opportunity to serve.  We have plenty of chances to lead by serving, to put aside our egos and our natural desire for power and authority, and instead to seek humble service.  And we will all have our encounters with the cross.  But through all of that, we will be moving toward the reign of God, if we can keep focused on establishing justice and peace for the least of our brothers and sisters, instead of worrying about sitting in the seats of power.

Homily for Oct. 7, 2012.

Every once in a while we get a set of scripture reading for a Sunday that make it really hard to croak out that “Thanks be to God” at the end of the reading.  It can be a real challenge to search out some good news in a set of readings that seem so rigid and unbending.  But that’s where we are today, so here goes.

Let’s start with Genesis.  Today’s reading is the creation story from Genesis 2.  You probably already know there’s a different account of creation in Genesis chapter 1.  In Chapter 1, humanity is created last, as the crowning achievement of God’s creation.  In chapter 2, much of creation is brought into being in response to the needs of humanity.  In Genesis 1, male and female are created at the same time; in Genesis 2, man is created first, and woman second.  That might seem, at first, to be establishing a hierarchy of some sort, with the man in charge because he was created first.  But look again.  In the beginning of the story, the man names all the creatures as they are created. They are unsuitable companions because they not his equal. The woman, who is made from the same stuff as the man, is a suitable partner, specifically because she is his equal.  It is only after the Fall, when their relationship has been disrupted, that he gives her a personal name.

Let’s look next at this Gospel. It’s hard to understand what Jesus is getting at here, without a little background.  Until the time of Moses, the Israelites had no formal divorce.  There was no possibility of terminating a failed relationship.  And so, because of the people’s stubbornness–their refusal to reconcile– Moses let them divorce.  By the time of Jesus, divorce was easy.  The man would say I “divorce you” three times, and the woman would be put out on the street. In a culture in which women had no economic possibilities and no social standing apart from her husband, this easy divorce was terribly abusive of women.  And so, Jesus appeals to the story of creation– Genesis 1, by the way– and tells them that marriage isn’t something they can dissolve.  It is forever. Furthermore, in the time of Jesus, because women had no legal standing, your could only commit adultery against a man.  So for Jesus to say that a man commits adultery against a woman was a whole different way of thinking.  The context of this Gospel makes it clear that Jesus is talking about protecting the marginalized.  In his society, and in ours, that means especially women and children.

This saying prohibiting divorce introduces a whole new set of problems.  We still have to deal with the fact of failed relationships, and how to resolve them.  The way the church deals with this is through the annulment process.  It’s pretty widely misunderstood and misrepresented, so let me say a few words about it.  We have these difficult words from Jesus in the Gospel about in permanence of marriage.  So, the church reasons that what he is talking about is sacramental marriage.  If we can determine that what a couple had was not a sacramental bond, then we can declare the marriage annulled.  The only way we can say the sacrament didn’t occur, is if there was something wrong with the form of the wedding– basically a technical problem of some sort– or if there was something that prevented either or both of the parties from making a full and complete commitment at the beginning.  An annulment, when it’s granted, doesn’t say there was never any relationship, and it doesn’t make children illegitimate.  It just says that this was not a sacramental bond; not what we mean when we say “marriage.”   The purpose of an annulment process is to make a pastoral response to a difficult situation that will allow someone to try again.  It’s an imperfect response to a difficult situation.

My mother once proposed a different approach.  She reasoned that since Jesus told his disciples “what you hold loosed on earth is loosed in heaven,” we need to have a ritual in which we can say “we’re declaring this one loosed.”  Yet another reason, I guess, why my mother will never be elected pope.

These words of Jesus about marriage are one of the few places in the Scriptures where the Church takes him quite literally.  Oddly enough, other churches, who claim to take the whole of the scriptures literally, don’t seem to have as much of a problem with divorce.

All of us have promises to keep; many of us have relationships that challenge us to fidelity and permanence.  The hardest thing for us is to remain faithful– to our relationships and to the Gospel– without buying into closed systems. All of us fall short of the ideal of perfect loving relationships, so it’s not a huge surprise that even the Church struggles to respond to these issues.  Our ultimate goal is still the building up of God’s reign as an inclusive community that acknowledges the gifts, and the beauty, and the presence of God’s Spirit in every human being, especially the marginalized.  The Gospel establishes the ideal of marriage as a commitment to love, for life.  The fact that many of us fall short of that ideal isn’t a reason to change the ideal, but it does challenge us to respond with compassion, and to see marriage as part of the Gospel’s call to live his love in ways that draw all people closer to Him.

Feast of St. Januarius

One of the things critical to understanding Catholicism is that ours is an embodied and sacramental faith.  Our Christianity isn’t just a head trip, or some intellectual construct; it permeates our physical reality, our world, and our own bodies.  In our best moments, this challenges us to integrate body, mind, and spirit, and to put all of those in God’s service.

But over 2000 years of history, this has occasionally led to religious practices and observances that to modern sensibilities seem superstitious, or at least awfully odd.  Take, for example, the relic of St. Januarius, or San Gennaro.  The fourth century bishop of Benevento in Italy, Gennaro was imprisoned and martyred during the persecutions of Diocletian.  For centuries he has been the patron saint of the city of Naples.  Since the year 1389, each year on his feast day, a vial that purportedly contains his dried blood is carried in procession through the streets.  During the procession, the dried blood miraculously liquefies, supposedly as a portent of good fortune for the city.

Many sources claim that the miracle defied scientific explanation.  But honestly, there is a possible explanation. In 1902, a  professor of organic chemistry at the University of Pavia, Luigi  Garlaschelli, and two colleagues from Milan offered thixotropy as an explanation. They made their own “blood” that liquefied and congealed, using chalk, hydrated iron chloride and salt water.  A thixotrophic gel appears to be solid, and liquefies when agitated.

Still, the festival of San Gennaro continues, in part because it’s a good show, but also because like all such rituals, it connects the intangible aspects of our faith—sacrifice, martyrdom, holiness—with an historical person, and tangible, physical realities.  In the grand scheme of things, such miracles, whether provable or not, are peripheral to our faith.  They offer a link to the transcendent, and speak of both the fragility of life, and the durability of the spirit.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl 4 by lrice
Barred Owl 4, a photo by lrice on Flickr.

Our property on Lake George is teeming with wildlife. I’ve had several encounters with deer, a coyote, bats, and thousands of chipmunks. This Barred Owl is the coolest fauna yet. He he nests near our chapel, and just after dusk comes out to hunt. That should help the chipmunk problem!

+Clifton C. Rice, Two Years Ago Today.

It’s hard to believe that my dad passed into eternal life two years ago today. The memory of his final week is such a stark, vivid recollection, and the intervening two years have gone by so quickly, with so many changes!

They say that you never really finish grieving the loss of a parent (or a child or spouse, for that matter). Mostly, I’m fine. But there are still days when the sadness wells up, or when something unexpected triggers a memory. I can be watching a movie or TV show, and find myself tearing-up during a scene in which characters say their final good-byes.

And yet, I can still feel like my dad is still with me. I like to think that a lot of my sense of humor came from him. He taught me to be keenly interested in the world around me, and to fix things when they’re broken. He showed my what a successful marriage looks like, and that has informed every conversation I’ve ever had with anyone about marriage, love, relationships, or family. I see his face in the faces of my nieces and nephews, and in their children.

As much as his life, his death has taught me to love every moment we’re given, and to not waste a single day on jealousy, fear, or bad feelings.
Rest in peace, dad. I miss you!

Wheels off the Wagon

Wheels off the Wagon

Originally uploaded by lrice

I spent a little time this afternoon with my friend John Remy. We occasionally wander off into the rural Ohio countryside looking for ruined barns, farm equipments, or bits of rural decay to shoot. This was my best shot of the day, taken kinda off-handedly where we parked to car, on the way to shoot something up the road.

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