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Why I Believe

17 Apr

I went to Catholic school from kindergarten through sixth grade. I know a lot of people who claim to have “survived” that experience, but for me the positive far outweighed any negative, especially this time of year. Lent and Holy Week in particular is the climax of the Church year, both spiritually and liturgically, and being able to experience the stations of the cross in an age appropriate way as part of my formal education was a gift I appreciated as much then as I do now. For some kids, art class or music class stirs their imagination. For me, it was theology.

Every year at this time all the students would gather in the church to read the passion play. The priest always played Jesus. Older students played the roles of Peter, Pilate, and the other characters. And we, the young students, played the crowd. At the beginning of the story, our “part” was to cry out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of The Lord!” Later, we shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

It was like whiplash. It totally baffled me. How could the same people who hailed Jesus with palm branches and cloaks on the ground turn around in just a few days and demand this guy’s death? Even as a child I questioned this, especially since I was being asked to recreate this drama. It made me uncomfortable.

As I listened to the stories at this weekend’s Palm Sunday liturgy, I once again pondered this, and it occurred to me – it was not the same crowd.

The crowd that welcomed Jesus were the fearless throngs of poor, marginalized people who had heard of Jesus’ miracles and had the guts to show up en masse in the Holy City Jerusalem to welcome the man who had courage to confront the hypocrisy of the Jewish elite and whom they believed would liberate them from the literal oppression of the Romans and the spiritual oppression of the Sanhedrin.

But then Jesus practiced what he preached. He turned the other cheek. He was captured, questioned, and didn’t resist. At all. The man who made a blind man see and raised someone from the dead did nothing to stop the injustice being done to him. For a poor person who had very little to sustain himself and his family, this must have been terrifying to witness; if the Sanhedrin and the Roman leaders of the city could do this to a man who had personally demonstrated the real power of God, what could those oppressors unleash on them, the most powerless people in society? If their King couldn’t be bothered to save Himself, they had better take cover. And I think that’s exactly what they did. I don’t think they wanted anyone to be crucified. Especially themselves.

The crowd that called for Jesus’ crucifixion were the social elites and the religious fundamentalists. We tend to think of all the sects who wanted Jesus dead as a unified group. But actually, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the cruel Roman soldiers were strange bedfellows. It would be the modern equivalent of “big business” lobbyists joining with the “religious right,” the media, Occupy Wall Street, and law enforcement to bring down a whistle-blower who threatens them all.

Jesus was a spiritual whistle-blower. He threatened everyone’s way of life. It’s no wonder such opposing political forces would join together to kill Him, while those who had everything to lose by defending Jesus would hide in the shadows, afraid they might be next. We cannot appreciate the abject fear in which these people lived every day of their existence under the dual oppression of the cruel Romans and the religious leaders who routinely turned their backs on the poor, blaming their poverty on some kind of moral failing.

These people were not turncoats.

They were human. And they were very, very afraid.

They were also the very foundation of the Church, the Kingdom of God. And Peter was the cornerstone.

~~~

Why do you believe that Jesus rose from the dead?

Don’t tell me it’s because the Bible says so. I think the Bible is a great book filled with wisdom. I believe it is the inspired Word of God, and I seek guidance from its pages regularly. But I don’t believe in Jesus because the Bible tells me to, any more than the Pharisees believed He would really be raised from the dead simply because He said He would.

The Jewish leaders were concerned about Jesus’ claim that He’d rise on the third day; they were so concerned that they had a guard posted at the tomb and a seal placed on the stone so that no one could rob the body and make false claims that Jesus has risen.

That’s what most doubters think happened, you know. They can’t deny Jesus was a compelling historical and religious figure, but this business of Him being raised up is just a bunch of wishful thinking on the part of the man’s friends and followers. It just makes sense.

Except that it doesn’t make any sense at all. Not in light of the fact that cowardly Peter, who denied knowing Christ three times, would become the Peter who braved stoning and persecution to share the news that Jesus had risen. And not just Peter. Thousands of Jesus’ nameless followers who had been so scared of the authorities that they didn’t even attempt to secure justice for the innocent man they followed were transformed into witnesses and even martyrs, almost overnight.

If not for the dramatic and miraculous transformation of a rag tag group of misfits, destitutes, prostitutes, lead by a well-intentioned but spineless, weak-willed denier, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection claim would have faded into history like so many other implausible myths. In a twist of irony of biblical proportions, it is the disciples’ shortcomings during Holy Week that make the miracle of the resurrection plausible.

I believe in Jesus because the Bible demonstrates how He transformed people. The woman at the well was transformed from the village slut who avoided contact with her neighbors to a vocal witness for the messiah. The man born blind and assumed a sinner was transformed from a beggar to someone with the chutzpah to lecture the Pharisees who questioned him when he was healed. Lazarus was literally brought back to life. And awkward, craven Peter became the eloquent spokesman for a movement in the face of certain death. Only God can change people like that.

The crucifixion was supposed to put these would-be revolutionaries in their place through the force of terror and intimidation, and it worked. The martyrdom of Jesus did not embolden the people. It terrified them; even the apostles were hiding behind locked doors. Jesus appeared to them. His resurrection is what changed them, and it’s that change that will always be the best evidence for the truth of the Bible.

I believe Jesus rose because I’ve seen first hand how He continues to transform people. If you haven’t seen God work miracles in the life of someone who has hit bottom, perhaps you are spending a little too much time with the modern day Pharisees and too little time with the broken, hurting people who are most in need of Jesus’ message of hope.

I believe Jesus rose because I’ve seen how he is transforming me. There are private internal battles that I’ve been waging for almost as long as I can remember, unsuccessfully, and when I turned them over to God with just a mustard seed of willingness, God transformed me. On my own I was a well-intentioned failure full of shame. With God, I don’t have to be ashamed of my darkness because the lower I get, the more visible His glory will be in me.

I believe in the resurrection because I’ve died and come back to life, too.

God’s Care

8 Mar

Teaching third grade religious education at my church had done more for my spiritual growth and understanding of scripture than I could ever have imagined. Our weekly lessons are focused on the same scriptures that us “grownups” hear at Mass. Sometimes I wonder if we might better evangelize the adults if our pastors gave us the simple lessons I give my students.

Last weekend’s Gospel was packed with several well-known sayings of Jesus, most notably being, “You cannot serve God and mammon,” as well as “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” and “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.” Great stuff to launch us into the 40-day purge known as Lent.

I posed a hard question to my third graders at the beginning of class. Better to get the elephant in the room out in the open. “If Jesus promised that God would take care if us and that we would have everything we need, why is it that there are some people who are really poor and have nothing?”

I know, they are only eight and nine years old. That’s a question with which adults grapple, and here I throw it out in rhetorical fashion at unsophisticated little children? What was I thinking?

I was thinking they knew the answer intuitively, without even having to verbalize it. Later in our lesson I handed out hard candy. There was enough for every child to have one piece, and they were various different types – peppermints, butterscotch, cinnamon, those little ones wrapped up to look like strawberries, and even something that looked like a Werther’s. I gave three pieces to one child, two to another, one piece each to a few of the children, and nothing to at least two of them.

“Does everyone have what they need?” I asked. I wasn’t sure how they’d react. Would those who had more hoard theirs? Would those with none make a big fuss?

No on both counts. The ones with none had no time to make a fuss before their neighbors were throwing the extra pieces at them. Those who didn’t like the flavor they’d been given traded with their neighbors until everyone had what they needed.

Some people might say these children have been brainwashed by a progressive public school system that teaches redistribution of wealth and radical social justice. But I think they just intuitively “get” being Christian. And they clearly have good parental examples in their homes.

There were no discussions of fairness. No discussions of the morality of a teacher who would give two or three pieces to some children and none to other children. They saw that there was enough to go around and they equalized themselves. It was heartwarming.

The candy wasn’t earned. It was a gift. Perhaps if the candy had been an award for performance, my budding little Christians would have felt differently about sharing. I may have to do some more candy experiments to see if they really are just that kind to each other, especially if I create scarcity.

But in the Kingdom of God, there is no scarcity.

In the Kingdom of God, the commodity isn’t candy. Nor is it food, clothing, shelter, or gasoline for the minivan. In the Kingdom of God, the commodity is love, and there is more than enough for everyone, in the flavor we most desire.

After our little candy exercise, I reminded the kids of my earlier question, and I told them that we are God’s hands and feet. It’s up to us to show God’s love and care. It really is that simple. If God gives me more than I need, it’s because He wants me to give the excess to someone who does not have what they need.

God has blessed me with the opportunity to be like Him – a gift-giver who gives unconditionally, with no strings attached. We humans have been wanting to be like God ever since Eve ate the fruit in the Garden of Eden. How like God to give us exactly what we want, and we don’t even see it!

We are now in Lent. The 40 day purge. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving. For Lent, I’m fasting from fast food, I’m praying for God to reveal to me the harms I’ve done to other people so that I can make amends, and I’m looking at the material excess in my home and giving it away so that people can trust God’s divine providence.

Happy Lent!

Perfect Actions

23 Feb

I am not a perfectionist.

I used to work as an advertising graphic designer at a local newsprint magazine. Newsprint, especially 15 years ago, was an awful print medium in terms of image quality. The colors were always off, the images usually very blurry and smudged. We had other designers on staff who were far more professional and experienced than I, who would spend hours on color correction and getting the contrast to look just right on their photos, only to have the final product look like it had been sitting out in the rain for a day.

Working in an environment that accepted the impossibility of perfection was an excellent training ground for learning the art of “good enough.” Although I have never been what I’d call a full blown perfectionist, at 22 I did have a high level of idealism and huge expectations of myself to live up to my ideals. Working at that magazine tempered me a bit. So did having children.

So this past year, I worked on two full color 200-page hardback books, intended to sell for more that $40 each. They had to be perfect. But the perfectionism with which we combed those pages was still not enough. We found the errors after the final product was delivered. It was very disheartening. As much as I prefer the “good enough” lifestyle, there are times when I wish I could be perfect, especially when it comes to my work and my family.

Today’s readings don’t help much. The Old Testament selection from Leviticus (you know, the perfectionist’s favorite book of the Bible, with all those laws) says, “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.”

What? I’m supposed to be like God? That flies in the face what I’ve been taught about God’s grace and unconditional love in spite of our “original sin.” Then I remember; that’s just the Old Testament. That’s not really Christianity. That’s crazy Jewish legalism stuff. I can cherry pick that.

Right?

That would be nice. But unfortunately, not an option, because Jesus Himself echoed those words in today’s Gospel: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Good enough isn’t.

Fortunately, all of today’s scripture selections give some pretty concrete and even simple direction for how to achieve this task of perfection that we in 21st century western society have routinely written off as impossible in the same way I wrote off graphics quality in newsprint.

Don’t hold grudges.

Don’t harm anyone’s body, including your own – it’s God’s temple (i.e. it is intrinsically holy).

Pray for the people who persecute you.

That’s it. Holiness in a nutshell.

It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

Holding grudges makes me feel superior. Sometimes it allows me to feel like a victim and get pity from other people. Nursing a resentment keeps me attached to pain which is familiar and comfortable instead of releasing me to experience the discomfort of vulnerability and true intimacy with the people I claim to love.

Seeing my body as God’s temple is also a challenge. Taco Bell is a guilty pleasure among many others. What I put in my body is just one part of the struggle; how I feel about my body is just as important, and my insecurities about weight, shape, tone, hair, nails, odor, complexion, hairstyle, and clothing spill over into how I feel about MY temple – my home. It’s a mess right now. I can barely keep up with laundry, dishes, dusting, bathrooms, and endless clutter. Temple indeed!

I’d like to say I treat others’ bodies as God’s temple. But if I’m rigorously honest, I often focus more on the external than I want to admit. I judge people based on the exterior. For that matter, I judge them on the interior too. That I judge at all pretty much covers how I objectify them and myself, instead of seeing with God’s eyes.

As for how I treat people who persecute me – praying usually is not the first action that comes to mind. I recently saw the movie Lone Survivor, and let me tell you that praying for the Taliban is not what I want to do. I don’t want to pray for some of the groups I see as destructive to the country I love. I don’t pray; I wish them out of existence. This from a girl who claims to be pro-life.

Obviously, I can be honest with myself about my actions. I can even be humble about it. But that’s not holiness, at least not according to today’s scripture challenge. Holiness is not about being capable of and willing to examine my conscience and behaviors. Holiness is action.

I don’t have to feel comfortable to let go of anger. I don’t have to believe that I’m beautiful to respect my body and accept other people as they are. I don’t have to accept unacceptable behavior to pray for the ones who perpetrate it.

There really are no good excuses for avoiding the actions that define being holy and perfect. I can’t blame it on newsprint. I’m responsible for my own holiness.

It’s Only Weird If It Doesn’t Work

22 Jan

This past weekend’s Gospel reading in which John the Baptist called Jesus “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” had me thinking about some of my family’s superstitious traditions. For example, on New Year’s Eve, we put a quarter under the doormat before midnight, to ensure financial prosperity in the coming year. We also abstain from eating poultry on New Year’s Day, for fear of “scratching all year.”

I was a little girl when I learned of these traditions, and at the time I thought they were pretty silly. But when I became an “adult” and I lived at my first apartment, I had to buy a doormat on New Year’s Eve just so that I would have somewhere to put the quarter!

Since then, there have been years I remember the quarter, and years I forget. Some years I accidentally eat chicken. Miraculously my material needs are met, regardless of what I do. It’s just superstition. But I keep up the superstition because it’s a part of my family identity.

We also have a family toast. It’s from the Irish side if the family. My Lithuanian-descended father rolls his eyes at it every time, but I think secretly he would miss it if we stopped saying, “May The Lord up high who rules the sky look down on this poor lodger/and send some meat upon me plate, and drive away the corn dodger.”

A few years ago (before smart phones) we all sat around the holiday dinner table wondering what exactly a corn dodger was. I looked it up in the dictionary. (Remember those? I feel old.) A corn dodger is like Irish cornbread. It’s what the Irish ate when they ran out of potatoes during the famine.

I did a little family research several years ago, and it turns out the town from which my Irish relatives emigrated was severely hit by the famine. According to the records, family members died untimely deaths. No wonder they prayed for deliverance from cornbread!

We have yet another family tradition practiced at all holiday meals. It, too, receives eye-rolling from the paternal leader of our clan. Never put the gravy boat at the head of the table. I’m sure that could be the subject of another reflection.

It’s kind of like this Bud Light commercial (There’s a whole bunch of them. Go ahead, waste time. If you’re on the East Coast it’s a snow day.):

It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.

Why on earth would this weekend’s Gospel reading remind me of beer commercials and family superstitions?

It’s because John the Baptist made an allusion to a longstanding religious tradition, and dare I say, superstition. Animal sacrifice.

To my 21st century Christian sensibilities, there is nothing more superstitious and unnecessary than animal sacrifice. But that’s not how Jesus’ friends and neighbors felt. To them, sacrificial lambs were part of the daily fabric of life.

So when John made his proclamation about Jesus, it had a deep meaning that we can’t fully appreciate. Like wondering about the meaning of the corn dodger. Like the fear of eating chicken on January 1, or the quarters under my doormat that baffle my kids, ignorant of the poverty of those who started these family traditions. (My kids do know the story of the gravy boat the way Jewish kids know the story of Passover.)

Though I poke fun at my family superstitions, the cultural implications of the “lamb of God” are anything but humorous.

It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.

As far as the Jews of Jesus’ time were concerned, it did work. They had numerous types of blood and non-blood sacrifices to express their relationship with God and with each other. The practices stopped when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans shortly after Jesus’s death, resurrection and ascension. The location of the sacrifices was as important to the rituals as the offerings themselves.

There’s the Passover lamb and annual Seder meal, commemorating the Hebrew people’s being led out of slavery in Egypt. At the first Passover, the Hebrews painted the doorways of their homes with the blood of an unblemished male lamb so that the Angel of Death would “pass over” their homes and spare the first born sons of the Jewish households. When all of Egypt, including Pharaoh, was in mourning over the loss, the Israelites made their flight led by Moses.

It’s easy to see the similarities. Jesus was a male. He was the firstborn, He was unblemished by sin. He was sacrificed to protect the people from death. He represents freedom from slavery to sin.

This comparison is so deeply rooted in Catholic tradition that it is celebrated in our highest of liturgies, the Easter Vigil Mass. The readings that night recount the highlights of salvation history, with special emphasis on the Passover story. In fact, much of the Catholic Mass “borrows” its language directly from the Passover texts. It’s embedded into the very fabric of traditional Christian liturgy.

It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.

John may have been referring to the Passover lamb when he saw Jesus, but there was another sacrifice to which he may have been alluding; one which I did not know about until I did a little researching before I sat down to write.

It was called the tamid. It was a daily blood sacrifice of an unblemished lamb, every single morning in the Temple of Jerusalem. Some scholars refer to it as the ” perpetual sacrifice” while others translate both the word and the meaning to be the “unfailingly regular sacrifice.” I find it especially interesting that the Church chooses this reading in which Jesus is referred to as the Lamb of God to usher in the liturgical season known as “Ordinary Time.” It was the ordinary, everyday blood offering that the priests would make as their religious law demanded.

There’s a fantastic description of the tamid or perpetual sacrifice found in this article, definitely worth the read for anyone who likes to put scripture in context: http://www.thesacredpage.com/2010/04/jewish-roots-of-jesus-passion-and-death.html?m=1

It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.

The bottom line is, these sacrifices didn’t really work. We tend to think of sacrifice, even Jewish sacrifice, as being way outside the mainstream. We think of all those Old Testament rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy as being burdensome, outdated, and above all, ridiculously barbaric. And that may be, from the perspective of the 21st century.

But when Moses and Joshua walked the earth, blood sacrifices were the norm for every culture. Even human sacrifice. These pagan rituals were practiced across all cultures, as a way for people to feel closer to their higher power or powers. Remember the Israelites making that idol of a golden calf? They wanted to be like their contemporaries.

It’s only weird if it doesn’t work, and God very clearly told his people that not only was it weird, it was wrong. But in His compassion for His chosen people who wanted to be like their pagan neighbors, he set strict limits on how they were to sacrifice their offerings.

To us, they seem like ridiculous burdens to be followed, but to the Hebrew people, they were actually boundaries keeping them from acting like their truly bloodthirsty pagan neighbors.

To put it into a more modern perspective, it’s like me giving my ten year old son an iPhone because so many of his friends have one. The one he has is old, has almost no storage space, and is not linked to a phone plan, so he can only use it when he’s connected to free wifi. It’s only weird if it doesn’t work, and in this case, the phone doesn’t work for it’s intended purpose, but it placates my son’s desire to be like his friends and pass the time with Minecraft and YouTube Annoying Orange videos. It also teaches him about responsibility.

At some point when he matures, I will replace the old iPhone with a new one complete with voice and data capabilities so that he can truly be connected to his family and his community.

It’s not unlike how the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and in the perpetual, unfailingly regular sacrifice of the Eucharist replaced the barbaric practices of the ancient Hebrews. God gave us the real deal to connect us with Him and each other, not just some shell of a ritual that was merely a placating placebo.

Jesus came with the message that God’s mercy and love is what saves people from sin and separateness, not following rules and precepts that were weird and did not work. Traditions and superstitions may bring us comfort because of their familiarity, because of the history they transmit, and because of the symbolic meaning they impart. But at the end of the day, they are as powerless as quarters under the doormat and hand-me-down iPhones.

The Eucharist is not just another symbol, and it is not just another superstitious tradition with a lower case “t.” It is the real spiritual presence of Jesus Christ in the physical form of bread and wine. As a favorite priest reminded me today, Jesus physically touches my hands, my lips, my tongue. Do I allow that experience to change how I use my hands, lips and tongue?

It’s only weird if it doesn’t work – and there are countless witnesses to how it has worked. It is not a powerless sacrament. It truly does connect those who partake of it to God and to each other. Maybe not overnight. We are stubborn and have trouble seeing with anything but earthly eyes. That’s why we need John the Baptist and all the saints who followed him to remind us:

“Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

Happy are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb. Not just the Levite priests in the Temple. Every one of us is called. Will we accept the invitation? Or will we excuse ourselves and say it’s too “weird?”

Allow It

15 Jan

Did your parents ever tell you about your first words? I think the first word I ever said was, “Dada,” followed not long after with “Mama.” All three of my kids’ first word was “Mama.”

We do not know the first words of the real baby Jesus. I like to think maybe He said, “Abba.” But we do know His first words in all four of the Gospels. In Mark, His first words were, “This is the time of fulfillment.” In John, they were, “What are you looking for?” And in Luke, “Why were you looking for me?”

These sentences are very thought provoking in their own ways, worthy of a personal response from me while I pray and meditate. But not as thought provoking as Jesus’ first words in Matthew’s Gospel, which we read this weekend.

“Allow it.”

The first reading from Isaiah lays the groundwork, describing the Messiah as a bringer of justice: “He shall bring forth justice to the nations, not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench, until he establishes justice on the earth. . . “

Justice. Most of us associate “justice” with the concept of “fairness” or being morally “right.” Justice is also defined as the action or actions associated with the establishment of fairness, equality or righteousness.

To John the Baptist, it was not “right” or “fair” or “just” for the Son of God to be baptized for repentance; it should have been the other way around. It would be like my parish priest asking you or I to hear his confession. To John, baptizing Jesus was a miscarriage of justice.

“Allow it.”

God often works in backwards ways. The entire Bible is filled with examples – in fact, that’s pretty much the unifying theme of the entirety of the scriptures. Short term injustice leads to long term justice for those who trust God’s leadership in their lives.

God establishes justice not by carrying out the law in the way we assume is correct, but by fulfilling it in ways that we would never expect. That an innocent man would die a shameful execution on a cross doesn’t seem like justice, yet this is exactly how the Son of God establishes justice.

“Allow it.”

To undergo a baptism of repentance when He hadn’t committed any sins doesn’t seem necessary, yet Jesus couldn’t exhort us to follow Him without first walking the way ahead of us.

“Allow it.”

We know where Jesus learned his first words – from the mother who said to the angel, “Let it be done to me as you have said.” In other words, “Allow it.”

When I think of justice, especially in response to an obvious injustice like generational poverty or terrorism or the gross income inequalities and rape of natural resources that exist in many third world countries, I automatically assume that justice should mean swift and immediate action. The contemporary response is almost always retaliation in some form or other, and whether it’s a “war on terror” or a “war on poverty,” the unintended injustices that result are often worse than the injustice it was intended to rectify. We human beings suck at justice.

There’s the small, everyday “first world” injustices too – the cable company giving me the run around, the jerk cutting me off on the highway or driving ten miles under the speed limit, my ex not being on time to get the kids (as if I’m Ms. Perfectly-On-Time-Every-Time).

My life has thrown me a few unexpected curve balls, some that do not seem fair, but the challenge of Christ is the same to me as it was to John. “Allow it.” Sometimes that means practicing a loving tolerance of people who are doing the best they can. And sometimes, it means practicing a loving tolerance of myself, for the same reason.

One that really trips me up is my house. I have a 3,000 square foot home. When I was first embarking on the separation process, I assumed I would have to downsize, for economic reasons at least. But I put one foot in front of the other living one day at a time, asking God to guide the outcome, and nearly four years later I’m still in my big house, with a smaller mortgage, no less!

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There are times when I look at this big house of mine and think, this is not right. I’m a single mom. I don’t make enough money to be living in a house this big or nice, and even if I did, it’s too extravagant. You could probably house an entire Haitian village here, and you could feed them for a year if you sold all the accumulated stuff that is no longer used. And God continually answers these thoughts with the same statement.

“Allow it.”

I wonder about God’s plans for me and this big house.

It seems the most confusing and unjust situations are also the most useful for God in establishing justice. Certainly this has been the case in Ghandi’s day, or Martin Luther King’s, or Nelson Mandela’s. These spiritual giants endured tremendous injustice, and yet their response was not retaliation. They clearly followed the exhortations of Jesus, whether or not they realized it.

“Allow it.”

It’s a great paradox of the Church. It will never be understood by secular rationalists or moral relativists. It probably won’t even make sense to the church-going folk who cling to the black and white rules and lack the capacity to accept such a paradox – it is in weakness that God’s strength is made visible. It is through injustice that God can fulfill all righteousness.

That’s not to say that we should be complacent about meeting human needs. I think Jesus was constantly reaching out to the poorest and marginalized people, and He clearly wants us to do the same. But I don’t think He wants me to ride in on my white horse and operate a homeless shelter in my 3,000 square foot house. At least, not today. But maybe eating dinner with a CARITAS guest at my church is a baby step in the right direction. Small acts with great love done by each and every one of us would go a long way toward establishing justice, if we allow it.

The message I get from this weekend’s scriptures is that justice is not about following a law or a dictate to make the world peaceful. Justice means accepting things as they are, no matter how confusing or ugly or painful or just plain wrong they seem, and turning to Jesus for direction and guidance. What is God asking of me? How does he want me to respond?

I can read the Bible, the catechism, the words of the Pope, but only by praying and listening to God himself speak in the still small voice in my heart can I know my part in establishing justice. Doing it on my own with what I assume is the right course of action will likely only harm people.

Allow it and do what Jesus asks of us, even if it makes no sense. That’s the lesson of Jesus’ baptism.

The Shadow Side of Christmas

25 Dec

It’s no question the Christmas holiday is difficult for many people. It’s as if the everyday garden variety perfectionism that eats away at our serenity on any given day goes into hyperdrive as December 25 approaches, and those of us who are most keenly aware of how we fall short of being “merry” are prone to suffer the most.

We are told that Christmas is about families, and those who are estranged from or who have painful relationships with their blood relatives feel the sting.

We are told that Christmas is about children, and those who are childless because of infertility or miscarriage or perinatal or postnatal loss or abortion or other untimely passing are cut to the heart.

We are told that Christmas is about peace on earth, and meanwhile men and women in our military who have come home and are perhaps the sole survivor of an attack carry the weight of survivor guilt that very few will ever understand.

We are told to that Christmas is about the Holy Family, and those of us whose families are broken by divorce, the single parents, the children whose moms or dads are in prison or addicted … we struggle to give our kids a sense of the sacred but can’t give what we don’t have and end up scolding while making cookies or on the way to church, keenly aware of the irony.

We are told that Christmas is about Jesus, and we think of that lovely Italian-inspired crèche scene. We don’t think about the fact that the baby Jesus would have been seen by his culture as a bastard child.

We know there was no room at the inn, but we don’t wonder why Joseph went there in the first place. After all, Bethlehem was his hometown, and was likely filled with cousins, uncles, maybe even brothers or sisters with whom he could have stayed. Maybe Joseph was estranged from his family. Maybe they disapproved of his betrothed, Mary.

We celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25, but very few people mark any remembrance on December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Most people probably don’t even know what that is. Following the birth of the “prince of peace,” King Herod was so jealous he had every male child under two years old slaughtered. I think Jesus knows a thing or two about what it feels like to be a sole survivor.

Did Mary understand that her little baby, born in such unusual circumstances, would one day die a brutal death, cut down in his prime? Perhaps, perhaps not. But the shepherds knew. I recently read that there is evidence that the Bethlehem shepherds were special. They were shepherd-priests who tended the flocks that provided Passover lambs – unblemished firstborn male lambs. Supposedly they birthed the animals in caves in the Bethlehem countryside that they kept ritually clean. To keep them from injury, the shepherds immediately separated the lambs from their mothers, bound them with swaddling cloths to keep the from moving, and laid them in tomb-like mangers hewed out of stone to keep them unblemished until it was time to be sacrificed. When the angel appeared and told them of the sign, they understood deeply that this Savior was to be a sacrifice.

It’s Christmas in America and all is merry and bright. We sing Joy To the World and have forgotten the reason for that joy has nothing to do with families or children or some idealized version of the nativity scene. That joy is about a gift for which every one of us, whether Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Wiccan or agnostic or atheist, longs. Our deepest yearning is to not be alone in our shadows. When Christ was born, He was named Emanuel “God with us.” He and all the characters of the Nativity narratives are examples of the “shadow” side of Christmas. After all, you cannot have a light as bright as the Christmas star without casting a few cross-shaped shadows.

If you find yourself experiencing the shadow side of the holidays this year, take heart. God is with you. Joseph is with you. Mary is with you. They’ve been where you are and they understand.

God With Us

15 Dec

A friend of mine had the most heartwarming status update on Facebook the other day. He described a domestic scene with his kids that was near-perfection: he and the children doing dishes together, good natured banter. Brady Bunch stuff. A family scene that many of us frazzled single parents had lost hope of ever experiencing.

These kind of moments do come at my house, but they are fleeting. Most of my domestic scenes include hustling, scolding, breaking up arguments, nagging about homework, and picking up toys by myself. Dishes, when they get done, get done in solitude, because washing them is my “therapy,” one of the few things in my life that I can control.

Shortly after I read my friend’s Rockwellian status, I sat down to prepare for Sunday school class today and read today’s readings form Isaiah and Matthew. (Side note: I’m not teaching Sunday school because I’m one of those perfect parents, but because I procrastinated so bad that it was the only way to get my kids into Sunday school. As it turns out, I really enjoy it.) Today’s readings are the prophecy and its fulfillment. When the messiah comes, says Isaiah, the blind will see, the lame will walk, the deaf will hear, the mute will speak. When John the baptist’s disciples come to Jesus asking if He is “the one,” Jesus doesn’t give them a direct answer, but He does show them that the prophecy is being fulfilled by His actions.

If Isaiah were talking to me today, his prophecy would sound more like this:

“Take heart, your God is coming into your home! Then will the stubborn five year old poop on the potty and wake up dry every morning. Then will you eat and pray as a family every night. The tween will put down his iPod, and the seven year old make her own bed. And there will be family movie nights and camping trips and a lot less laundry.”

The difference between today and Jesus’ time is that today, Jesus has already come, and the only thing keeping him from entering my home and fulfilling the prophecy is me and the cloud of worry, distraction, and irritation in which I often choose to live.

When I get out of my own way, and really focus on living in the present and being present in the moment, I find the prophecy being fulfilled. Or, if not fulfilled, I find the grace and patience that St. James urges in today’s epistle. “See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains,” he says. “You too must be patient.”

In the pre-Christmas season especially, impatience is more my modus operendi, especially with myself. The more I strive for and miss perfection, the more impatient I become with myself. At least, that’s how it was in “Christmas Past.” This year, I’m practicing acceptance – of the burnt out lights on the tree, the disastrous birthday cake I made for the little one last week, the totally uncreative Elf on the Shelf we have, and even the piles of laundry. I accept that I can’t do it all. And I’m ok with it. I’m relaxed, and in the relaxation I discover a wonderful gift – that elusive Rockwellian moment of joy with my children. All that worry, distraction and irritation about not being perfect is exactly what was preventing it.

The blind do see. The lame do walk. The deaf do hear, and the mute do speak. And when we see these things happening in our homes, on a spiritual level, we know the truth – Emmanuel, God is with us.

Persistent Faith

21 Oct

Certain scripture passages challenge my faith and push my argumentative button. This weekend’s readings fall soundly into that category.

The Gospel today is Luke’s parable of the persistent widow who pesters the dishonest judge day and night until, out of fear of her possible violence towards him, he finally gives in and renders a just verdict in her favor. Jesus uses this illustration to launch into a description of God that I frankly have trouble swallowing, much less digesting.

“Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them? I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Hey Jesus – with all due respect, there were millions of Christians, clergymen, gypsies, handicapped and intellectually disabled, gays, artists, political opponents, and of course, Jews who were systematically exterminated before the “persistence” of allied forces in Europe finally brought the democratically-elected Hitler to his suicidal end.

At this very moment there are Christian minorities in Islamic countries being beheaded, raped, disemboweled, and little girls kidnapped and forced into “marriages” because of their “persistant” Christian faith.

Closer to home, in Plano, Texas, a young teen with the intellectual capacity of an eight year old due to a birth injury is receiving gruesome texts from her classmates threatening to rape and kill her, telling her that her seizures are karma for being born so imperfect.

So when You ask, “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” I am tempted to answer, “How can we possibly have faith? Where the hell is this ‘speedy justice’ you preach about? This parable is one of the reasons there are atheists.”

I’m probably a heretic. But I’m also a human being. A very world-weary human being. Oh me of little faith.

I forget that faith is not about earthly outcomes.

Back in August we heard in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” Last week in his letter to Timothy (written from prison, by the way), Paul said, “If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him.”

Paul was not speaking metaphorically. In his day, Christians faced the likely earthly outcome of violent death, or at the very least, crippling persecution from both the civil and religious powers of their society. I think sometimes we “first world” 21st century American Christians forget that truth – living a life of persistent faith like that of the widow in the parable does not guarantee justice from earthly judges. Sometimes God’s justice is one of those “things not seen.”

This week Paul continues his letter to Timothy: “Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it.” What we learned from the whisper of the Holy Spirit is truth. Worldly powers will tell us lies. Sometimes, with enough persistence, we can break them down and secure justice for ourselves like the widow in the story. But it is not God’s justice. It is only a temporary stay.

Human systems of power, no matter who controls them, do not fear God nor do they respect the natural rights, spiritual worth, and equal dignity of each human person. Earthly powers are held in check only by the grace of God and by people of good will persistently holding them accountable.

Sometimes those powers appear to have the better of the fight, like the forces of Amalek in today’s Old Testament selection. Even Moses grew weary of encouraging the Israelite forces and needed help holding his hands in blessing over the troops as they waged war. Yet it was not Moses’ drooping arms that caused them to falter in battle, but their perception that they would lose. It was an illusion – the truth is, God never ceases to be in control. God has secured our rights – this is self-evident to spiritual eyes, no matter what our earthly eyes appear to see.

Faith is remembering that this world we live in is an illusion. Our holding them in check. Our losing control to them. Even the violence and injustice so horrifying that it shakes us to the core – all illusion compared with the justice that trumps any human injustice to which we could ever fall prey.

It is human to doubt. Who wouldn’t? Faith is quietly acting “as if” we believe in God’s justice even in the face of injustice.

Faith is not “believing.” Faith is acting in the face of disbelief.

Faith is not the destination, but the journey we chose to take. Faith is not the outcome, but the effort we choose to make.

“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

I have every faith He will.

Endurance and Class Reunions

13 Oct

Today’s reflection is a special request for a friend who is an Episcopal priest. They have the same Sunday readings as us Catholics, and when she was prepping for today’s sermon she posted a question on Facebook about what endurance means. Me being me, I had an immediate answer, and I can only assume she liked it because she asked me to blog about it. I told her I probably wouldn’t be able to because I had a class reunion Saturday night (and we know how those can be!).

As it turns out, class reunions are a great place to see endurance.

What does endurance have to do with today’s readings anyway? In his letter to Timothy, Saint Paul talks about remaining faithful to the Gospel in the hope of heavenly reward: “If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him.” My Catholic version uses the word “persevere” rather than “endure,” but I think the meaning is much the same.

Thinking back to last evening’s festivities, I have to chuckle about the friendships and habitual behaviors that have endured time, distance, and major life changes like marriage, children, divorce, career paths. For the most part, our appearance has endured. The people who were beautiful and “popular” in high school are still beautiful and popular today. The cliques we all formed at the tender age of 11 came back together as if it had been only 20 days since we graduated instead of 20 years. I spent most of the evening with the same people I are lunch with in “Commons A,” and so did everyone else. The black women were still the best dancers and the black men were still the best dressed. The smartest classmates still commanded awe and respect when they arrived. The Bretton Woods baseball team boys still knew how to throw a party and not lose their class, and the cheerleaders still had the gift of appearing socially advanced, especially to those of us who were feeling as awkward in that hotel ballroom as we did in 10th grade.

Last night, endurance looked an awful lot like habit. I have a feeling that spiritual endurance or perseverance is not all that different. Catholic author and speaker Matthew Kelley says, “Change your habits and you change your life.”

Of course, not everyone returned to the reunion last night. Some of my strongest high school attachments were not there. Like Jesus when only one of the ten cleansed lepers came back to thank him, I found myself asking, “Where are the others?”

Not all connections endure. The lepers’ connection to Jesus lasted only as long as they perceived they needed him. How many of us have that sort of relationship with God and church? When times are tough, it is easy for me to remember to lean on God, because I know how much I need help. Endurance and faith are my “go to” when I am struggling. When life is going well, that is the greatest threat to my own spiritual perseverance. I get spiritually lazy because I forget that I need God, I forget that I am who I am only by His grace.

I don’t judge those who didn’t return to the reunion. I didn’t go ten years ago. But I did go this year because I needed to see – in person – the people who shaped me and made me who I am. The boys I had crushes on. The cheerleaders who inspired me to look my best and were the example of self-confidence. The few who teased and bullied who now are just human beings in need of a hug. The black girls who accepted me and my non-dancing, timid white self. The childhood best friends who remember me at my purest. The honors achievers whose excellence drove me to achieve.

I return to give thanks. You all are amazing, beautiful human beings and I am grateful for each and every one of you.

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